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Monday, April 29, 2013

Twelfth Century Woman Composer


A week ago, I attended a lecture about Hildegaard of Bingem. A 12th Century nun she is considered by many scholars to be the first 'known' composer of music! She was also a respected theologian whose correspondents included the Pope, she was also a revered healer, who wrote medical and scientific works and she had 'visions'...

Hildegaard was the 10th child of a noble family and upon her birth her family promised her to the church, a 'child oblate' -- it was suggested by the lecturer that as the 10th child she could be considered 'tithed'! So at the age of 8 she entered an enclosed Benedictine 'anchorage' with an older nun, Jutta, who was to be her teacher.  The anchorage was attached to a monastery and Hildegaard lived there until Jutta died, when Hildegaard was 38 years old! 

The anchorage had two windows -- one would have enabled her to witness the mass and the other would have given access to the outside world. 
Anchors of both sexes, though from most accounts they seem to be largely women, led an ascetic life, shut off from the world inside a small room, usually built adjacent to a church so that they could follow the services, with only a small window acting as their link to the rest of humanity. Food would be passed through this window and refuse taken out. Most of the time would be spent in prayer, contemplation, or solitary handworking activities, like stitching and embroidering. Because they would become essentially dead to the world, anchors would receive their last rights from the bishop before their confinement in the anchorage. This macabre ceremony was a complete burial ceremony with the anchor laid out on a bier. (http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/med/hildegarde.asp)
In time  the fame of the two nuns spread and many pilgrims came to visit them for advice and spiritual guidance. As a result other noble families sent their daughters and soon a small convent was established. When Jutta died, Hildegaard was named Abbess and it was not long before she demanded from the Monestery, authority to build a convent in its own right. Although reluctant -- each postulant brought an impressive dowry with her -- the abbott was 'convinced' that it would be best to let Hildegaard have her way. She was suddenly laid low with a kind of seizure and would lie prone and immovable until her wish was granted. Hildegaard's fame and nobility were such that it was best to acquiesce to her wishes. She built the largest convent in Europe!

The second half of the lecture focused on Hildegaard's  music. Whether or not she wrote each piece of music herself or in concert with other sisters, is not known though it is probable. Until then singing was in the form of the Gregorian chant and followed the words of the Latin Mass. Hildegaard's compositions were Liturgical dramas with original music and words. These dramas can compared to the nativity and passion plays we see today.

She also wrote 2 symphonia and 77 songs. Unlike the monotone of the Gregorian chant, this music soars and the notes ascend and descend. It sounds very ethereal and rather primal. it also sounds like it should be sung rather than listened too. They were 'ruminatos' -- that is music and text working together to help contemplate the deeper meaning of her visions. 

Hildegaard became famous for her miracles and was allowed to go on preaching missions outside of the convent. She also had a secretary -- a monk -- who went with her and wrote down her writings. Nowadays she is criticized for her conservatism in only allowing noble women to join her convent -- only they would have the kind of education and manner to understand her work, her visions, her theology...

Isn't it fascinating to consider that such a woman making her way with such success and so respected in the 12th Century. She lived to be 81.

32 comments:

  1. Wow!
    Thanks.
    I had know idea.
    It makes sense that she wanted women from noble families.
    They helped fund her efforts.

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  2. Hildegard von Bingen has been one of my heroines for a long time. I have read several biographies detailing her life, one in English by Fiona Maddocks. I also own man of her pieces on CD. They are beautiful to listen to. Hildegard was a very powerful woman in both the highest church and secular political circles in Germany and her influence went as far as Rome.

    I love strong women in history and Hildegard was certainly one of them. She was very much part of the world in spite of her convent life.

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    1. I thought you would know about her! At the time, her music must have astounded those fortunate enough to hear it. There was so much more to her than I could possibly write about -- some of her writing about women and their sexuality was certainly not what I was expecting at all!

      She did managed to engage with the outside world -- much more it would seem than many women of her time and nobility...

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  3. PS: who on earth if the women in the image? Looks like Vanessa Redgrave to me.

