Jennifer Bain
    Dalhousie University

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  1. Three years ago after I delivered a lecture to my medieval music history class on the role of women in medieval music, one student asked the question that has been occupying me for some time: “Why is it that before I took this course I had heard of Hildegard von Bingen, but I’d never heard of any of the other medieval composers we’ve talked about so far, like Leonin or Perotin?” The answer, of course, is not straightforward. Twenty-five years ago this question would not have been asked in a medieval music history class, because very few people at all in the English-speaking world, even those who specialized in medieval music, knew the name of the twelfth-century Abbess and composer, Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179). Before 1989, Hildegard’s music, like that of most women composers, was completely absent from standard music history textbooks.2 While she merited only a single paragraph in a 1989 textbook devoted entirely to medieval music, today she is a featured composer in the latest edition of the widely-used music history textbook, Grout and Palisca’s A History of Western Music (49, 50). This speedy rise to prominence in the study of music history, however, pales in comparison to Hildegard’s spectacular and influential splash in the marketplace.

  2. Figure 1: HMV Wall of Fame, NYC (Photo: Jennifer Bain)
    Before 1982 only a few of Hildegard’s seventy-seven songs had been recorded and their amateur performances had virtually no impact in the marketplace. By 1994, however, Hildegard had hit the Billboard charts, and by 1997, one could find Hildegard’s name among other “great” musicians, such as John Coltrane, Marvin Gaye, and Duke Ellington, on the wall at the HMV on 34th Street in New York City. In 2001 her chant “Columba aspexit” (performed by Gothic Voices) was included in a feature film: in A Beautiful Mind schizophrenic genius John Nash listens to a 78 rpm recording of Hildegard in 1947, a year before any of her chant existed in recorded format (in 1948 the monks at the monastery of Saint Benoit du Lac in Québec released the first recording of Hildegard's music, her “Kyrie,” on their 78 rpm Chants grégoriens disc).

  3. The meteoric rise in Hildegard’s musical reputation can be attributed to several potent causes, including the surge of interest in the 1970s and 1980s in the recovery of women’s history; a new all-vocal approach to the performance of medieval vocal music in the 1980s (as Daniel Leech-Wilkinson describes it, the “re-invention of the a capella hypothesis” [88-156]); the recent centenaries of Hildegard’s birth and death years: the provision of a recording in Hildegard’s death year (1979) by the nuns of Rüdesheim and the proliferation of recordings that appeared throughout the 90s as the 900th anniversary of her birth (1998) approached;and a burgeoning interest in medieval music by the general public in the late 1980s and early 1990s, which Paula Higgins suggests might be attributed to “a desire to retreat to an era of perceived timelessness and spirituality in a world beset by social, economic and military tensions” (118). Katherine Bergeron similarly ascribes the interest in chant in particular to a desire for spiritual experience and ritual outside the confines of religious institutions: the sacral yearnings of a secular society. As she describes it, “Chant is a form of spiritual tourism. It promises the contemporary soul a virtual reality, a virtual sanctity” (34). This paper focuses primarily on two essential and related factors in the rise of Hildegard's musical reputation. First, I address the effect of a virtuosic recording of Hildegard's music by the professional early music ensemble, Gothic Voices, and then examine marketing strategies used for medieval music by record distributors in the 1990s, strategies which employ the rhetoric of timelessness and spiritual renewal identified by Higgins. Concentrating on three key releases from 1994, Chant, Vision (both EMI) and Sequentia's Canticles of Ecstasy (DHM/BMG), I will show how marketing, especially the use of cover images, places Hildegard (and chant more generally) in the New Age sector of the marketplace. This market category casts the sacred music of the Middle Ages as a universal music with a continuous past, evoking a time of intense spirituality easily accessible to modern listeners.

