Artist Biographies  

Hildegard of Bingen

Born in the Rhineland in present day Germany, Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179) was a visionary nun and polymath. She founded two monasteries, went on four preaching tours, composed an entire corpus of sacred music, and wrote nine books addressing both scientific and religious subjects, an unprecedented accomplishment for a 12th-century woman. Her prophecies earned her the title Sybil of the Rhine. An outspoken critic of political and ecclesiastical corruption, she courted controversy.

On Oct. 7, 873 years after her death, the Vatican finally gave her the highest recognition for her considerable achievements. She was elevated to Doctor of the Church, a rare and solemn title reserved for theologians who have significantly impacted Church doctrine. There are 34 Doctors of the Church, and only four are women (Catherine of Siena, Teresa of Ávila, Thérèse of Lisieux and now, finally, Hildegard von Bingen).

But what relevance does Hildegard have for a wider secular audience today? Why Hildegard and why now?

1. Life Begins at 42

Offered by her parents as a tithe to the Church, Hildegard entered monastic life at the age of 8. Though she had been haunted by luminous visions since earliest childhood, she didn’t dare speak of them. Instead her existence was bent on absolute submission as she served the greater glory of her superior, the anchorite and ascetic Jutta von Sponheim. Only at the age of 42, after Jutta’s death, did Hildegard find her voice. A series of dazzling and painful visionary experiences descended upon her, along with the divine summons to write and speak of her revelations. And thus she embarked on her first book of theology, Scivias, or “Know the Ways.”

“When I was forty-two years and seven months old, Heaven was opened and a fiery light of exceeding brilliance came and permeated my whole brain, and inflamed my whole heart and my whole breast, not like a burning but like a warming flame, as the sun warms anything its rays touch.”— Hildegard von Bingen, Scivias

2. Viriditas

A cornerstone of Hildegard’s spirituality was Viriditas, or greening power, her revelation of the animating life force manifest in the natural world that infuses all creation with moisture and vitality. To her, the divine was manifest in every leaf and blade of grass. Just as a ray of sunlight is the sun, Hildegard believed that a flower or a stone was God, though not the whole of God. Creation revealed the face of the invisible creator. Hildegard celebrated the sacred in nature, something highly relevant for us in this age of climate change and the destruction of natural habitats.

“I, the fiery life of divine essence, am aflame beyond the beauty of the meadows, I gleam in the waters, and I burn in the sun, moon and stars … I awaken everything to life.” — Hildegard von Bingen, Liber Divinorum (Book of Divine Works)

3. Her Ethereal Music

Hildegard’s soaring music is still popular today. The first composer for whom we have a biography, she composed 77 sacred songs and Ordo Virtutum, a liturgical drama set to music. As a Benedictine superior, she and her nuns sang the Divine Office eight times a day, and she believed that song was the highest form of prayer. The mystical power of music reunited humankind to the ecstasy and beauty of paradise before the Fall, connecting the singer directly with the divine, and joining heaven and earth in a great celestial harmony. Her lyrics, as well as her melodies, were highly original and she was the only 12th century writer to compose in free verse.

“The soul is symphonic.” — Hildegard von Bingen, from her 1178 letter to the prelates of Mainz

4. The Feminine Divine

Although the established Church of her day could not have been more male-dominated, Hildegard’s visions revealed the Feminine Divine. While acknowledging God as Father, Hildegard said that she could only bear to look upon divinity in her visions if God appeared to her in feminine form. She compared God to a cosmic egg, nurturing all of life like a womb. Masculine imagery of the creator tends to focus on God’s transcendence, but Hildegard’s revelations of the Feminine Divine celebrate immanence, of God being present in all things. According to Barbara Newman’s book “Sister of Wisdom: St. Hildegard’s Theology of the Feminine,” Hildegard’s Sapientia, or Divine Wisdom, creates the cosmos by existing within it.

“O power of wisdom!
You encompassed the cosmos,
Encircling and embracing all in one living orbit
With your three wings:
One soars on high,
One distills the earth’s essence,
And the third hovers everywhere. — Hildegard von Bingen, O virtus sapientia

5. Reconciling Faith and Science

A polymath and intellectual, Hildegard wrote nine books on subjects as diverse as cosmology, botany, linguistics and medical science, as well as theology. Even though she believed celibacy to be the highest calling, she is credited with writing the first description of the female orgasm in the context of her medical text, Causae et Curae. Her scientific writings address every single aspect of human life, including sexuality, which she discusses frankly and without moral judgment. For her, there was no contradiction between science and religion, and not a trace of prudishness or anti-intellectualism in her work.

