August 26, 2010


Hildegarde of Bingen

For calmer waters and sweeter song I found Abbess Hildegard of Bingen, a 12th-century healer, mystic, visionary and composer at Surgeons' Hall. Ignored for centuries, her work is undergoing a revival and here she is reborn as mezzo Linn Maxwell from Michigan. Chic in a nunly habit enhanced with a fine lace coif, she commands a lectern, rack of drying herbs and assorted medieval instruments: psaltery, symphonia and harp, on which she accompanies herself in hypnotically beautiful song. In between, she relates her rebellious life - ticking off Popes, defying corrupt clergy, using migraine attacks to have visions of "The Living Light" and insist the chaps are doing God's work wrong.
"I am," she says modestly "a feather on the breath of God." But in a Church which to this day keeps women in their place, she had no hesitation in writing fierce letters to the Pope himself, beginning "Wherefore O man, you who sit on the papal throne, you despise God when you embrace evil . . ." They could have walled her up for that, but her fame as musician and visionary saw her through all battles to die at 80. Maxwell offers a cheeky posthumous coda. "I politely declined to perform any miracles. Sainthood is so overrated." She should tour the Catholic enclaves during the Papal visit.

Libby Purves