Hildegard von Bingen: Her Life and Music
by Giocchino Jack Urso, December 1999.
Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179), the "Sibyl of the Rhine1," and Gregorian chant has experienced something of a revival in the past decade. With the popular success of the CD Chant by the Benedictine Monks of Domingo de Silos in 1994 more and more attention has been paid to this style of music. In today's secular society, and the electronic beat of its popular music, it is ironic that Gregorian Chant should find a large audience. It is even more ironic that Hildegard von Bingen, a Catholic saint, should be riding the wave of this revival.
Why should a relatively obscure 12th century nun experience a resurgence of interest on the cusp of the 21st century? In the course of my research for this paper I came across nineteen books on Hildegard von Bingen; twelve were written in the 1990s and five others in the 1980s. Not bad for an "obscure" 12th Century nun. Certainly it is not due to a religious revival, in fact, just the opposite. In addition to the interest in her music with the popularity of Gregorian Chants on the record charts, Hildegard von Bingen has also attracted interest from post-feminist writers and holistic healers. Today's listeners appreciate von Bingen's music perhaps for the peace of mind chant can help create. However, where to us the Latin phrases hang over heads as some mystical incantation, to von Bingen they were words of praise. These are songs of love and adoration to the God whom she worshipped. Like the great Gothic architecture of her time, these songs were used to create a space where the worship of the supernatural could take place.
Little is known of her family, and von Bingen herself is not known to have commented on the subject2. It is likely that she came from the "illustrious family of Stein, whose descendants are the present Princes of Salm3." Her parents' names, as recorded by her first biographer (a monk named Godfrey of Disibodenberg), were Hildebert and Mechthilde. Her father served as a soldier in the service of Meginhard, Count of Spanheim. While the nature of their title and the precise locations of their lands have not been recorded, their many donations to the church have been and it is through these sources that we can infer their noble heritage.
Von Bingen is referred to in several sources as being the tenth child of a noble family. This had been concluded by her reference of herself as a "tithe child" in early sources. There was a custom that the tenth child was considered the tithe child4. From the biblical term for giving ten percent of your harvest or wealth to the church (a tithe), the tithe child would be given over to the church to be trained for service. By the time the tenth child was born it is likely that her family would not have the money to provide a sufficient dowry for her. The fact that she was frequently sick made the prospect of marriage slim, if she survived into adulthood. Von Bingen was probably seen as something of a burden, even to her supposedly "highborn" family. Even though, there is no direct evidence of her coming from a family of ten children. Only eight names, of her and her siblings, have been recorded, although possibly the two others could have died in childhood. Given the high mortality rate of children, and Hildegard's own sickly nature, this is a likely explanation.
Her environment growing up is another area of mystery, as little information is known of it. Von Bingen, a devout and deeply religious person, related her childhood in spiritual terms, overlooking the daily routines and occurrences that seem to fascinate biographers. A few hints do give us a peek though. She had a pet calf of sorts, which may indicate an agricultural environment. Her education was limited, but the nature of which can only be inferred from what we know of her times. She was taught some reading and writing skills, but only so much as was relevant to basic religious instruction. She would have likely received a great deal of instruction via the oral traditions of the times. In a time when most people were illiterate, stories, songs and rhyming mnemonic devices were used to assist in memorization.
While von Bingen did not go into specifics about her childhood we have gleaned some insights from her comments. She did make reference, albeit indirectly, to the lack of personal space in her childhood, which is something that would have been common to all classes, including the nobility, during the Medieval Age5. In comparison to the secluded life and private cells enjoyed in the monasteries, von Bingen probably found the change of living space dramatic. Despite this apparent lack of personal space little Hildegard received little exposure to the outside world as a child. Again, her illnesses had already been preparing her for a life of seclusion. On this subject she is quoted as saying, "I was ignorant of many outside things because of the frequent illnesses I suffered…6"
Hildegard Von Bingen entered the church at the age of seven or eight into an abbey that was opened to the daughters of highborn families. Von Bingen's origins with the upper classes of society would have a significant impact on her personality and was a contributing factor in her psychological makeup which allowed her to so forcibly exert her power and opinions in the very male dominated society of 12th Century Europe. She was given over to the care of Jutta, who was the sister of Count Meginhard, in whose army von Bingen's father fought. Jutta lived as an anchoress (a monk or nun who never left their cell or monastic building) at Disenberg in the Diocese of Speyer7. She was part of an order of nuns located at the Benedictine monastery of Mount St. Disibode. Jutta came from noble stock herself as were all the nuns and novitiates at this particular abbey.
Even at this young age it was noticed that von Bingen, though often sick, was "high-strung, keenly intelligent…uncannily able to foretell coming events8." Hildegard received some basic instruction in Latin, probably as part of her religious instruction. While certainly an intelligent woman in any time her frequent illnesses may have resulted with her receiving less formal education than other women of her class. She never felt confident with the level of her literacy and often employed a secretary in later years to record her words for her in proper grammar9.