“When a woman is making love with a man, a sense of heat in her brain, which brings forth with it sensual delight, communicates the taste of that delight during the act and summons forth the emission of the man’s seed. And when the seed has fallen into its place, that vehement heat descending from her brain draws the seed to itself and holds it, and soon the woman’s sexual organs contract and all parts that are ready to open up during the time of menstruation now close, in the same way as a strong man can hold something enclosed in his fist.” — Hildegard von Bingen, Causae et Curae

6. Holistic Healing

Hildegard believed that the humans existed as the microcosm within the macrocosm of the universe and, as such, mirrored the splendor of creation. But if one fell into disharmony with the innate wholeness of creation, illness resulted. This could be treated through rest, herbal cures, steam baths, a proper diet and by making one’s peace with the divine order. She developed herbal remedies to treat pre-cancerous states. Naturopathic doctors in modern Germany still practice “Hildegard Medizin” and work with her dietary philosophy. She was a big fan of spelt bread. She also believed that beer was most wholesome and pleasing to God.

7. Controversy and Confrontation

Hildegard did not shy away from confrontation. The Church of her era was rife with corruption and sexual misconduct. While many men held back from protesting, fearing the repercussions, Hildegard decided that she would take on the mantle of reformer. Although St. Paul had forbidden women to preach, Hildegard embarked on four preaching tours in which she delivered apocalyptic sermons to her male superiors, warning them that if they did not mend their ways, they would fall from grace and be toppled from their seats of power. In one of her most shocking visions, Ecclesia, the Mother Church, gives birth to the Antichrist because her own clergy have defiled her.

Nor did Hildegard enjoy a quiet retirement. Late in her life, she and her nuns were subject to an interdict, or collective excommunication, when they refused to disinter an alleged apostate buried in their churchyard. The interdict was only lifted a few months before Hildegard’s death in 1179. She might well have died an outcast.

“O you priests. You have neglected your duties. … let us drive these adulterers and thieves from the Church, for they fester with every iniquity.” — Hildegard von Bingen, 1170 sermon in Cologne

8. Sisterhood

Although Hildegard was a woman of her time and not a feminist in today’s sense, I believe that her legacy is hugely relevant to 21st century women. In our time as well as hers, women are pushed to the margins of established religion. The Vatican is even cracking down on Hildegard’s modern counterparts, such as Margaret Farley, nun and Yale professor emeritus who, like Hildegard, wrote frankly about human sexuality.

While modern women can choose to wash their hands of religion, Hildegard didn’t even get to choose whether to enter monastic life — she was thrust into an anchorage as a child. And yet her visions and strength of character allowed her to triumph over silence and submission to become one of the greatest voices of her age. In an age of deep-seated misogyny, she championed the sacred worth of women. Hildegard shows us how visionary women might transform the most male-dominated faith traditions from within.

“O form of woman, sister of Wisdom, how great is your glory!” — Hildegard von Bingen, Epilogue, Life of St. Rupert

Author, ‘Illuminations: A Novel of Hildegard von Bingen’

Kassia, the Nun

Born around 810 into a wealthy and influential family in Constantinople (now Istanbul), the capital of the Byzantine Empire, Kassianí was beautiful, educated, and wrote both secular poetry and sacred hymns. She remains a popular figure among Greek Orthodox, known primarily today for her colorful backstory and a single famous hymn sung in Holy Week.

Modern research has revealed however that the historical Kassianí contributed far more than a single “hit” to Orthodox services. Scholars now view Kassía, as she probably called herself, as the outstanding figure among the small group of women known to have written texts and music for Byzantine public worship. Her independence of thought, accomplishments as a composer, and devotion to Christian religious life have led to comparisons with the later German abbess Hildegard of Bingen (1098–1179), whose reputation has likewise been recently revived. Unlike Hildegard, Kassía succeeded in having her hymns circulate widely beyond her own immediate orbit, incorporated into official service books. However some of her hymnography was either actively or passively suppressed. Sometimes copied in medieval manuscripts without attribution, or reattributed to male composers, her hymns also appear under such variants of her name as Eikasía, Ikasía, Kasía, and Kassianí.

