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Hildegard Von Bingen

Oddly, until the beginning of this year, I had not performed any of the works of Hildegard Von Bingen.  Now, finally, I have been given the excuse I needed to catch up on this incredible medieval figure, who, to my astonishment, is not even mentioned in many standard History of Music text books.  My thanks go to Stevie Wishart for reawakening my interest in this amazing woman.

Hildegard von Bingen was born in 1098.  She was a German abbess, a mystic and a writer.  She is also one of the earliest composers with a known biography, and one of very few recognized female composers.  She had visions that she recorded both visually and in writing; she wrote medical and scientific treatises, as well as poetry, which she set to music.  She even created her own language.  Thanks to her prophecies and visions she was known as the ‘Sybil of the Rhine’; she was involved in politics and diplomacy and was a powerful and influential woman. 

Her musical output comprises settings of some 77 lyrical poems that together form a liturgical cycle.  She also wrote the earliest known morality play Ordo Virtutum

Hildegard’s poetic chants were newly composed and not based on existing plainchant melodies.  Thanks to her repeated use of certain melodic formulae, her works are instantly recognisable.  The chants were notated in a system of medieval German neumes.  This very early form of notation is fairly clear as to pitch.  However, the interpretation of the rhythm is much less straightforward, and this leads to an interesting array of different performances of Hildegard’s work.    

Hildegard’s chants are meditative, sometimes ecstatic, sometimes surprisingly sensual (‘a dripping honeycomb was Ursula the virgin’).  Her inspiration came largely from the lives of her favourite saints, such as Saints Disibod, Rupert and Ursula. 

You can read more about Hildegard Von Bingen here.  You can also listen to the sound samples provided via the discography.

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