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  • Writer's pictureGraham Abbott

Hildegard of Bingen

We live in an insanely busy world, with an over-supply of information, entertainment, advertising, news and pseudo-news, with more music thrown at us more often than perhaps is healthy, with silence being a rare commodity and most of us feeling the need for time out but rarely getting it. Because of this it's perhaps not surprising that there have been attempts - and not just in music, of course - to simplify things, to get back to basics, to help us (and I wince slightly saying this) to "chill out".

This is part of the appeal of early music. To some people, the Renaissance and Baroque seem clearer, "cleaner", less-cluttered than the late Romantics or the avant garde. And some new music is written to the same ends: Henryck Górecki, Arvo Pärt and John Taverner are just three modern composers whose music in some ways seeks to address similar issues.

But in recent times, the need for "chill out" music has gone much, much earlier in its quest to find music to soothe our savage, time-poor breasts. The use of Gregorian chant, music which was formalised around the ninth century, is a case in point, and while this has in some ways helped people to realise that there was indeed music before Bach, in other ways some of the recordings of chant released under the "chill out" tag has done this repertoire a great disservice.

Which all serves to bring me to the topic for this article, a woman whose music has in recent years been put to similar "new age" ends but whose life as a whole is largely unknown. She goes back more than 900 years - almost as far as Gregorian chant - and she was a fascinating individual. I'd like to share some of the facts about her, such as they are known, and view her music as music and not some aid to relaxation. Welcome to an overview of the life and work of Hildegard of Bingen. [listen]

Hildegard was born around 1098 in the town of Bermersheim, in what is now south western Germany. She was born into a noble family, the youngest child of a large family; she had a least seven older siblings. Her parents offered her to the church when she was eight. This may have been for political and social reasons, or as a result of the visions Hildegard herself later claimed she experienced from the age of five.

St Martinus, the baptismal church of Hildegard in Bermersheim. has since the Reformation been a Simultankirche, a church used by Protesants and Catholics. Only parts of the present church are thought to be medieval.

How old she was when she was enclosed - that is, when she began her secluded life as a nun - is unclear. Hildegard later said she was eight when she was enclosed with an older nun, Jutta von Spanheim, but Jutta is known to have been enclosed in 1112, by which time Hildegard would have been fourteen. Certainly, fourteen seems the more likely age for her to have been when she was bound over to the Benedictine monastery at Disibodenberg in the Palatinate Forest. On All Saints' Day, 1 November, 1112, both Jutta's and Hildegard's vows were received by Bishop Otto of Bamberg, and their life together in the service of the church had begun.

Jutta was also of noble birth; her father was Count Stephan II of Sponheim. She most likely helped Hildegard learn to read Latin, to recite psalms and learn religious observances. Jutta was also a visionary and she shared a small cell with Hildegard at Disibodenberg. Despite the strictness of their enclosure the two women did interact with others. People came to hear Jutta's visions and pronouncements, and she corresponded widely as well.

For her part, Hildegard probably developed her theological knowledge through her contact with the monk-priest Volmar, who visited frequently and made sermons and treatises available to her. He may very well have also been responsible for her knowledge of musical notation.

Eventually the enclosure attracted the daughters of other noble families and developed into a small convent. Jutta died in 1136 at the age of 44 after which time Hildegard, now aged 38, was elected leader of the group of nuns with the title of magistra. [listen]

Hildegard and her nuns (13th cent)

Hildegard seems to have been an independently-minded woman who resented traditional patriarchal authority. Under Hildegard the convent developed a reputation for exclusivity and eccentric theological observances, something which brought her into conflict with church authorities. She was asked by the local Abbot of Disibodenberg, Kuno, to take on the title of Prioress, which would have placed her under his authority. This she refused. In response, she claimed God had commanded her to take her nuns to Rupertsberg and set up a new convent. This the Abbot refused to allow, prompting Hildegard to go over his head and make the same request of the Archbishop of Mainz.

Hildegard was struck by a strange paralysis, which she attributed to her not being allowed to follow God's orders to relocate the convent. When the Abbot himself was struck with a similar illness he finally relented. Hildegard and about twenty nuns moved to Rupertsberg, near Bingen, financed by endowments from wealthy patrons, around 1150. There Volmar served as Provost and also as Hildegard's confessor and scribe.

Hildegard by this stage was already widely known as a visionary and it was probably from around 1140 that she began recording some of her visions in poetic versions and setting many of them to music. The earliest collection of these was called Scivias, which means "Know the Ways". Parts of her visions became the texts for her unique music.