Kassia was first recorded by Byzantine historians as taking part in an imperial bride show. This was an event at which Byzantine emperors and royalty would choose a wife from among the most eligible women in the empire. The bride show in which Kassia participated was thrown for the young soon-to-be- emperor Theophilos, who was immediately captivated by her. When Theophilos approached Kassía to test her, he stated that “It is from woman that evil comes,” referring to Eve’s transgression. She replied cleverly with a play-on-words in Greek, “And also from woman came the very best,” referring to the Virgin Mary. Theophilos was taken aback by Kassía’s biting rebuke, rejecting her in favor of another, Theodora.

After opting out of her chance to become Empress of the Eastern Roman Empire (Byzantium), Kassía founded an abbey in 843 outside of Constantinople and served as its first abbess. Historians have suggested that Kassia’s move into monastic life was a response to her rejection by Theophilos, but modern scholars now believe that it was more likely a reflection of the intense religious fervor of the day. Her move to the cloister combined Kassia’s desire to have access to the books and to the centers of learning that were part and parcel of Byzantine religious life.

Towards the end of her life, Kassia left the Abbey and traveled to Italy for a brief period, before eventually settling on the island of Kasos in Greece. She died there sometime around 865. Following her death, Kassia was canonized by the Orthodox Church as Saint Kassianí, also known as Kassianí the Hymnographer.

Isabella Leonarda

Nun and Baroque Composer

Isabella Leonarda

Among the most famous musicians of early modern Lombardy were its cloistered nuns, despite the efforts of church officials to limit their musical lives. In Celestial sirens : nuns and their music in early modern Milan, Robert L. Kendrick (Oxford, 1996) details the cultural context, religious traditions, musical styles, and personal meaning of the music written by and for them from the late sixteenth to the early eighteenth century on the basis of massive archival documentation.

In various ways their status as female virgins was–and was not–central to the musical expression of their piety. The music actually composed by these nuns reveals the musical expression of women’s devotional life. The two centuries’ worth of battles over nuns’ singing of polyphony also suggest that the implementation of reform in a major center of post-Tridentine Catholic renewal was subject to local political pressure and individual interpretation. Other factors – liturgical traditions of the religious orders, the problems of performance practice attendant upon all-female singing ensembles- marked nuns’ musical lives and creative output.

Nuns originated in this world but dwelt on the threshold of the next. The music composed in female monasteries was sacred yet shaped by secular trends as well as by tradition and canon. The terrestrial influence on the celestial sirens made their performances very popular, but this also brought them into conflict with bishops who sought to reinforce the wall between cloister and community. In the mind of the laity the nuns-their sisters, aunts, daughters-remained “sacred virgins with a public role” and their musical talents were civic treasures enjoyed by many and remarked upon by visitors.

Highly personalized and emotive treatment of old texts and the introduction of dialogue highlighted the values guiding their lives. Simplicity, clarity, and strictly choral singing gave way to polyphonic complexity and vocal virtuosity whose very novelty drew appreciative audiences. It was music by and for women, appropriate in text and vocal ranges, whose fame spread beyond the walls that entombed them; indeed, the white martyrdom of the professed nun was a subject celebrated musically.

Anna Isabella Leonarda (6 September 1620 – 25 February 1704) was an Italian composer from Novara. At the age of 16 she entered an Ursuline convent. Leonarda is most renowned for the numerous compositions that she created during her time at the convent, making her one of the most productive woman composers of her time. She was the daughter of Giannantonio Leonardi and his wife, Apollonia. The Leonardi were an old and prominent Novarese family whose members included important church and civic officials and knights palatine. Isabella’s father, who held the title of count, was a doctor of laws.

In 1636, Leonarda entered the Collegio di Sant’Orsola, where she stayed for the remainder of her life.  Her family maintained close ties with Sant’Orsola as benefactors, which some speculate may have contributed to Leonarda’s influence within the convent. She held various positions of authority throughout her time at Sant’Orsola – as madre (1676), superiora (1686), madre vicaria (1693), and consigliera (1700). The precise significance of these titles is unclear, but superiora was probably the highest office in the convent. She was also identified in documents as magistra musicae (music teacher). It seems from this that Leonarda played some role within the convent teaching the other nuns to perform music. This may have also afforded her opportunities for the performance of her works by the convent’s nuns.

