On This Day (September 17)…Rest in Peace, Saint Hildegard

Saint Hildegard of Bingen died on this day in 1179. She was 81 years old.

Window presumably depicting Hildegard. Retrieved from here.

This woman spent her entire adult life in Benedictine Convents, an obviously humble mode of life which belies her remarkable nature. In between receiving mystical visions and preaching, she found time to author scientific works; this was quite a rarity for the Medieval Era in Europe. Besides being a canonized in 2012, she was named as one of only four female doctors of the Catholic church.

Impressive as all of the above is, however, none of it makes Saint Hildegard relevant to this site. What does, however, is the fact that she was also a composer. She appears to have received relatively little instruction in music before becoming prioress of her community. Nevertheless, she wrote a great deal of lyric poetry on religious subjects and set it to music, which she herself composed. While these songs were religious in nature, Hildegard sprinkled in words about the great beauty of the world around her as well.

In her own lifetime, Hildegard’s music probably didn’t even leave her convent. However, that she was even composing makes her very special; she is one of the earliest identifiable composers in the Western Canon whose work survives. She is one of the only known composers of that era to have written both words and the accompanying music. Since 1979, this music has begun to be recorded and performed more widely. This has given Hildegard many listeners over 800 years after she died, something which completely shatters most conventional ideas of music “appealing to new generations”.

How ironic that of all her achievements, it is her compositions that have stood the test of time.

Owen Hopkin about Saint Hildegard. Retrieved from here.

If you have any interest in medieval music, today is a good day to check out Saint Hildegard’s contributions to the Western canon! An interesting place to start if you want to start learning about her and the context in which she was composing is with this BBC program.

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One thought on “On This Day (September 17)…Rest in Peace, Saint Hildegard

  1. This is really interesting, that music from so many centuries ago still is remembered and able to be played now. I wonder if music notes back then were written down with a different system than the five-line staves and clefs (like the one on top of the page here). It’s really interesting to learn about the music from medieval times; thanks for the knowledge.

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