Hildegard of Bingen

Rebecca Tavener gives an insight into Hildegard of Bingen.

Which is your Hildegard?  She seems to have as many personae as Barbie: Ecology Hildegard; Physician Hildegard; Visionary, Teacher, Artist, Poet, Abbess, Correspondent, Composer or Historian Hildegard, they’re all aspects of one of the most fascinating and complex women of the middle ages and, whether you are Roman Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox or just a music-lover, it was an event for all musicians when Pope Benedict XVI announced her elevation to the status of saint and doctor of the church, the first composer to be so honoured.  Can we prove beyond doubt that she wrote the seventy-seven musical works attributed to her and does it matter if we can’t?  Greater minds than mine have struggled inconclusively with this question and my favourite answer came from Richard Witts (‘How to Make a Saint’, Early Music, OUP, 1998) who likened her to Walt Disney – Disney didn’t draw the actual animations but without him there would be no Bambi - so let’s set doubt aside and glance through the Romanesque arch of history at one of the most charismatic female figures of the last millennium.

O viridissima virga

A key to understanding her as a creative force in the history of sacred music lies in the dramatic events of 1178/9, the last year of her life: having authorised the burial in consecrated ground of an excommunicated outlaw after his deathbed repentance, Abbess Hildegard found herself in serious trouble.  Her enemies chose this moment to denounce her, encouraged by the temporary absence of her protector, the Archbishop of Mainz, and her community was placed under an interdict forbidding them to sing the daily round of offices and denying them access to the sacraments.  Hildegard’s reaction to this is revealing: in a desperate, pleading letter to the Archbishop she insists that evil would fill the vacuum created by the lack of music in Rupertsberg and that:

“Those who, without just cause, impose silence on a church and prohibit the singing of God’s praises… will lose their place among the chorus of angels”.

Hildegard’s Theology of Music is centred on the concept of the ‘cosmic symphony’ in which at those times when a human community gathers to sing sacred music it forms a temporary connection to heaven, tuned in to the nine orders of angels singing around the throne of God.  She maintained that the health, both spiritual and physical, of her community depended on this constant communion through song, regulated by the monastic hours.  To cut a long story short, witnesses were questioned and justice prevailed, Hildegard and her nuns were exonerated and the interdict lifted just in time for her last weeks on this earth to be stress-free.

Music – ‘singing prayer’ was the central work and purpose of the monk/nun in the Middle Ages, praying through song on behalf of the entire secular world, so her music is arguably Hildegard’s greatest gift to posterity and it still makes perfect sense today in a world that has changed beyond recognition. She built on a tradition that goes back before Christ to the liturgies of synagogue and temple, but let’s hear from one of the early Christian fathers:

“…in your concord and harmonious love, Jesus Christ is sung. And man by man, become a choir, that being harmonious in love, and taking up the song of God in unison, you may with one voice sing to the Father through Jesus Christ, so that He may both hear you, and perceive by your works that you are indeed the members of His Son.”

Letter of St Ignatius of Antioch to the Ephesians, Chapter 4 (First century AD)

Hildegard’s vision of the Cosmic Symphony

O felix anima

So who was she? Born in 1098, probably the tenth child of minor nobles, she was given to the church having been deemed ‘special’ due to her prophetic and visionary gifts, evident from the age of four.  At seven she was enclosed in the Benedictine Abbey of Disibodenberg (a male foundation – this was before the complete gender separation of religious houses) in the care of a young anchoress, Jutta of Spanheim, who took care of her education in matters suitable for a noble nun: reading and writing Latin; study of the scriptures and liturgy; music, including learning an unidentified plucked-stringed instrument, and so on. 

The next three decades were fairly uneventful, although Hildegard’s leadership qualities must have been apparent because she was elected Abbess of the small community of nuns in 1136.  In 1141 everything changed when her visions took on a much more compelling character and she began, with the help of her amanuensis, the monk Volmar, to record them in the first of her major writings, Scivias (‘Know the Ways’).  In 1147/8 her works were championed by Bernard of Clairveaux and declared ‘divinely inspired’ by Pope Eugenius.  By this time the collection of music known as the Symphonia armoniae celestium revelationum (Symphonies of the harmony of celestial revelations) was beginning to take shape.

