1. Even before Chant, Vision, and Canticles of Ecstasy appeared in 1994, the relationship between cover and content could be blurred. A sampling of a number of CDs from a few years either side of the 1994 releases shows that the varying relationship between cover art and content was widespread.11
    Figure 11: The Harmony of Heaven
    In 1989 Ellen Oak’s Harmony of Heaven, strongly suggests a New Age musical interpretation with its title and its sky-and-clouds-during-sunset-image, but instead the recording comprises a single, a capella soprano singing from the heart in an untrained voice, but not using any New Age techniques, as in "Quia ergo femina." In stark contrast, the 1990 Diadema recording, by the ensemble, Vox, targets its market with little subtlety, through its fantasy-like illustration of a red-cloaked woman, gazing at mountains and a night sky, and a text on the cover which reads, “Medieval strings, woodwinds and percussion blend with atmospheric synthesizers, wrapping the virtuoso trio of female voices in a shroud of mystery to create a timeless listening experience of luminous depth.” In all aspects of their performance style—synthesizers, swells, slow atmospheric music—Vox applies New Age techniques to Hildegard’s melodies, as in “O Euchari.”

    Figure 12: Diadema

  2. In 1995 two recordings using an early music performance style appeared, an Oxford Camerata recording which maintains the classic early music cover—white background with a thirteenth-century icon by Cimabue, and From Chant to Renaissance by Voices of Ascension, which uses the New Age sky and clouds motif.

    Heavenly Revelations
    From Chant to Renaissance
    Figure 13

    The Camerata provides group and solo performances, adopting a clean, early music sound as in "O ignis spiritus," while in From Chant to Renaissance, choir member Kathy Theil offers two gorgeous Hildegard tracks a capella, especially “Ave generosa,” drawing on the solo style of Gothic Voices with a clear, polished timbre and on the rhythmic inflections of Sequentia.

  3. In 1996 and 1997 three recordings using varying degrees of musical New Age techniques appeared, two of which use landscape or sky and clouds images on their covers, Spirits, an album by clarinetist Richard Stoltzman, which has one Hildegard track, and Angeli, a CD recorded by Project Ars Nova, a respected medieval music ensemble known for their recordings of fourteenth-century French music . The third uses a standard early music cover with Lyrichord's dark border down the left side and a medieval illumination in the center of a pale yellow background, Norma Gentile’s Unfurling Love’s Creation.

    Unfurling Love's Creation
    Figure 14

    With Project Ars Nova it is difficult to tell if they were truly aiming for a New Age sound, but the strong reverberation and its effect on the echoing drone which accompanies soloists Laurie Monahan and Daniela Tosic in “O gloriosissimi lux” sounds much less like the early music style that they usually adopt. Norma Gentile, who describes herself as an auric healer, draws on another aspect of New Age musical technique by combining two culturally distinct forms of musical practice. In Unfurling Love’s Creation she sings Hildegard’s melodies to Tibetan Singing Bowl accompaniment, clearly audible in the chorus of drones in “Ave, Maria.” But the clearest example of a New Age style in these three recordings is Richard Stoltzman’s Spirits CD, which claims in the accompanying booklet to be “music soulfully performed with depth by bassist Eddie Gomez, with celestial sonics by guitarist David Torn … [and] with anointing touches by vibraphonist Dave Samuels … ” ([3]). Stoltzman’s rendition of “Ave, Maria” features solo clarinet with atmospheric synthesized accompaniment and occasional percussion.

  4. An examination of the music industry’s packaging of Hildegard von Bingen’s recordings in relation to performers’ interpretations of her music uncovers a marked discrepancy between what musicologists have learned about chant and how chant is represented in the music industry today. Regardless of what the performances actually sound like, in the visual images on Hildegard CD covers and in the language used in marketing materials, record distributors frequently employ the New Age rhetoric of timelessness and spiritual renewal which is currently synonymous with medieval chant. In recordings, the range of performance styles and practices brought to Hildegard’s melodies is extraordinary, especially considering that Hildegard was virtually unknown musically just twenty-five years ago: some performers draw on chant research and try to recreate historical performances by adhering to various theories about medieval performance practice, while others choose to “update” the music by using contemporary instruments, usually fashioning their performances in a New Age style replete with synthesizers, drones, and long vocalises. Though in every revival the works of a composer are recreated by their new audience, the New Age rhetoric in both the marketing and performance of Hildegard’s music is problematic for our understanding of the relationship between Hildegard, her music, and the context of her life in the twelfth century.

