Hildegard von Bingen was one of the most important composers of the Medieval Period. In this lesson, learn how her compositions pushed the limits of medieval music and inspired others both musically and poetically.
Hildegard Von Bingen
Virtually any online search of medieval music is sure to bring up Hildegard von Bingen. She is a true anomaly of the Medieval Period, which is often referenced as the years 500-1450. In a time when males ruled the Church, Hildegard was invited to lead and advise. Though the Medieval Church was strictly guarded by rules, she bent them into new forms of musical expression. When anonymity was the norm, her biography is known. In fact, she is often cited as the first composer with a known history.
Early and Professional Life
Hildegard was born in Germany in the year 1098. The youngest of 10 children, she was given to the Church at age eight by her family as a payment. This sounds cruel and unusual, but it was actually somewhat common during the Medieval Period. And it turned out to be a great thing for Hildegard.
After studying with a mentor, Hildegard became a nun. Later, she became a prioress and ran a convent, and eventually she became an abbess and started her own convents. Hildegard was even called on to advise bishops, popes, and kings in a time when women were not respected. She was known as a writer, especially for her writings on medicinal nature, as derived from Greek roots, and for her poetry.
Hildegard: Visions and Prophecies
But this wasn't just any poetry. Hildegard's poetry was often inspired by her visions and prophecies. Though she experienced visions early in life, it wasn't until the year 1141 that she started writing them down. Why, all of a sudden, would she start doing this at age 42? During one of her visions, Hildegard heard a prophetic call from God. She claimed to suddenly understand the meaning of religious texts and was told by God to write down what she saw in her visions. She employed her nuns and a monk to write down and artistically interpret her visions.
When word got around the Church society that this was happening, the Pope sent a commission to visit her to confirm she was truly a mystic and not just insane. Lucky for her, they determined she wasn't crazy. So, Hildegard continued documenting and interpreting her visions, filling three full books. Though influential and meaningful at the time, neurologists now believe Hildegard's visions may have been migraines rather than divine intervention, due to her descriptions of light auras, physical sensations, and painful headaches.
Types of Songs and Musical Characteristics
Regardless of whether her visions were real or not, they provided great inspiration and context for her poems, which she eventually set to music. Hildegard valued music, and she felt it was created to worship God. Consequently, much of her music sounds almost angelic, with soaring vocals. Along with the visions, Hildegard wrote music to honor saints, virgins, and Mary, including songs for their feast days. Many of these pieces are responsories, which are choral compositions based on biblical passages, to be sung by a soloist and choir after a church service. You can think of it like a musical conversation, where a soloist sings and a choir responds, hence the term 'responsory.'
Many of the solo parts were melismatic, meaning a succession of pitches sung on one syllable. The melismas were added to enhance the musical expression of the piece, and sometimes to give musical emphasis to the words of the passage or poem. Listen to the way the word 'Alleluia' is sung melismatically with many pitches per syllable in Hildegard's song for the Feast of Mary, Alleluia, O virga mediatrix. She also wrote antiphons, which are short sentences sung before or after a psalm and hymns.
Most of Hildegard's music is monophonic, meaning a single line of music without accompaniment. Listen to how the singers all sing the same music in Hildegard's Ave Generosa. This is consistent with the Church chant of the Medieval Period, often referred to as plainchant. However, Hildegard's was unlike the usual chant in that it was uncharacteristically melodic. At a time when the Church had very strict rules about music, Hildegard was able to creatively integrate and extend musical techniques to compose music that was intriguing, yet still fit the Church's guidelines.
Specifically, her use of a wide range of pitches and note leaps were uncharacteristic for the time. So instead of the notes just stepping up and down from note to note like this, they jumped up and down like this. She used these techniques to give meaning through musical emphasis of words. Some of her vocal compositions are accompanied with instruments, like this one, though the use of instruments is not usually noted in the music.
These musical characteristics can be found throughout Hildegard's works. She is specifically known for two works - Symphonia armonie celestium revelationum and Ordo virtutum. Sometimes referred to as simply Symphonia, the Symphonia armonie celestium revelationum is translated as 'The Symphony of the Harmony of the Heavenly Relations.' It is a collection of 77 pieces of religious poetry set to music. Based on the liturgy, Hildegard felt the combination of prayer and music was the ultimate praise for God. Her other standout work is a play called Ordo virtutum. Written in 1151, Ordo virtutum is her most extended musical work. Meaning 'The Virtues,' the sacred musical drama is a morality play with allegorical and human characters, including the soul and the devil. It's thought to be the first morality play.
Because Hildegard's poetry was so original and unique, three of her books are also considered important. The first and most significant, titled Scivias, meaning 'know the way,' was completed in 1151. It is the beginning of Hildegard's visions and her interpretations of them. The text is accompanied by miniatures drawn by some of her nuns. The second book, Liber vitae meritorum, or 'Book of Life's Merits,' and the third book, Liber divinorum operum, meaning 'Book of Divine Works,' continue the transcription of her visions and her interpretations of them.
Hildegard's contributions to the development of music has not gone unnoticed. She was finally declared a saint as of May 2012 after centuries of debate. Her visions and prophecies led to important musical works, such as the liturgically-based Symphonia armonie celestium revelationum and the morality play Ordo virtutum. Each pushed the limits of medieval music, using a large range of notes, multiple jumps between notes and expressive strings of notes per syllable called melismas. Her books Scivias, Liber vitae meritorum and Liber divinorum operum detail the visions she had from the year 1141 until the end of her life in 1179.
After viewing and listening to this video lesson, students should be able to:
- State the importance of Hildegard von Bingen to Medieval music and hcurch history
- Summarize the importance of Hildegard's visions on her work and their influence in the church
- Recognize the impact of Hildegard's poetry, music and books in the Medieval Period