The Hottest 900-Year-Old on the Charts

by Bernard D. Sherman
Musicians mark the birthday of Hildegard von Bingen, queen of the really old school, with radically varied interpretations of her works and debates about what paths stay true to her spirit

This article first appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Sunday, August 9, 1998. It is reprinted by permission.

My book Inside Early Music includes a chapter on Hildegard, an interview with Barbara Thornton. For the LA Times article, I interviewed the by-then ailing Thornton again, as well as Christopher Page (of Gothic Voices) and Susan Hellauer (of Anonymous 4), both of whom speak in my book about other topics. After a long battle with cancer, Thornton died in November, 1998; a short tribute to her is posted at my Web site. My interview with Page included some other interesting views on Hildegard; you can read it by clicking here.

What do you do for an icon on her 900th birthday? You interpret her — and then, to liven things up, you argue about it.

This year is the big 9-0-0 for Hildegard of Bingen, the 12th-century abbess who has become a '90s cult figure. She is undoubtedly our only celebrity composer with a short-form bio that reads “mystic, theologian, naturalist, herbalist, poet, and adviser to emperors.”

When we think of Hildegard as primarily a composer, says the medievalist Christopher Page, we are “mistaking the tail for the comet.” She and her contemporaries probably considered her music the least of her achievements, compared to, say, corresponding with popes, founding a convent, and writing books about medicine, natural history, the lives of saints, and visions and prophecies.

But beleaguered record companies hope we’ll continue to aim our telescopes wrong. Since Page’s album “A Feather on the Breath of God” kicked off the Hildecraze in 1982, the music of Hildegard has sold over a million recordings. No other medieval composer (or female composer of any era) has even come close.

Several dozen recordings are out, featuring everything from solo voice to Tibetan singing bowls to electric guitar and drums. Medieval-music specialists like the vocal ensembles Sequentia and Anonymous 4 compete with the Hildegard-to-a-disco-beat CD that came out a couple of years ago and with the New Age-y Hildegard arrangements of Richard Souther on his CD “Vision.”

Musicians aren’t the only ones interpreting Hildegard, of course. Two films about her are in the works, a pair of novels is out, and dozens of Hildegard web sites are up. In Michigan this summer you could have gone to a Hildegard “sacred healing” weekend, and in Germany you can still go to a Hilde-spa to receive treatments based on her medical writings.

Meanwhile, the mystically inclined of all persuasions study her books of visions. Academics, whether feminist or medievalist or what have you, debate such questions as how independent the abbess was, how Machiavellian, how sexual, and so forth. Even neurologists have gotten into the act, when they argue that Hildegard’s visions — whose visual aspects she had painted in glorious detail — were the result of migraines.

But the musicians, her main modern celebrants, find at least as much to argue about as the scholars. How should this music, the first certifiably composed by a woman, be performed and understood?

What becomes a 900-year-old legend best?

One set of answers comes from the people who originally put Hildegard on the charts, the early-music movement. These musicians are to varying degrees interested in re-creating the performance style used in the composer’s own era. When you ask them what that style involves, however, they differ. Often, they differ with their own younger selves.

Christopher Page and his group Gothic Voices scored their first commercial success 16 years ago with “A Feather on the Breath of God,” and when it was reissued on CD last year it scaled the classical charts again. But Page doesn’t seem to like the disc very much.

In the post-“Feather” period, Page (whose day job is as a philologist at Cambridge University) has revised his views on medieval performance. Based on his analyses of mounds of period evidence, Page would now do Hildegard without even the drone instruments that sound so appealing on “Feather.” “It seems highly unlikely to me,” he comments, “that any kind of instrumental playing was involved.” He now favors using just one female voice, unadorned, singing quietly.

“There’s no real reason to think that any of Hildegard’s songs were ever performed at all,” Page says. “Hildegard writes these pieces as acts of prayer in themselves, and exactly what use they were put to, if any use at all, is something that we don’t really know. It’s possible to imagine Hildegard or somebody else humming them or singing them softly in the context of private prayer, for example.”

His early-music colleagues are by no means all convinced that they should reject instrumentation for Hildegard’s songs, but some of them seem to agree. Anonymous 4 uses no instruments. Sequentia uses fewer than they once did.

You can hear the change if you compare Sequentia’s latest version of Hildegard’s sacred drama “Ordo Virtutum” (The Order of the Virtues) to its pioneering 1982 recording of the piece. In the earlier version, the instruments accompany the singers almost throughout the four-act work; in the new one - which can be heard on CD and which Sequentia will be performing November 22 and 23 at Mount St. Mary’s College in Brentwood- the instruments play mostly in interludes between Hildegard’s pieces.

