Saturday, May 12, 2012

`A Strain of Music from a Straw'

Pope Benedict XVI has inscribed Hildegard of Bingen (1089-1179) in “the catalogue of saints.” St. Hildegard was an enormously accomplished woman, a German Benedictine mystic and abbess who wrote books of theology, botany and medicine, as well as letters, poems and liturgical songs, and invented her own alphabet and language, Lingua Ignota . She wrote at least seventy musical compositions, including the earliest surviving morality play, Ordo Virtutum. In Great Christian Thinkers: From the Early Church through the Middle Ages (Fortress Press, 2011), the Pope writes:

“For her, the entire creation is a symphony of the Holy Spirit, who is in himself joy and jubilation.”

Hildegard judged herself merely a channel for divine music rather than its composer. In one of her letters translated in The Personal Correspondence of Hildegard of Bingen (Oxford University Press, 2006), she cautions “those who desire to perform the works of God should abandon celestial matters to Him Who is celestial…only sounding the mysteries of God like a great trumpet.” Music is not self-expression but God-expression. Could any conception of art be more alien to modern understanding – artist as obedient conduit? She continues:

“Whence, in metaphor, the prophetic spirit commands us to praise God with clashing cymbals and cymbals of jubilation [Psalms 150:5], as well as other musical instruments which men of wisdom and zeal have invented, because all arts pertaining to things useful and necessary for mankind have been created by the breath that God sent into man’s body. For this reason it is proper that God be praised in all things.”

In his journal entry for Oct. 26, 1851, Thoreau records a reverie he experiences after waking from a dream in which he rode horses, sailed in a Viking ship, saw the dog he doesn’t own and buttons from the coats of drowned men, and in a field met Bronson Alcott with whom he exchanges “pleasing couplets.” On waking, Thoreau fancies himself a sort of human Aeolian harp:

“And then again the instant that I awoke, methought I was a musical instrument from which I heard a strain die out, a bugle, or a clarionet, or a flute. My body was the organ and channel of melody, as a flute is of the music that is breathed through it. My flesh sounded and vibrated still to the strain, and my nerves were the chords of the lyre. I awoke, therefore, to an infinite regret,—to find myself, not the thoroughfare of glorious and world-stirring inspirations --but a scuttle full of dirt--such a thoroughfare only as the street & the kennel--where perchance the wind may sometimes draw forth a strain of music from a straw.”

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