Last week was, in the Catholic Church at least, the feast of the doctor of the church, Hildegard of Bingen, who passed away on September 17, 1179. Radio New Zealand shared Hildegard's music as one of "five feminist moments in music." In my "Introduction to Western Music" course, I have students listen to "O Frodens Virga," which opens space to converse about melody and basic polyphony in medieval musics, and to introduce ideas of gender and ecology (which we spend more time on later in the semester). On the Hildegard Society website, they discuss Frodens: "O frondens virga recalls the elemental association of the divine feminine with earthly fertility. Mary is addressed as 'O blooming branch,' and she is described as standing in her nobility. The image of dawn and its radiance is also invoked."
What does divine femininity mean within the context of the Western musical and Christian tradition? This question initiates an interesting discussion. But I do need to point out something important many of my students don't suspect, Hildegard was never covered in my undergraduate studies in the 1990s. For as important as Hildegard is to understanding medieval musics today, she was practically invisible just 20 years ago! Perhaps we benefit from the fact that she's a saint: I suspect its hard for the most male-dominated people to toss out the writings of a saint, however patriarchal they are. But more than that, we benefit from the hard work of specific scholars who have worked to re-vivify her music.
Though my book doesn't spent much time on Hildegard, understanding how the natural environment influenced her as a medieval, religious, monastic women composer is important to understanding Western music. In the case of Hildegard, I bow to the wisdom of music and music education scholar June Boyce-Tillman, who in her book, "The Creative Spirit: Harmonious Living with Hildegard of Bingen" describes Hildegard's sense of justice, prayer, connection to the Virgin Mary, visions, healing, music, and creativity. Boyce-Tillman shares an antiphon inspired by Hildegard on p. 7:
Anitphon: To Virgins and Innocents
O most noble, greening, creative force,
Who are rooted in sunlight,
And who in their radiant
Serenity shine like a wheel of lights;
No earthly power can ever fully comprehend
You are closely held in warm embrace by the Mystery of the Divine One.
You blush like the dawn twilight,
And burn like the flaming sunshine.
This antiphon captures an aspect of Hildegard's philosophy that I find important for music education, Hildegard's idea of "greening power." "Each human soul becomes the dynamic greening power within the person. The greenness is rooted in the radiance at the heart of the universe and is gradually transformed into that light" (p. 175). In this philosophy (is this panentheistic?), creativity, self, divine, and the natural world are brought into alignment in a way I feel--when I go outside with students, eyes closed, breathing slowly, listening and singing back to birds and insects and winds--my classes and I are able to just barely touch at our most interconnected moments. This spiritual link of environment, self, and divine seem to be, in some way, at the heart of creative musicking.
As a final somewhat related note, since we're talking about a Catholic saint who was devoted to Mary, ecofeminist Rosemary Radford Ruether talks about Mary being thought of as "a survival of the goddess figures of ancient Near Eastern religion." The mother goddess was an active figure (rather than passive) in the seasonal renewal of life. What began as a marriage between a sky god and earth mother, eventually became a metaphor for the church, "the tender and intimate image for the relationship of God to his people." Ultimately, by exploring Mary and the feminine in Christian churches, Ruether concludes her study with a type of egalitarianism: "If Christ represents this 'emptying out' of God into service, then he too cannot be seen as 'lord' in a way that reestablishes the lordship of some people over other people." Perhaps Marian devotions are a way to sustain a type of gender egalitarianism in the face of an unfair patriarchal society, while still fitting within that same society on a day-to-day basis.
My mind is drawn back to May Queen services at St. Mary's (now Queen of Peace) and learning the rosary as a child, and I feel that these, as a boy growing into a man in a patriarchal church, forced me to confront the male-domination from which I benefited in many ways. Was Marian devotion a perfect model for cultivating a young male feminist? Is there a perfect model? I doubt both. But it was something. And systems of domination hurt everybody who grows up in them: these systems hurt those dominated most, but it is not healthy to learn to dominate ... you lose something in the learning. Perhaps Ruether's word, "survival," is relevant in more ways than one for all of us.