Melanie Spiller and Coloratura Consulting

Escapades in Early Music, Writing, and Editing

How I Became a Hildegard von Bingen Addict

with 3 comments

When I was a teenager, someone introduced me to Gregorian chant. I was fascinated by its simplicity, by the strange modal sounds, and by the fact that it was difficult to find out much about it. After Vatican II in the 1960s, even the local Catholic church didn’t produce this music, and the only place I heard it was on a scratchy record that a friend’s mother had squirreled away.

I was already a devoted musician, adoring Baroque music on my flute and singing folk songs with my guitar. But when I heard this ethereal and ancient music, something in me melted.

At college, the earliest music that could be studied was Baroque, but they insisted on modern instruments and modern tuning. I was frustrated. Not only could I not study the music that spoke to me, but I couldn’t even do their music as it would have been performed when it was new.

Then someone in my theory class introduced me to a group called Steeleye Span, who performed Renaissance music, sometimes as intended, sometimes with a modern spin. I was thunderstruck. I’d performed at Renaissance Faires and played in recorder ensembles for years, but at last, someone was having FUN with the music.

That’s when I started noticing an attitude in the music department. People made proclamations, waxing didactic over the slightest dissonance or unresolved chord. They seemed to want to take all the joy out of making music, to squelch the passion. That didn’t seem right to me. Learning about what made music good shouldn’t prevent the music from being good.

So I took a jazz class. I knew nothing about jazz, wasn’t even sure that I liked jazz. But they asked us to improvise, and although there were rules, no one told us that we didn’t do it right and there was a certain joy to making music again. I always felt like I didn’t quite fit in, though. When it was my turn to solo, I tended to play these floating wisps of melodies, more contemplative than exhilarating. I enjoyed it, but I always felt that what was expected from a jazz flutist was something more extravagant and elaborate than my haunting moans. Through these sounds, I brought the baroque sensibility of an internal journey with me, and it didn’t seem like anyone else was doing that. I didn’t stick with jazz for long.

Out in the working world, I tripped over the drone. My refrigerator made a drone, the bathroom fan, elevators, leaf blowers, the distant freeway—I found drones everywhere. I’d sing against them, play my flute or recorder against them, hear them in my head on walks in the wilderness and hum into them. And there was nothing I loved more than a good echo-y cave. I’d sing into it, listening to my my own internal drone like the hum of bees. My friends listened. I didn’t know it then, but I was discovering an ancient tradition.

I began to learn that chant was everywhere, that all cultures chanted, ancient and new, that some used rhythm, some used a drone, some used neither, and some used both. My fascination grew. Somewhere along the way as I bounced from culture to culture in my exploration—and I honestly don’t remember where or when—I heard the songs of Hildegard von Bingen.

What struck me most about Hildegard was that her songs resembled my old meanderings on the flute in jazz class. There was something celebratory about both, something innocent and pure. It was a shared internal journey. I was hooked.

A few years later, I took a week-long course from the San Francisco Early Music Society’s Medieval Workshop. Several things happened there that were life-altering. The first was that someone who already knew a lot about Medieval music asked the teacher, Margriet Tindemans, how something would have been done. Margriet said the words that changed the way I felt about being a musician forever.

She said, with a big grin on her face, “I don’t know.”

It was the most freeing thing I’d ever heard. Here was an internationally known expert admitting quite comfortably that she didn’t know something. She explained that music from this period was poorly documented because music notation was in its infancy then, and so any opinion she might express would just be a guess. What a revelation!

After the pompous know-it-alls at college, I was stunned. How wonderful to be on the cutting edge of knowledge like this! How satisfying that my ignorant and bumbling guess was as likely to be correct as that of a world-wide expert!

Then, I took another class, from Karen Clark, about Hildegard’s “Ordo Virtutum.” There it was again—another expert saying that she couldn’t be certain, but that she sang it in a way that suited her. And when Karen sang Hildegard, my heart stopped a little bit.

I became a Hildegard addict at that point.

At that time, the historically informed early music performance movement was about 15 years old (it was the mid-90s). Recordings, concerts, and generally available writings about it began to be available. The invention of CDs made it easier to obtain.

I became a Hildegard glutton. More than 15 years later, I’m still stuffing myself as full of Hildegard’s music as I can.

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Written by Melanie Spiller

March 19, 2012 at 12:14 pm

3 Responses

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  1. Hi Melanie!
    I remember being in that Ordo Virtutum class with you at Dominican, and practicing in
    the chapel. Nice article!

    Lisa Mischke

    March 19, 2012 at 1:47 pm

  2. And the world is just a bit better for your chanting.
    Thanks for the article.

    Martin Bailey

    March 19, 2012 at 4:14 pm


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