Hers was a voice of the wine-dark sea, a voice of the old roses, deep red and richly cented, in every real sense a voice of the blood. "Voice of the Blood" was one of the many titles in the breathtaking legacy of Barbara Thornton, co-founder with her partner Benjamin Bagby of the Sequentia Ensemble for Medieval Music. It happened to be one of the series of recordings in the first complete set of performances of all of the music of the mystic, visionary artist and philosopher and composer Hildegard von Bingen.
Sequentia had already been performing for five years when their fruitful collaboration with Westdeutscher Rundfunk in Cologne and long time WDR producer Klaus Neumann led to the stage production, film, and Deutsche armonia Mundi recording of Hildegard's "Ordo virtutum." The recording and subsequent tours brought back to the world's musical consciousness not just one of its most extraordinary figures (this "Sibyl of the Rhine" born nine centuries ago and creator of the first reconstructable play with music in world history), but also introduced us to Barbara Thornton.
As the Soul grappling with temptation in Hildegard's masterpiece, and in each of the any subsequent performances I had the good fortune to see over the next 16 years, Barbara's
character shone forth. She was a strong and intelligent woman with the intellectual authority to reinforce the countless decisions necessary when recreating music obscured by the centuries. This is not unusual among performers of medieval music, who tend to have a discipline and focus beyond that of other arts, even those where the whining is louder.
Barbara Thornton also had the spiritual electricity conjoined with a natural grounded earthiness that represent the best angels of the medieval personality. It is a blissful marriage of qualities lacking and longed-for in our time; it may account for the surprising popularity of medieval music in general and Sequentia's efforts in particular.
Her close friends often saw her lighter side, her laughter and inveterate love of dancing. Ben Bagby always took the lead role when it came to radio broadcasts, and Barbara was always distant (if pleasant) with me interpersonally. Some dozen years after first seeing the ensemble in performance, and after a number of radio broadcasts of the group (always with Ben only as commentator), I happened to be at the Holland Festival of Early Music at Utrecht when the presentation of the vast Bordeholm Lament of Mary took place. This one is unusual because it is the first liturgical drama to have stage directions, and Barbara dominated not just because of her eternally poignant role as Mary lamenting over the crucifixion of her Son
After the performance, Sequentia's label DHM with dignitaries from BMG threw a party for the various artists in their stable giving concerts at Utrecht that year. There were formal greetings picture-taking sessions, quiet talks in small groups about the Festival. That is, until Barbara took over. Somehow, she gathered a line of record executives, performers, and overworked festival organizers, jazzed up the music, and turned the whole thing into a giant chorus line. I cannot think of her voice, now still, without that snapshot engraved in my heart.
For her voice is, in fact, still; that this vibrant spirit born exactly mid-century was taken from us last autumn and did not live to see the millennium's end is a bitter tragedy for all who loved her and her art. Even for me, in the near distance, I knew of the brain tumor, the cancelled concerts, the valiant fight for health enough to complete the Hildegard recordings. Yet there is no preparation for the shock.
I began to reflect on Barbara Thornton alone, as a voice, not as I had always listened before, where she was part of an ensemble. Both the vocal quality and the choice of repertoire struck me. For example, even on the very same work, Hildegard's invocation to the spiritual muse in the sequence for St. Ursula, the 1995 version sung by Barbara on that very "Voice of the Blood" CD yields to and even greater soulfulness on l998's "Saints" two-CD set . Perhaps it is too much to read in this performance the expression of an individual calling forth to the divine in the face of impending death. When you hear the opening selection of the set sung by Barbara alone, "Great Father, we are in great need," then the answer may be: perhaps not.
The choices of solo repertoire in the secular recordings also began to reveal a pattern. Back in the l984 "Trouve [accent grav] res" set (05472-77155), she chose Jehannot de Lescurel's "Amour,
voule [accent aigu]s-vous acorder:" "My love, can you look on while I die of loving you? ...Death, relieve me of this weight, or wait no longer..."
The indispensable "English Songs of the Middle Ages" from 1989 (05472-77019) gives us the ultimate meditation on the fleetingness of human existence, "Worldes blis ne last no throwe [umlaut]." We should remember as we rarely do, that "Wordly bliss does not last for a moment...All the bliss which is here and there amounts at the end to weeping and grief." From "Philippe de Vitry" (05472-77095; 1991), there is "Ay, amours!," an uncharacteristic lover's lament by the famous satirist. From the crusty roughneck "Oswald von Wolkenstein" (05472-77302; 1993) we hear a tender query "Who is she, who shines there more than the sun's radiance?"
By 1995's "Dante and the Troubadours" (05472-77227), the full radiance of her maturity is unleashed on Peire d'Alvernhe's "Dejosta'ls breus:" "In the time of short days and long nights/when the clear air becomes dusky,/I wish my spirit to branch and sprout with a new joy/ bearing fruit and flower." If only it had been so for her. It is scary to think that Barbara's only solo contribution to the superb collection of Aquitanian polyphonic pieces recorded by Sequentia in 1997 (05472-77370 & 77383) the apocalyptic Song of the Sibyl preserved by St. Augustine in The City of God. Scary, and perhaps again, appropriate.
I think a piece, a portion of what Hildegard wrote to St. Ursula about a woman's blood became part of Barbara Thornton: "O redness of blood, who have flowed down from that height which divinity touched: you are the flower that the winter of the serpent's breath never withered."