Once under the care of Jutta, von Bingen began to become accustomed to Benedictine ways. The Benedictines were a monastic order whose daily rituals followed a routine of work and worship. They had certain dietary requirements that had to be observed. Fish and fowl were permissible, but not meat from a four-footed animal. Meal times and the menu were prescribed by the order and took into account fasting days or feast days when fish was the only meat that could be eaten. The calendar was full of special days of observation and the diet adjusted so. Allowances were made for the diets of the very young, old, or sick. While local varieties of fruits and vegetables may differ from one region to the next the result was a simple, unchanging menu. A monotonous menu to be sure, but the communal lifestyle ensured a steady, plentiful supply. A circumstance that was slightly better than for many in Europe at the time.
The time alone due to her illnesses fostered von Bingen's studious nature. During her periods of recuperation she would have been freed from the strict schedule of the abbey and allowed her to spend some extra time developing her talents in art, music and medicine. In fact, her illnesses also inspired her art. Her manuscript illuminations included symbolism taken from the visions that were caused by her migraine headaches.
Von Bingen became a Benedictine nun when she was near eighteen years old. After Jutta dies in 1136 AD, von Bingen was held in high enough esteem to take her place as leader of her sister nuns, about twelve in all10. Von Bingen now entered a very creative period of her life. Her literary output consists of nine books and more than seventy poems. The first book, Scivias (Know the Ways) contained both von Bingen's words of wisdom and hand-painted illuminations. In addition to artwork for illuminated manuscripts she wrote extensively on medicine and matters of health and sexuality (including the first medical description of a female orgasm11), and had extensive correspondence with a broad range of people in her society.
As stated previously, due to her rudimentary education Hildegard von Bingen employed a secretary to assist her. Two are most noteworthy, a young Benedictine monk named Volmar and her trusted assistant, a sister nun, Richardis von Stade. When reading her letters we must allow for the fact that von Bingen's weak grammatical skills were compensated for by her secretaries12. Nonetheless, the broad range of her talents is indicative of a very literate person. She is, however, as known for her powerful visions (likely due to migraine headaches) as she is for her music.
Hildegard von Bingen chaffed under the control of Abbot Kuno of the monastery of Mount St. Disibode. After her recognition by Pope Eugenius III she began to attract many more new members of her order. In time the need for larger space and autonomy to run her community persuaded von Bingen in 1151 to move her community to Rupertsburg where she became an abbess and was beholden only to the Archbishop of Mainz, superceded the local control of such church officials like Abbot Kuno. This move provoked strife between the two communities of Benedictine Monks and Nuns, which was further aggravated by other disagreements. The friction continued for thirty-three years, at times spurred on by von Bingen's own uncompromising attitude. She died in September 1179, and was honored as a saint nearly immediately. She was canonized in 123313.
Hildegard's von Bingen's visions form the central basis for her mystique. Her visions are part of her legacy as a Catholic saint. They provide a divine voice to her muse that is hard to critique. Yet, there seems to be a pathological explanation for her visions, her migraine headaches. Dr. Oliver Sacks, the noted Professor of Neurology at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, provides us with three presumptions we must acknowledge while investigating the medical reasons for her visions.
1. There is no such thing as valid spiritual experience. Speaking in tongues, dream visions, prayer, etc., are invalid experiences.
2. There is no such thing as valid psychic experience.
3. Given that the first two experiences are true, there is spiritual realm(s) and/or no interaction between the spiritual and the physical that cannot be explained solely in physical terms14.
Sacks goes on to explain further that the "experience represents a hysterical or psychotic ecstasy, the effects of intoxication, or an epileptic or migrainous manifestation15." Von Bingen's medicinal writings indicate she had a knowledge of herbs and spices (like nutmeg) which are capable of producing mild hallucinogenic effects. Because of the great deal of correspondence left behind by von Bingen we know that she suffered from migraine headaches, which she described (as part of her visions) in detail. Points of light which move in wave-like patterns or as "shimmering circles of light" are typical of the visions inflicted on migraine sufferers and described by von Bingen herself16. Von Bingen describes the condition in the following passage:
"From my infancy up to the present time, I being more than seventy years of age, I have always seen this light in my spirit and not with external eyes, nor with any thoughts of my heart nor with help from the senses. But my outward eyes remain open and the other corporeal senses retain their activity. The light which I see is not located but yet is more brilliant than the sun, nor can I examine its height, length, or breadth, and I name it the "cloud of the living light." And as sun, moon, and the stars are reflected in water, so the writings, sayings, virtues, and works of men shine in it before me. Likewise I see, hear, and understand almost in a moment and I set down what I thus learn..." 17
From the above quote we can infer that von Bingen did not fall into a trance-like state when visited by her visions, but rather was awake and alert. This accounts for how she was able to keep her visions a secret until she was ready to discuss them with church elders. While we regard von Bingen and her visions with some mystery she recounted her experiences in a very matter-of-fact manner, without the passion and fervor we accord to such visionaries. This stems, I believe, from the very pragmatic approach she took to her duties and what she perceived as her calling. Other such "visionaries," like a contemporary of hers Elisabeth of Shönau, would become incapacitated during a vision and be incapable of performing any other functions18.
