Posts Tagged With: General update

Benedikterinnenabtei St. Hildegard – first contact

Today was pretty incredible.

This morning I decided to go to the abbey for the first time, but I was still plagued by all sorts of doubts about it.  After missing two ferries, I came back to my apartment to get lunch, looked at the nuns’ reassuringly friendly faces on their website, and tried to work up the confidence to go back out and make contact.  At first, I skimmed over the word Heiligsprechung because it was unfamiliar and I assumed that it referred to some sort of preaching (literally ‘holy speech’).  But it kept popping up attached to a date, 10. Mai.  Curious as to what I missed last week, I read further.

In case you didn’t see my last post, (SAINT) HILDEGARD HAS BEEN OFFICIALLY CANONIZED.

Jubilation.  Triumph.  Bolstered by this incredible news, my fears fell to the wayside and I was off across the Rhein to Rüdesheim, Eibingen, and up the hill to the Benedikterinnenabtei St. Hildegard.

Benedikterinnenabtei St. Hildegard

This visit was mostly intended for me to get a feel for the convent and the layout of the abbey, to observe a bit as an outsider before leaping into philosophical conversations with its inhabitants.  Mission:  successful.  I got to see nuns at work in quite a broad spectrum of functions – as counselors/listeners/advisers, gardeners, historians, jewelers, ceramicists, authors, vintners, singers, and facilitators of religious service.  This abbey also has a manuscript restoration specialist, whom I look forward to perhaps meeting at a later date.  I was struck by how these women are all experts at one craft or another – or many – and use those skills to serve and perpetuate their convent.  They sell the wines and wares they create during the ‘work’ periods of the day designated by the Rule of St. Benedict, the proceeds feed back into the abbey, and the resulting community of people is as diverse and multi-talented as St. Hildegard herself.

They’re also all – from what I can tell – immensely friendly and welcoming.

Entrance to the Abbey church

Every Wednesday at 3 pm, the nuns hold a half-hour meditation on Hildegard’s messages at the Eibingen Wallfahrtskirche (or ‘pilgrim’s church’), where Hildegard’s remains are enshrined.  It didn’t occur to me that this church wouldn’t be on the abbey grounds.  Luckily, I had the sense to ask a nun instead of wandering about in search of it, and shortly thereafter took off careening down the hillside through the vineyards back to Eibingen.  I made it just as the facilitating sister was setting up her stereo, though I hardly noticed how amusing a sight that was – staring down the pews at me was the brilliant, golden, gemstone-encrusted reliquary containing Hildegard’s embalmed heart, tongue, skull, and bones seated on a marble pedestal underneath a giant mosaic of one of her illuminations.  Transfixed, I lit a votive candle with the horrible clang of coin into collection box and sat as unobtrusively as possible in the otherwise empty church.

It’s really hard to be invisible when you’re the only one sitting in a large space.  It’s also impossible to be silent sitting down into an old, wooden pew.  Thankfully, another woman diffused the awkwardness for me by appearing out of nowhere and sitting down in the front next to the nun.

All of the discomfort fell away when Hildegard’s music started to billow forth from the nun-stereo.  Most of the recordings that she played are the same ones that I have and listen to somewhat obsessively, but in the large and cavernous space they sounded oddly new.  Then the sister started to speak.  I could only understand about two-thirds of what she said, but from what I could tell it was a combination of Hildegard’s words, other established theologies, and her own thoughts – I’m sure that crafting at least 1/3 of the text in my own mind probably smoothed some things over, but there was something magical in the combination of words, music, relics, and general ethos of the space.

Afterwards, I came up to the sister.  The first words out of her mouth were “you’re new here, aren’t you?”  I managed to bumble out an introduction and a bit about my research, to which she simply nodded and told me to go up to the reliquary.  “Physical connection is good for the soul.”  With that, she picked up her stereo and disappeared out a side door.

She was right.

The reliquary also includes small relics of Sts. Giselbert, Rupert, and Wigbert.  The four plaques in the middle depict the cardinal virtues of justice, courage, prudence, and moderation.   This reliquary is processed through Eibingen to the abbey every 17th of September, Hildegard’s feast day.

By the time I left, it was only an hour until Vespers, so I trekked back up to the abbey and pondered about the grounds.  The inside of the abbey church is absolutely stunning, slightly Coptic in decorative style, and covered in paintings of Biblical stories, local (almost entirely female) saints, and images from Hildegard’s life.  There are some great pictures of the inside here on the abbey’s website.

