History Hunting is a fascinating hobby to have, and it’s particularly rewarding when the work of tracking down forgotten composers pays off. This week’s forgotten composer, Hildegard of Bingen, is one of the success stories of the History Hunting community–she was “rediscovered” about thirty-five years ago and has been receiving a lot more attention since. This is also an opportunity for me to be a little self-indulgent, since she’s one of my favourite composers.
Hildegard was born in what’s now called Germany in about 1098. Her parents, Mechtilde and Hildebert, were nobles, and Hildegard was their tenth child! When Hildegard was three years old, she began to have visions that she believed were sent from God (although in modern times it’s speculated she suffered from particularly severe migraines). She told no one about her visions, but kept them a secret.
When she was either seven or eight, her parents sent her to a convent to be raised, and after that, she was cared for by Jutta of Spanheim, the abbess (or leader) of the convent. Jutta educated Hildegard as best she was able, although in that time in Germany, women were not encouraged to educate themselves. Jutta and Hildegard were close–in fact, Jutta was the first person Hildegard told about her visions.
Hildegard became a nun when she was sixteen; when she was thirty-eight, she became the leader of her convent and went on to begin another convent when she was in her sixties.
She was a woman of many talents. In addition to composing two large collections of songs of 77 and 82 songs each, for a total of 159 works–which is the most we know of any composer of her period–Hildegard wrote about theology, medicine, various plants, and, eventually, her visions. She also went on preaching tours toward the end of her life, even though travel in those days was hard enough for the young, let alone a woman in her sixties!
Music was tremendously important to Hildegard, so much so that when she was accused of breaking one of the rules of the church, her punishment was that she and her fellow nuns were forbidden from singing their praises to God. Hildegard wrote an angry letter in response, suggesting terrible consequences in heaven if her punishment wasn’t lifted, and eventually she won her case.
Nowadays, Hildegard’s recognition has been growing. In 2012, she was named a saint by Pope Benedict XVI, and she even has a minor planet named after her, 898 Hildegard!
Below is a music video of “O Virtus Sapientiae” from Hildegard’s collection Ordo virtutum (“Play of the Virtues”), sung in praise of the virtue of Divine Wisdom:
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To Learn More (sources):
A History of Music in Western Culture by Mark Evan Bonds (p. 44)
“The Music of Hildegard von Bingen” by Olivia Carter Mather (Note: References to mature content are made in the link.)
Hildegard of Bingen at Music Academy Online
Minor Planet Center.net
Pope formally proclaims sainthood of Hildegard of Bingen at CatholicCulture.org