Friday, September 17, 2010

Remembering... Hildegard von Bingen

Hildegard von Bingen is frequently cited as the world's first composer, and she certainly is history's first if not the world's; as the first composer whose biographical details are well-known (or indeed, known at all) she was also the first one who had the bright idea to stop signing her works Anon., for which act of extreme hubris she is still remembered today.

PhotobucketBorn sometime in 1098, I'd like to say she rose above the constraints of her noble birth to pursue a life in the Church. Alas, the truth is considerably sadder... A sickly child - her parents' tenth, in fact - from a young age she began to experience visions; on All Saint's Day 1112 she was abandoned at the convent of Disibodenberg and thereafter raised by the abbess, Jutta.

After Jutta's death in 1136 Hildegard was unanimously elected abbess in her stead; as Mother Superior she founded the convents of Saint Rupertsberg in 1150 and Eibingen in 1165. She also corresponded with popes Eugene III and Anastasius IV, Holy Roman Emperor Frederick I Barbarossa, and her male colleagues in the clergy such as Bernard of Clairvaux. She was also widely traveled - another unusual pastime for a woman of the Middle Ages - and spread her teachings across Europe as a kind of early evangelist.

Owing to the superstitious tenor of the times, Hildegard was reticent when it came to discussing her visions; after her confidante Jutta died she only shared her experiences with Volmar, who served at one time or another as her tutor, confessor, secretary, and scribe. One such vision she received exhorted her to 'See and speak! Hear and write!' and so she did; makes a nice change from those people who hear voices telling them to chop up the dog into small bits or else become lawyers. Of her works, about 80 survive; one of the best known of these is a morality play called Ordo Virtutum, or Play of the Virtues, which is unique in that it is written entirely for the female voice and has just one male part - the Devil, who cannot sing because he is corrupt. Sounds like just the thing for the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival...

Interest in her was revived in the 1990s, when it was decided that all the women written out of history should be written back in again. That's when celebrity neurologist Oliver Sacks diagnosed Hildegard as suffering from migraines - which can cause hallucinations if severe enough - in his book Migraine. Ah, but who or what gave her the migraines? And why did she channel her pain into works of uncommon beauty? Science, for all its answers, still cannot fathom the least part of the human soul...
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