This month I'm doing a special series of Thursday Classical Music diaries focused on female composers. Last week, I explored the music of Lili and Nadia Boulanger. This week, we're setting the Way-Back to explore the music of one of the Greatest Women of All Time,
St. Hildegard von Bingen.
The term Polymath is usually used to describe the great men of the Renaissance--Leonardo Da Vinci, for instance. However, over four hundred years before the Renaissance, Hildegard was universally recognized as such. Here are a few of her labels:
Composer, Poet, Visionary, Theologian, Healer, Scientist, Philosopher, Mystic, Abbess, Preacher, Writer, Linguist, and finally Doctor of the Church.
Born in 1098, she entered the Church at either the age of 8 or 14. She had been having visions since she was about 5. Once enclosed in the Church, she learned to read and write, and also learned to play the psaltery, and perhaps basic psalm notation.
For many years she remained only Beatified, as the canonization process had been started four times and not completed. However, she was still taken up in the Roman Martyrology at the end of the 16th Century, and has the Feast Day of September 17, which was the day she died.
Numerous popes had still called her a saint, including John Paul II and Benedict XVI. On May 10, 2012, Pope Benedict extended the liturgical cult of St. Hildegard to the entire Church in a process known as "equivalent canonization". On October 7, 2012, he named St. Hildegard a Doctor of the Church, only the fourth woman out of the 35 saints to be so named. The title of Doctor of the Church is bestowed upon a saint whose writings are deemed to be of universal importance to the Church. The Pope must also declare the individual to be of “eminent learning” and “great sanctity.” Among other things, the Pope called her "perennially relevant" and "an authentic teacher of theology and a profound scholar of natural science and music."
She wrote a musical drama called Ordo Virtutum, one of the oldest morality plays still in existence, approximately sixty-nine other compositions with their own text, and at least four others in which the notation has been lost. Many of her liturgical songs have been collected into a cycle called Symphonia Armoniae Celestium Revelationum.
Her music is monophonic--that is, "one voice". It is also characterized by soaring melodies which were well outside the normal range of chant at that time. She also took care to place a close relationship of melody to text, which also was not common. Her music is highly melismatic, with recurrent melody units. What is "melismatic"? Think of the "divas" of today. When they hit a long note, they add all sorts of other notes to it--mostly in a not good way. That's a melisma. Hildegard shows us how it's done.
So even though this music is monophonic and each selection may sound like the other, there is something about her music that is just calming and cleansing, and you can listen to it for hours.
Hear is her sequence O Jerusalem. Hint--watch this one in full screen
Here is the sequence O Vis Aeternitatis (O Power Eternal)
O Ignis Spiritus Paracliti: O Fire of the Spirit
Finally, a shorter one. This one shows the text and the neumes. The neumes for a particular word are written above the word. It's tough for the first one, because like many Medieval illuminations, the first letter is much larger. In this one, you can also see (and hear) how the melismas are written and sung.
O Rubor Sanguinis: O Redness of Blood