I've started so I'll finish because by coincidence, as I sat down to read Plainsong, it happened to be the week that I had also sent for some CDs of the music of Hildegard von Bingen.
I have loved dear old Hildegard for many years but my copy of Feather on the Breath of God seemed to have evaporated so I had done a re-stock. Two CDS for the princely sum of 1p each by the Oxford Camerata under the direction of Jeremy Summerly, before realising that I wanted the lot and the Sequentia boxed set of eight CDs has proved to be incredibly good value at £12ish
There is nothing I love more than the sofa, the fire, a grey afternoon outside and some plainsong drifting around in the background as I read, and I have quite a collection. One of my abiding memories of driving across France to one of our family holidays in Switzerland, was an overnight stop at St Benoit-sur- Loire and listening to Compline...or maybe it was Vespers, in the Benedictine Abbey there.
Gillian Clarke has something to say about the whole idea of those last days of winter and what we need from them too. Writing in At The Source, she looks out on a sky being ripped to rags by the wind...
'Next month I'll be out in the garden, but for now it's time for a book, a chair, for wellbeing, for this room with its wide view of land under weather, and contained within me remain, as Colm Toibin writes: 'all the other rooms from whose windows he had observed the world, so that they could be remembered and captured and held...'
In a way listening to Hildegard feels a little like being surrounded by 'indoor birdsong' I suppose, and I can think of nothing better to enhance that sense of wellbeing.
Gillian Clarke again...
'Birdsong is not for our pleasure. It is the sound of connection, of the link between bird and bird, bird and nest, parent bird and nestlings.'
And what is plainsong if not an attempt at making a different connection, that one between heaven and earth, and maybe the listener and 'something out there' too. And as the plainsong chants of Hildegard von Bingen soar and swoop and fly around the room I can get quite carried away with my analogy, especially when I hear this one..
per cancellos fenestre..
A dove gazed in \ through the lattice of the window..
The chants are in Latin and are renowned for their dazzling imagery and 'exotic individuality', not easy to sing, nigh on impossible to remember by all accounts, and I can rarely tell one from another (even more like birdsong for me in that case) so they trill along as a sort of top line creating a real sense of peace around the book room.
By now I am interested enough in Hildegard to check out the online library catalogue and reserve Hildegard of Bingen The Woman of Her Age by Fiona Maddocks, because I know little of Hildegard's life and want to know more.
Born in 1098 in Germany, I had no idea that as a tenth child Hildegard was effectively tithed to a convent, entering at the age of eight and spending the rest of her life behind the wall, until her death eighty years later, but not before founding her own abbey.
I have only dipped into the book quickly but how disturbing must that process of enclosure have been for a young girl. Fiona Maddocks goes into some detail about the ceremony which Hildegard may have encountered, and which included the last rites before the postulant, dressed in a shroud and having said goodbye to her home, her parents, siblings and friends as well as her previous life apparently walks into a cell whose entrance is then blocked up.
I need to read on because I have a feeling Hildegard might have become a nun with a difference becase she is reputed to have worshipped in fine jewellery and very elaborate headgear. I needed a bit of historical context too, what else was going on in the early 1100s... the Norman conquest has happened, the Domesday Book has been written, Durham Cathedral is being built, the Crusades are in progress and the year after Hildegard's birth Pope Urban dies and presumably the Conclave did just what it has done recently and everyone stood outside and watched for the white smoke.
Hildegard's influence at the time was apparently profound...
'She was a polymath: a visionary, a theologian, a preacher; an early scientist and physician; a prodigious letter-writer who numbered kings, emperors and popes among her correspondents...her boldness, courage and tenacity made her at once enthralling and haughty, interpid and irksome.'
And Hildegard composed religious music for her nuns.
I love the notion of this 'invisible and unheard music of the heavens' and a quick browse of the book tells me that I am in that mess again and will have to buy a copy, because as well as being an account of a fascinating life, I am not sure I have ever given much thought to the origins of all this...of music as we know it.
Or really appreciated that it was not ever thus.
None of it mattered very much in the twelfth century as long as everyone started on the same note apparently, all very approximate unless someone had perfect pitch and could 'hold yesterday's note in their head.' Everything committed to memory because musical notation was in its infancy. So what I am listening to now, Sequentia's wonderful renditions of enough of Hildegard's music to keep me going for a year, may all be a bit of intelligent guesswork based on a handful of manuscripts, but it's simple and utterly beautiful.
And how can I resist a book that quotes a feminist theory that places Hildegard in the tradition of the women singers and songwriters that includes Joni Mitchell. Fiona Maddocks thinks that may be a bit far-fetched, but still...
Any more in the Hildegard or plainsong fan club out there...or does it grate and send you running from the room??