"Mistaking the Tail for the Comet": An Interview with Christopher Page on Hildegard of Bingen

By Bernard D. Sherman

written for the All Music Guide, www.allclassical.com

photo of Christopher Page by Simon Perry


Bernard D. Sherman is the author of Inside Early Music: Conversations with Performers (Oxford University Press) and the forthcoming Performing Brahms (Cambridge University Press). His articles appear regularly in The New York Times and have also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, The Encyclopedia of Aesthetics, Early Music, and many other publications. His Web site, which features many of his publications, is http://www.kdsi.net/~sherman Among the publications there is an LA Times article on Hildegard, for which this interview was originally conducted.


Christopher Page - who, by day, teaches philology at Cambridge - made his first recording in 1981, on a shoestring budget for a small label. It became an international hit. He hasn't had another hit since.

The record, "A Feather on the Breath of God," brought Hildegard of Bingen, the 12th century abbess, mystic, healer, poetess, naturalist, philosopher, and composer, to the top of the Billboard classical charts. She has since become a cult figure. Her music has sold over a million CDs by various artists, from New-Age synthesizer mavens like Richard Souther to medieval specialists like the late Barbara Thornton of Sequentia. Books and Web sites abound, and two films are in the works.

Page, who has since made 14 critically acclaimed CDs of medieval music, has no plans to make another Hildegard CD. He eventually re-recorded two pieces by her as part of a broader collection released in 1999, "Visions of Jerusalem." His other releases haven't had the market appeal of his first recording of the abbess.

Why has it taken him so long to return to Hildegard? As the following interview makes clear, Page's views both on the performance of Hildegard and on her music itself have changed dramatically since 1981. His revolutionary theories about the performance of medieval polyphony - that instruments were generally not used in art music - show up in his evaluation of the performance of Hildegard. And his current view of Hildegard's music and poetry is far from the idolatry we often hear from her admirers.


BDS: Hildegard was well-known in her own era, wasn't she?

PAGE: I think it is true that Hildegard was as famous in her own time as modern Hildegard enthusiasts have said. In chronicles of the 12th and 13th centuries, even from as far afield as England, her existence is registered. The mention is usually very brief, but she is acknowledged. There was clearly a rumor throughout the whole of Latin Christianity that she had existed and had been notable.

But in valuing Hildegard for her music and poetry, as our civilization is doing now, we are responding to by far the smallest part of her output. It is probably what she would have regarded, and certainly what her contemporaries would have regarded, as the least important. It's certainly far harder to find any kind of contemporary response to her music and poetry than it is to find contemporary notice of the broad terms of her existence or to find a correspondent replying to her.

BDS: What would she and her contemporaries have regarded as more important?

PAGE: She would, for one thing, probably regard her letters as a more vital part of her work. As you would expect, being an abbess of noble birth, she had some kind of chancery within her nunneries to write letters for her, which she dictated either in the vernacular or in Latin (I suspect in the vernacular). Letters in this period were really open letters. They are not intimate communications but instead are written for everybody; and Hildegard corresponded with a lot of people.

Another vital part of her output would have been the Book of Visions and the various other treatises. Modern enthusiasts often place these writing in the wake of the comet of her fiery musical communications; but in a sense, we're mistaking the tail for the comet and vice versa.

BDS: How might we conceive of Hildegard more accurately?

PAGE: Imagine a large medieval stained-glass window with many different portions, all of them showing familiar themes, such as the crucifixion of Christ, or Gideon laying his fleece on the ground. Then imagine such a window being completely broken up, as often happened, and then reassembled, but not very well, since many things in the original window were lost. All the things in the window are recognizable, but the composition is surprising or bizarre or unusual. Our image of Hildegard is like that. She is made up of a mosaic of things that are really quite familiar. A woman's passionate visionary piety-well, that's not hard to parallel. Being abbess of a monastery and having some artistic activity-that's not hard to parallel from her time either. Nor is being a poetess, both in the vernacular and in Latin. What's remarkable about Hildegard is the way all those things come together in a decipherable set of musical sources (in fact, only two, really). Those sources, in a sense, are really what makes Hildegard what she is now:

BDS: How so?

PAGE: Her songs are written out in stave notation with clefs, which means that the melodies are recoverable. That system of notation was not widely used in many parts of what we would now call Germany in Hildegard's day, but it was used widely in what we would now call France and much of England. So it is the fortunate survival of those sources in that kind of notation that helps her to communicate with us. That is, in a sense, fortuitous and wonderful, of course.

