Tuesday, September 24, 2013


by Timothy J Cullen

The word means “symphonic” and it was used to describe the soul by Hildegard von Bingen, O.S.B. (1098-1179), named a Doctor of the Church by Benedict XVI in 2012, one of the more remarkable personages of the Middle Ages, perhaps best known for her musical compositions.
Below is a link to a piece taken from “Music for a Knight,” a compilation of medieval music recorded on the Naxos™ label, a “budget” label that is a treasure trove of medieval music.

The medieval mystic and polymath, poet and Benedictine abbess was for all practical purposes unknown in this writer’s youth and did not come to his attention until the late 1980s, at which point he first purchased a recording of her “Spiritual Songs,” the first of many such purchases. Those who appreciate medieval music, particularly choral works, will be given goose flesh the first time the—trite but true, there’s no better word for it—angelic harmony hits the ear. One never tires of the work of this remarkable composer.
Her history makes it all just that much more haunting.
Hildegard is customarily referred to as a saint, though she has never been formally canonized, although curiously she was among the first persons for whom the Roman canonization process was officially applied. Nevertheless, after four separate attempts were begun, they each remained uncompleted. She does, however, have a feast day, 17 Sept., which coincides with that of the Commemoration of the Imprinting of the Holy Stigmata on the Body of St. Francis.
A visionary—literally—from an early age, culminating at age 42 with a vision she believed to be an instruction from God, to “write down that which you see and hear” according to a 2002 biography, Visionary Women by Rosemary Reuther.  Hildegard took heed and wrote of her visions in Scivias, her first theological text, from which the illustration beneath is drawn, depicting the flame of the Holy Spirit entering her mind.

Illustration from Rupertsberger Codex des Liber Scivias.

           Scivias was the first of three theological texts written by this extraordinary woman, extraordinary not just in her time and place but in any time and place. She worked for some thirty years on these texts. In addition to this, she wrote some seventy musical compositions, many of which have been recorded. These works are monophonic, but the single melodies soar, each more haunting than the last. 

It’s the sort of music one listens to by oneself, sunk deep in a chair, eyes closed, transported.

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