Another Hildegard

Another Hildegard

The twelfth century Benedictine abbess Hildegard von Bingen is celebrated as a visionary composer and writer, inspired directly by God, but there's an alternative history that paints her as an egotistical megalomaniac, for whom music was a means of repression.

The celebrated journalist and iconoclast Christopher Hitchens, who died last month, made at least part of his name with a high profile and sustained attack during the 1990s on the image of Mother Teresa of Calcutta. Hitchens’ argument, put succinctly, states that she was ‘a fanatic, a fundamentalist and a fraud… probably the most successful confidence trickster of the last century… responsible for untold suffering and misery, and proud of it!’ In his 1995 book The Missionary Position — Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice, Hitchens appropriates the question ‘is nothing sacred?’ To which the answer has to be ‘a stoical no’. The book goes on to catalogue the ways in which Mother Teresa received millions of dollars from crooks, tyrants and zealots (money itself stolen from the poor in failed states and in the ghettoes of the west), and how she channelled the proceeds, not to the dying in her signature hospices, but to the maintenance and growth of her order and legacy. ‘It still seems astonishing to me’ says Hitchens, ‘that nobody had ever before decided to look at the saint of Calcutta as if, possibly, the supernatural had nothing to do with it.’ Take away the enforced reverence and awe and you see what truly remains in hard reality: the politics of influence, material gain, propaganda. The image overawes the ability to make value judgements.

Hitchens understood his work to be a part of a process where actions are forcibly decoupled from their sacral origins. In most cases this reveals self-serving vanities. And this indeed is the case with the saint of Calcutta, who said famously during a 1981 visit to Anacostia, the capital of black Washington: ‘I think it is very beautiful for the poor to accept their lot, to share it with the passion of Christ. I think the world is much helped by the suffering of the poor people,’ a statement that didn’t go down well with local residents, who demanded jobs and affordable housing. But without the poor, of course, Mother Teresa would have been out of business. 

Do these concerns press on our appreciation of religious art? If the ‘sacred’ is removed from ‘sacred music’ does what’s left behind become a pale imitation, even a betrayal, of its former glorious incarnation? The comedian and writer Stephen Fry posed the problem recently as he outlined the minor differences between his world view and that of his close friend Hitchens: ‘I will always be more merciful to piously devout people… one of the greatest passions of my life is the music of Johann Sebastian Bach… and I don’t think any of the music of Bach could exist without religion.’ Fry remains an atheist, but an atheist who can’t live without religion.

Hildegard von Bingen (1098—1179) poses a particular problem, and, in the process, an intriguing comparison with Mother Teresa. Widely depicted as a cloistered, long-suffering, devout and misunderstood genius, the German Benedictine abbess, visionary, writer and composer, was in fact of noble birth, only accepted the rich into her service, and went on to create a powerful order that afforded her uncommon political influence. She was spiritual counsel to the pope, no less, and made full use of her position as ‘negotiator’ between the living and the dead to amass material fortunes and a great deal of land. In most instances she is depicted as an artist inspired directly by a vision of God, in which her music becomes an outpouring of the pain of being separated from the divine splendour of heavenly existence. 

But then there’s the view that she was, in fact, a subversive and forward-thinking proto-feminist. As Bruce Wood Holsinger says in his essay ‘The Flesh of the Voice: Embodiment and the Homoerotics of Devotion in the Music of Hildegard of Bingen’, ‘Music provided Hildegard with a means of exploring and, quite literally, “giving voice” to the female body and all of its fleshy senses in a manner that would not have been possible through the written word alone.’ Then again, and in stark contrast, Hildegard is also seen as the epitome of the self-aggrandising egoist. She is, after all, our very first composer—she represents, according to Holsinger, ‘the earliest appearance in the history of European music of the composer as star, auteur, quasi-mythical being’, a figure who made sure of her earthly legacy by commissioning her own hagiography, and by insisting that her name adorn the sheet music, despite the fact that the notes ‘came directly from God’ (something, in fact, that had never happened before, composers at this time always forming a hidden, servile workforce). Within this interpretation, music can suddenly become stripped of its benign beauty and emerge, instead, as a means of dictating manners and thought. 

Hildegard ordered the days of her nuns down to the last minute; she decided exactly what they should do, when they should eat and pray, and how they should shape their minds in preparation for communion with God. Is it not a natural move, then, with someone in as secure control of her subjects as Hildegard undoubtedly was, to go one step further, to dictate, to notate, exactly how someone should pray? This involves not only deciding the precise pitch of the utterance, but also by determining exactly when someone should breathe, a clear means of controlling the body. As Holsinger says, ‘Heavenly music draws “tears of compunction” by permeating the entire body, filling it with melody, and rescuing the flesh from postlapsarian weakness.’ This idea in particular, of notated music as a means of repression, rather than of freedom, feels completely alien in our own time.

But sacred music in the modern world is not bound by these concerns. From J.S. Bach to Olivier Messiaen, music designed to speak within organised religion finds powerful presence in the secularised imagination. Perhaps this outlines the strength of music, as well as its inherent mysteries. How is it that some composers, quite unexpectedly, can become so meaningful for listeners who live centuries away from the moment the notes were ordained? Hildegard von Bingen paradoxically, and much like Mother Teresa of Calcutta, became a star of her times by preaching the dissolution of self through absolute obedience to the will of God. How fitting then, that she became, of all things, a bestselling artist in our own age of the individual. 

Published on 18 January 2012

Peter Rosser (1970–2014) was a composer, writer and music lecturer.

He was born in London and moved to Belfast in 1990, where he studied composition at the University of Ulster and was awarded a DPhil in 1997. His music has been performed at the Spitalfields Festival in London, the Belfast Festival at Queen’s and by the Crash Ensemble in Dublin.

In 2011 the Arts Council acknowledged his contribution to the arts in Northern Ireland through a Major Individual Artist Award. He used this award to write his Second String Quartet, which was premiered in 2012 by the JACK Quartet at the opening concert at Belfast's new Metropolitan Arts Centre (The MAC).

Peter Rosser also wrote extensively on a wide range of music genres, with essays published in The Journal of Music, The Wire, Perspectives of New Music and the Crescent Journal. 

He died following an illness on 24 November 2014, aged 44.

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