O Jerusalem

In 1150 Hildegard was convinced that God was calling her to take her nuns to Rupertsberg and build a new abbey on that ancient site.  Unsurprisingly, the monks at Disibodenberg were not impressed: not only would they lose the most famous member of their community but also the rich dowries that her nuns had brought with them.   She got her way in the end, however, and her new foundation brought her more wealthy recruits and fame, an increasing source of jealousy in her peers.

Hildegard dictating to her amanuensis, Volmar.

Her visions and her practical life both inspired more books, from theology and biography to medicine, and she (or her nuns) created exquisite illuminations of her visions.  She invented her own spiritual language, went on teaching tours (authorised by the Pope – extraordinary for a female at this time), and corresponded copiously with the great and good of her age: kings, prelates, popes and, occasionally, more personally, with her family.  It is her music, however, settings of her own lavishly colourful religious poetry, which is of most interest today.

O viriditas digiti Dei

Her seventy-seven musical works fall into two categories: the formally liturgical and the more freely composed.  The obviously liturgical material consists of Antiphons (short pieces which act as bookends to Psalms and Canticles), Responsories (formal musical structures that are a particular feature of the Office of Matins) and Sequences (probably sung at Mass) – these latter works, with their richly imaged poetry matched by original, exalted plainchant of the highest imagination and quality, are justly celebrated today.   All this music had a purpose as vehicles for texts related to the saints to which she was particularly dedicated, principally the Blessed Virgin Mary, St Ursula (martyred with her train of 11,000 virgins in the Rhineland), St Disibod and St Rupert (founders of her two monastic homes) and the Holy Spirit, and she occasionally wrote to commission from other religious houses.

O Bonifaci

Here’s what she had to say about the power of music:

“Through the power of hearing, God opens to human beings all the glorious sound of the hidden mysteries and of the choirs of angels by whom God is praised over and over again.”

“O Trinity, you are music, you are life”

“The word stands for the body but the symphony (singing together in community) stands for the spirit.”

“So too, you, O men and women, who are poor and frail in nature, hear in music the sound from the fiery love of the virginal blush that flowers like a green twig in the embrace of words.  Hear the sound from the peak of the living lights shining in the celestial city.  Hear the sound from the wonderful words of the missions of the apostles.  Hear the sound from the office of the priestly mysteries.”

“All of creation is a symphony of the Holy Spirit which is joy and jubilation.”

So, here’s a brief round-up of Hildegard’s musical views:

God is the ultimate music
Heaven is all music
Humans connect to heaven through music
God speaks to mankind through music
Human musicians and composers are God’s instruments
Music is health
Music is a defence against evil
The Devil has no music (evil = disharmony)

Hildegard’s belief that the Devil has no music is exemplified by her longest work, characterised by some of her more breathlessly enthusiastic admirers as the ‘world’s first music-drama’.  The Ordo Virtutem (Rite of the Virtues) has various dramatis personae: the ‘heroine’ Anima (The Spirit) and the female virtues with their queen whom she encounters in a variety of ‘scenes’ both singly and en masse.  The sole male role, The Devil, probably originally played by her friend and amanuensis, Volmar, is, tellingly, not sung but spoken (or shouted).  If John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress represents a very masculine brand of muscular Christianity, then the Ordo Virtutem is its fragrant, feminine, spiritual counterpart, concerned with the internal, psychological, emotional relationship of the soul with God.

Lament of the Virtues (Ordo Virtutem)

The Ordo Virtutem may be her magnum opus but it is not the most informative work about her day-to-day leadership of the community.  I believe that to be the Symphonia Virginum (O dulcissime amator) a love song to Christ and Hildegard’s musical manifesto.   It may look unprepossessing when the music is placed  beside that of the Sequences, with its narrow range and largely syllabic underlay suggesting that it might have been intended as a communal act of devotion and re-commitment.  The poetry is reminiscent of the Song of Songs, piling image upon image, often semi-erotic, to reinforce the bulwarks of a Bride of Christ.  It is rarely heard today as secular performers tend to select from Hildegard’s more elaborate work but, for me, the Symphonia Virginum reaches right into the heart of Hildegard’s community and I imagine her leading her nuns in singing it whenever she felt that they needed to rededicate themselves to Christ.

