MSC 1003 - Music in Civilization

Sections meet in-person on Wednesdays (or on zoom, if necessary)
12:50-2:05 is in Vertical Campus Room 6-170
2:30-3:45 is currently zoom only 🙁
4:10-5:25 is in VC Room 12-150

Hildegard of Bingen
In this unit we'll learn about the prolific composer and feminist icon Hildegard of Bingen.

Read through the material below and click on the clips. Then, Assignment #6 will ask you six questions about all of it. (Link opens in a new tab.)

Hildegard of Bingen

The vast majority of music in the Medieval period is anonymous, meaning that we don't know who wrote it. Being a famous composer just wasn't really a thing in the Middle Ages, so musicians didn't have any incentive to put their name on the music they created.

Today we will look at an exception to this rule, a nun from Germany named Hildegard of Bingen. During her lifetime in the 1100s she was the most productive and well-known composer Medieval Europe had ever seen.

In general, Hildegard (ca. 1098-1179) was a very powerful and influential figure in the Christian church. She ran her own abbey and published many writings on religion and what we might call "alternative medicine."

She also composed more than 70 different pieces of music that we know of. For a Medieval composer, this is very prolific! Most other Medieval musicians that we can identify by name can only be connected to a few compositions.

Hildegard first rose to prominence because of her religious visions. Ever since she was a young girl she reported certain intense experiences which she called "the reflection of the living Light." The church eventually endorsed these visions as authentic miracles, and they encouraged her to write about them. This created a sensation and made her a very important figure within the Church. They eventually let her set up her own abbey and allowed her to basically do whatever she wanted with it.

I have some movie clips about the life of Hildegard for you. She's German, so this is from a German film and we'll have to read some subtitles.

Life in the abbey

The first clip shows Hildegard's life in the abbey. We are going to see how the church is still the keeper of knowledge in Medieval society, and we'll see a little bit of her "new age" medical practice.

Vision: From the Life of Hildegard of Bingen

Adding instruments

Now, in that clip you saw one of the nuns playing a cello-like instrument and singing a Hildegard composition. However, on paper there is no instrumental part! This music is still like Gregorian Chant. It is monophonic and has the same kind of free-flowing rhythm.

We do know, however, that people sometimes did use "extra" instruments when they performed Medieval music. We don't know exactly what they would play, but Modern musicians will often try to recreate this practice and do something similar. (One advantage to adding instruments into the mix is that it makes the music more attractive to Modern ears.)

The Ordo Virtutum

In the next clip we are going to see Hildegard's big masterpiece, a morality play with music called the Ordo Virtutum. Again, on paper this is monophonic, but in the movie they add some drones and percussion to make it sound cool.

O rubor sanguinis

Finally, let's look at a shorter composition called O rubor sanguinis.

Another thing that's interesting about Hildegard is that she wrote her own words for these compositions, and the text here is a very abstract poem on religious imagery.

Track Links: Spotify Naxos YouTube Apple Music
Album Links: Amazon CD Spotify eMusic Google Play iTunes Amazon Mp3

O rubor sanguinis,O redness of blood,
qui de excelso illo fluxisti,which flowed down from on high,
quod divinitas tetigit;touched by divinity;
Tu flos esYou are the flower
quem hyems de flatu serpentis numquam lesit.that the wintry breath of the serpent never wounded.

The piece is written in honor of Saint Ursula, who was thought to have been murdered by the Huns around the year 383. The text engages some pretty hardcore Christian ideas. The blood is Ursula's blood, and it's evoking the idea of martyrdom (i.e. dying for a cause.) The serpent is the devil, and the idea that she was never "wounded" suggests that she was untouched by sin. Hildegard condenses all of this complicated stuff into a very evocative image, and her melody creates the right emotional atmosphere for it all.

Today in the 21st century Hildegard is an inspirational figure for all kinds of people. I've met some folks who are into the new-age aspect of her ideas and all the gnarly spiritual imagery, and of course she's a feminist icon, a strong woman who was creative and influential in a very patriarchal era.

Exercise #6

OK! Assignment #6 will ask you six questions about all of this. (Link opens in a new tab.)

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