After 800 years, Hildegard von Bingen is back in the headlines. Records of her music are beginning to pile up. Only last week there was a very clear   photograph of her in a West Side throwaway paper. (At least I [ITALassume [ENDITAL it’s a photograph of her; it came alongside an article about her music, and had no caption. What else was one to think?)
Let me assure you: there was a Hildegard von Bingen. She was born in 1098, and died 81 years later — a remarkable old age in those pre-antibiotic days. She rates 2-1/2 pages in Grove’s Dictionary. From early childhood she entertained visions; later, at the urging of the monk Volmar, she wrote them down: a cycle of apocalyptic revelations that made her famous in her time. She founded an abbey near the Rhine village of Bingen, was often consulted on matters of theology and politics by leading figures of the time, and became known as the “Sibyl of the Rhine.”
She also composed — not symphonies, operas and concertos, of course, but extended musical settings for her own poetry. We have access to a great deal of music of her time, but Hildegard’s surviving manuscripts are among the earliest that we can actually ascribe by name to a specific composer. Most music in those days was simply composed For the Glory of God and dropped anonymously into the collection plate. Here was Hildegard, standing up for her own creative rights — one of the first to do so — and a woman at that!  Do you begin to understand those headlines?
Two major recordings of Hildegard’s music have done the most to spread her name and her fame: a Hyperion record called “A Feather on the Breath of God” which has been out for some time, and a recent two-disk EMI set that contains an entire cycle of her works, a sort of morality play called “Ordo Virtutum” (“The Play of the Virtues”). Both sets are performed by some of the best early-music proponents of our time: the “Feather” by an ensemble under Andrew Page (who has done those marvelous “Carmina Burana” restorations), the “Ordo” by the German ensemble Sequentia. In both cases, the records at very least afford an interesting and beguiling excursion into the way latter-day musicians go about reconstructing music of the past, and endowing their findings with the aura of antiquity. Where the original manuscript may consist of a single line of dim symbols, today’s performers have spread it out for voices and instruments, including some snazzy percussion.
That’s important. The surviving manuscripts of Hildegard, or of the hundreds of unnamed scriveners in the service of church music at her time, offer up the barest outline of unharmonized melodic shapes: scratchings and wobblings, on fragments of parchment, whose interpretations are still a matter of controversy. The aforementioned article in the West Side throwaway seemed to operate from the naive notion that, in addition to sitting for that fine photograph, Hildegard also completely composed the big, complex scores we hear on these records, all written out for voices and instruments as any modern composer might.
The music, as it emerges from the hands of modern arrangers and onto these nicely-recorded CDs, is undeniably pretty. I am amused, however, at how an application of latter-day promotion has elevated this music to a higher level of grace than anything else of its time. Hildegard never achieved sainthood in the annals of the Church; now the modern hype machine has stepped into the breach. How would  her  noble spirit react to the knowledge that  she  has joined the ranks of modern crossover heroes? Did Hildegard really die for our sings [cq]?
A recent Philharmonic concert introduced the name and the music of Arvo Part to the hallowed Music Center precincts. Word of this reclusive, Estonian-born mystic poet and composer, now living in West Germany, has circulated slowly. Three records of his music are readily available on the ECM label. The first two are of quiet, intense, sparse but overpowering works for small instrumental ensemble — including the 12-minute “Fratres,” which the Philharmonic played. The third is “Passio,” a 71-minute setting for voices and instruments of the Passion Text from the Gospel According to St.John — the same text used in Bach’s famous setting, but here sung in Latin.
Like Hildegard, Part has achieved crossover status. (My measurement for this — partly if not entirely — is that music by both composers turns up on Tom Schnabel’s “Morning Becomes Eclectic” on KCRW, my lifeline to the outside world.) Like Hildegard, too, his music exists in a curious, elusive continuum.
“Passio” is a strange, disturbing, utterly haunting work. Much of it hovers on the edge of silence, as does “Fratres” (especially in the version for string quartet, which the Kronos has played and recorded). The Passion story is narrated, by a vocal quartet with solo parts for Jesus and the Evangelist, in an unadorned, syllabic style, with a modal harmonization by a small instrumental ensemble that sounds both contemporary and old beyond time. 
Mostly out of journalistic convenience, Part has been called a “minimalist” by some semi-listeners. If that is so, the music of Glass and Adams and Reich is maximally luxuriant. So spare, and yet so intense, is this “Passio” of Part that it seems to create a vacuum into which the listener   — the willing, cooperative listener, that is — is drawn beyond any power of resistance. There is a sort of time-vacuum, too; Part scores the work for a group of early-music specialists (Britain’s marvelous Hilliard Ensemble on the recording). The vibrato-less singing and string playing destroys any sense of chronological specificity; this is music of any and all times.
The Estonian conductor Neeme Jarvi, who conducted Part’s “Fratres” with the Philharmonic, knows him well; they both emigrated from their native land on the same day. Jarvi spoke to me enthusiastically of earlier Part scores, including three large-scale symphonies which he has recently recorded. At a time when some of us feel the need to raid the ancient archives in search of novelty, here is another genuinely new, vitally important composer on whom we can pin hopes for music’s future.
Since Wagnerian Ring-o-Mania has currently seized imaginations in some corners of the musical world, it is time to point out that the 1935 recording of the first act of “Die Walkure,” with Bruno Walter conducting the Vienna Philharmonic and with Lotte Lehmann, Lauritz Melchior and Emanuel List the singers, has been reissued on a single EMI compact disk, still sounding fresh and vivid, still sung — especially in the case of Lehmann’s Sieglinde — in a way that ruins any possibility of there ever being a better performance. More simply put, this is one of the best performances of anything, ever.