The world of the European Middle Ages was beset by superstition, ignorance, and religious bamboozlement. Women of this time had it especially bad. Many were subject to arranged marriage and denied education. The monastic life, like that of a cloistered nun, was one of the only ways a woman could get an education in the Middle Ages.
One such educated, medieval woman was the German abbess, religious mystic, and musician known as Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179 CE).
She is the most prolific composer of liturgical plainsong known to musicologists.
She especially excelled in the genre of liturgical drama. Her composition, Ordo Virtutum (Order of the Virtues), composed in 1151, is the oldest known morality play. A morality play is a drama in which the characters are meant to represent human traits such as wickedness, kindness, honesty, etc.
This form of literature continues today. Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings, The Godfather, Superman, and a million other books, movies, and plays all use personified virtues and personified evils for drama.
For this accomplishment alone, even if she had achieved nothing else during her life (which, as we’re about to find out, is not the case), Hildegard of Bingen would still deserve her fame and notoriety.
Accomplishments aside, most peculiar about this medieval nun was that she claimed to be in touch with the divine.
Born in Germany near the town of Bingen, Hildegard, at the age of eight, was sent by her parents to the convent as an oblate: the practice of submitting one’s tenth born to the clergy.
Usually oblation is for political reasons, but in Hildegard’s case she was given to the clergy because she was sickly as a child and likely a burden on her parents.
From the age of three, Hildegard experienced unusual hallucinations and disturbing mental episodes while she was sick, which was often. Her “visions,” what she eventually called these experiences, took the form of vivid light before her eyes and confusing states of consciousness.
By the age of five, she knew that no one else around her experienced these sorts of visions.
It is likely that Hildegard was experiencing an aura, a symptom of migraine headaches and of epileptic seizures in which an individual perceives flashes of light and has confusing thoughts.
Neurologist Oliver Sacks, considering Hildegard’s written descriptions of her episodes, asserts a diagnosis in his 1970 book Migraine:
“A careful consideration of these accounts and figures leaves no room for doubt concerning their nature: they were indisputably migrainous, and they illustrate, indeed, many of the varieties of visual aura…”
One of Hildegard’s accounts of her visions—taken from her principal theological work, Scivias—goes as follows:
“…Heaven was opened and a fiery light of exceeding brilliance came and permeated my whole brain and inflamed my whole heart and my whole breast, not like a burning but like a warming flame, as the sun warms anything its rays touch.”
What Hildegard saw in her visions is now called a scintillating scotoma by medical science.
To a medieval nun, living a cloistered life since the age of eight, these hallucinatory auras almost certainly would have seemed to be of divine origin.
In any case, Hildegard was sickly and prone to hallucinations as a child, so she was given to the clergy. She was put in the care of a fifteen-year-old girl named Jutta, also on her way to becoming a nun.
At the nearby Disibodenberg monastery, where they both were cloistered, Jutta showed Hildegard how to sing the psalms and hymns of the liturgy.
As far as we know for sure, Jutta is Hildegard’s only music teacher but she may have learned neumatic notation from a monk named Volmar—the scribe of Disibodenberg abbey. Later in life, Volmar would become Hildegard’s secretary and best friend.
Jutta founded the women’s cloister at Disibodenberg; in 1106 she was made abbess—head of all the nuns. Jutta, like Hildegard would a generation later, achieved fame and notoriety as a Christian mystic. She did not write anything down, however. So, unlike in Hildegard’s case where historians have got a treasure trove of written information, Jutta’s thoughts are lost to history.
We do know however from the Vita Jutta (biography of Jutta written by Volmar) that she was fervently devout.
Hildegard became Jutta’s personal assistant and confidant—a position known as Lady-in-Waiting.
Quietly, with only Jutta and Volmar involved, Hildegard began to record some of her peculiar visions. She also began to make up chants.
When Jutta died in 1138 Hildegard was offered the position of prioress (a position below abbess) by Abbot Cuno, head of all the clergy at the Disibodenberg abbey.
By this time, word of Hildegard’s unusual visions had gotten out. Volmar told Abbot Cuno in confidence. Cuno, keen to have the notoriety of having a proper mystic at his abbey, told the archbishop—Heinrich of Mainz. Henrich then told Pope Eugene III.
The pope sent investigators to make sure there was no heresy afoot. After all, if she was possessed by the devil or was a witch or something, then they’d have to take action.
But Hildegard was no heretic. The pope delegates found an unfinished Scivias manuscript (her principal visionary work), and it convinced them that Hildegard was the real deal: They believed that she was an actual Christian prophet.
The delegates then borrowed fragments of her writing to bring back and show the pope; he was similarly convinced.
Hildegard declined Abbot Cuno’s offer to be prioress of Disibodenberg. She wanted more freedom, she wanted to take all the nuns to Rupertsberg (another monastery near the town of Bingen), and start her own abbey.