The choir of nuns was positioned in a wing off to the left of the altar, invisible to the people in the pews, which made their singing seem to come forth out of nowhere.  I’m very intrigued by their musical choices – rhythmically, it was fairly even except for a tad of acceleration on downward scales and a very small bit of playing with the text’s internal rhythm.  Occasionally during a responsory the soloist would take a (very) little bit more liberty, but the tutti verses were always more reserved.  What was most intriguing for me, though, was their use of an organ accompaniment that seemed to be improvised.  The nun-choir was singing the traditional plainchant (none of Hildegard’s today, though), but the organist was supporting that monophony with triadic harmonies that sometimes made daring use of 7ths, 9ths, and unexpected dissonances.

Food for thought, and certainly for conversation later on.  Now that I’ve explored the abbey on my own terms, I’m ready to speak with the sisters about their patron saint and her music.

I crossed the Rhein again reinvigorated.

Hildegard statue outside the abbey church.


I look forward to the day I can sing Hildegard’s chants in front of her reliquary.

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The Set List

One month down, one month to go.  Today, I took stock of where I’m at, formulated a strategy for my remaining time, and narrowed down my repertoire choices.  I want to present a vocal program that is a good representative sampling of Hildegard’s work, so I’ll perform at least one of each type of chant.  My bare-bones set list is as follows:

Antiphon – O virtus Sapientie (memorized and ready to go), O rubor sanguinis (almost memorized)

Sequence – O ignis Spiritus Paracliti (analyzed, memorization started)

Responsory – O vos felices radices (still need to transcribe)

Hymn – to be decided.  All of Hildegard’s hymns are long, intricate, and vocally challenging, which means this decision needs to be made carefully and I’m not yet sure which hymn best suits my voice and interests.

I’ll probably add a few more antiphons.  They’re generally compact and more straightforward than the other chant types, which means I can show a more varied selection.  Hildegard’s sequences and responsories are often quite long (which is true for the ones I’m performing), and while they’re wonderful, I think more than one of each would imbalance the program and risk tiring my listeners out.

Hildegard also wrote a morality play, Ordo virtutum, but I won’t be performing any of the music from it.  I think it would be odd to present sections of Ordo without the entire context, and the songs in the Symphonia will be quite sufficient to do justice to Hildegard’s oeuvre.


Where do I go from here?  My primary source readings are as complete as they’re going to be in German, and I could amass secondary sources until the end of time.  I recently read an article about applying ethnomusicology techniques to early music, essentially seeking out the living musical descendants of the repertoire you’re trying to recreate and learning from them.  I already have this partially factored in to my project with the Benedikterinnen Abtei St. Hildegard, but I’m seeking out more opportunities to experience chant while I’m over here.

On the broader topic of performance practice, I’m extremely curious how different ensembles make their musical choices – and there are medieval festivals abound in Germany during the early summer.  I’ve found a couple not too far from Bingen in the next few weeks that have quite a range of performers (from the obviously scholar-historian sort to the (ahem) perhaps less historically informed) and my plan at this point is to go observe them, talk to them, learn why they do things the way they do, and get a feel for current trends in medieval performance.

It seems strange to me that there can be such a thing as a ‘current trend’ for a historically-based artform…  but the early musicology articles I’ve read so far present a huge spectrum of opinions and ideas seem to come and go in waves of popularity.  I’m very excited to hear  what the living practitioners of this music have to say about their methods.

And, of course, I still have to study and prepare the chants myself.  🙂


It is likely that my posts will get more frequent and far more interesting in the near future.  I’ve done my best to avoid tossing out somewhat boring updates such as “only 1000 pages to go!” or summarizing the most recent article I’ve read.  Fear not – more fieldwork is on its way!

May in Bingen – sunny and windy

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Eye Strain and Exhaustion, or 2000 pages down

With my (unrenewable) inter-library loan books due on Monday, the past week has been a mad dash through Primary Source Land – hence the lack of exciting updates recently.  Unfortunately, this endeavor has been largely fruitless, or at least hasn’t provided me with textual source material specifically about rhythm.  Apart from the Letter to Mainz, music isn’t directly discussed anywhere – though singing and various instruments do pop up throughout the texts.  Admittedly, in the end I resorted to skimming for keywords and I’m sure that between my speed and my often dubious German comprehension I’ve missed some of the more subtle references.  I’ve probably even missed some of the blatant ones.  Hopefully my future meetings with the nuns of the Benedikterinnen Abtei St. Hildegard will prove more helpful and possibly direct me to specific passages of primary source material.

