Mid-week Matins Musing: Medieval Musicology


“Historical artifacts are not entirely severed from the present, nor do they clearly underwrite it; the pleasure of history lies in both the resonance and the clashes.”  (Peraino 217)

“In order to make it [historical music] our own, we may have to reconstruct its history in full depth, for example by exploiting the meta-poetry of all those extant documents and messages that illustrate or transmit music in its cultural contexts.”  (Strohm 719)

“All history that relies on written sources alone is incomplete and of necessity misleading.”  (Sachs 49)


Research, research, and more research.  These three quotes illustrate the approach I’ve been taking so far, trying to contextualize Hildegard’s music not only within her extant work, but within her religion, life, and 12th century German world.  I’ve also been trying to contextualize my own research strategies into the broader realm of musicology – and have found that the musicology world is pretty conflicted when it comes to medieval scholarship.  On one end of the spectrum is the die-hard “primary musical sources only!” camp, on the other end is the “sociology and anthropology have feelings too!” commune.  There are many villages and solitary wanderers in between these two extremes, including the militant agnostic “we can’t really know anything!” guerrillas and the “I play it because it sounds cool!” neo-troubadours, whose musical eclecticism often matches their odd pairing of 16th century bodices with sheer, iridescent fabrics, tricorns, and ‘woad’ face paint.

I can’t say I side with any of these factions.

I think that music speaks for itself.  I also think that having a holistic picture to place that music within is important, especially when it comes to ancient and medieval music.  We simply don’t have the abundance of musical sources and information about performance that’s available to scholars of later periods, and we can use all the insight we can find.  It’s not that medieval music doesn’t speak for itself, it’s that the lack of primary sources is easily filled in by our own 21st century imaginations, creating a dangerous possibility for the music to essentially become a puppet with which we manufacture our own Middle Ages.

I don’t want to build my own St. Hildegard.

She is too incredible a human being for me to misrepresent.  There’s been an unfortunate trend, specifically within the New Age movement, to use her works out of context.  Quite often her religious faith is taken out of the picture altogether because it supposedly makes her medical treatises on healing with plants and stones less appealing to today’s would-be naturopaths.  Her chants are recorded in a wide variety of wishy-washy ‘transcendent’ forms, often with some sort of synthesized abomination adding to the mood.  I find this injust and disrespectful.  She was a nun and an abbess, most of her writings are deeply religious, and her music was liturgy for singing.  She helped reform her Church in a time where it was straying from its own convictions.

Religion, faith, and spirituality were central and powerfully positive in her life.  Recognizing that doesn’t devalue her work, nor does it make it irrelevant, somehow unsavory, or impossible for non-Christians to be deeply moved by.

Amidst all this talk of scholarship and authenticity, it is easy to ignore the personal altogether.  I am not trying to claim that the musicologist should be distant and disconnected from their subject – to do so would take away the passion that makes long, often tedious hours of reading and searching for references that may or may not exist bearable, enjoyable, even exciting.  I am here because I am passionate about my subject.  I identify with her in many ways.  Though I may not share her religion, I connect with her music, poetry, and the centrality of her spirituality to her words, actions, and worldview.

However, this personal connection is in addition to my scholarly work, not in place of it.

In the end, performance practice is essentially a personal choice.  I find it hard to believe that medieval performance practices were so homogeneous that there is a definitive ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ way to make this music – but there are certainly some ways that are more historically informed than others, and some which really shouldn’t be called ‘medieval’ at all.  I think it’s the musicologist’s role to draw from all the sources available to synthesize a picture as close to authenticity as possible – and the performer’s responsibility to use that picture to help the music speak through them.  My chant interpretations will be unique to me, but they will grow out of the stones of Rupertsberg.

And yes, I also study/perform medieval music because it sounds cool.  🙂


Extra bonus points for anyone who can guess where the ‘self-portrait’ image is from.

If it interests you, here is my bibliography up to this point.

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