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Hildegard of Bingen: The West’s First Female Composer


Unlike most female composers, a nun’s compositions, somehow and fortunately, have survived the passage of time.

Women have, until very recently, been among the great absentees in the history of music. We can’t know, at the present moment, if this is a real absence, or as seems more likely, if women’s musical creativity at varying historical periods has simply remained hidden, concealed within the works of their male partners, or if perhaps it’s simply been irremediably lost.

In any case, it’s an unfortunate situation. To the extent that women, by their condition, have a sensitivity different to that of men, they inhabit the world differently and they’re situated in other ways within reality. For this very reason, they’re also capable of generating artistic expressions that offer a sort of symbolic counterpoint.

Such is the case with the compositions of Hildegard of Bingen, a Benedictine nun who has long been appreciated above all for her theological works and for the mystical episodes she experienced. She also dedicated her considerable efforts to music.

Like most music from her own time and circumstances (Hildegard lived in the 12th-century), her compositions are primarily religious and vocal. Judging by her writings, her faith was intense, but so was her talent for music. Both qualities reached a happy communion when Hildegard found, in Psalm 150, arguments maintaining that song is a manifestation of God within people, and thus it can satisfy devotion as it does desire for pleasure.

As a composer, Hildegard wrote more than 70 works, a number quite unusual for her time. Her most prolific period was after the age of 40 and then practically until her death at 81. During the same period, she wrote several works of theological reflection, religious doctrine, and compilations of the proto-scientific knowledge of the time (particularly concerning the natural medical remedies then practiced).

As we can see for ourselves, Hildegard’s vocal compositions lead almost naturally to a state of peacefulness and meditation, though they’re not entirely exempt from joviality. Beyond the cloister and the isolation evoked by other compositions of the time, these compositions more closely resemble the introspection induced at the sight of an open, immeasurable natural landscape. And perhaps, that is the very difference mentioned above.

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