Though I may still lack supporting evidence of rhythmic interpretation, I do have a far better understanding of Hildegard’s cosmology and a more finely tuned sense of her use of metaphor.  There are sets of images that run through her entire body of work, both in theological prose and in song texts, and having a sort of roadmap to this imagery will certainly come in very handy when it comes to musical chant interpretation.  I very much look forward to re-reading these works in English (and possibly Latin!), and I think that when I do I’ll have a much deeper comprehension of what Hildegard is saying.

Since this aspect of my project hasn’t provided me with the material I was hoping for, I’ll have to rely even more heavily on the other elements – manuscript study, vocal preparation, and discussions with the nuns – and whatever presents itself as I pursue those.

Hildegard on a wall near Basilika St. Martin.

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Seven things my first three weeks have taught me

This is my first time doing a fairly monumental research project.  It’s also my first time living in a non-English speaking country.
Needless to say, it’s been quite the adventure so far.
  • Germans speaking English are at least as self-conscious of their linguistic abilities as I am…
….but we understand each other and can carry on conversations on most topics.  Talking about different German regional accents versus English regional accents is particularly fun, especially when people attempt a Southern drawl.
  • Hildegard isn’t going anywhere.  Take a break.  She’ll be waiting when I get back.
Seriously.  Being passionate about my research topic is a double-edged sword.  On one side, I’m super excited and motivated to learn all the things… but on the other side, I have a tendency to take in more information than I can actually digest in a short period of time.  Medieval history isn’t going to change.  Primary sources from nearly 1000 years ago aren’t going to evaporate and their original authors aren’t going to revise them.  There might be some sort of archaeological breakthrough, but I’m not holding my breath.  Taking breaks means maintaining sanity.
  • Switching to a related-but-different research topic is not taking a break.  
Nice try, Erika.  Going from primary source reading to finding and consuming articles about medieval performance practice or the development of chant notation or the use of instruments in church music or any number of tangentially related topics is not taking a break.  It’s fascinating, but not the sort of refreshment my mind needs.  (Reading stuff in English also doesn’t count as a break.)
  • Mid-day naps help me process information.
Naps are delightful.  Naps count as breaks.  Taking one in the middle of the day allows me to rest and recover mental stamina and synthesize things I’ve read without my head getting too much in the way.  It also makes me feel like I have more hours in the day.  Naps are super!
  • Sometimes going outside is intimidating, but DO IT ANYWAY.  
Complete isolation is not healthy.  It’s a little like leaving tea leaves in a kettle for too long.  Steeping in my own thoughts and research in my own apartment in my own somewhat-trilingual world for too long leads to general saturation and existentialism.    Interacting with other human beings is great, and thinking about it is harder than actually doing it.
  • Reading in nature is great, but not efficient for me.
It’s not that I can’t concentrate, I just end up concentrating on other things.  Things like the direction of the wind, the shapes in the clouds, the newly-blossomed hawthorns, cormorants fishing in the Rhein, the hawk that’s just found a thermal and is now spiraling upwards…..
….but also,
  • My best ideas happen whilst wandering about.

Exhibit 1 – This Peregrine’s natural habitat.

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Mid-week Matins Musing: Medieval Musicology


“Historical artifacts are not entirely severed from the present, nor do they clearly underwrite it; the pleasure of history lies in both the resonance and the clashes.”  (Peraino 217)

“In order to make it [historical music] our own, we may have to reconstruct its history in full depth, for example by exploiting the meta-poetry of all those extant documents and messages that illustrate or transmit music in its cultural contexts.”  (Strohm 719)

“All history that relies on written sources alone is incomplete and of necessity misleading.”  (Sachs 49)


Research, research, and more research.  These three quotes illustrate the approach I’ve been taking so far, trying to contextualize Hildegard’s music not only within her extant work, but within her religion, life, and 12th century German world.  I’ve also been trying to contextualize my own research strategies into the broader realm of musicology – and have found that the musicology world is pretty conflicted when it comes to medieval scholarship.  On one end of the spectrum is the die-hard “primary musical sources only!” camp, on the other end is the “sociology and anthropology have feelings too!” commune.  There are many villages and solitary wanderers in between these two extremes, including the militant agnostic “we can’t really know anything!” guerrillas and the “I play it because it sounds cool!” neo-troubadours, whose musical eclecticism often matches their odd pairing of 16th century bodices with sheer, iridescent fabrics, tricorns, and ‘woad’ face paint.