Why did Sequentia curtail the accompaniment? The ensemble’s co-leader, Barbara Thornton, says, “To be absolutely frank, I don’t think in 1982 any of us had the wherewithal to sing modally that long”—a reference to the fact that notes in medieval music relate to each other not through the chords and scales of recent music, but in complex “modes” that are difficult to master.

In the early ‘80s, Sequentia’s instrumentalists “got” the modal style more quickly, and that helped the singers. Today, Thornton says, the singers can sing modally without difficulty: “we really can, and it’s an achievement.”

Of course, some early-music practitioners do use instrumental accompaniment more freely. Thornton makes stirring use of church bells in O Jerusalem on the CD of that title, and of drones on some other Sequentia Hildegard tracks. Stevie Wishart, a medieval-instruments expert and the leader of the group Sinfonye, takes her hurdy-gurdy quite a bit further in a couple of the tracks on her Hildegard CD, “Symphony of the Harmony of Celestial Revelations” on Celestial Harmonies.

And how about Page’s belief that Hildegard’s music was not really performed at all? In general, his colleagues don’t buy it. Susan Hellauer, a member of Anonymous 4 who has a degree in musicology, does admit that Hildegard’s works are much harder to sing than typical plainchant, and that this “makes one curious as to who it was among the lovely ladies of the convent that actually could get this stuff out dependably.” But she points out that Hildegard’s pieces praising saints fit exactly into the appropriate slots in the liturgy. “If you’re just going to write what inspires you,” she asks, “why write the nine little antiphons that are needed for this particular feast?” The booklet notes to Sequentia’s new Ordo conjecture that the work—which some regard as the first surviving opera—was premiered at the inauguration of Hildegard’s convent in 1152.

There are plenty of other arguments. For example, there is no consensus about what rhythms are implied by the notation of Hildegard’s era.

But if early-music performers can’t quite agree on how it was done back in Hildegard’s time, they also don’t agree about whether their goal is to re-create her performance practices exactly. Thornton, for instance, denies that her production of Ordo is an attempt to re-create what a performance in Hildegard’s time might have been like.

“Of course,” she adds, “that’s an image that’s always in front of one’s eyes. But I cannot imagine that there are too many early-music people who, with time, would subscribe to [complete] authenticity as their goal.

“I am trying just as hard as I can to reach my artistic goals, even if I’m not 100% authentic.”

Thornton may not be 100% authentic, but she can’t help but be orders of magnitude closer to Hildegard’s style than “The Electronic Ordo Virtutum” recently performed in Manhattan’s Lincoln Center Festival by four composers calling themselves the Hildegurls. Over on the left, they are Kitty Brazelton, Lisa Bielawa (in the foreground), Eve Beglarian, and Elaine Kaplinsky. They are not trying to sound medieval any more than they are trying to look it..

Instead, each took one act of the play and wrote her own electro/acoustic music to go with Hildegard’s chants. They performed the piece by themselves, with each one playing the main character—the Soul—in her own act. The four women took different musical approaches, incorporating such devices as complex drones, polyphony built over (or out of) Hildegard’s single lines, synthesized backgrounds, and improvisations with keyboard and electric bass. In general, they left Hildegard’s text and melodies intact, translating only one role into English (and German): the Devil.

That’s because the Devil is the only character in Ordo for whom Hildegard wrote no music. “The idea seems to be that singing reflects harmony and harmony reflects the glory of God,” Beglarian explains, “therefore the Devil doesn’t sing.”

The Hildegurls weave musical commentary around the Devil’s lines. When he appears (played by a Gurl) during the Brazelton section of the evening, he is accompanied by synthesized sound based on a taping of a door that someone slammed while Brazelton was trying to work. When he appears during the Beglarian section, he is accompanied by synthesized rattlesnake rattles (a reference to the soul being poisoned by the Devil), and a breathy, subtly sexual sound. (Not everything about their production could be called subtle. At one point in her act, Beglarian, playing the Soul on a visit to Hell, has her clothes torn off by diabolical fiends, and keeps singing, naked.)

In fact, Hildegard’s “Ordo”—a sort of morality play in which the Soul abandons the ministrations of the Virtues for the blandishments of the Devil, and eventually finds its way back to the Virtues for salvation—may seem at odds with postmodern New York sensibilities.

