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  • Hildegard of Bingen and Musical Reception: The Modern Revival of a Medieval Composer by Jennifer Bain
  • Margot Fassler
Hildegard of Bingen and Musical Reception: The Modern Revival of a Medieval Composer. By Jennifer Bain. pp. xiii + 235. (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge and New York. 2015. £64.99. ISBN 978-1-107-07666-2.)

During the 1980s and 1990s, musicology took a historiographical turn, and the field has been transformed by it, greatly for the good, I would say. In general the past is no longer only a fixed entity we grope our way towards, but also a vast imaginary constantly being made and remade, depending not only on what is currently known, but also on how and why the 'facts' are or were chosen and interpreted over time. Central to this work is an ever-growing body of literature tracing the ways that musicians and historians of music themselves have changed and developed and the reasons they had for making their arguments, in print or through performance. The cart of understanding runs on both tracks: what was, and what people have said and thought about what was. The failure to attend to either, at least some of the time, can cause derailment.

Jennifer Bain's excellent volume Hildegard of Bingen and Musical Reception is not a book about Hildegard. It is rather a book about how Hildegard came to be received, especially in Germany in the nineteenth century, and the ways in which this reception has coloured some aspects of modern understanding. Bain says: 'I am less interested in the question of who the "real" or "authentic" Hildegard was than I am in the question of who various people think she was' (p. 33). The book is laid out in five chapters, framed by an introduction, via the sequence 'O virga ac diadema' (and various ideas about it and its performance over time), and a conclusion, focused upon some scholarship involving the nuns of Eibingen in recent decades. It is a historiographical study, of those who came to promote Hildegard's music, their reasons for doing so, and the traces of their work in contemporary approaches.

Although Bain pays some attention to Hildegard's reception in the Middle Ages and early modern period (ch. 1), the focus of the study is not on Hildegard's more general fame as a prophet and seer, but rather on her emerging reputation as a composer, and that started to happen only late in the trajectory. Accordingly, this development is best contextualized within the restoration of medieval chant in Germany in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and the political problems that surrounded it. Bain takes considerable pains to explain how this restoration differed in significant ways from the work of the monks of Solesmes in France. She then positions growing understanding of Hildegard the Composer in the midst of German chant history and historiography. It is fascinating, and very useful, to have this overview, and to have this careful yet succinct charting of historical development, based primarily upon the best secondary sources (including Theodore Karp, An Introduction to the Post-Tridentine Mass Proper (Middleton, Wis., 2005). Many students of chant history and historiography will profit from it.

Chant restoration in Germany took place in the midst of two phenomena driving German politics in the nineteenth century: the Reichsdeputationshauptschluss of the early part, and the Kulturkampf of the later part of the century, Both of these pitted German Protestants and Roman Catholics against each other, as they struggled to protect their properties, influence, and identities. Attitudes towards music played a role in these many difficulties, and Catholics came to welcome Hildegard as a heroine of the Catholic cause, which was suffering dramatic losses at the time, with the appropriation of church property and the closing of monasteries, universities, and schools. Politically active bishops and a series of priests connected with Hildegard's region 'reacted to the marginalization of Catholicism in the Rheingau and beyond by taking great pride in their local saint... resulting in a renewal of devotion to Hildegard, an authentication of her relics, and a rediscovery of her music' (p. 34).

Of several figures of major importance in this saga...


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