I can’t say I side with any of these factions.

I think that music speaks for itself.  I also think that having a holistic picture to place that music within is important, especially when it comes to ancient and medieval music.  We simply don’t have the abundance of musical sources and information about performance that’s available to scholars of later periods, and we can use all the insight we can find.  It’s not that medieval music doesn’t speak for itself, it’s that the lack of primary sources is easily filled in by our own 21st century imaginations, creating a dangerous possibility for the music to essentially become a puppet with which we manufacture our own Middle Ages.

I don’t want to build my own St. Hildegard.

She is too incredible a human being for me to misrepresent.  There’s been an unfortunate trend, specifically within the New Age movement, to use her works out of context.  Quite often her religious faith is taken out of the picture altogether because it supposedly makes her medical treatises on healing with plants and stones less appealing to today’s would-be naturopaths.  Her chants are recorded in a wide variety of wishy-washy ‘transcendent’ forms, often with some sort of synthesized abomination adding to the mood.  I find this injust and disrespectful.  She was a nun and an abbess, most of her writings are deeply religious, and her music was liturgy for singing.  She helped reform her Church in a time where it was straying from its own convictions.

Religion, faith, and spirituality were central and powerfully positive in her life.  Recognizing that doesn’t devalue her work, nor does it make it irrelevant, somehow unsavory, or impossible for non-Christians to be deeply moved by.

Amidst all this talk of scholarship and authenticity, it is easy to ignore the personal altogether.  I am not trying to claim that the musicologist should be distant and disconnected from their subject – to do so would take away the passion that makes long, often tedious hours of reading and searching for references that may or may not exist bearable, enjoyable, even exciting.  I am here because I am passionate about my subject.  I identify with her in many ways.  Though I may not share her religion, I connect with her music, poetry, and the centrality of her spirituality to her words, actions, and worldview.

However, this personal connection is in addition to my scholarly work, not in place of it.

In the end, performance practice is essentially a personal choice.  I find it hard to believe that medieval performance practices were so homogeneous that there is a definitive ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ way to make this music – but there are certainly some ways that are more historically informed than others, and some which really shouldn’t be called ‘medieval’ at all.  I think it’s the musicologist’s role to draw from all the sources available to synthesize a picture as close to authenticity as possible – and the performer’s responsibility to use that picture to help the music speak through them.  My chant interpretations will be unique to me, but they will grow out of the stones of Rupertsberg.

And yes, I also study/perform medieval music because it sounds cool.  🙂


Extra bonus points for anyone who can guess where the ‘self-portrait’ image is from.

If it interests you, here is my bibliography up to this point.

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Spring in Bingen – a pictorial update

Bingen flag waving at Burg Klopp

The Pilgerweg, or Pilgrim's Way - a footpath heading eastward toward Rochuskapelle lined with shrines to major saints.

A Marian shrine on the Pilgerweg

A handy sign along the footpath.

A wonderful old oak tree with very young, recently opened leaves in the woods on the way to Rochuskapelle.

Rochuskapelle, first built in 1417 and subsequently rebuilt and reworked for several centuries. Due to its placement on the bluff of a hill and a wedding party, I couldn't really get a picture that captured it well.

Vineyard on a hillside covered with dandelions.

Looking west towards Bingen and the Rhein.


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Museum am Strom – field day!

The past couple days I’ve been fairly cloistered with reading research, beginning to digest a vast amount of secondary sources, bibliograph them (yes, it can be a verb), and in the process cobble together some thoughts.  I’ve got some great leads and a smattering of as-of-yet unsubstantiated theories… as well as some serious eye and mind strain.

Today, I needed to get out.

Right on the bank of the Rhein, Bingen has a lovely museum dedicated to regional history with a large exhibit on Hildegard.  It’s wonderfully laid out; the exhibit takes you on a timeline of Hildegard’s life and history augmented by all sorts of goodies such as scale models of the monasteries she lived in, bits of the stonework from these places, facsimile texts, replica instruments, and even a case of gemstones/minerals to which she ascribed healing properties – complete with an explanation of each specimen’s significance.

This is a bit of stonework from Disbodenberg.

This is the corner dedicated to Rupertsberg, complete with scale model, stonework, and a facsimile of the original document signing the land over to Hildegard.

This is the first and only contemporary document to reference Hildegard as an abbess.

This is a bit of restored stained glass that was once part of Rochuskapelle, just east of Bingen.

