Music and the Writings of the Helfta Mystics
In the latter half of the thirteenth century, the convent of St. Mary's at Helfta, Saxony, represented one of the greatest literary, artistic, and spiritual centers of medieval Germany. Helfta was also the site of a flowering mystical tradition, demonstrated by three of the sisters: Mechthild of Magdeburg, Mechthild of Hackeborn, and Gertrude the Great. These three mystics each wrote books that relate the quest to come to an emotional understanding of the divine. More important for the purposes of this thesis, these books also contain numerous references to music in their authors' lives. The works contain many of the same musical elements (e.g., references to liturgical chants or stringed instruments), though each mystic uses these in a slightly different way. However, in the end, all three are united in viewing music as an integral part of the mystical experience. This thesis explains the numerous ways in which the nuns of Helfta understood and described music, relating these not only to each other but also to the larger context of thirteenth-century Germany. An investigation into the musical elements of the nuns' mysticism informs recent work that has been done in the fields of sociology and gender studies: this includes arguments over whether the nuns were proto-feminists, how much they were influenced by medieval conceptions of women as inferior to men, and the extent to which they were rebelling or reinforcing a male-dominated Church hierarchy. Following a general introduction to the thesis, Chapter 1 examines the state of the medieval Catholic Church, medieval mysticism, and the monastic life at Helfta. The next three chapters consider the musical thoughts of each of these three nuns, as detailed in their spiritual autobiographies: Gertrude's Legatus memorialis abundantiae divinae pietatis (Chapter 2), Mechthild of Hackeborn's Liber specialis gratiae (Chapter 3), and Mechthild of Magdeburg's Das fliessende licht der Gottheit (Chapter 4). Reflecting the emphases of the authors, the particular details of each chapter vary: all include references to liturgical music, the presence of music in mystical visions, the use of musical instruments, and the importance of songs of praise. However, Gertrude's also considers ways in which she uses Biblical citations, Mechthild of Hackeborn's includes a more detailed consideration of Mass and Office chants, and Mechthild of Magdeburg's examines some of the poetry and love songs she composed for God. The final chapter (Chapter 5) synthesizes the preceding information and considers the implications of a varied musical life at Helfta: namely, how music is a constructive, rather than destructive force (i.e., is used to support, rather than subvert Ecclesiastical authority), and is inextricably linked to the mystical experience.
Catholicism, feminism, medieval, mysticism
August 29, 2012.
A Thesis submitted to the College of Music in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Music.
Includes bibliographical references.
Charles E. Brewer, Professor Directing Thesis; Frank Gunderson, Committee Member; Douglass Seaton, Committee Member.
Florida State University
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