Hildegard of Bingen

On Music

Introduction by Stefan Morent

Hildegard writes:
"O most splendid gem,
this fair grace like the sun
with which you are infused,
is as a fount flowing from the Father's heart,
Because his only Word,
through which he created
the prime matter of the world
which Eve disturbed."

How Hildegard's Music Survived

Beside theological, medical and botanical treatises, a large repertoire of music is attributed to Hildegard of Bingen. The collection of compositions preserved in contemporary manuscripts includes some 80 monophonic songs and the mystery play Ordo Virtutum (Play of the Virtues).

monophonic: without harmony; a song with only one musical line

Hildegard’s compositions are mainly transmitted in two manuscripts, the Codex Dendermonde and the so called “Riesencodex” (giant codex) now at the Hessische Landesbibliothek Wiesbaden. The codex now at the Monastery of Dendermonde, Belgium, is the earlier one and was compiled during Hildegard’s lifetime, probably under her supervision. It contains a smaller part of her total collection of songs and lacks the Ordo Virtutum. It was sent as a gift to the Cistercian monks of Villers in Brabant. The musical part of the Riesencodex was probably compiled shortly after Hildegard’s death and was used to support the efforts for canonizing Hildegard.

Surprisingly, Hildegard’s music seems only to be preserved in manuscripts and monasteries that were in close connection to her own monastery at Rupertsberg. Until now no further dissemination of her music has been discovered. This contrasts to her fame as a widely known figure during her lifetime. However, as recent research has discovered, the inner circle of assistants and biographers around Hildegard deliberately shaped the image of her magistra as a famous prophetess and seer. On the other hand, Hildegard’s music exhibits a very special and individualistic style which may have been appreciated only in monasteries staying in close contact with Hildegard, for example, the monastery of Zwiefalten in South Germany.

Songs of Praise

Hildegard's writings on music show both her adherence to traditional music theory, and her individual innovations. In her famous letter of 1178/79 to the Mainz prelates who had interdicted her and her followers from singing her music, she defends this singing as the coming to life of God's words. Psalm 150 lays down the ground rules of the service to God. The central task of both the church and the individual is the praise of the Lord which is exemplified in sung liturgy.

interdicted: formally prohibited

Hildegard cites St. Augustine and Carolingian writers like Amalar of Metz and Hrabanus Maurus, all of whom consider liturgical singing as praising the Lord, with David being the prime model of a singer in the service of God. Singing this eternal praise establishes direct contact with the heavenly liturgy sung by the angels. A song in praise of the Lord is not only a debt to the Creator. It is also a mode of expression central to human nature. Singing for Hildegard offers the possibility of both awakening and forming the human soul and emotions.

This emotional power of music was known already to antique authors, but was accepted by Christian authors only hesitantly, exactly because of these heathen origins, and the fear that emotional intensity implied a lack of control. Hildegard firmly sides with Guido of Arezzo, who describes music as a healing power for the human heart, and who quotes the examples of Asclepius, David, and Saul. For Hildegard, psalm singing softens a hardened heart, music encompasses both body and soul, and the very bodily reaction to music is a sign of the heavenly descendance of man.

The key to the special importance of singing for mankind is the harmonic structure of its soul, which Hildegard characterizes as symphonialis. Already the Pythagoreans had postulated that the order of numbers and proportions offers a means of unification with the gods. The soul is in resonance with the harmonies of the spheres, thus transcending the individual into an image of the all-encompassing world soul.

Music, Mysticism, and Modal Language

Early medieval writers absorbed this thinking in its entirety, only substituting the 'world soul' for the Christian God. For Hildegard, music is a gift handed to man by God. Man's soul is structured by musical-harmonical criteria which in turn mirror cosmic laws. The task of music is to lead to a reunification with God. The expulsion from Paradise also meant the loss of the heavenly voice, the singing in consort with the angels. While practicing music, man remembers this loss and responds to the harmonic nature of God.

Hildegard's mysticism differs radically from the many reports of mystical singing which have been documented well into the 14th century. The ecstatic singing of nuns as a rule was unintelligible and uncomprehensible. Hildegard, however, emphasized her awareness and clarity of mind during her audiovisions. She was able to describe her experience, and her singing was a means of making these experiences concrete. While doing so, she deviated from canonic forms of singing, but she would find legitimacy in doing so. Her music was not supposed to be subjective and idiosyncratic, but an inspired vision and prophecy. Thus, its novelty was tolerable, and Hildegard always refers to herself as a tool, not as a creator of her work.

The specifics of her musical language in relation to the tradition are myriad. Unlike the traditional choral repertoire, her melodies have a compass of up to 2 ½ octaves, with highly expressive melismas. Her hymns and sequences leave little of what the traditional forms of these songs looked like. The tradition itself is more difficult to describe. We know very little about the liturgical singing of Rhine region monasteries in the 12th century, nor about the traditions of music at Hildegard's disposal, including other forms of secular or instrumental music. One can make several generalized observations, however:

  • There are rigid forms in her melodic treatment
  • She prefers certain church modes, but she employs them with an individual emphasis on fifths and octaves, and with modal ambiguity.