And this is the Hildegarden, containing a large number of the plants she discusses in her medical treatise Physica – complete with nametags (hooray for Latin names, I know those) and signs with her illustrations and writings about the most prominent plants.

Pretty sure that once my primary sources arrive, I will be doing quite a bit of reading here.

This museum also had extensive information about Hildegard’s relics, which probably deserve an entire post of their own.  Upstairs, they had a balcony with large, backlit copies of her visionary illuminations alongside the passages in the Scivias they correspond to.  (Unfortunately the lighting and my camera did not cooperate.)  As if the whole setup wasn’t great enough, her music also permeated the building via hidden speakers.

And then there was a room with Roman artifacts from the area, including an altar to Mithras which was found very close to where I live.


It was extremely difficult to not put an obscene amount of exclamation points at the end of every sentence.  Just in case you couldn’t tell, I’m pretty excited about all of this.


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Of library cards and lost graves

Having successfully navigated through odd library hours and a hailstorm, I was finally able to explore the Bingen Stadtbibliothek and seek out print materials for research.  It’s a small but charming place, and though the Hildegard-specific shelf was almost entirely empty, they have quite an extensive collection of local history and lore dating back to Roman times.  Apparently there is a Roman aqueduct still running under one of the streets and a graveyard on a forested hill behind Bingerbrück with Roman and Merovingian headstones – all of which I now have a map detailing.  I sense an adventure coming on…

Speaking of adventure, I’m working on a bit of a side-quest while waiting for my main primary sources to arrive via inter-library loan.  Remember Rupertsberg, the place Hildegard built when she and her nuns separated from the Disibodenberg monastery?   I’m hoping to use a combination of medieval and modern maps and images from the 16th and 17th century to isolate the location of the crypt – and thus find Hildegard’s burial place along with St. Rupert and his mother.  Thanks to the Bingen Stadtbibliothek, I now have these maps and images as well as a very thorough history of the area.  I suspect that I’m not the first to attempt this, and it may very well be impossible, but my first visit to Rupertsberg fired up my imagination and my desire to put my own historical cartography skills and sense of adventure up to the challenge.


I’ve been here a week now, and I can certainly tell that my German conversation skills are improving.  I have noticed, however, that I can only process so much German in any given period of time before my mind starts to shut down.  Going to the library today definitely illustrates that.  My landlord had been over to my apartment earlier to try and fix my heating (no luck, I need a new machine installed) and we’d spoken quite a bit, then I spent about three hours at the library reading through local history.  I could tell I was pretty saturated at that point, but I still needed to check out my books.  When I went up to the counter, I couldn’t for the life of me figure out how to say that I needed a library card.  Awkward.  Then I couldn’t even figure out how to say that my German wasn’t great.  More awkward.  Eventually, with much gesturing and sniffling (my plague is almost gone, but making a valiant final stand) I was able to communicate with the librarian – who seemed simultaneously bemused, baffled, and frustrated.  But…. I got my books!

(die Forschung – research (n.))

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Beginning in Bingen

After a wild first few days and quite a bit of confusion, I am finally moved in to a relatively charming 3-person Wohngemeinschaft (basically a flat with bedrooms, kitchen, bathroom, and living room) in Bingen am Rhein…. that is entirely empty except for me.  It is pretty exciting though; my bedroom is brick red, my kitchen is fairly bland except for an argyle curtain, and my living room is BRIGHT GOLDEN YELLOW.  When light comes through the window, it’s like being inside a cube of sunshine.

Heating is a wonderful thing.  Hot water is another wonderful thing, one which I sadly don’t have yet.  Hopefully the people come tomorrow to replace my extinct spark-plug-and-copper-tubing monstrosity.  No kidding – both my heating and my dead hot water heater run on gas-lit flames.  Also, two of the rooms have no lighting, which means after sunset they are either completely dark or lit by candlelight.  Oh no, whatever am I to do!  🙂


Living in a second language is an experience.  As someone who very much enjoys words and communication in general, not being able to express myself to the extent I am used to is very tiring.  Before I came, so many people told me not to worry because “everyone speaks English over there”… which very well may be true in major population centers such as Berlin, Frankfurt, or Munich, but semi-rural Bingen is another story.  I am both glad that my linguistic abilities will be [read: are being] challenged and somewhat anxious – but on the bright side, my German will have no choice but to improve.  Most of the difficult business-speak is finished for now, and daily interactions tend to be manageable.  The word of the day is probieren – to try.


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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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