One of the strangest pop phenomena of recent decades struck out of nowhere a few years ago when an album of Gregorian chants sung by a bunch of Spanish monks topped the European charts. Many explanations were offered: Euro-trendiness; the '90s spiritual revival; research and scholarship that unearthed hitherto forgotten early music. But maybe it was just that after a long commute, those stressed-out, downsized boomers needed music more soothing than rap or rock. Medieval does mean "middle age," after all.
Whatever the reason, the upsurge in the popularity of medieval and early Renaissance music has produced dozens of albums far more compelling than that of the Spanish monks. It even influenced contemporary music, as the medieval-influenced trinity of John Tavener, Henryk Gorecki and Arvo Part -- the so-called "holy minimalists" -- became bestselling modern classical composers.
Two prominent touchstones of the medieval resurgence have been the vocal quartet Anonymous 4, whose thoroughly researched and exquisitely performed CDs and concerts are approaching pop-star popularity levels; and the 12th century German abbess Hildegard of Bingen, whose startlingly passionate music first caught record buyers' attention a decade ago in a bestselling CD by the ensemble Gothic Voices.
At last, "11,000 Virgins" brings the three brightest stars of early music -- Anonymous 4, chant and Hildegard -- into alignment. (The title refers to a ritual church feast honoring an early female Christian martyr, for which Hildegard wrote music; "virginity" then had less to do with sexual purity than with a woman's giving of herself to God.)
In recent years, Hildegard has been adopted by New Age pharmacies, women's spirituality groups and alternative Christian movements that view God as present in nature and the body instead of as an angry avenger. Tour buses parade past the still-active convent she founded in Germany. I feared that Hildegard's life story would overshadow her music in much the same way that a cult of Fridolatry (prints, greeting cards) developed around the painter Frida Kahlo, based more on her personal tragedies and her work's feminist themes than on artistic merit. Hildegard's tumultuous life could easily justify Hildemania. She became one of the first physicians in Europe as well as an accomplished herbalist, wrote poems whose imagery and metaphors (often feminine) are as distinctive as her tunes, as well as books (theology, science, hagiography) and the first morality plays, setting them to her own music. She developed a secret language, temporarily de-misogynized Christianity, founded her own convent, corresponded with kings and was proclaimed a prophetess by the pope. As an old woman, she traveled and preached throughout Germany, drawing celebrity and controversy, not least because -- attention Shirley MacLaine-atics -- she claimed to be divinely inspired by mystical visions that, at age 43, commanded her to start writing down her apparitions in verse and song. (Science writer Oliver Sacks attributes her visions to something more mundane: severe migraines.) She believed herself merely a spokesperson, "a feather on the breath of God."
Anonymous 4's interpretations have been criticized as too timid and New Agey, but no one really knows how this music was originally performed; we lack the treatises and eyewitness accounts of medieval music that have in recent years revolutionized the way historically informed musicians play baroque and classical works. Where musicological evidence permits, the four scholar-singers add interest by occasionally embellishing the single melody line, and their ethereal style reflects the fact that this music was written to aid meditations on God.
That style contrasts sharply with Sequentia, whose new disk, "O Jerusalem," is the fifth in their survey of Hildegard's surviving music (some 80 known compositions), to be completed on her 900th birthday next year. Both CDs evoke the cathedral setting. But the men and women of Sequentia (augmented by bells and some solo instruments) adopt a more full-throated approach to Hildegard's music -- emphasizing, as does the best gospel music, eros over agape. Where A4 aims for transcendence, Sequentia plumps for passion. Each captures, in different measure, that volatile combination that fuels Hildegard's music and makes it so much more vital than most chant.
The third disc, "Celestial Light," by the Boston-based female quartet Tapestry, steers closer to Sequentia's uninhibited performance style than A4's. (Tapestry's director, Laurie Monahan, worked with Sequentia on earlier Hildegard albums.) Besides singing several of Hildegard's works, the group also commissioned one of today's rising stars, prolific American composer Robert Kyr, to write music for several poems Hildegard wrote but never set to music. Kyr effortlessly employs contemporary harmonic techniques to evoke an ancient age, but with an unmistakably 20th-century astringency. More than pastiche, Kyr's cycle of motets (rendered from Latin into English and titled "From the Circling Wheel") transforms Hildegard's words and musical style into a compelling modern meditation on spiritual transformation.
It's the mark of a great composer that her music can stand up to multiple informed interpretations, which is why classical music collectors often have several versions of the same masterworks. There is some synthesized Hildegard schlock on CD, but the resounding success of these masterful interpretations of her music confirms that she deserves to be mentioned in the same breath with other titans of early music like Palestrina, Lassus and Dufay. Maybe the abbess of Bingen's prominence will encourage casual listeners to explore early music by neglected composers who led less interesting lives but produced some equally beautiful music.