“Hildegard”

To my credit, as a kid who was quickly taking to classical music in the mid 1960s, I asked my Dad if there were any great female composers. To my Dad’s credit (again, it was only the mid 1960s), he had several answers. The first one he mentioned was Hildegard of Bingen who was a German composer in the 1100s. Actually, she was way more than just a composer. She wrote extensively on herbal medicine, she invented her own alphabet. She also was a mystic and a visionary. She claimed to see visions consistently throughout her life. She was a feminist too, but you have to understand the times she lived in: While she often said she was a part of the weaker sex, that made her claims to seeing visions all the more credible since she was so very accomplished, and that was what it took for her voice to be heard at a time when women simply were not heard from. I think my Dad was trying to tell me all of this, but I wasn’t listening, because I was so moved. by the music. The term used to describe it is “monophonic” because it consists of only one melodic line. Her music was groundbreaking too. The melodies soared and went way beyond the range of music from that time. She wrote the music to fit with the text, something that others were not doing at that time. She also connected the music to the female body, and while I can’t prove that no one else was doing that in the 1100s, let’s just say I’m willing to wager she had a corner on that market. The words and music of her Symphonia connected to the anatomy of female desire. Again, there’s all of the above, and then there’s the music: It is serene, like a pond where you’re following the path of one ripple made by a dragonfly that happened to touch the surface. It is deeply spiritual, serious, heartfelt. It is quiet, ambient, perfect for meditation or just personal reflection. And although it comes from a real time and place, it is one of those rare musical experiences (similar to the way I describe Bach) where the music itself seems timeless. I don’t fully understand what her visions were about. But I like to think a part of her vision was about equality for all people, including women. And I like to think that her visions were what inspired her to “pluck” this music from deep space, directly from our Creator, thus giving the music its spiritual, timeless quality. I also like to think that if she was doing all of this, so, too, were other women. I hope today’s musicologists, historians, and others will help us discover who they were and what music they created. But until that day, I am grateful for the amazing Hildegard…

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