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17 September 2006

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Hildegard von Bingen, “Caritas abundat

Hildegard von Bingen

Sculpture of Hildegard von Bingen at the Abbey Church of St. Hildegard in Rüdesheim am Rhein, Germany

She is the first female composer in documented music historyWHEN ROMAN CATHOLICS commemorate today's feast of the Blessed Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179), they remember a twelfth-century German abbess who received divine visions at the age of five. Growing up a Catholic, I savored the Ladybird picture book that told her life story as an extraordinary, powerful woman who ventured where few—let alone women—dared in her time. She wrote major works of theology and medicine, gave public speeches on natural history and healing, and counseled (and chastised) statesmen, royalty, and popes. For a woman to do all this in the twelfth century brings the cause of womanhood right bang on front row, center!

What is also striking about Hildegard von Bingen is that she remains the oldest known composer with a recorded biography—effectively making her the first female composer in documented music history. Her music is liturgical and devotional, wrapped around poetry that came to her in visions. Soaring over two octaves, the songs are difficult to sing today; imagine how they must have been performed during her time. Hildegard once described her works as a means of reliving the joy and beauty of the garden of Eden. I describe her work as Eve's supreme creative progeny.

Listen to “Caritas abundat” (Divine love abounds), a short piece with a beautiful vocal line spread among many notes, almost wordless, always soothing. Sequentia Ensemble for Medieval Music performed the chant as part of a series of recordings to commemorate the 900th anniversary of Hildegard's birth in 1998.

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