Hildegard von Bingen and Female Church Composers: Music and Styles

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  • 0:07 Hildegard Von Bingen
  • 1:39 Visions and Prophecies
  • 2:57 Types of Songs and…
  • 6:22 Notable Works
  • 8:20 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Liz Diamond-Manlusoc

Liz has taught music for K-12 and beyond. She holds a master's degree in Education Media and Design Technology.

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.

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