Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Hildegard of Bingen

Hildegard of Bingen shown with a psaltery.
One of the oldest known composers of liturgical music—and perhaps the earliest medieval dramatist—was a nun who lived in Germany in the 12th century known as Hildegard of Bingen (c.1098-1179).

What little we know of her early years tells us that she was the youngest of several children born to a lower-class family in Sponheim, Germany. Whether because she was sickly, or because she was very young and not likely to be able to inherit much, or because she was said to have mystic visions at an early age, she was given to the church while still very young (between the age of eight and 14).

Although cloistered, she was exposed to some education, learning enough rhetoric to be a forceful and compelling speaker and enough music to play the psaltery (a dulcimer-like instrument, shown above). She used a Latin in her writing that was very simple (she devised her own letters and made words up). There is some debate regarding whether this was due to a lack of formal education or the deliberate need to create her own form of expressing herself. Her writings on theological matters and on her visions led to attempts to canonize her. The canonization process stretched over centuries, until two recent popes (John Paul II and Benedict XVI) started referring to her as a saint; Benedict XVI declared her officially a saint in 2012. Her feast day is 17 September.

Outside of the church, she is mostly known for her music. Sixty-nine musical compositions are known to have been produced by Hildegard, and many modern recordings of them are available. They are monophonic, possessing a single melody, and are often closely related to the text with which she accompanies each musical piece. Because she does not use musical notation as we know it today, there is much room for interpretation of her work.

Here is a sample:

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