Music Period: Early Music (500 ‚Äì 1400)
Location: Bermersheim, Germany
Claim to Fame: using repeated motifs within her music and giving religious music a freer, almost improvisatory, feel.
As Maria von Trapp sings in The Sound of Music, ‚Äúlet‚Äôs start at the very beginning‚Äù, and discover the story of a female composer from the 1100s. We are talking of Hildegard von Bingen and today we think of her as one of the first identifiable female composers of Western music. Yet, before 1979, there was no mention of her name. You would not find her in any reference book if searching the university library shelves, or even glimpse an entry for her in every musician‚Äôs bible: the 1990 edition of The New Grove Dictionary of Music.
Hildegard von Bingen was born in 1098 to a noble family. The custom in those days was to promise the tenth child to the Church. So when she was between eight and fourteen years old, Hildegard was sent to live within the confines of a remote hilltop monastery in the Rhineland. Whilst at Disibodenberg Monastery, Hildegard was partnered with an older girl, Jutta of Sponheim, who taught her the ways of the monastery. Hildegard spent the next forty years in the company of the women residing in the monastery. These women, all from noble families, had a small stone cell within a confined area of the building away from the monks. The nuns were allowed one meagre meal a day in winter and two in the summer. They would pray at regular intervals during the day and night. As a result, these women often found themselves ill or weak from such as poor diet. It was through Jutta and her teachings that Hildegard would learn to uphold these strict religious practices and to read Latin.
Jutta instructed Hildegard until she died in 1136. Upon Jutta’s death Hildegard was appointed prioress of the monastery. We know from accounts written during her lifetime that Hildegard was an extraordinarily accomplished woman. Writings describe her as a visionary, a prophet, and a pioneer. Hildegard wrote books on biology, botany, medicine, theology and the arts during her forty years at the monastery. These activities supported Hildegard in gaining the respect of the Church and political leaders of the day ‚Äì despite her strong, determined and sometimes overbearing character. It was these qualities, however, that supported her in overseeing the building of a new monastery. She would later establish a larger convent to house her growing community. The latter still exists today in Eibingen.
When Hildegard was appointed prioress was she started to write music for the first time. The circumstances in which she composed her songs remains a mystery. We do know that Hildegard had heard the chants of mass when she was younger and would create her own verses, vibrant and colourful passages composed to the music. The verses usually contained repeated motifs ‚Äì known as ‚Äòsequences‚Äô ‚Äì and often had a religious purpose. Hildegard would in fact go on to compose a collection of seventy-seven songs and a music drama, Ordo Virtutum, which looks at the struggle between the 17 Virtues and the Devil over the destiny of the female soul. The melodies stand out in these compositions as they are almost improvisatory in nature and are freer than other religious music of the time. These works had texts that mirrored this, with the words flowing like a stream of consciousness.
The image of Hildegard as a prophet may stem from the visions she had been having since she was a little girl. Hildegard only voiced them to her fellow nuns when she was 42. She wrote that, ‚Äú[h]eaven was opened and a fiery light of exceeding brilliance came and permeated my whole brain and inflamed my whole heart and my whole breast.‚Äù In these visions, a heavenly voice told her to share her insights with the world, and in 1141, she recorded them with the help of a scribe.
Hildegard died in 1179 in the monastery she had founded years before. She had lived well into her eighties and left behind a hoard of illuminated manuscripts, scholarly writings, and songs written for her fellow nuns. Hildegard was known across Europe as a respected stateswomen and seer in the first instance. It would seem that very few recognised her as a composer of music. This could be due to there being no evidence to show that her music was ever heard outside the walls of the monasteries she controlled. The achievements of this remarkable woman, however, deserve to be recognised, and none more so than the music she wrote. Hildegard continued to be an innovator and expressed herself through her music. Until Hildegard appeared in the twelfth century with her powerful melodies and vocals that transport the soul, there had never been anything like her. The music she created was notably different for the period. Her compositions were melodic so that music was more interesting and she used a wide range of pitches to give meaning to the words through musical emphasis. Hildegard had the courage to bring about these brave changes at a time when rules were strict. Yet, it remains a sad fact that it was not until the 800th anniversary of her death in 1979 that interest in her started to grow.
You can read a more detailed biography of Hildegard von Bingen¬†at ClassicFM.
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