Foreword…. and forward!

First of all, welcome!  You’ve wandered into my musings on medieval monastic musicological mayhem.  (Don’t worry, the back button on your browser should still work.)  Chances are good that if you’re reading this, you already know who I am and what I’m up to – but I believe a bit of background on my endeavor is in order.

My official project (and eventual thesis!)  title is “Rhythmic Interpretation of the Chants of Hildegard von Bingen”.  (A mouthful, I know.)  In short, medieval musical notation only records pitches, leaving quite a conundrum for scholars and performers of music from this period.  How long is each note held?  How does one pitch flow to the next?  The chant tradition has always been an oral one, with a written score to serve as a reminder more than an instruction booklet.  This makes it extremely difficult to discern how this music was performed 1000 years ago.  My project is to take up this challenge and create interpretations (both in theory and in performance) of Hildegard’s music that match the holisticness of her own life by synthesizing historical, musical, theological, and textual sources.

My plan is threefold:

  1. Examine two extant manuscripts, one created under her supervision and one created after her death, for similarities and differences that may point to musical practices,
  2. Delve deep into Hildegard’s theological and visionary works for references to music and rhythm, using textual analysis to better understand how she viewed musical interpretation in the broader theological context, and
  3. Visit the Benedikterinnenabtei St. Hildegard (which has been running consecutively since she was its Abbess) and learn how they approach her music, what has been passed down to them, and their perspective on performance of her music.
And, of course, learn a substantial number of her musical works.

Why Hildegard?

It is her music that first captivated me.  It is unlike anything else, it is somehow familiar and yet it is very foreign, it is evocative without being overly florid or annoyingly programmatic, it is personal, spiritual, and unique but at the same time tied to a dense history of religious music.  Really, you must hear it to get a sense of its ethereal beauty.  Here is one of my favorite antiphons, which I hope to perform at my lecture/recital in the fall:

[O leafy branch, / standing in your nobility / as the dawn breaks: / Now rejoice and be glad, / and deign to set us frail ones free / from our bad habits, / and stretch forth your hand / to raise us up.  (trans. Barbara Newman)]

You may have also noticed how the poetry (Hildegard’s own) is strikingly devoid of explicit theological references.  This is another hallmark of hers – using natural metaphor and playing with Latin words (virga means branch but also hints at virgin…) to evoke imagery outside of the traditional canon.

Abbess, composer, mystic, prophet, herbalist, leader, adviser to prominent figures, travelling preacher, author of texts on theology and natural medicine…. the bullet-point list of things that make Hildegard incredible go on and on.  What strikes me most about her life, however,  is not the extensive collection of roles she filled but how she filled them – it is her remarkable holism and ability to balance a multitude of things within a unified philosophy.  All her works, be they musical, poetic, theological, or visionary, are all distinct stems that spring from a shared root – a remarkable woman.

In her own words:  Symphonialis est anima  – the soul is symphonic.

If this painfully brief summary of Hildegard wasn’t enough for you, I’ll refer you (in true undergraduate fashion) to for a fairly solid brief biography.

Next post – moving in to Bingen!

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