Melanie Spiller and Coloratura Consulting

Escapades in Early Music, Writing, and Editing

Why Am I Writing About This?

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I’ve begun revising my travel guide/memoir. Revising just isn’t as fun as I’d like it to be.

First, let me say that originally, the book was a memoir. Then, I started think that it would be truly useful and interesting to tell people what to see where in regard to my favorite historical figure, and how to get there and so forth, a sort of Michelin guide to a time and place. And I had gotten self-conscious about why anyone would want to read the meager meanderings of Melanie as she trotted around Germany.

So it shouldn’t be hard to put it back to being a memoir, right? Wrong.

When I vetted the travel guide and the fiction work through my writing group, they kept wondering why I was so interested in this particular character. My answer amounted to “because she was so interesting.” And I’m normally pretty good with words.

One person said that the best parts of the travel guide were the personal vignettes. I told her that I’d written most of the things that held any interest or humor into the book already, and she said “so make some up” to fill in the gaps. That’s partly how I came to write a novel about my favorite historical figure.

Now that I’m revising the travel guide to be a memoir, I’m trying to provide some explanation of why a perfectly ordinary 21st century nominally Jewish and somewhat bohemian woman of Russian descent would get so obsessed over an uptight 12th century German saint.

I guess it’s on the order of why some people like cheese and some people like the color blue, and some people like Josquin, and some like football. I really can’t explain it. The music she wrote (I’m talking about Hildegard von Bingen, if you hadn’t already figured it out) is ecstatic and celebratory, her visions were dark and angry, her studies of nature were thorough, and her thoughts on philosophy were stimulating. What’s not to like?

As I read the laundry list I just wrote, I feel that it doesn’t really explain 25 years or so of fascination. I suppose some of it comes down to just enjoying rooting around in a subject. It might have just as easily been chocolate manufacturing or politics, I suppose. Doesn’t everyone have a pet subject like that?

Oh, and don’t forget all the lovely tangents. There’s all the early music stuff (the development of it, performing it, analyzing it), there’s the history stuff (it was a time when exciting discoveries were just about to be made. The steps leading up to those discoveries are fascinating), there’s the regional stuff (several of my parents’ closest friends during my childhood were from Germany), and there’s the traveling part (putting oneself in the land of the “other,” and seeing how the world works in other places than home).

Okay, so I come from a family that loves music, literature, traveling, languages, taking things apart (and putting them back together again), puzzles, good food, reading, and the occasional terrible pun. I love all those things too.

The thing with Hildegard is that she’s most of those things. She’s a puzzle because she got away with amazing stuff. She convinced people— including Bernard of Clairvaux (who was instrumental in the inquisition effort), a violence-prone king, and the pope—that she heard from God and had messages for them. She traveled around preaching (preaching!) against the Cathars, an odd little sect that everyone loved to hate. But nuns didn’t travel and women didn’t preach. Women STILL don’t preach. Why was Hildegard allowed?

And of course the music is intriguing. First, Hildegard didn’t really know all the rules of Gregorian chant (or she knew and chose to ignore them). But also, she was writing for women’s voices. Men typically have about an octave and a half of comfortable range before you start bringing in the trained singers. Women, on the other hand, often have two or more, even untrained. So Hildegard played with range and vocal leaps in a way that the monks who wrote for men just couldn’t.

Also, where Gregorian chant used texts from the bible, Hildegard wrote her own poetry. She loved a good metaphor and she especially loved the idea of “greening,” which meant that things were virtually verdant with faith or love or other religious sentiments. She especially loved that “virga” had three meanings and she used it constantly. (It is the name of the most stable of notes—a single note that is emphasized or “weighted”—it is a reference to “the virgin” of Christian significance, and it also means a branch, like on a tree, growing and giving life to the tree in its greenness.)

And Hildegard didn’t just write her own texts and music. She made up words if she didn’t know one that meant what she needed. She also wrote a bit of musical theater, something that it took other composers nearly another 300 years to think was a good idea and imitate.

Oh, and speaking of imitation, because people wanted to sing Hildegard’s music and made copies of it, hers is the first European composer’s name to which specific work can be attributed. You see, the church thought it was vanity to take credit for writing music, and most secular musicians were also illiterate (or at least don’t seem to have documented their ideas), so Hildegard began the tradition of being named as a composer.

See? I’m so obsessed with all this stuff that I forgot that I was writing about revising.

Written by Melanie Spiller

March 25, 2011 at 11:03 am

Posted in Writing

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