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    1. Ha! I looked for images of her on the Internet and liked this one best! Didn't think of Vanessa -- but she would be formidable in the part, I think!

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  4. Dear Broad, like Friko, I have long admired Hildegard von Bingen. Just as I admire Julian of Norwich and Gertrude of Helfta. They were all powerful and prayerful women of the 11th, 12th, or 13th centuries. I attended a Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas, (and entered the convent there) and in the college halls were statues of these three women.

    So often contemporary readers scold those in the past for not having today's thoughts. They scold Paul of Tarsus for not being this or that. And Hildegard for the same. And yet why should these people of the past have thoughts that would be so foreign to their times? We, too, will be found lacking by people of the future.

    For some time, I've been away from posting and from reading blogs because of minor health problems. But I'm feeling so good today that I'm remembering that old saying, "This day is the first day of the rest of my life!" Peace.

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    1. It's good to see you, Dee and to learn that you are feeling good! I enjoyed learning about her so much and am looking forward to reading much more. I agree that we often are too quick to judge historical figures according to our own time and culture.

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  5. Like Friko and Dee, I've had Hildegarde as one of my heroes for a long time, Broad, and and have a super CD of some of her music. She is very different in many ways from Julian, who remained an anchoress all her life, but both were women of deep piety and learning who left a legacy of great artistic and spiritual value.

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    1. I have been trying to decide which CD to start with! Suggestions?

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    2. The one I have is Hildegard of Bingen: A feather on the breath of God, sung by Gothic Voices with the incomparable Emma Kirby. It's superb.

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  6. There is no doubt that Vanessa Redgrave would have to play her in a film. What an interesting post. I had not heard of her, but am fascinated by the idea of anchoresses. The combination of piety and artistic talent is really interesting. J.

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    1. It always helps to be surrounded by music and literature, beautiful art as many of these places would have been. Monasteries and convents were the places for learning and the origin for many of the arts we so value today.

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  7. I have had the impression that Hildegard was not altogether as saintly as legend has made her - a bit like Mother Teresa?

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    1. Do you mean 'Saint' Mother Teresa, beatified, but not canonized? ;-)

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  8. How interesting. Strong personalities and convictions will out, it seems. Thirty years in solitary!

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    1. Actually, she became so famous that more and more young women joined them in 'solitary'!

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  9. I wasn't aware of this esteemed woman of so many accomplishments. Thanks for bringing her to me attention.

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  10. I never heard of her nor have I heard of the cruel manner in which these women were confined. She must have had a strong will and personality in addition to her talents. Good for her. Thank you for letting us know about her.

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    1. Remember Inger, these women became Anchorites, with their tiny little spaces, because the chose to live that way. And they knew what they were choosing. It seems strange to us, but to them this ministry or service to the world, even with its limits, made perfect sense.

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    2. Actually in Hildegaard's case, she was promised to God and at the age of 8 it would be hard to argue that she 'chose' her life. However, it should be noted, that in the 12th Century there were many conflicts and the real world was a place of danger. Many saw these places as safe havens of peace and tranquility.

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  11. Fascinating!
    I had no idea, either about the life of an anchor, or about this particular lady.
    Thanks for a brilliant post.

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    1. Thanks Jean -- I certainly enjoyed learning about her, too!

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  12. I didn't know the story...fascinating you have much more interesting lectures where you live. Last week I attended a lecture on water. While it is a critical issue in this dry desert area, it was not near as interesting.

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    1. We are very fortunate to have as our vicar one who serves as theological consultant for the Diocese of Liverpool. He is quite a scholar and an enthusiastic lecturer and organizer of educational programmes! Tonight it's Wagner...

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  13. I am limited by my iPad keyboard so this will be short. I'm off to learn more about this fascinating person!

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    1. I am sure you will enjoy the adventure!

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  14. My sister-in-law has long admired Hildegard von Bingen and has a cat named after her. You gave me quite a few new details about Hildegard's life; thank you.

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  15. Bloody hell she looked lie Vanessa Redgrave

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Receiving comments is a joy and I thank you all for taking the trouble and showing your interest. Makes me feel all gooey and stuff!