The Catholic Church seems ready to codify what music lovers have known for nearly a millennium: Hildegard von Bingen is a saint. Vatican Insider reports that Pope Benedict XVI will canonize the visionary Medieval composer this coming October.
Whether you're a confirmed Catholic, an apocalyptic atheist or a devout druid, if you haven't tuned in to Hildegard's work, you could be in for a revelation.
Born in 1098 in Nahe, Germany, Hildegard's early childhood was marked by mystical visions so intense, her aristocratic parents "tithed" their tenth and last offspring to a nunnery when she was eight. At 14, she became a Benedictine nun. Her musical training comprised peeking through the window of the women's cloister to eavesdrop on the nuns chanting meditatively every day, hour after hour.
Hildegard was the most prolific and innovative composer of her time. In addition to some 77 chants, she wrote the words and music to what may have been history's first musical drama, The Ritual of the Virtues, which prefigured opera. These otherworldly pieces are grounded in her extensive knowledge of such earthly disciplines as medicine, botany, cosmology and philosophy. (She even invented a new language, complete with its own alphabet.)
Dr. Nancy Fierro, well-known Los Angeles concert pianist, composer and Hildegard specialist (and my long-time piano teacher!), has been a principal champion of HVB via concerts, lectures, seminars and writings. No stranger to the patriarchal Church's Catholic (but not necessarily catholic) ways, "Sister Nancy" left the convent in 2001 to forge her own spiritual path.
Fierro says,"The beauty and depth of theme found in Hildegard's theology, philosophy, cosmology and medicine can all be found condensed in her music as in a jewel. For Hildegard, music was an all-embracing concept. It was the symphony of angels praising God, the balanced proportions of the revolving celestial spheres, the exquisite weaving of body and soul, the hidden design of nature's creations."
Hildegard saw her own music as "the means of recapturing the original joy and beauty of paradise." Each day, she noticed, we frequently fall out of sorts and find ourselves off center. Immersing yourself in a chant was, she believed, the best way to return to the present moment. Though she may have had no knowledge of Buddhism, this is remarkably similar to Buddhist Vipassana (mindfulness) meditation practice, whose benefits have been supported by scads of scientific research. (More on Hildegard's kinship with Buddhism can be found here.)
One of Hildegard's most mind-boggling achievements was the way she literally expanded the musical playing field. Pre-"Avant Hildegard," plainchants -- single line melodies sung by soloist or choir, often with no instrumental accompaniment, drone-like harmony and minimal rhythm -- had basically kept to a limited range of musical seconds and thirds. HVB's fourths and fifths (some of her compositions spanned two and a half octaves), created stunning (unheard of!) arches ascending towards the heavens. The signature motif in her chants is a melodic leap of a fifth followed by a jump of a fourth, as in the openings of "De Spiritu Sancto" and "O Virtus Sapientiae."
Dr. Fierro says, "Her chant is music we walk into, so to speak -- music that we live and breathe. Spiritual passion funnels into a single line of music, a focused melody that enchants us. Unlike the smoothly shaped melodies of the chant of her day, Hildegard's music, like her own personality, breaks out of the mold -- melodies leap, zigzag or burst into roulades--long chains of decorative notes hanging like necklaces from the musical staff."
HVB was devout and respectful to the ideals of the Church. But that didn't keep her from lambasting its many corruptions, especially after she was officially recognized as a "prophet," which immunized her from being burned at the stake.
Hildegard's extraordinary life and ethereal music has inevitably led to hyperbole. As film critic Ella Taylor says in her review of German director Margarethe von Trotta's 2010 film Vision: From the Life of Hildegard von Bingen, it's a bit much to portray HVB as some kind of "'70s-style New Age feminist and herbal healer."
Hildegard's know-it-all advice-giving inspired some to mock her as the "Dear Abby" of her generation. There's even a downside to Hildegard's pioneering use of melisma, the movement up and down on a single syllable by a singer. Yes, this technique is essential to the singing of many of the greatest singers of American popular music, from Sam Cooke to Ray Charles to Aretha Franklin to Stevie Wonder.
But melisma malpractice by such divas as Mariah Carey and Christina Aguilera has spawned enough awful singing by American Idol contestants to make you pine for someone to stick to a melody once in awhile.
Some saw Hildegard as a deranged psychotic whose visions were simply the result of chemical changes in the brain brought on by migraines. Of course, if you believe in God, then He's the guy who supplied the chemicals for the migraines. But who are we to judge? As Goethe put it, "Our planet is the mental institution of the universe."
It's rich that Benedict XVI, the very pope set to canonize HVB, has hardly been an ally of the free spirit. As Cardinal Ratzinger, he was notoriously hostile to progressives, feminists and gays. In1993, he was responsible for the "silencing" and eventual expulsion from the Church of liberal theologian Matthew Fox. Fox, a former priest, was a leading proponent of Creation Spirituality, an outside the box belief system whose roots trace back to such Medieval titans as Thomas Aquinas, Saint Francis of Assisi Dante Alighieri and, yes, Hildegard von Bingen.