Author’s note: In the United States, of the 537 conductors registered with the League of American Orchestras, only 60 (or 11%) are women, and of the 24 largest market orchestras, only 1 (or 4%) has a woman at the podium. Single-digit percentage representation is the sort of thing we expect from 1950s physics departments, where systemic academic discrimination at every level discouraged all but the most determined of researchers for centuries, but we usually think of the liberal arts as a historically more open, inclusive branch of human activity. But take a look at the programs offered by US symphonies in a given year, and the numbers are even more grim than in the conducting profession – in the 2014-2015 season, only 1.8% of the works performed in the United States were by a woman composer. One point eight. That’s an appalling number, and part of getting it changed, I think, is to tell the stories of the women who have contributed to classical music in profound ways but whose work has gotten lost over the centuries – the more people know about them, the more they’ll be excited when their works appear on programs, and the greater the attendance, the more orchestras will schedule such pieces. There is some beautiful, powerful music here waiting to be discovered, from Europe’s earliest preserved compositions (by a woman we shall learn about below) to some of the most challenging pieces in the modern repertoire. In this series, we are going to meet composers and performers, conductors and producers, stretching back some nine centuries, all of whom have made the world richer by their craft. Let’s begin…  

A small girl lies down to patiently observe, and take a starring role in, her own funeral.  Soon, she will be led to a small room where stone masons will wall her away from the rest of the world, but for now, it is time for her funeral rites.  Priests incant ancient words, preparing her to depart this mortal world and join a living afterlife, all her potential and genius to be hereafter squandered on a long fall towards the death that she has been told will be the greatest moment of her life on this execrable planet.

Things would have been different for Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179) had she been the ninth or eleventh child of her affluent and influential parents, but as the tenth she was, in accordance with medieval practice, earmarked as a human tithe to be surrendered to the Church as an “oblate.”  And so, at the age of eight this child, though ill of health and prone to episodes of searing pain, was given over to the care of Jutta of Sponheim, a self-tormenting religious zealot due to become an anchoress in six years.  Anchoresses committed themselves to near-complete seclusion, walling themselves away in a prison cell, chaining themselves to the floor or inflicting repeated wounds on their bodies as they sought to mortify the flesh they had been instructed was wicked beyond redemption and await the reward beyond death that, surely, existed.

It was a rather grotesque life course to plot, but for the institutions that housed anchoresses, it was a profitable one.  Their mortification was advertised as an example of extreme piety, which people would travel to be in the presence of, and magical mementoes of which they would pay hard cash to own as panaceas against all earthly afflictions.  The miserable and misled human flogging herself in the dark was good money for her associated monastery, and it was into this life that Jutta brought her young charge, Hildegard.

However, while Jutta busied herself with hair shirts, chains, and starvation, Hildegard studied, learning the rudiments of Latin and music while fending off a series of illnesses and migraine attacks which produced searing technicolor visions that her medieval upbringing could only interpret as revelations from on high.  Unsure about how those visions might be received by a Catholic Church whose appetite for heresy smiting was being whipped to a frenzy by the perpetually mean-spirited but influential Bernard of Clairvaux, she kept them to herself until Jutta’s death in 1136 and her own assumption of the duties, if not precisely the title, of abbess of the convent attached to the monastery at Disibodenberg.

Secure in her position and absolutely convinced of the divine origin of her migraine attacks, she began dictating the content of these episodes to a trusted scribe by the name of Volmar, eventually filling a volume of cosmic and cautionary visions that was sent to the Pope and the afore-mentioned Bernard for approval.  This work, Scivias (or Know the Ways), was filled with conservative blandishments to purify the Church set amongst lush imagery of the divinity of virtue and the religious history of the universe.  Often obscure in meaning but evocative in wording, its forceful call to orthodoxy was in the spirit of the times, and both the Pope and his most useful doctrinal enforcer approved it in dramatic fashion at a Church synod in 1148.

With that, Hildegard’s name was made.  Requests poured in from all corners of Europe seeking the renowned visionary’s advice about matters personal, professional, political, and ecclesiastic, while the monks of Disibodenberg sat back and watched their authority slowly eroded away by the celebrity of their deceased anchoress’s former charge. Hildegard’s fame, however, brought new wealthy applicants to the convent, noble women with money to donate, and as long as Hildegard’s visions kept the monastic coffers filled the monks largely kept their peace.

Meanwhile, Hildegard was learning, whether consciously or not, an important lesson – the strictly male politico-religious hierarchy that had no time for a mere woman’s thoughts about the state of the world or local politics when expressed as her own opinion would listen if a woman disavowed all personal worth or intelligence and expressed those same thoughts as obscurely symbolic prophesies for which she was the mere conduit.  