Bielawa told The New York Times that “we don’t share some of her crazy theological ideas.” But Beglarian finds the play surprisingly relevant. As she told me, “The sense of losing your way and needing to find your way back—that sense of ‘recovery,’ to use pop psychology talk—is made completely manifest [in “Ordo”]. “To me,” she adds, “there is something very powerful and emotional about that connecting up over nine centuries.”

The Hildegurls aren’t the first women composers to use Hildegard as a creative springboard. Australian Becky Llewellyn, to name just one, began using Hildegard as the basis for a modern composition, O Wonder! in 1989; it was completed in 1990 and performed in Tucson and Lake Placid in 1996. There has even been at least one male composer, Robert Kyr, who set some Hildegard texts to his own music.

Such composers could point out that the practice of using compositions from the past as the basis for modern pieces goes back a long way. Liszt did it, Bach did it, and even Hildegard may have based some melodies on Gregorian chants. By comparison, the early-music approach, with its interest in historical performance, is a latecomer.

Of course, composers aren’t the only ones recycling Hildegard. As Kitty Brazelton of the Hildegurls says, “Hildegard’s music has lent itself to some pretty nefarious enterprises of late, with the whole New Age fad—her music is so drone friendly. I’ve heard some cheezy-synth versions of some of her music.”

Brazelton’s complaints give her common ground with the early-music performers, who tend to revile New-Age Hildegard. One wonders what they will make of the new Lux Vivens CD, on which the skillful, expressive singing of Jocelyn Montgomery is accompanied by the synthesizer backgrounds of filmmaker David Lynch. The project’s agenda is quite different from, say, that of Page. In a sketch for a liner note, included in the singer’s handwriting in the press packet, she writes: “Fire, rain; thundering hooves, birds, and de-tuned strings. Recorders and electric guitar spin voices off in all directions …..A timeless, universal, healing journey. An apotheosis of sound. Pure as the five earthly elements [Hildegard] was inspired by.”

Some might argue that a spiritually intense New-Age performer is closer to what Hildegard is really about than a performer who is scholarly but agnostic. But it would be a mistake to assume that the motivation of early-music performers can be reduced to agnostic scholarship. “From Hildegard,” Barbara Thornton has said, “I’ve learned a lot about women’s musicality, women’s relationship to their own spirituality. . . . feminine spirituality is something very natural, uncomplicated, and yet intense, in my experience.”

With all the diversity, you might think that one point is agreed upon: that Hildegard's music is being sung in widely diverse ways. But there is disagreement even over that apparently tame assertion. Once again, it is Page who is the iconoclast. “Every Hildegard LP or CD I’ve ever heard, including my own,” he says - the Hildegurls, it should be noted, have not put out a CD - “sounds very, very similar.”

Page is doubly iconoclastic in that he dares to lay part of the blame on Hildegard's music itself. If all Hildegard recordings sound alike, he says, “that’s in part because a lot of Hildegard sounds alike. She’s a powerfully voiced but not a flexible or versatile artist. And her mode of enhanced ecstasy can become wearing, even sometimes unconvincing after a while, as if you wonder whether she really feels as much as her language is laying claim to. So maybe Hildegard should now be put on ice for 50 years and we’ll have another go.”

Fat chance. Page seems to be the only who is even slightly bored. Hildegurl Kitty Brazelton’s first encounter with Hildegard was during a stint teaching music appreciation as a grad student; her immediate thought was, “Is this just some token woman? But when I began to perform it—wow!”

Sequentia’s Thornton has performed more of Hildegard than anyone — she is one CD shy of becoming the first to record the complete oeuvre. “I have never, ever had the feeling that I’m doing the same thing [over and over] with Hildegard,” Thornton says. “She is beyond belief a major genius for me.”

Thornton is particularly attuned to the way Hildegard ignored the formal conventions of her time in both her poetry and her music. “Sometimes she does things that I absolutely cannot believe she even wants to. I think, ‘She’ll never pull this off,’ and by the end of the session I’m blown away. Every single piece for me is new and different and wonderful and it changes every time I come back to it. It’s very fluid, artistic, wonderful material.”

Even Page has just recorded two more Hildegard pieces (in the instrument-free style he now prefers) as part of a forthcoming Hyperion CD. “She was,” he says, “a remarkable woman in an age of remarkable men.” How many of her sisters, after all, have touched off 900th-birthday festivals around the world? And how many have modern interpreters at all—much less competing ones of every stripe?

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