Here’s my own group, Canty, singing the Symphonia Virginum

Some have suggested that Hildegard’s music is barely choral at all and it is clear that many of the more elaborate passages of free-flowing, wide-ranging, chant require virtuoso individual voices.  It is also true that a monastic community would generally rely on an expert schola to sing the more challenging parts of the liturgy while the others (and not all of them) might only join in the Psalms and Canticles.  To suggest that Rupertsberg was ‘ordinary’ in that way ignores the vexed question of class.  Hildegard was a true noblewoman of her age, a staunch upholder of the feudal system and a proponent of class segregation – we know this because she was obliged to answer criticism about this very issue.  She admitted only noblewomen into her community and this blue-blooded sorority had two significant effects: firstly the abbey was very rich having acquired the dowries of all these women of substance; secondly, her nuns were educated to a higher degree than the average medieval female.  Noblewomen were generally taught the trivium (grammar, logic and rhetoric) and music was one of four ‘liberal arts’ (the quadrivium) accessible usually only to men, one reason why Hildegard always described herself as ‘unlearned’.  None the less, noble children of both genders were exposed to formal music-making and, even allowing for some of the nuns to be totally lacking in talent, I contend that this cultured community must have enjoyed above average levels of musical competence.

Ave generosa

Immediately after her death a variety of miracles were recorded and her vita prepared with a view to initiating the process of canonisation.  It would take too long, however, to explain here why this process faltered and failed, but increasing mistrust of women in spiritual authority was one element.  Why elevate her now?  Is it cynical to suggest that this a bone thrown by the church to an increasingly insistent female faction?  Whatever one thinks, Pope Benedict XVI was determined to foster time-honoured liturgical traditions - he may not have succeeded in stuffing, what is in my view, the ugly, modern, liturgical genie, with its guitars, amplification and simple-minded choruses, back into the lamp, but many musicians of all denominations respect the stance he took.  I believe that God and his people deserve quality, He and they deserve that musicians should strive with every sinew to offer what is good and beautiful and that this should be transmitted to all - if music professionals believe in the Cosmic Symphony we should be expunging whatever is mediocre and unworthy and enabling every worshipper to pray through music that truly glorifies God.

Hildegard’s reputation today has been confused by her appropriation by New Age and feminist factions who seek to use her to prove theories which range from the utterly anachronistic to some which are frankly loopy.  To see something of the real woman it is necessary to set them aside and allow her extant works to speak for themselves, proclaiming their creator as a power-house polymath.

Hildegard is loved and respected by all denominations today.  I’ve been trying to create my own edition of her music and have worked with interested people within Protestant, Catholic and secular organisations all equally susceptible to the power of her work.  A Dominican friend suggested to me recently that Hildegard should replace St Cecilia as Patron Saint of Music (the historical St Cecilia has nothing whatsoever to do with music, but that story is for another occasion).  At this time when so much current research attests to the value of choral singing for physical, psychological and social health, proving Hildegard’s theories to be at least partially correct, I would like to suggest that she be adopted, however informally, as Patron Saint of Community Singing.

September 9 is St Hildegard’s Feast Day and I’ll be celebrating by having a good sing through some of her loveliest pieces, pausing to marvel at how a woman of the Middle Ages could rise so far above the restrictions of a man’s world.

There are many books and recordings available.  If I were to recommend just one of each to the Hildegard novice they would be:

Secrets of God – Writings of Hildegard of Bingen
Sabina Flanagan
Shambala (1996)

O Jerusalem
DHM (05472 77353 2)

Special offer on Canty CDs:

If readers of this blog would like Canty’s CDs which contain works by St Hildegard, you can get them direct from me: just drop me an email quoting ‘Different Voices Hildegard’ and you can have both of the following together for £10 (post free within the UK).

Wings of Wisdom – Canty sings works by St Hildegard and also from 13thc Scotland about St Columba (Inchcolm Antiphoner)

Carmina Celtica – Canty sings old and new music connected to Celtic saints including two brief Antiphons by St Hildegard.

Rebecca Tavener is Creative Director of Cappella Nova. Founded in 1982 Cappella Nova has built an unrivalled reputation as champions of Scotland’s unique treasury of early vocal music.