  5. In the New Age Music Guide, Micheal Stillwater provides a definition for the New Age sub-genre of vocal music, along with a list of music that fits this category, including Gregorian chant. Stillwater states that in New Age Vocal Music there must be “an admission that there is an underlying omnipresent power and intelligence called Love, God, Universal Spirit, and so forth, with an absence of spiritual elitism” (Birosik 162). To suggest that chant was not spiritually elite is to remove it from the context in which it was produced and practiced. In the Middle Ages the public did not participate in the performance of chant; only monks, nuns, priests and clerics were involved in the production of chant, and though they had taken vows of poverty, many of them did so from their point of privilege and power in the aristocracy. Furthermore, chant arose in the Latin of the Church, a language that many people had no access to whatsoever. Although basic education started with the Psalter, what percentage of the population received even basic education? Hildegard’s chant was no exception to this—her texts were in Latin and the chant was composed in her convent, primarily populated with women of noble birth. The New Age aesthetic of meta-spiritualism presumes that an inherent spiritual power is embedded in Hildegard’s melodies alone and that its message is available to the modern listener, despite the barrier of the Latin language and the 800 years intervening. Put another way, the marketing of Hildegard’s chant as music for the New Age assumes that the chant itself can transcend time and cultural boundaries, and ultimately transcend its historic meaning. Indeed, in the liner notes to the New Age Vision CD David Foil writes about Hildegard’s music, “The freedom of her words blends with the freedom of her melodies in a liberating form of expression that transcends time, place, and the usually formidable barrier of language” (Foil 7). Hildegard's lyrics, of course, were specific not only to a religion, but to a specific strain of a religion and can hold little meaning without an awareness of the historical, cultural, and spiritual context in which they were produced. As scholars we need to question the market-produced identity that does not distinguish between New Age notions of spirituality and the historically specific practice of Hildegard’s medieval sacred music.

  6. Despite Hildegard’s phenomenal popularity, however, her music is less represented in the mainstream segment of the field of musicology, apart from its appearance now in textbooks. An evolutionary view of music history cannot account for Hildegard. She wrote monophonic chant in the same century that new kinds of sophisticated polyphony were emerging, and her output represents a closed repertory, which appears only in her manuscripts with no trace of dissemination to legitimize its place in the general repertory. Moreover, a certain amount of skepticism is associated with Hildegard scholarship and its level of acadmic rigor. I would suggest that this skepticism has been exacerbated because Hildegard has become a commodity in the marketplace, and the relationship between scholarly and general market trends is a fragile one. The commodification of Hildegard has made her suspect, suspect to the point that at the same time that her revival was peaking in 1998, many scholars began to seriously consider and question her status as a composer in the twelfth century (see Witts and Kreutziger-Herr). Although there is no question that critical source study was lacking and was desperately needed in Hildegard research (and has begun in earnest), perhaps the timing of Hildegard’s debunking was provoked by her rapid rise and accentuated commercial popularity, and further fuelled by the charged image of a highly individual and powerful female voice from the Middle Ages.12 To put it crudely: the more popular Hildegard became, and the further removed from her historical position, the more distasteful she became to many scholars. What made Hildegard famous may prove to be her demise.


1 2 3 4 Works Cited


11. Hildegard recordings—either on compilation discs or on discs dedicated solely to her music—number now in the dozens (I have at least forty-five in my personal collection). Two highly successful recordings that I will not be discussing here should still be mentioned. Anonymous 4 released a recording of Hildegard's music in 1997, placing some of her chants contextually with other medieval chant to create three offices for the Feast of St. Ursula. Garmana, a five-member Swedish band whose recordings normally feature modern renditions of Swedish folk music, released a pop-influenced recording in 2001 of several of Hildegard's chants in an updated—but not New Age—style. For some excellent discographies of Hildegard’s music, see http://www.medieval.org/emfaq/composers/hildegard.html> (a complete list) and http://www.apc.net/ia/ghildgrd.htm (a list of recordings currently available).

12. Some excellent work on the sources has been produced in recent years. See especially: Silvas, Welker, and Baird and Ehrman.



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