Who was Hildegard von Bingen?

Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179) was a woman of many talents, from composer and writer to a theologian, philosopher and visionary.

You may think there were many people called Hildegard von Bingen. There was the one who catalogued the animals, birds, fish, plants, trees and precious metals of her native German Rhineland; the one whose medical theories are still valued by holistic therapists today; the one who invented her own, mysterious language of 900 words, its intention a continuing debate among scholars.

Perhaps more famous is the writer, theologian and abbess, whose bold, arresting visions – many depicted in illuminated manuscripts – reflected her own fervent beliefs; who founded her own monastery; who stood up to monks, bishops, popes and emperors across Europe, the scourge of a corrupt Church, earning her the name ‘Sibyl of the Rhine’.

Finally, there is Hildegard the musician: one of the first named composers and the woman who concerns us here. We cannot separate these strands of Hildegard’s long and eventful life any more than she could herself.

In certain respects, her biography is well documented. The facts we know give us vital context to grasp how a barely educated woman could move so relatively freely in the highest echelons of medieval life. However, frustratingly little is known about her musical interests or practice.

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When and where was Hildegard von Bingen born?

Hildegard was born in Alzey in the wine-growing region of Rheinhessen in 1098, though with an almost mystical respect for the harmony of round numbers, she herself recorded the date as 1100.

Her parents were land owners, middle-ranking, but not grand. Likely to have been the tenth child, she was given as a tithe to the church, either at eight or 14. Immediately, her childhood acquires fascination. The habit of donating a child, a voluntary form of tax, was relatively common, but Hildegard had already proved herself an exception.

What were Hildegard von Bingen 's visions about?

At a young age, and throughout her life, she had visions, believed to be sent from God. These set her apart, in every sense. (In our own time, the British neurologist Oliver Sacks suggested these visions, which were accompanied by severe, debilitating physical symptoms, were akin to migraines.)

Wrenched from her family, she was enclosed as an anchoress with another well-born, older girl, Countess Jutta von Sponheim – they lived in a cell alongside, but segregated from, monks in the hillside abbey of Disibodenberg. The idea of anchorage was to be ‘buried’ from the world and rise again in immortality through sequestration and prayer. This would be Hildegard’s home, and mode of existence, for more than three decades.

Remote though this existence sounds, political and religious life in 12th-century Europe had a direct impact on Hildegard’s life. It was the time of Crusades, pilgrimage, cathedral building; the era of the grand monasteries of Cluny, religious fervour – and attendant profiteering and abuse of power by clergy. Monastic life, in its timetable of work and prayer, was yoked to the Rule of St Benedict.

Yet monasteries were also places of learning, and of refuge for travellers and the sick: monks and nuns were secluded from the world, but the world came to them. Women, for a brief period in history, could hold a fair degree of power. (This would diminish by the end of Hildegard’s life, when universities, closed to women, began to flourish.)

Hildegard’s full story, rich in episode and colour, can only be told here in highlights. A turning point was the death of Jutta, who had given her a rudimentary education, perhaps in music as well as Latin. A number of other young women (and their all-too useful dowries) having arrived at the anchorage in the intervening years, Hildegard now succeeded Jutta as abbess.

What did Hildegard von Bingen write?

By now she was in her 40s, with a growing sense of purpose. She began to write her best-known theological work, Scivias (or Know the Way), assisted by her secretary and friend, the monk Volmar. Moreover she also, according to the Vita Sanctae Hildegardis (Life of St Hildegard) written by two monks during and after her lifetime, began composing music for the first time – for her nuns to sing as part of the Divine Office.

Causing some shock among her colleagues, Hildegard left Disibodenberg and founded her own monastery at Rupertsberg, on the banks of the Rhine, where it meets the river Nahe, at Bingen. Now, as then, one of the Rhine’s busiest junctions, it was a canny choice. She wanted more room and prominence. The wealthy families who gave their daughters to the church wanted greater comfort and physical protection.

It was the start of a radically different stage of life, in which she travelled throughout Europe, met leading figures of the day, debated, sermonised, wrote hundreds of letters (which have survived, and now exist in a modern edition).

What is Hildegard von Bingen remembered for?

Hildegard von Bingen, because of her celebrity and achievements, her writings and visions and, above all, her music, is remembered. She died in 1179 aged 81, after battles with her health and with the Church, weary of ‘this present life’. When she passed away, two arcs of colour reportedly illuminated the sky as ‘the holy virgin gave her happy soul to God’, a fitting miracle for one who, more than 800 years later, in 2012, would be made a saint.

Her spirit lives on, as fierce, defiant, creative and brilliant as ever.

What is the best Hildegard von Bingen disc?

There have been quite a few excellent, extremely atmospheric recordings of the music composed by this 12th-century visionary. You might want to start with A Feather on the Breath of God, the wonderful, and hugely important disc recorded by Gothic Voices, with the singer Emma Kirkby and directed by Christopher Page.

Another seminal disc in the upsurge of interest in Hildegard's music was 1994's Canticles of Ecstasy, featuring the vocal group Sequentia, one of the world's most respected and innovative ensembles for medieval music. There's little to separate these two discs: both make superb introductions to Hildegard's uniquely mystical and captivating music, and both transport the listener to a distant, meditative and deeply spiritual 12th-century soundscape.