I am not suggesting that Hildegard consciously manipulated her prophetic reputation, but I do believe her case is of a piece with other famous seers whose pronouncements began in the realm of large scale ideals and moved over the course of time to subjects of more pressing political expedience.  When a visionary has to assume pragmatic responsibilities, it is not surprising if her pressing concerns as a temporal leader start bleeding into her religious pronouncements.  As Mohammed grew from idealistic outsider to the leader of a movement, his visions took on a correspondingly more pragmatic turn, and the same can be said of Hildegard.  She wanted independence from the monks of Disibodenberg and, in due course, declared that she had a vision from God ordering her to establish an independent convent, speaking as if from the perspective of that God when lambasting those who stood in the way of her plans.  Either her deep professional needs unconsciously worked their way into her interpretations of her migraine episodes or she had learned to employ her reputation as God’s mouthpiece to flee the grasp of the disdainful monks who defined the boundaries of her life.  I imagine the former was the case, but I kind of hope it was the latter.

Whatever the origin, the words of the visionary were soon put into action and by 1150 Hildegard found herself in sole charge of what would become a sprawling collection of properties and a steady flow of income from wealthy initiates, all of which soon outgrew the initial premises, forcing Hildegard to franchise out with an annex convent for the daughters of the less well-to-do at Eibingen in 1165.  

Independent, wealthy, and surrounded by women of breeding and talent, Hildegard had managed to claw a slice of paradise from the clutches of a Middle Ages that generally had little to offer women but cyclic pregnancy and early death.  She composed two scientific texts that stick close to the “Consume two pulverized hamster livers and strap this dying bat to your loins” orthodoxy of the Middle Ages without anything like the practical solidity of Trota of Salerno’s earlier writings.  She went on tour on multiple occasions to speak in public about the need to purify the Church and eliminate the heretics who dared have different thoughts about religion than those put down in established doctrine.  Whatever the content of those addresses, the fact that she was a woman delivering them in a space that had been dominated by male hegemony for six hundred years was of tremendous significance. 

But I suspect it is not her scientific texts, speeches, or even her beautifully illustrated collections of visions that will keep us returning to her story, but rather the dozens of songs which she composed during her long life, and which are the earliest European compositions we have that are attributed to a single known individual.  Hildegard’s songs are of the monophonic tradition that eschewed harmony as unnecessary ornamentation, but they do not entirely conform to the strict rules that the Church was beginning to formulate to keep its music safe from worldly vanities.  In place of the prescribed syllabically-confined melodic motions limited to an octave’s range, Hildegard produced more melismatic, individual, and expansive melodies to convey her lushly worded verse.  She also composed the Ordo virtutum, which is widely held to be the world’s first morality play and features a perpetually yelling devil set off against a cast of Virtues singing their odes to morality and nature in an attempt to save a young innocent.  

Widely in demand in her time, Hildegard’s music suffered the decline that all monophonic music underwent as religious composers gave themselves over in the 16th century to the rich possibilities of polyphonic harmonies and the sure comforts of the Major and Minor modes.  For centuries her name was not even listed in standard musical references until the Twentieth Century brought with it a revival of interest in pre-modern composition techniques which, coincident with a desire to unearth stories of women unduly neglected by the historical record, led to a Hildegard revival that reached its apex with the celebration of her 900th birthday in 1998.  CDs were released interpreting her music with varying degrees of fidelity, and in Germany a film was made of her life (Vision, Aus dem Leben der Hildegard von Bingen, 2009).  It seems that Hildegard, once on the cusp of oblivion for anyone not a dedicated medievalist, is now with us to stay, to dazzle us with her supremely individual visions, confound us with her taxonomic tomes, and always to enchant us with music expressing the world view of a tormented woman who made of her life something quite beyond the restrictions of her place and era, wrought of grit, pain, and genius.

Lead image: Line engraving by W. Marshall , Wellcome Library, London. Creative Commons

FURTHER LISTENING: Medieval music presents unique difficulties for the modern interpreter. Written in neume notation, which at its best gives some sense of relative interval size with a nod towards rhythmic information but which generally lacks any notion of key signature, note length, part division, or instrumental accompaniment. As such, the producers of a Hildegard record are compelled to, by and large, create their recordings based on educated guesses and personal artistic vision. Two musicians, starting from the same neumes, can create radically different interpretations of the music, and there is simply no telling which is more in line with Hildegard’s original intention some 850 years ago (though I suspect the electronic-New Age recording Vision-The Music of Hildegard von Bingen (1994) is perhaps not entirely faithful, though it is very fun). The recording of the Ordo virtutum from Deutsche Harmonia Mundi (1994) featuring Carmen-Renate Koeper strikes me as a good compromise with intelligently crafted instrumental accompaniment and metric choices that are tied to the richness of Hildegard’s words. 

Dale is also the author of our very popular Women in Science series!