BDS: So if she had used the other notation we would not be able to reconstruct her melodies. How much does the use of stave notation reflect her own orientation toward preserving her own works; to what degree was that orientation unusual?

PAGE: Of course, there are cases from Notker right through to Machaut of medieval authors having a sense of wanting to make collections of their own material. There are 13th-century people who do that too; some of their writings don't survive but we know they existed. There are no complete works, however. There's none of that Yeatsian desire to make one's life and one's work a complex artifact within two covers.

To return to Hildegard, the songs are written out by special scribes - Hildegard didn't write them out - and we don't really know what is happening at the core of this phenomenon, as far as music and poetry is concerned. We don't know if Hildegard is sitting and humming the songs, or if she's perhaps humming and writing them down on a white tablet, with a final version then being written by someone else on slate or parchment. We don't know if the words come first, or if the words and the music grow together in an organic development. We don't know how much hand in it her male helpers-male secretaries and priests-had. None of that is clear.

BDS: Say more, please about her male helpers

PAGE: Hildegard had this chap named Volmar who was her secretary (secretary may be an anachronistic word). And being a woman, Hildegard couldn't celebrate Mass, so she must have had close association with a team of chaplains and priests who would hear confession, do the sacraments, and sing mass in the nunnery. So she's in close contact all the time with men who've had a far more orthodox training than she had.

BDS: Of course she claimed to have no training in Latin and to have been taught what she knew by the Holy Spirit.

PAGE: This claim about being taught Latin by the Holy Spirit is far from unique. Lots of people made that claim, including some who then went on to become extremely prolific writers of a far more systematic kind than Hildegard.

BDS: Was claiming divine tuition in Latin a way to justify herself as a visionary, and thereby win the approval of the authorities?

PAGE: Yes, I think so. Another example of the same concern stems from a long tradition in Christian mysticism that people impaired in body are somehow more healthy in spirit as a result. Hildegard does play on the idea of being a weaker vessel, both in the sense of being physically impaired and of being a woman.

BDS: Although it appears that she actually did suffer from migraines.

PAGE: Yes, I find that convincing.

But it's important to remember that Hildegard was born of noble parents. She would have been brought up from the very beginning to think of herself as set apart, as privileged, as not one of the common run at all. She was no simple Joan-of-Arc village girl. (Mind you, even Joan of Arc was of a prosperous middle class family.)

BDS: Barbara Thornton quoted a paper by Dronke suggesting that Hildegard had an unusually good education for her time.

PAGE: Education is a difficult word in this context. Education makes one think somehow of fixed syllabuses and classrooms and teachers and examinations. But what happens in this period is that someone of noble birth is entrusted to the care of someone whom his or her parents has reason to respect as a pious, devout and well-read person. And then you would have the equivalent of private tuition. And it's possible that exposure to someone else's learning and piety could have a profound influence. I'm not going to try to suggest that Hildegard is some kind of wayward autodidact, a kind of Dylan Thomas. Indeed, I can quite believe that Jutta of Spondheim knew a thing or two.

BDS: One question is of Hildegard's relation to the music of her time; could you speak about that?

PAGE: The music that Hildegard would have heard most of is the liturgical chant. And I take it that it's the Roman rite where she is, so that she hears the basic chants of the mass and becomes deeply impregnated with that. There are many things in her music that are explicable in terms of the plainchants she was hearing. The background of it is the Roman plainsong.

BDS: If you could elaborate on that for my readers...

PAGE: Well, she is hearing the chants of the mass, presumably all her life. And therefore her whole mind is impregnated with the sounds of what we now call Gregorian chant or plainsong. The various melodic devices she uses, as well as the whole idea of the long song for solo voice, originate in the music of the mass and the offices she heard.

Nonetheless, I don't know of any chants anywhere that are quite like Hildegard, and I don't think it can be denied that Hildegard has a distinctive musical voice.

In fact, I think it's part of the problem - if anything it's too distinctive. Like a lot of artists with a very powerful stylistic presence - say, Gerard Manley Hopkins, or for that matter, Dylan Thomas - you can parody them easily. I can make up Hildegard-sounding poetry - trust me - on the spot. She has favorite words and constructions, and she comes back to them with an almost obsessive searching for relief from the strength of her own impressions and her own devotions. And that's true of the music too.