Not much is known about Leonarda’s musical education before entering Sant’Orsola, though many speculate that she may have had some such education due to the high social and economic status of her family. It has also been suggested that once in the convent, she studied with Gasparo Casati (1610–1641), a talented but little-known composer who was maestro di cappella at the Novara cathedral from 1635 until his death. The only direct evidence linking the two, however, is Casati’s Terzo libro di sacri concenti (Milan, 1640), which contains two dramatic dialogues, the earliest known compositions of Leonarda.

While Leonarda was a highly regarded composer in her home city, she was apparently little known in other parts of Italy. Her published compositions span a period of 60 years, beginning with the dialogues of 1640 and concluding with the Motetti a voce sola of 1700. Leonarda is credited with producing nearly two hundred compositions during that period. Her only works appearing before 1670 were the dialogues printed by Gasparo Casati. It appears that she was over the age of 50 before she started composing regularly, and it was at that time that she began publishing the works that we know her for today. Not much is known about her involvement as a singer or instrumentalist but she was one of the most prolific convent composers of the Baroque era.

Leonarda’s works include examples of nearly every sacred genre: motets and sacred concertos for one to four voices, sacred Latin dialogues, psalm settings, responsories, Magnificats, litanies, masses, and sonata da chiesa. She also wrote a few sacred solo songs with vernacular texts. The  intricate use of harmonies is one example of her influence in the cultivation of polyphonic music at Sant’Orsola, as many other Italian nun composers were doing at their own convents during the same period. This style created an atmosphere conducive to the creativity of the musician, allowing for slight improvisation or musical ornamentation.

Almost all of Leonarda’s works carry a double dedication – one to the Virgin Mary as well as one to a highly placed living person. In one of her dedications, Leonarda stated that she wrote music not to gain credit in the world, but so that all would know that she was devoted to the Virgin Mary. The living dedicatees include the archbishop of Milan, the bishop of Novara, and Emperor Leopold I. The need to seek financial support for the convent likely motivated many of these dedications. She also noted in the dedication to Opus 10 that she wrote music only during time allotted for rest so as not to neglect her administrative duties within the convent. This contradicts many speculations that Leonarda was able to spend more time composing than other nuns of the time due to her positions of authority within the convent.

A setting of Ave Regina Caelorum by Suor Isabella Leonardo will be performed at the WSMP Interfaith Community Concert on December 1st. This setting in g minor was published in her Motetti a quattro voci (Milan: Camagni, 1684). The printed part books for mixed voices (SATB) and continuo are the sole source. This setting was probably intended  for performance during Mass. It betrays the influence of contemporary dance music in its sprightly 6/8 meter and upbeat conclusion. Expressive use is made of melisma on the words exora pro nobis (pray for us), of tutti and soli passages, of dynamic contrast for an echo effect and of brief points of imitation. These distinctly contemporary techniques are layered with a degree of skill to express the joyous character of the text.

The use of only women’s voices raises interesting questions about performance practice in Baroque convents. If this work was conceived for use by the sisters at Sant’Orsola, the mixed-voice setting may represent an adaption for publication.  The printed volumes were intended for the general market of choirs of men and boys. Candace Smith has proposed that the lower parts in the printed editions be transposed to treble range for performance solely by women’s voices. The bass line may be reinforced in the original register by organ or other instruments. Evidence exists that despite a ban on the use of instruments in convents, the Lombard nuns played trombones, an excellent choice for the lower voices.   Here it is performed on Youtube by the Cappella Artemisia.

Clara Schumann

Clara Josephine née Wieck Schumann (1819-1896) was one of the foremost pianists of the 19th century and the wife of Robert Schumann. She was also a respected composer and influential teacher. Clara was the daughter of Friedrich Wieck, an eminent piano teacher. After an affair between Clara’s mother and one of her father’s students, her parents divorced in 1824. Five-year-old Clara remained with her father. Her mother moved to Berlin. Contact with Clara was maintained through correspondence. Although Clara’s general education was meager, her musical education was superb. She studied piano with Wieck, theory and composition with the best teachers in Leipzig. She attended every important concert.