An illumination from Scivias showing Hildegard receiving a vision and dictating to her secretary

It's important at this juncture to point out what Hildegard's music is, and what it is not. What it is is a florid, free-sounding sequence of notes, often requiring great virtuosity and breath-control on the part of the singers. Its direction - that is, where is the musical line going - is always fascinating and often unpredictable. What it is not is Gregorian chant. This is very different, and somewhat later, music and Hildegard's style, while it may sound like Gregorian chant to our ears, is freer and more "modern" than the church's official chant. [listen]

This is the total extent of Hildegard's musical textures; all her music is written in German neumes, a medieval form of music notation which predates the later and more familiar French Solesmes notation used for Gregorian chant. The relative pitch of the notes is specified on a four-line staff using early forms of the C and F clefs, but little else - especially rhythm - is specified. There is nothing else in the notation which we would find familiar, such as time signatures, barlines, or tempo and dynamic markings. Like Gregorian chant, the flow and "feel" of the music is dictated largely by the text, a feature we know from recitative in music of later times.

Illumination accompanying the third vision of Part I of Scivias

What is also important to realise, especially given the many ways this music is performed these days, is that Hildegard's music contains nothing more than a single voice part. There is no multi-part writing and there is nothing for instruments. This doesn't mean that other voice parts, such as drones, weren't added in Hildegard's time, and it doesn't mean instrumental parts weren't added either. But as much of this repertoire is recorded today with extra vocal or instrumental parts added, it's important to remember that these are added by the performers and don't appear in the medieval manuscripts.

This provides a rich variety in performance practice when it comes to Hildegard's music. Her long flowing lines often have a static harmonic base, which means that they're particularly suited to the addition of drones, and these drones can be vocal or instrumental. The instruments providing the drone in this recording include an organistrum, an early form of the hurdy gurdy in which a circular internal wheel is cranked by a handle to set strings in vibration. [listen]

Listening to that it's easy to see why Hildegard has been appropriated by the new age, chill-out side of the recording industry. The fact that she saw visions and incorporated these into her writings and her music makes her even more attractive to this market. And the music is hypnotic, especially when the drones are added, so such an appropriation is understandable, I guess.

To give an idea of the variety of treatments Hildegard's music is given, I want to share four different versions of the same piece, a hymn to the Virgin called O viridissima virga. Here it is sung more or less as it appears in the sources, by the ensemble Sinfonye. [listen]

Here's the same passage as recorded by the ensemble Sequentia. Here it's performed by two antiphonal groups of women's voices, with each group sustaining their last note under the opening few notes of the other group's entries. [listen]

The Oxford Girls Choir recording adds an instrumental drone. [listen]

On a very different scale entirely is a recording made by an Australian ensemble led by soprano Heather Lee. This combines purely instrumental treatments of segments of the piece with the original vocal line. The whole pacing is slower and more meditative, and the result is three times longer than the other performances. It's probably not what Hildegard might have imagined, but it's a lovely way of viewing the music, and a perfectly valid form of expressing the music's ideas. [listen]

By 1158, Hildegard and her nuns at Rupertsberg had secured complete financial independence from their former house at Disibodenberg, and they had the protection of the Archbishop of Mainz. In 1163 she obtained protection from Emperor Friedrich Barbarossa, who allowed her to use the title "abbess". Two years later, in 1165, her convent had grown to more than 50 nuns, so she established a daughter house with room for 30 nuns at Eibingen, near Rüdesheim. An abbey dedicated to Hildegard still stands there today.

Eibingen Abbey

The nuns at Eibingen still sing their famous founder's music, and recorded some of it in 1997. [listen]

Eibingen Abbey

Hildegard's music generally sets texts drawn from her visions. She was famous for her prophecies and many claimed she could work miracles. Her reputation was such that she was even consulted by men from the highest levels of the social hierarchy; she spoke to and corresponded with popes, emperors, other secular and religious leaders, as well ordinary clergy and common people. She involved herself in the turbulent religious and political disputes of her time and even undertook four separate preaching missions throughout Germany between 1160 and 1170.

For her nuns she had particular focus on devotion to the Virgin and upholding the rule of St Benedict, and the Virgin is well-represented in her musical works. 16 of her antiphons, responsories and other musical settings are on texts relating to the Virgin Mary, out of the total of more than 70 works by Hildegard known today.

O splendidissma gemma is a good example not only of her Marian music but also of her highly vivid texts. The opening of this is translated: "O most splendid gem and serene elegance of the sun which into you was poured a font springing from the heart of the father, which is his unique word, from which he made the world's primal matrix which Eve threw into disorder." [listen]

Hildegard's musical works are supplemented by her other writings, most notably her three volumes of recorded visions. The first of these is Scivias, which I mentioned earlier. The second is Liber vitae meritorum, the Book of the Rewards of Life, written between 1158 and 1163. Her last and most spectacular series of visions is recorded in Liber divinorum operum, the Book of Divine Works, written between 1163 and 1173.

Universal Man illumination from Hildegard's Liber Divinorum Operum (early 13th cent)

But there is much more. Nearly 400 of her letters also survive, one of the largest such collections known from the Middle Ages, and these include details of many of the sermons preached on her tours in the 1160s. She also wrote two volumes on natural medicine and cures. These don't claim to come from her visions or from divine authority; rather they spring from her practical work in the monastery's herb garden and hospital and from her reading of other such texts in the monastery library.

