Hildegard von Bingen was a remarkable woman. She corresponded with the Pope and bridged composition, naturalism, mysticism and more in her prolific and astonishingly varied work. We spoke to Dr Alice Eldridge, Lecturer in Music and Music Technology at the University of Sussex, who has curated a series of events to explore the modern resonances of von Bingen’s music and life.
“Throughout her life from the age of about three into her 80s, she had extraordinary, multisensory visions. This ‘spiritual gift’ gave her power at a time when little was expected of women in society. Her legacy includes over 70 musical works which are direct accounts of her visions. She also authored medicinal and botanical texts, so Germans celebrate her as the first naturalist. People came to her as a healer, not because of her spiritualism, but because of her systematic use of medicinal herbs. “‘Viriditas’, the title of the festival, is Latin for ‘green truth’. Hildegard saw humans as a microcosm of the universe. It’s a non-dualistic idea that heaven and earth are integrated through nature so ‘Ecological’ and human health are intrinsically linked.”
This annual festival of Music and Ideas is an opportunity for emerging Sussex composers to create and perform new works in the Attenborough Centre. On 8th Feb, Fem Engine, a newly formed collaboration between musicians Bunty, Bellatrix and Hannah Miller (Moulettes), will perform three new works that Sussex composers have created for the trio, whom Eldridge describes as “amazing and intuitive composers and performers”. She explains that the works might not be fully notated however. “They might be described through text, graphic scores, even the use of scents of particular herbs as a form of musical score, so part composed, part improvised. Hildegard’s music was improvisational in a way, melismatic, very free, really beautiful”.
Eldridge tells me that Hildegard is the first named composer, and the festival also celebrates her as a female figure of authority in her age. “In the light of contemporary movements in gender equality globally, and recent recognition of previously unsung women composers, it’s quite interesting to look back and see a woman with such power in so many ways at this time: creatively, politically, financially, and holding such respect and influence. Many of her musical works were songs to be sung as part of the daily service in the convent. These works were a way to praise God, but also as a way for women to use their voice when otherwise living in silence. So it was literally giving women a voice.”
The Viriditas events will also include a Q&A with Observer music critic Fiona Maddocks (7th); vocal trio Voice and group Celestial Sirens performing music composed or inspired by Hildegard and other early sacred works (10th); Bird Bath, a sound installation created by Eldridge herself with meditation teacher Alistair Appleton (6th-8th) in ACCA’s café bar, folk singer Laura Cannell’s Untuning of the Sky (7th), an Ecotherapy ‘Walk-shop’ (8th), and more.
Illustration from von Bingen’s Scivias, depicting her receiving a vision
Viriditas, 6th-10th Feb, attenboroughcentre.com