Von Bingen felt a divine calling to set the visions, and her interpretations of those visions, down in a book. The Scivias (shorten from the Latin 'Scito vias Domini' meaning 'Know the Ways of the Lord') was her first volume of a trilogy relating her 'mystic' visions and wisdom19. Interlaced throughout the Scivias are numerous Visios, her illuminated artwork, which integrated visual images she claimed to receive in her visions. Pope Eugenius received a selection of the Scivias circa 1147-48. So impressed was he by it, the pope said the work was "divinely inspired" and gave her the Church's authorization to complete it.
At left is a sample of Hildegard von Bingen's manuscript illumination artwork. The migraine sufferer's "circles of light" are plainly seen here in a piece evocative of a Far Eastern mandala. We can infer, from the distance of 900 years, pathological reasons for Hildegard's visions and the inspirations for her illuminations. Nevertheless, this does not take away from the beauty of her work nor its significance to the devout.
Hildegard von Bingen's music was inspired by the daily performance of the Daily Office. The Divine Office is a Catholic term for a liturgical prayer, which is sung eight times a day. For almost four hours every day von Bingen and her sister nuns chanted. In her monastic world, von Bingen had everything she needed to develop her musical skills," A scriptorium where experienced copyists could pen her music; a skilled and practiced performing body to sing it; and occasions for the performance of her music-the liturgy20."
Von Bingen assembled her collected body of compositions into a cycle called The Symphony of the Harmony of the Heavenly Revelations. This title reflects not only the divine aspect of her work, but its benefice as well. Von Bingen felt that music was a way for the believer to recover the unity of our body, mind, and soul in our relationship with God21. Seventy plus compositions contained in the cycle represent what we know of her as a composer. After her move away from the monastery of Mount St. Disibode, von Bingen began to compose more and for other monasteries as well. She wrote not only worship music, but also songs celebrating the lives of various saints and moral drama as well. Her Play of Virtues features vocal parts for the Devil, patriarchs and prophets, the soul, and even a part as abstract as "The Knowledge of God." This is a type of morality play. Imagine the classic medieval morality play Everyman set to music and that's the general idea22.
The various compositions can be categorized as follows:23
ANTIPHONS: A melody sung before and after a psalm, her largest category of pieces.
RESPONSORIES: Chant with music and lyrics performed after a scripture lesson, alternates between solo and group responses. Her second largest category.
SEQUENCES: Sung between the alleluia and gospel during mass. Hildegard's sequences were non-rhyming dramatic pieces and poems.
HYMNS: Devotional pieces composed with or without melodic repetition.
There are stylistic elements that are characteristic of von Bingen's music which should be noted as well and have been commented on by musicologist Marianne Pfau24.
SOARING: Compared to the chants of her contemporaries Hildegard employed a wide vocal range.
LEAPS: Plainchant usually never employed intervals larger than a second or third. Hildegard's music vaults upward and downward with wide intervals of fifths and fourths.
CONTOUR: Rapid ascents in the melodies with a slow, falling decline. Her melodies were more "angular than her contemporaries25."
DRAMATIC FLOURISHES: "Hildegard's chants contrast neumatic and melismatic passages. Neumatic passages are organized with two or three notes per syllable. Melismatic passages use three or more notes per syllable. Hildegard often uses melismatic or decorative passages to articulate form, to animate the line, to create agile, supple melodies and to separate sections of pieces. Combined with an ascending passage at the end of the piece, Hildegard uses melismas to anticipate the joy we will experience in arriving at our final celestial destiny26."
The song, O Virga Ac Diadema (Praise for the Mother-track one on the accompanying CD) on Vision; The Music of Hildegard von Bingen (Angel Records, 1994) has many of the classic elements of Gregorian Chant that mark this period. There are seven verses labeled 1a, 1b, 2a, 2b, 3a, 3b and 4a (refer to the lyric sheet at the end of this paper). The song seems composed especially for the range of the female voice and the as the verses are sung together at the polyphonic peak of the piece. Melismatic organum structures the song in a manner that reminded me of the Gothic cathedrals of Hildegard's time. The higher voices stretching skywards like the flying buttresses that supported the cathedrals' great walls. Latin, foreign to our ears as it probably was to many German serfs, enhances the mystic quality of the song. Not being able to comprehend the words we turn inwards in contemplation, considering the emotional reaction the music provokes in us.