BDS: Regarding the music, you said that you would now do her very differently than you did 18 years ago-- was it 18 years ago?--

PAGE: Yes. Incredible--

..with Feather on the Breath of God. Could you elaborate?

Of course, it's been suggested to me over the years that there should be a Gothic Voices Hildegard II, and I've always resisted it and I always will. But I think if I had to do it, with a gun to my head, I would do it with just solo voices. I have in fact just re-recorded Hildegard's O Jerusalem, and Audias Civitas and there I do use just a solo voice.

BDS: Why the insistence on a solo voice?

You might almost say that there's no real reason to think that any of Hildegard's songs were ever performed at all. Indeed, performance here could be an anachronistic word, rather like education. Hildegard makes 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. But I don't know if it's really appropriate to use the word performance, implying audience, implying some kind of fixed declamatory communication.

It is almost impossible to reconstruct in one's imagination a piece by Hildegard having been sung. Where is that supposed to have taken place? Is that somewhere in the refectory of the nunnery while the sisters are eating? Or is in the chapter house at the end of the day after compline? Or what? Whatever situation one imagines, it seems highly unlikely to me, just a priori, that any kind of instrumental playing is going to be involved in it. I don't know who would do it, and even if someone were to do it I don't know how they would be taught what the song had in it, if they couldn't read musical notation themselves, as many minstrels couldn't. So it's very difficult for me, and the more I immerse myself in these kinds of sources, the harder it's become to envisage what the kind of performance would be like. How would it come about, in terms of whom, when and where? What time of day? What performance routine, what access to the notated copy of the piece, and so on? And who would the instrumentalists be? It's not presumably going to be the nuns. I have read over a thousand 12th and 13th century saint's lives from all over Europe and I don't remember any who were said to have been gifted as instrumentalists. I think that could have been regarded as a very suspect skill. So it would have to be professional entertainers from outside. But that to me is somehow difficult to imagine.

BDS: Does the sacred drama Ordo Virtutum in any way form an exception to your views on performance in Hildegardin general?

Not really. I'd say it's more of the same.

In fact, I'd say if there is a problem with Hildegard today, with all fairness to my many colleagues who have recorded Hildegard, they all sound alike. And 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 be come wearing, even sometimes unconvincing, after a while, as if you wonder whether she really feels as much as her language is laying claim to. I think that is one of the problems: that every Hildegard LP or CD I've ever heard, including my own, sounds very, very similar. So maybe Hildegard should now be put on ice for 50 years and we'll have another go.

BDS: One of the differences between Hildegard CDs is in the use of instruments. Anonymous 4 does it a cappella; some of Sequentia's older recordings use a lot of instruments - though their later recordings use them sparingly; I have not heard Stevie Wishart's recording,

I haven't heard any of those, but she is herself an instrumentalist, and she uses a large choir of girls. I think that ... quite honestly, as our response to this sort of thing has become more informed, we need the relief, as it were, of instruments less and less. I mean, part of the thing that the instruments are often there to do is to provide a harmonic context, either in the form of a drone, which of course is true of my own record, or in the form of some kind of heterophony or semi-harmonic or polyphonic interludes between, as if somehow the modern ear which is of course bred up on 18th and 19th century harmonic music must have that in order to feel that a proper musical experience has been had. Well, I think as we go on from year to year it becomes less and less necessary to have that.

BDS: That seems to be the trend; although you get Hildegard with a disco beat.

Well, I'm contemptuous of that, as you can imagine.

BDS: Is there anything else you'd like to add?

I've been interviewed about Hildegard off and on over the years, and of all the things I've ever heard myself say about her, the thing I am most fond of is when I heard myself say, She is a remarkable woman in an age of remarkable men. That's not my final word on Hildegard, but it's the most valuable thing I have to say.



A Feather on the Breath of God (Hyperion CDA66039) remains in the catalog to this day. For all of Page's reservations about it, it is often recommended first in discographies of Hildegard (I myself would recommend the CD 11,000 Virgins by Anonymous 4 as the best Hildegard starter; it's on Harmonia Mundi HMU 907200).

Page's current views on Hildegard are put into practice in two numbers on his recent CD Jerusalem: Visions of Peace (Hyperion CDA67039).

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