Going back to the beginning with music

I have been called obsessive in my life.

I am still interested in most of the things that absorbed me in my childhood so I tend to think that I suffer from arrested development.

Suffering doesn’t come into it of course – I feel lucky that I have never grown tired of the things that inflamed me in my youth.

One of my earliest passions was music and I found it wherever I could. Old records of my parents, church hymns which we had to learn at boarding school on Sunday evenings, and also, just as importantly, hearing, casually around the house, my father singing Scottish ballads, my grandmother singing music hall songs. Then that great revelation, the radio.

I also played the piano for ridiculously long periods of time – much too long for a normal child I am sure but I was, yes, obsessed.

I found I could sing too…..and singing in childhood means choirs, church music and religious ceremonies. So I found myself, the singer, celebrating all those Christian feasts and learning the major musical compositions associated with it from Gregorian chants to Benjamin Britten by way of all those Victorian hymn tunes.

Whatever I think about those rituals now, I owe them a lot: a feeling that I was part of a long unbroken tradition, a sense of spiritual transportation and a love of symbolism and beauty.

Sometime ago, I decided it would be interesting to hear classical music, if it were possible, for the first time again. It coincided with a desperate need to rationalize my large, OK very large, collection of LPs.

The plan was to start listening to the earliest music in the Western classical music repertoire and then to move forwards in time, listening to nothing that had been composed later until I reached the relevant date. This would coincide with the LPs being replaced carefully and obsessively with CDs.

Well, I haven’t given up and I am now in the final stages of listening to music composed in 1856. Did I warn you that I was obsessive?

So I began with Gregorian Chant somewhere in the 12th. Century. In fact, I like to remember this project beginning on 29th. December 1170 with the murder of Saint Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral.

It so happens that there is a recording of the Gregorian Chants that were being sung at Vespers in the cathedral that night which were interrupted by the arrival of those knights who dispatched Becket with some nasty blows to the head and sent him to sainthood and super stardom. This CD (Herald HAVPCD 192) plays the music up until the interruption which is marked by the solemn ringing of the cathedral bells, the death knell. The music finishes with chants with his annual feast day in the Middle Ages.

It is great stuff – you feel like running up to the altar and warning Thomas to hide but I suspect he wouldn’t have wanted that. Martyrs are made of sterner stuff, I imagine.

The complete manuscript, a 13th. Century copy – which was preserved in a Priory which is now a ruin here in my home town – was one of the very few not to be ripped up by those enthusiastic Protestants when they wanted to get rid of a spiritual tradition and replace it with something more down to earth and, to my ears, something much more boring.

The manuscript preserves music of deceptive simplicity, the chant, with its basis of one chanting note, is elaborated at the ends of phrases is music of powerful impact and mind transforming timelessness.

The notes are in what looks today as a strange square calligraphy, they are really like road arrows pointing you in the right direction, often as simple as up or down.

Those chanting monks in all those daily services were sending musical prayers up to Heaven but they were also meditating with their voices concentrating on the music which was also keeping them from disappearing too far up wherever people go at times of too much self-obsession.

It is the music that formed the basis of so much that came afterwards…it was the first building block, its single melodic line elaborated on, added too in more and more complicated ways by a line of great composers until we hear it, supremely in the works of J.S.Bach.

The first of those great composers was a woman.

Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) was one of those people you hated at school. She seems to have been good at everything.

Not only was she a composer but she was also famous as a physician, a herbalist, a scientist, a philosopher, a poet and, that weirdest of things, a visionary.

Oh yes, she was also an Abbess, running her own convent of nuns whilst taking the broad-minded decision of retaining a monk as her secretary….she was a writer who couldn’t write.

Her music is in the tradition of the Gregorian chant but she expanded on those straight melodic lines, giving them elaborate, highly decorated ornamentations written especially for female voices.

Unsurprisingly her music, with other types of Gregorian chant, have become great favourites with the New Age movement.

This is music still suited to meditation, if you are not sending prayers to Heaven, then you can send yourself somewhere else, high above the every day or, dare I say it, you can listen to it for its own worth. (Hyperion – CDA66039 – A Feather on the Breath of God).

Her visions, if you like those kinds of things, were pretty wacky. She believed that they came straight from God with flashing lights and attacks of vomiting. Migraine sufferers like me are still amazed that she could have transformed such a painful and debilitating condition into an ecstatic vision. Maybe it was because when you have a migraine, the next day you feel unusually light headed and happy. It is like the old saying about banging your head against a brick wall.

So, meditative music, wacky visions, a profound belief in the healing power of herbs, was she the original hippie mama?

She also wrote the first description of the female orgasm..no wonder New Agers are devoted to her.

Before you get too carried away though, my friends, she also wrote some pretty severe stuff about a woman “who takes up devilish ways and plays a male role” and has some unpopular ideas of what a man should do if he “feels himself disturbed by bodily stimulation.”

She also regarded herself, not only as “a feather on the breath of God” but also a member of the “weaker sex.”

God, if she thought she was weak, I wouldn’t like to know what her idea of strength was.

Listen to the music though and celebrate the preservation of all that beauty but also rejoice in the passing of so many of those prejudices that maintained the Christian church as the backbone of Europe until modern times. Hildegard would have had much more fun now.


  1. Way-hey! Wolfie goes high-tech!

    What year did you start listening to the history of music? I’m curious to see how long it takes to go from 1170 to 1856….

  2. Hi Mercredi,

    Pleased you like the moving pictures….I have put them on all the music pieces on here if you are interested.

    How long have I been on this project? Promise you won’t call me obsessive?

    Ten years!

    It has been really interesting putting things into place but I hope it is not too boring to put up on here.

    I plan to put updates here from time to time.

    Oh No!!!! I hear you all cry.

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