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Why a nun who lived a thousand years ago is still important today

One of the things I love about history is how the past keeps coming back to us.  Hildegard of Bingen was a medieval German abbess who lived about 900 years ago.  She was given to the church as a young girl, and rose to become a woman who ran a convent and negotiated with the Pope.  She’s one of the few women about whose life we have a pretty good picture.  In part because she suffered from insanely painful migraines, and during those episodes she had mystical visions, which have been passed down through the centuries to us.  She also composed chants that still provide inspiration for musicians today.

Hildegard saw a rise in popularity several decades ago when feminists led the charge to appreciate this woman who dominated in a man’s world.  In the 80’s her music hit the classical charts with recordings from the Sequentia ensemble.   She’s still going strong today, as a recent album,Vox Cosmica (with Arianna Savall) proves.

The album features Hildegard’s chants and music, but reinterpreted in a much more modern way.  It sounds ethereal and otherworldly as expected, but also slightly more familiar and accessible, as if someone took the pop feeling of enya and moved her several notches towards “weird acid trip” on the dial.

The music is perfect for meditation.  Or concentration.  It can be both intensely demanding if you really want to experience it deeply, but at the same time, it knows how to hang out in the background and let you get on with your work.

You can imagine Hildegard in her dark study writing down this music after a migraine episode.  It’s simple chanting that doesn’t have set accompaniment, but by understanding the way music was sung at the time, and looking at the way it was written and set down, we can get an idea of what it would have sounded like, and a basis for performing it today.

Listening to it with eyes closed, it’s so easy to be transported back in time, or even more deeply into ourselves.  This is music that was given to her during her mystic visions, and it is either a deep meaningful relationship with God, or a journey into the depth of the subconscious, depending on which way you want to go with it.  Either one can be valid, and either one provides an important lens through which to look at this music and to study it even now.

Music is always being recreated.  Paintings and photographs, as wonderful as they are, are static, whereas music is a living, breathing art form that requires musicians to interpret it.  Those interpretations will change as the years go on, but if the musicians take the time to really get to know the composer and the music, they can be wonderful reflections of the twinning of both modern and historic times.  That’s one of the reasons why, even though this music isn’t really my “jam” I will always come back to it year after year.  It’s eternal and lasting, and deserves to be discovered and rediscovered.

Take some quiet time and sit with Hildegard, and let her speak to you, 900 years on.  What is she telling you?

You can get a free bonus track by signing up for the label’s mailing list here: http://12789.seu.cleverreach.com/f/12789-86690/
You can also listen to the whole album on Soundcloud: http://www.carpediem-records.de/en/vox-cosmica