Thursday, September 11, 2008

Hildegard von Bingen


Hildegard von Bingen, a nun of the Benedictine monastery and later prioress of her own convent at Rupertsberg, was a woman of power for her time. In a time when women were not allowed to even speak in church, she composed music for the church and was recognized by Pope Eugenius III as divinely inspired. But one does not have to be told that her music was inspired by God to recognize its distinct style.
Hildegard's music is drastically different from the standardized chant found in the church during her time. Hildegard's music, like the majority of music in the church during the medieval period, was music for voice only. Her antiphons (two choirs singing) and responses (one person sings, then the choir), explored on the album, Hildegard von Bingen: Canticles of Ecstasy included other instruments accompanying the singer/s; however, it seems that the performers recording her music, a group by the name of Sequentia, took artistic license, since the album booklet identified the composer of many of the accompaniments. This recording does a fair enough job supporting the music, but takes away some of the beauty and purity of the music from Hildegard in not letting it stand alone.

Another unusual aspect of her music is that all of it sung on the album features a woman singing it. Since Hildegard was a prioress of a convent, this stands to reason, but is nonetheless uncommon when comparing it to most music of the time. Usually sacred music was sung by men only in the church; only in convents where there were no men could women sing. Even in liturgical dramas that featured female characters, oftentimes only men performed in them.

It seems Hildegard did not mind challenging her singers as well. The nuns during that time were probably very used to the favored step-wise motion being used. But in Hildegard's music, the melody flows quickly through octaves and occasionally in leaps. Singers frequently use both their chest and head voice within only a few measures. But as much as a challenge it probably was, I am sure they saw merit in the work, for Hildegard's music was well-worth portraying for its fullness and vibrancy.

It is easiest to describe this music in terms of visuals, and if I were to associate a picture with the elaborate, flowing singing, I would chose the vibrant colors one might experience in a mystical realm, as if one had stepped through a stained glass. This is fitting, considering Hildegard claimed to have seen tongues of flames descending on her that summoned her to publicly proclaim her visions. She struggled with having these visions, having frequent relapses with her health and feelings of inferiority, being a woman in the Medieval era. Despite her challenges in both stabilizing her mental and physical health, she was a woman of strong faith and described herself well as “a feather on the breath of God.” I agree with this analogy, because from reading about her history, the image of a physically weak, small, demur woman comes to mind, as if she were as dainty and frail as a feather. But because of her faith, she has support and stature, as if being lifted high into the air by a divine being.

It is strange, because when given a brief description of Hildegard's history, the mental image of a strong, outspoken woman first comes to mind, when in fact she was often physically ill, and a woman who repressed her visions for as long as she felt she could. I listen to this music, and I attempt to put myself in the shoes of one of the congregants listening to a chant of hers for the first time. It is so much more musically interesting than anything heard in the Mass of that time. It is colorful, strong, has poetic lyrics (“The beautiful flourished in you/gave its aromatic fragrance/to all that was withered,” Quia Ergo Femina). Even a single voice, when given such leaps and bounds and continuous motion, the music can envelope the listener. I look about and see the stained glass representations of what the music is telling me. Then, I experience the slow awakening when the music stops, and the quiet shuffling of those around me brings me back to my universe, of being a peasant, noble, or even nun at the time. As a peasant, I stand outside the church and chatter about the revolutionary music heard inside. As a noble, I make a request to meet the composer of such a moving antiphon. As a nun, perhaps even a pupil of hers, I cannot imagine my humble little prioress having such passion in her composing.

These works are incredible when standing alone, and the woman behind the works is even more so. In a time when things seemed so simple and mundane, Hildegard brought music, leadership, and even aggravation to the liturgical world. Hildegard composed writings not only about music, but about health, and fought to found her convent in St. Rupertsburgs. She was not afraid to go against the church, if she believed herself to be in the right, as demonstrated by her burying the body of an excommunicated knight. This led to her placement under a Church interdict, which forbade her to perform any holy rituals or sacraments. Even this Hildegard fought, until the interdict was finally removed in March 1179. Hildegard von Bingen died that year at the phenomenal age of eighty, September 17.

1 Comments:

At September 18, 2008 at 1:14 PM , Blogger Shardy928 said...

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