Yvonne Kendall on Hildegard

ch05sMedieval scholar, Yvonne Kendall, offered greater insight than the classroom text into the connection between Hildegard and her music. To say that music was important to Hildegard scarcely glosses the depths to which it affected her everyday life. As we know from her first letter to Bernard, she refers to the “sound” of God, meaning not only his voice as he speaks his word but, just as importantly, the divine way in which the Lord and his angels express themselves through music. As Hildegard often develops complex philosophies surrounding her visions, theology, and remedies as they exist in nature, she accepts as fact that music, at once, binds the soul with understanding and faith. In essence, this is the glue that unifies the body, faith, and senses of humanity directly with God.

The importance of her music was commonly understood among those who knew Hildegard. We have learned how her refusal to exhume the excommunicated and repentant foot soldier buried in the monastery’s cemetery was the impetus for banning musical prayer. We also know how profoundly this punishment afflicted her with depression. Interestingly, Yvonne Kendall offered fresh insight into Hildegard’s appeal to her abbot’s superiors. Rather ingeniously, Hildegard used the denial of her music to register with those who suppressed her. She strongly suggested that to continue this restriction, neglecting to abandon the orders to exhume nor to acknowledge the foot soldier’s commitment to and heavenly bond with God, may lead them to a place where they would never again hear the heavenly choirs of angels. This crafty reference obviously made a grand impression upon Hildegard’s superiors. The ban was immediately lifted allowing her monastery once more to rejoice in song.

While Hildegard is duly credited with the composition of her music, this recognition was never intended for her own glorification. In fact, music was written for the benefit of monastic services not available to the public and was generally not signed because it was believed to belong to God, not the composer. The shear volume of Hildegard’s music that still survives today is attributed to her popularity as a traveling speaker, healer and consultant, and to the journals in which she documented her works for her own use. Coming from outside sources, it is important to mention that Hildegard had not made personal claim of her credit. She humbly believed that her music was a gift from God and the glory belonged to him.

Aside from attributed credit, the greatest indication of Hildegard’s compositions was her unique style for the time. To compare her powerful emphasis on certain lyrics with the more even tones of the Gregorian monks, Hildegard moves far beyond the trend of her day. Her expansive use of musical scales did not become common tradition until 4 centuries beyond her time. This dramatic effect of stretching lyrics through a series of ascending or descending notes placed a new importance on interpreting the meaning behind the lyrics. This technique was perceived as dangerous because, unlike the tradition of reading prose and explaining its meaning, music lent a level of emotion and uncontrolled emphasis at the will of the performer, not the church.

Hildegard was aware, not only of the importance of song, but of the components of what made up that song. The instruments of the day included the recorder, vielle, organ, harp and bagpipes. All were comprised of natural elements using wood for structure and animal organs for the bellows. This too demonstrates how every aspect of music joins God and his every creation. This inclusive concept was one Hildegard commonly used to push beyond the negative societal perceptions of women.

As seen in her correspondence, the Scivias, and particular visions depicting the egg as fertility blessed by the fire of God and the soul residing – fully formed by the eyes of God – within the womb of a pregnant woman, Hildegard believed that women should be cherished for all they had to offer humanity. Her music provided yet another avenue to reinforce this idea. Her lyrics were comprised of references to the mother and child relationship between not only the Christ child and Mary, but also to earthly family relationships. Additionally, music as it existed in her morality plays can be thought of as the great equalizer. Hildegard awards God and the monastic nuns, those enacting the roles of the virtues and the soul, roles of song while only Satan is restricted to the spoken word. This arrangement of instrumental music and lyrical message demonstrates for Hildegard how God connects with all of his creation, Satan being the only exclusion from his holy realm and song.

Performing Hildegard’s music today requires interpretation much as it did when she was alive. Because timing was not indicated by beats and measures as it is now, the music is driven by lyrical cadence alone. Hildegard documented only the lyrics and vocal portion of the composition allowing for less structured instrumental interpretation, perhaps leaving room for God?s inspiration to move the musicians. Musicians today combine both their knowledge of trends known to have existed then and the written record of the vocals to create the most probable feeling of the music, overcoming the impossibility of replicating an exact rendition. It is in this way we are able to enjoy the musical compositions and message of Hildegard at present, joining not only the soul, senses, faith and God, but also bridging the gap between centuries of time as Hildegard believed God’s message is for all time.

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