In making her music more accessible Hildegard did not write her lyrics in the proper Latin used my the Church. Instead she wrote in the vulgate. The vulgate was a more common form of Latin, practical in use and more widely understood27.
Musical instruments were probably not frequent guests during the performance of the Divine Office in Hildegard's lifetime. We do know; however, that Hildegard considered some instruments to remind the worshipper of certain virtues28.
Tambourine: The taut skin of the tambourine inspires us to keep to a fast and maintain our discipline
Flute: The sound of this wind instrument was to remind us of the Holy Spirit.
Trumpet: The powerful, clear sound to remind us of the prophets.
Strings: The sound of the soul as it strives for the light.
Harp: The "instrument of heavenly blessedness29." It evokes our heavenly origins.
Psaltery: A plucked instrument played on the top and bottom strings reminded one of the union of heaven and earth.
Organ: The harmonies it can play create a sense of community.
Let us turn now to musical notation. Below is a section of a composition in her notation style in her own hand30.
The notation style has similar elements to modern notation, yet is less developed. Certainly chant required a less complicated notation language than Baroque orchestras and the vocal gymnastics several hundred years later.
Von Bingen, in addition to being one of the first composers to sign her name to her works, also employed the use of a musical signature. Described as "a melodic leap of a fifth followed by a leap of a fourth upwards," it serves as a kind of musical fingerprint (see sample below31 ).
We can hear this musical signature in the phrase "Leta Via" in the song Vision, from the title track of Richard Souther's recording of Hildegard von Bingen's music, which opens with this musical signature.
Hildegard von Bingen presents many facets for us to study. Doctors read her works on medicines and health. Poets read her words. Artists study her manuscript illuminations. Historians read her voluminous correspondence. Feminists and the religious study her life and, of course, musicians study her music. She remains relevant today because the passions that drove her life, and the way she expressed them, are timeless aspects of the human character. In passion as well as art; both must always find expression.
In the end von Bingen presents to us a character study in the strength and force of will of the human psyche. In the depths of the European Middle Ages a woman plagued by chronic pain and living in a male dominated world expressed her love and devotion to God through a prism of many talents. With pen, in song, in art, and in music Hildegard von Bingen called out to her world in a voice that reaches our own 900 years later.
1. Beer, Francis. Women and Mystical Experience in the Middle Ages. Woodbridge: The Boydell Press. 1992.
2. Dreyer, Elizabeth, Passionate Women: Two Medieval Mystics. New York: Paulist Press. 1989.
3. Fierro, Nancy. Hildegard of Bingen: Symphony of the Harmony of Heaven. [article on-line] (Ann Arbor, MI., 1999); available from http://www.uni-mainz.de/~horst/hildegard/music/music.html; Internet.
4. Flanagan, Sabina. Hildegard of Bingen, 1098-1179 A Visionary Life. 2nd ed. London: Routledge, 1990.
5. Fox, Matthew O.P., with text by Hildegard of Bingen. Illuminations of Hildegard of Bingen. Santa Fe: Bear & Company Inc. 1985.
6. Lehrman, Kristina. The Life and Works of Hildegard von Bingen [article on-line] (Marina del Rey, CA., 1998); available from http://tweedledee.ucsb.edu/~kris/music/Hildegard.html; Internet.
7. Mershman, Francis, "St. Hildegard," The Catholic Encyclopedia [book on-line] (Denver, CO., 1999); available from http://www.knight.org/advent/cathen/07351a.htm. Internet.
8. Newman, Barbara. Sisters of Wisdom. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1987.
9. Sacks, Oliver, Ph.D. Vision as Pathology [article on-line] (Millersville, PA., 1996); available from http://www.millersv.edu/~english/homepage/duncan/medfem/sacks.html; Internet.
10. Singer, Charles. Hildegard's Migraines: The Pathological Basis of the Visions [article on-line] (Millersville, PA., 1996); available from http://www.millersv.edu/~english/homepage/duncan/medfem/hildega.html; Internet.
11. Souther, Richard. Vision: The Music of Hildegard von Bingen. With Emily von Evera and Sister Germaine Fritz, OSB. Liner notes by David Foil. Angel, D106215, 1994.
12. Von Bingen, Hildegard. The Letters of Hildegard of Bingen. Trans. Joseph L. Baird, Radd K. Ehrman. New York: Oxford University Press. 1994.
13. Von Bingen, Hildegard. Secrets of God: Writings of Hildegard of Bingen. Trans. Sabina Flanagan, Ph.D. Boston: Shambhala Publications Inc. 1996.