  4. Before the Gramophone award-winning Gothic Voices recording of 1982, Hildegard’s music was unlikely to reach a wide audience with recordings such as the 1960 Aachen Cathedral Choir and Symphony Orchestra arrangement of “O virga ac diadema,” complete with strings, harp, flute and oboe.
    Figure 2: Hildegard at Work
    The wavering pitch and unsteady vocal control of the untrained sopranos in the choir do not contribute to a perception of Hildegard’s melody as particularly beautiful or noteworthy. It took an ensemble dedicated to medieval music, Gothic Voices, with its distinguished director and musicologist, Christopher Page, and the diva of early music, Emma Kirkby, as a soloist, to authenticate and endorse Hildegard’s music in their first recording, A Feather on the Breath of God. The sound of Gothic Voices simultaneously encapsulates and creates the “early music” vocal style that emerged in the early 80s, a style easily recognized in “O Euchari” by its pure sound and lack of vibrato, which contrasts greatly with the church choir from Aachen.3 The vocal timbre achieved by particularly the female voices in Gothic Voices bears a striking likeness to that produced by the English choral tradition; Leech-Wilkinson describes it as “freshly cleaned Anglicanism” (206). In his seminal book on singing style and ideology John Potter similarly argues that the early music “sound” from the 1980s is really the vocal style associated with Oxford and Cambridge college choirs, since most of the professional choirs of the 1970s and 80s devoted to early music primarily consisted of former Oxbridge choral scholars as well as former choirboys (116).

  5. Gothic Voices not only legitimized Hildegard’s music with their credentials and professional sound, but through several key aspects of their performances they strongly contributed to the image of Hildegard as an ecstatic song-writer, the creator of glorious melodies, far exceeding in range and depth the Gregorian chant repertory.4 The sound of Gothic Voices' seven professional singers, with guest soprano Emma Kirkby performing either solo or with no more than four singers at a time, contrasts significantly with the older style of chant performance. Most
    earlier recordings feature groups of men, often monks, trained in chant but not in professional singing, producing a style not broadly popular until some clever marketers at Angel Records came up with their now famous visual image for the recording, Chant.5
    Figure 3: Chant
    Another group of monks, a choir from the Abbey of Notre-Dame de Fontgombault, serves as a good example of this older style. Their 1978 recording of a Kyrie demonstrates an unpolished sound of wavering pitch, imprecise endings and beginnings, and a fairly predictable phrase-by-phrase rhythmic impulse. In contrast, Gothic Voices sings Hildegard’s melodies in a soloistic style—even when singing as a group—at a faster pace and with clarity. Although almost every pitch is sung with an equal rhythmic length, there is a strong, rhythmic accentuation to their phrasing, a sense of movement through scalar figures, a slight hesitation on the higher notes just before cadences, as well as a momentum that carries through to the end of each piece. Moreover, crucial to their conception of Hildegard’s sound, Gothic Voices accommodates Hildegard’s ranges of a twelfth or thirteenth by favoring a higher rather than lower register of the female voice. Although some of Hildegard’s music is expansive in range, elevating the melodies in the female voice emphasizes this characteristic and evokes the ecstasy so often attributed to the music. For instance, “Columba aspexit” (which is notated on C), is sung on E, placing its range of a twelfth from B to F2, while “O ecclesia” (which is notated on A), is sung also on E placing its range of a thirteenth from B-G2. With their professional voices, their solo style and intimate portrayals of the songs, as well as their rapid tempo and exploitation of the female vocal register, Gothic Voices’ high caliber performances established a secure place in the repertory for Hildegard’s music, for musicologists and general audiences alike.


1 2 3 4 Works Cited


1. I presented an earlier version of this paper for a medievalism session at the 33rd International Congress on Medieval Studies, in Kalamazoo, Michigan, in 1998. Several people have substantially influenced the current version. I would like to thank Thomas Shippey for his comments on this paper several years ago, Simon Docking for his cogent suggestions, as well as two anonymous readers for their detailed critiques and recommendations of further materials. All errors that remain are mine alone.

2. See also Yudkin 236. Hildegard does not appear in A History of Western Music, by Donald Jay Grout until 1996 in the 5th edition, which was co-written by Claude Palisca, nor does she appear in A History of Musical Style by the medievalist Richard Crocker from 1966, nor in Richard Hoppin’s era-specific textbook, Medieval Music from 1978. As Cyrus and Mather discuss, even when women composers do appear in textbooks, they are given only a cursory mention and rarely appear in the index.

3. Daniel Leech-Wilkinson provides a fascinating account of the creation of this style in Britain, fuelled by rancourous recording reviews by both Leech-Wilkinson and Christopher Page (88-156).

4. I further discuss and deconstruct Hildegard’s reputation as an “ecstatic” song-writer in a chapter that will appear in Ashgate’s forthcoming Festschrift for Timothy McGee, edited by Brian Power and Maureen Epp.

5. David Littlejohn reports that the monks released four vinyl recordings of Gregorian chant after 1968 and by 1993 had sold 160,000 recordings. The 1994 release of Chant had sold more than 3 million copies in the U.S. along by 1996.



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