“A human being is a vessel that God has built for himself and filled with His inspiration so that his works are perfected in it”
Hildegard von Bingen, O.S.B., the twelfth century mystic, theologian, poet, and composer/playwright lived so long ago that it warrants a timeline of sorts to see just how ahead of her time she was. She is, in fact one of the very first composers whose name has actually come down to us. She was preceded by the music theoretician Guido of Arezzo who, interestingly enough, was also affiliated with the Benedictine order as a monk and invented our modern system of musical notation. She was roughly contemporaneous with Leonin and Perotin, the first composers of polyphonic music who worked in the cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris, but any music student would struggle to come up with those names without pulling out their old music history exams. She was writing two hundred years before Machaut, five hundred years before Bach, six hundred years before Mozart and over nine hundred years from today.
“Humanity, take a good look at yourself. Inside, you’ve got heaven and earth, and all of creation. You’re a world-everything is hidden in you.”
I emphasize her time and place in history to bring to the light the advantages of having lived before the Enlightenment, before the chaos eschewed in with acceptance of the Cartesian divide. The integration of soul, mind and body had not yet been rent apart in unnatural ways and I make the argument that the enduring appeal of her music grown in the fertile gardens of her worldview. Here is a woman in the medieval era who was the modern equivalent of a doctor of medicine, composer, playwright. poet, and philosopher. She was a tour de force wholly devoted to Christ with a formidable intellect and a mystical quality that draws even modern audiences in droves.
This is particularly exciting on two levels; as a woman and artist, I see her unhampered and strong approach to living out her beliefs and how her knowledge of the soul and the struggle and glory of life on earth were inextricably connected to her physical life. As a Benedictine Nun and eventually an abbess, she followed a strict discipline and rule of life. Her days were ordered by work and prayer; Ora et Labora. The labor of discipline was to her a joy because of the fruit it bore. She was unapologetically educated and scholarly and even chastised the Pope and Kings and encouraged Queens when she thought it was warranted. Her advice was highly desired. With her gifts and acumen in unity with her bodily actions, she imparted wisdom.
To the Pope: “You despise God when you embrace evil. For in failing to speak out against the evil of those in your company, you are certainly not rejecting evil. Rather, you are kissing it”
To Emperor Barbarossa: “Woe, O woe to the evil of those wicked ones who spurn Me. Hear this, O king, if you wish to live.”
To Eleanor of Aquitaine: “Your mind is like a wall battered by a storm … Stay calm, and stand firm, relying on God and your fellow creatures, and God will aid you in all your tribulations.”
In one her most well-known compositions, Ordo Virtutum, she demonstrates the relationship between joy and the development of virtue and contrasts that with the temptations of the devil towards vice. An interesting and epistemological theme is that the singing reaches towards the heavens with its use of high passages and euphoric melismas (chains of notes strung together that move quickly). Interestingly, the devil does not ever sing.
Listen here to the operatic ancestor Ordo Virtutum.
The translation can be found here
It is very important to follow along with the text. The music though sublime will take some getting used to for some. Be patient with your ears and your brain while they make the adjustments. After going through the entire piece with the translation at hand, you will be ready to listen as you work or do the dishes. I recommend taking a prayer walk while you listen with headphones.
We, like Hildegard, are members of eternity, stranded in time which provides us with context to develop our souls.
Your true voice can only find its home within the context of a worldview that contains a harmony and connection with the metaphysical and the physical. The transcendence of God is a relief to our souls and a true mercy.
He is higher and nobler and worthy of praise.
Kate resides in Newport Beach, CA. After pursuing a music degree at Trinity University and Indiana University she currently studies at HBU in the Master of Arts in Apologetics program. She is a full time homeschooling mother of four, two of whom have graduated to college (Cornell and LMU). She is also a professional singer performing regularly with the Pacific Symphony and Pacific Chorale. Kate gives regular recitals in Art Song and Opera and conducts the St Matthew’s Choristers at St Matthews Anglican Church in Newport Beach where they study Latin, Liturgy and Music. Her newest projects are the establishing of The Children’s Conservatory at St Matthew’s Montessori school and… as a contributing writer to Literary Life!