These are highly organised works, rare for their time because the everyday practices and assumptions on medical matters from the Middle Ages are not always so well-documented.

In addition to several minor works, such as a commentary on the Rule of St Benedict and the lives of St Disibod and St Rupert, Hildegard is also remembered for having invented her own language. This is usually called lingua ignota (unknown language) and it's based on abridged, conflated or invented words initially derived from Latin. She even developed a special alphabet to use when writing it. Some scholars believe the lingua ignota was invented by Hildegard to create more solidarity among her nuns, and this seems plausible; even today, the creation of jargon, terminology or even language known only to the initiated is a sign of cults or sects which seek to separate themselves from mainstream society.

Hildegard of Bingen's musical works are preserved in two manuscripts, one from her lifetime and another compiled immediately after her death. There are 77 individual songs which modern editors have called Symphonia armonie celestium revelationum (Symphony of the Harmony of the Heavenly Revelations), although that title does not appear in any of the early manuscripts. As these almost never set approved liturgical texts, their labelling as part of the liturgy is not strictly accurate, but these manuscripts contain 43 antiphons, 18 responses, seven sequences, four hymns, a Kyrie, a Alleluia and three undesignated pieces.

The music can be grouped into general headings according to subject matter. There are songs about God the Father and Son; the Virgin Mary; The Trinity and the Holy Spirit; the Celestial Hierarchy; Patron Saints; Virgins, Widows and Innocents; a whole section devoted to St Ursula and her 11,000 virgins; and songs about the universal Church.

The music for the veneration of St Ursula is of particular interest. This includes eight short antiphons designed for the Feast of St Ursula. The legend of St Ursula and her virgin companions, all martyred at some unknown date, derives from an inscription in a church in Cologne, and was thus a legend with local currency and interest to Hildegard and her nuns.

This is one of the St Ursula pieces, a responsory beginning Favus distillans. The text is quite erotic, drawing images from the Old Testament Song of Solomon: A dripping honeycomb was the virgin Ursula, / who longed to embrace the lamb of God, / milk and honey under her tongue; / because, like a fruit-laden garden and splendour of flowers, / she gathered a throng of virgins about her... [listen]

Memling: The Martyrdom of Saint Ursula (1489)

There is no doubt that Hildegard's songs of this nature are designed to assist spiritual meditation. According to the Grove article on Hildegard, which I used a lot in preparing this article, the visionary nature of the texts, combined with the freedom of the music, was designed to foster ruminatio (rumination, literally "chewing over"), a method of finding deeper spiritual meaning in the text and music. In other words, they were part of contemplative medieval practice and required engagement and thought (as opposed to disengagement and "chilling out").

One of Hildegard's most important achievements was the creation of a morality play, Ordo virtutum (The Play of the Virtues). A morality play is one in which moral attributes (humility, mercy, patience, victory, innocence, and so forth) are personified as participants in a drama. The Ordo virtutum is enormous and contains 82 melodies. It presents the battle for the human soul between 16 personified virtues (who all sing) and the Devil (a spoken role). This is thought to have been composed around 1151, making it the earliest morality play by more than a century.

The human soul - Anima, in Latin - is the equivalent of Everyman in later English morality plays. In Hildegard's drama, Anima at first rejects the pleas of the Virtues and sides with the Devil. But eventually the Virtues win the penitent soul over, and the Devil is bound by Victory.

Here is a recording of the complete work. [listen]

And here is a video of the complete work, staged. [listen]

Hildegard of Bingen died at her monastery of Rupertsburg on 17 September, 1179. The writing of her life story had already been started before her death by Godfrey of Disibodenberg (under Hildegard's supervision) and it wasn't long before there were efforts to have her made a saint. All efforts were unsuccessful, though, and she remained at the level of beatification. The date of her death, 17 September, became her feast day and despite her not being officially canonised, recent popes (John Paul II and Benedict XVI) have referred to her as a saint. In 2012, Benedict XVI elevated Hildegard to the status of a Doctor of the Church, only the fourth woman of the 35 saints to be given that title.

10 DM coin issued by Germany in 1998 to commemorate the 900th anniversary of Hildegard's birth

The ruins of the Rupertsberg monastery were destroyed in 1857 to make way for a railway track. Thus, the focus of Hildegard's veneration and legacy today is the Abbey at Eibingen.

Regardless of one's views on Hildegard's visions, there seems to be no doubt that she was a remarkable and formidable woman. She is understandably of great interest to feminist scholars and the sheer quantity of documentation which has survived makes her of enormous historical importance. And her music has inspired feelings of peace and contemplation in many, and in this day and age that's usually a good thing.

Rupertsburg Manuscript: Choirs of Angels (12th cent)

This article is based on a Keys To Music program first aired on ABC Classic FM (now ABC Classic) in September, 2014.

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