Cuno initially denied Hildegard permission to leave Disibodenberg. She reacted with an intense episode of illness and visionary possession which involved paralysis—probably self-induced. Cuno was only convinced of her illness when not even he could compel Hildegard to move.
When Cuno finally gave in, Hildegard went ahead with her Rupertsberg-abbey-plan and brought eighteen nuns and Volmar along with her. This was in 1148. At the consecration ceremony of the Rupertsberg monastery in 1152, Hildegard had the Ordo Virtutum performed for the first time.
Hildegard’s move to the new abbey, her fame throughout Europe, and her papal sanction afforded her freedoms enjoyed by very few women of the Middle Ages.
Hildegard was now free to openly communicate her religious and musical thoughts. She was fifty-three, running her own abbey, recording her prophetic visions, and writing plainsong melodies.
With the pope’s encouragement, she produced several written works. Scivias (1141-1151), her theological masterpiece, is one of them.
The last chapter of Scivias is the lyrical source for her musical masterpiece, Ordo Virtutum.
Hildegard amassed the largest body of liturgical plainsong composed by any one author in the Gregorian tradition.
Her principal method for composing was melismatic. That is, she’d improvise long sequences of notes with one syllable and put the melody to new words that she’d written.
Often the words would come from her visions. It’s likely that Volmar would transcribe for her, and write down, the improvised chant—just like he did with her visions..
Hildegard began to compose seriously about the same time she began to record her visions—around 1138, after Jutta’s death.
When she moved to the abbey in Rupertsberg, the change of setting inspired a creative push that would continue for the rest of her life.
As mentioned above, Hildegard was particularly talented in the genre of liturgical drama, and the Ordo does not disappoint.
It’s got a speaking part for Satan, it’s got beautiful, otherworldly melodies, and it’s got fascinating lyrics cooked up by Hildegard’s hallucinating mind.
The plot is about a soul who, after having heard complaints and grievances from unhappy souls of living people, wants to skip life and go straight to heaven. The characters Humility, Chastity, Hope, Discretion, Innocence, etc., collectively known as the Virtues, are acted out by seventeen women. All their lines are sung.
The Virtues encounter the main soul of the story, also played by a woman, and tell her that she must first live her life before she goes to heaven. Next, the soul is lured away to creaturely delights offered by Satan, who is played by a man (probably Volmar) and has the only speaking parts, which are barks, grunts, and shouts.
As the purest permutation of evil, the devil cannot sing because singing is heavenly.
The soul then changes her mind and returns to the godly life. The Virtues accept her back and tie up the devil. The end.
Musically, the Ordo is far less melismatic than Hildegard’s liturgical chants. Most of the dialogue is direct, that is, not antiphonal or responsorial. But some parts of the piece are responsorial such as the interaction between Satan and the Virtues.
Hildegard’s melodies in the Ordo (and in her other compositions) are strange and difficult to memorize because they lack parallel construction. That is, having parts of the melody that contain similar phrases and motifs to other parts of the melody. This character trait of her music matches well with her own strange and mystical character, which also defies form.
Watch and listen to the BBC’s production of the Ordo Virtutum. It’s pretty good and it’s subtitled so you can follow the story even though it’s sung in Latin. There are some instances of instrumental accompaniment in this performance, and that make it somewhat historically inaccurate. The music of Ordo Virtutum was all acapella.
Hildegard was very devout and the rules about instruments in the church were quite clear—they were prohibited during this time. The use of instruments was probably a directorial choice for the film. Otherwise, this version is very good: it’s well sung, filmed, and acted:
In addition to Ordo Virtutum, Hildegard also wrote a collection of poems and, using her own melodies, set them to various antiphons, responsories, and hymns. There are about seventy such liturgical pieces; they are collectively known as Symphonia armoniae celestium revelationum (Symphony of the Harmony of Celestial Revelations). This work is usually called Symphonia for short.
All told, Hildegard is responsible for forty-three antiphons, eighteen responsories, seven sequences, four hymns, five other chants, and the Ordo—more music than any other known composer of liturgical chant.
Hildegard of Bingen’s importance to music history is one of defying expectations.
It is ironic that the next five hundred years of music history that we’re about to study is almost completely bereft of women, even though it was a woman who was the first named composer of Gregorian chant.
Given Hildegard’s mastery over the original form of literate Western music, one would think that women like her would be well represented the rest of the way through music history.
Sadly, that’s not the case.
Hildegard, therefore, offers a precious female perspective on a primarily male dominated history. Her voice comes right at the beginning of the art form. That is, right at its birth.
Maddocks, Fiona. Hildegard of Bingen: The Woman of Her Age. New York: Doubleday, 2001.
Sacks, Oliver W. Migraine: The Evolution of a Common Disorder. Berkeley: U of California, 1970.
Grout, D., Burkholder, J., & Palisca, C. (2014). A history of Western music. New York: Norton.
Taruskin, R. (2005). The Oxford history of Western music. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
“Hildegard of Bingen” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. Web 6 August 2015.