In a letter of 1894, she wrote: “My father had to put up with being called a tyrant; however, I still thank him for it every day. It was also a blessing for me that he was exceedingly strict, that he reprimanded me when I deserved it and in so doing, prevented me from becoming arrogant from the praise the world showered on me. At times the rebuke was bitter, but it was still good for me!”

A turning point came when Clara and Robert Schumann fell in love. Fearing that her marriage to an impecunious composer would destroy the plans he had for her music career, her father opposed their union in every way he could. He threatened to shoot Robert. Because Clara was not yet of age, her father’s consent was required before they could marry. Following a court battle with her father, Clara Wieck and Robert Schumann wed in 1840, the day before Clara’s 21st birthday.

She had known him since childhood. At that time Schumann was not a well-known composer while she was already a pianist with an international reputation. Between 1841 and 1854 they had eight children. Clara carried on performing, composing and teaching. Her husband’s growing mental illness had been a cause for concern for many years. He attempted suicide in 1854 and was hospitalized with tertiary syphilis. His doctors forbade Clara to visit him. He died in 1856.

Until her marriage Clara maintained a detailed diary. The day after the wedding she made the final entry “Now a new life is beginning, a beautiful life, a life in which love for him is greater than all else, but difficult duties are nearing as well. Heaven grant me the strength to fulfill them faithfully, as a good wife should. He has always stood by me and always will. I have always had great faith in God and will preserve that faith forever.”

After her husband’s death, Clara resumed her concert tours to support her children. She was a solemn ‘priestess’ of the art. Dressed in black, she devoted herself to her husband’s memory and music. The marriage of Robert and Clara Schumann had been a rare partnership. They studied scores together and read poetry for possible musical settings. She acted as rehearsal pianist for groups he conducted. Clara Schumann’s life was one of musical triumph and personal tragedy.

The divorce of her parents, loss of her mother, the bitter struggle with her father and the death of her husband made their mark on her. She supported her children and grandchildren by her earnings and worked unceasingly. The Schumanns met Brahms shortly before Robert’s hospitalization and he became a lifelong, devoted friend. She helped advance his career by playing his works when he was young and unknown and he – who was very much in love with her, in turn assisted her with decisions on family, career, composing and editing throughout her life.

The composer-pianist was an accepted phenomenon in the early 19th century. In her first solo concert, 11-year-old Clara Wieck played a composition of her own. Beginning in 1831 her works were published and favorably reviewed. In the use of bold harmonies, adventurous modulations, rhythmic freedom and the genres she chose, her compositions reflect the advanced tendencies of their day. After her marriage her compositional style changed. She was maturing as an artist and their joint studies influenced her work. She turned, as Robert Schumann had, to songs. Some were presented to her husband on their first Christmas together. All her lieder, including some until recently unpublished, are expressive and powerful contributions to the genre.

Robert Schumann had encouraged his wife’s composition. She ceased composing after his death. The fact that she wanted to support her children and grandchildren by performing was obviously an important choice of her own. After her death her compositions were generally ignored. Interest was revived in the 1970s when the first recordings began to appear. Since that time the discography of her works has grown to over 100 recordings. Editions of published and previously unpublished pieces have appeared

The song Mein Stern was composed in June 1846. The Schumanns spent that month at the estate of Friedrich Serre auf Maxen near Dresden. He and his wife Friederike had known Clara since childhood. They lent Schumann encouragement in his romance, despite being close friends of her father. The text is by Friederike. The first edition appeared in London in 1846 as O thou my star with an English translation by Clara de Pontigny. The first critical edition was published in 1983. It is a strophic song of predictable charm written to sentimental verses

Abendfeyer in Venedig for chorus of mixed voices was composed in June 1848. It is one of three choral settings Clara made of poems by Emanuel von Geibel. He was the leading German lyric poet between the revolution of 1848 and the establishment of the Empire in 1871. Geibel is still known for his popular love-songs. She composed it for the Dresdener Chorgesangverein conducted by Robert, for which she was the accompanist. She secretly rehearsed these choruses to surprise him on his birthday. Never performed publicly, they were first published in 1989.