Bringing Blessed Hildegard to life
A Q&A with singer and actress Linn Maxwell
By Kerry Weber
Linn Maxwell loves music. This love, not to mention her classical training and her beautiful voice, has led to invitations to perform in countless venues in 25 countries, in productions ranging from cabaret shows to Handel’s “Messiah.” It also led her to Blessed Hildegard of Bingen. Hildegard’s love for music was equally fierce. This 12th-century German abbess composed dozens of songs during a time when many felt the practice was best left to men. She also mixed natural remedies, challenged Church authorities, had visions that she said helped her to better understand religious texts, and wrote about spirituality, medicine, and the natural world.
But while music may have been Maxwell’s introduction to Hildegard, it was Hildegard’s life that drew her in. Convinced that others might be riveted as well, Maxwell set about writing a one woman play about Hildegard’s life. Maxwell threw herself into the project, even learning to play medieval musical instruments — the medieval harp, the symphonia, and the Iberian tenor psaltery — before the play debuted in May 2009.
She will perform the play six days a week during the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in Scotland in August 2010. Catholic Digest caught up with Maxwell after her performance as Hildegard at the Church of the Transfiguration, an Episcopal church in Manhattan.
So how did it come about that you said to yourself, “A play about a rebellious, 12th century singing nun is the next step for my career”?
I guess the first (time) I thought of it was in 2008. I had done other one-woman shows and I thought this was so far afield from anything I’ve ever done, and yet in a way it isn’t because I used to sing early music all the time.
What first drew you to Hildegard?
I was attracted to Hildegard in the early ’90s. There were almost no books about her, but I stumbled across a recording and a book. I said, “Oh, that’s lovely. I’ll do a concert of her music,” but it never happened. I didn’t think of her as a character, because at that time I wasn’t acting. Even when I started acting, I sort of put Hildegard away and said, “I’ll never do that,” and then she sort of came back and said, “I’m here.” She tapped me on the shoulder and has never let go. She’s been here the whole time.
How could you tell?
When I was writing the script, I would want to go in a particular direction, but it just wouldn’t work. She wanted me to stick to the facts and tell her story, not dumb it down. I knew that it needed to be chronological, and I knew that I needed to break down the fourth wall and just be right with the audience and bring them along.
What did you hope that would add for the audience?
That it would make Hildegard real to them. I think each person can get a wonderful blessing if they get in touch with the Living Light and know Hildegard’s message.
Which aspects of Hildegard’s life and message can people relate to today?
I think they can relate to [her interest in] natural healing. I think they can relate to women’s struggles. I think they can relate to the green message everywhere. And also her concern about reform and turning your back on evil and saying what’s right, doing what’s right, writing those letters to the pope (protesting corruption within the Church. She wrote to Pope Anastasius IV to express her disapproval of his unwillingness to curb this injustice, saying “Wherefore O man, you who sit on the papal throne, you despise God when you embrace evil. For in failing to speak out against the evil of those in your company, you are certainly not rejecting it. Rather, you are kissing it.”).
Which aspect of her life speaks to you most personally?
Like Hildegard, I lived in Germany at different times in my life. I sang opera there, and I go back all the time because I have friends there and I speak the language fluently. I feel very much at home there. When I decided to seriously do Hildegard, I said, “I have to go back.” I went to Bingen, which is a little backwater town. You can’t get a cappuccino very easily there. People don’t speak English there like they do in Frankfurt. I was by myself and stayed at the Hotel Rumerhoff, built on the site of the Monastery of St. Rupert that Hildegard founded. So the night I stayed there I thought, I’m sleeping where she did, and this is where she lived and died. There are many places that have her relics and I went to them, just trying to find her. It was like she was saying, “Well, look at this, look at this.” I’ve been a singer my whole life, since was 5, so I suppose her music is what drew me to her. It’s just monumental. It’s not like any other music from that time. It doesn’t resemble Gregorian chant. She wrote uniquely.
How did you go about choosing which of her songs to include in the play?
That wasn’t easy, but I wanted each song to carry the story forward. When she moves to Rupertsberg she sings to St. Rupert. When she talks about the plants she sings about the green branches. The last one had to be really “up” because she’s finally able to make music again after the interdict. For me as an actor, the hardest part is integrating the songs organically. I work on that consciously, and I hope it works.
Sure, you can see her going on a kind of journey through the play. What about your own faith journey and background?
As a musician, I’ve sung in just about every denomination, and I actually was in the Catholic Church for several years and was very active in the music and I love it very much. But then I married a Methodist and now I’m Methodist. Hildegard is not as much of a mystery to me because I know where she’s coming from and whom she’s praying to. For me that is paramount. I purposefully kept the script free of the name “Jesus,” and I only say “God” a couple of times, because I really want people to look inside themselves and say, “What do I believe?” I wanted the play to be an invitation to them.
How have people reacted to the play?
I’ve been amazed. …people come up afterwards and they say, “Thank you for doing that; I got such a blessing.” People will say thank you for the blessing (“Go forth and let the Living Light shine in you”) at the end of the play. Somebody wrote to me and said, “I wish every public program would end with a blessing like that, because we really need it right now.” There’s something in it that seems to touch people. CD
Kerry Weber is an assistant editor at America magazine. Her book, Keeping the Faith: Prayers for College Students, is available from twentythirdpublications.com.
A closer look at Linn Maxwell
Favorite place to perform:
Biggest musical inspiration: “The work of the group Sequentia. And Barbara Thornton. She recorded almost all of the songs of Hildegard in 1998, which was the 900th anniversary of Hildegard’s birth.”
Favorite food: Junior’s cheesecake
Favorite opera: “The Marriage of Figaro”
Favorite book: “Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth. It takes place in Hildegard’s time but in England.”
Who was Hildegard?
A 12th-century Benedictine nun, Hildegard was a strong woman who held a deep love of the Church and an equally deep need to protest the injustices within it. The 10th child in a wealthy family, she was given to the monastery at an early age, read extensively, grew in her faith, and eventually became abbess. In the convent, she had visions that helped her achieve a deeper understanding of holy texts.
She became a resource to others on the topic of prayer and was allowed to write about theology, as well as a variety of other topics. Her writings, which include a morality play, songs, and chants, cover subjects such as natural medicine (including gynecological topics), a love of nature, letters of protest, and records of her visions. But for Hildegard the topics were not disparate. All of these things were united and interconnected, done for the glory of God.
Hildegard versus the archbishops
Hildegard was in her 80s when she and her Religious community in Germany chose to allow a Christian burial on their land for an excommunicated man. The local clergy objected and requested that the body be exhumed and removed. Hildegard, after prayerful consideration through her visions — and with the knowledge that the man had reconciled with the Church — refused, and instead hid the burial site. The clergy reacted by imposing an interdict on her community, meaning that the women were not allowed to sing the Divine Office or receive the sacraments. For a woman dedicated to music, the restriction was especially difficult, but Hildegard complied, even while she worked to appeal the decision. She wrote a letter to her archbishop, then sought help from the archbishop of Cologne, who presented a witness who could attest to the deceased man’s reconciliation with the Church, all to no avail. A second letter to another sympathetic archbishop finally resulted in a repeal of the interdict — and even an apology.