People and Genres
23 Hildegard of Bingen
In this chapter you will
- learn about the medieval musical form known as plainsong or plainchant
- understand how rare and valuable it is to have such an extensive literary as well as musical output from a composer in the Middle Ages
Hildegard of Bingen played a leadership role in Christian monasticism; authored commentaries on biblical texts, books of her visions, and more; and composed a great deal of music that continues to be performed today. Although today she is well known for her music, historically her music was neglected and she was more famous as a mystic. She provides an important example of how composers drew on the Bible during the Middle Ages, when the form known as “plainsong” predominated. It is called that because voices sing in unison, in contrast with later choral music that often involves singers creating harmony by singing different notes at the same time. In the process of examining Hildegard’s music, we learn a great deal about how she and others in her time understood, interpreted, and otherwise interacted with the Bible.
Since there were already standard ways of chanting biblical texts, it is unsurprising that she focused her work as a composer on creating not only new music but new words. Her song lyrics are her own compositions and, at the same time, abound in allusions to the Bible. As one example, we may consider a work such as “Ave Maria O Auctrix Vite,” or “Hail Mary, Authoress of Life.” The lyrics allude to the Hail Mary / Ave Maria, a prayer that has often been set to music and in turn is based on the angel’s greeting to Mary in the Gospel of Luke (Luke 1:28). They also allude to the promise in Genesis 3 that the offspring of Eve would bruise the head of the serpent, interpreted as predicting the birth of Jesus and the defeat of Satan thereby. In songs such as these, we encounter biblical words interwoven with the composer’s own and learn a great deal about how the Bible was understood in that time. Elsewhere in the book we have explored works that combine or draw on multiple biblical texts in a single work of music and the way music often reflects not only the Bible but also the way it has been interpreted. Hildegard provides a distinctive perspective on this because of something that sets her apart from the other composers and songwriters included in this book and would still make her stand out even if somehow we managed to include all the world’s composers from every time and place. It is rare if not unique to have from the same author an extensive output of music on biblical themes, lengthy books of homilies and commentaries that indicate in prose how that same individual interpreted the Bible, letters, an autobiographical work, and much more. Hildegard, however, has left us precisely that, which is all the more striking given the distance in time that separates her from our own era in which print and, more recently, digital means of literary expression have made it possible for us to have much more from a composer than just their music. The illustrated manuscripts of the sermons she delivered to the nuns in her monasteries offer a glimpse of how the arts and theology were connected in the life of those medieval monastic communities. In addition to her many remarkable accomplishments, Hildegard is remarkable simply because of how much we know about her life when compared to other women, or indeed people in general, in the Middle Ages.
Honey Meconi encapsulates just how distinctive Hildegard not only was but is:
Many know Hildegard today foremost or even exclusively as a composer, and her achievements in this area are indeed noteworthy: the most prolific composer of plainchant; one of the earliest—male or female—that we know by name; creator of the first musical “morality play” (and the only one for whom we have a named composer); and composer of seventy-seven songs, all but one set to her own idiosyncratic poetry in a distinctive and glorious musical style. But just as her music, all plainchant, distinguishes her from the many other feisty and creative spiritual women of the twelfth century, so, too, do her nonmusical accomplishments separate her from virtually all other major composers (whether of the Middle Ages or later times), few of whom are known for anything but composition, and almost none of whom are of equal significance in another field. Yet during her lifetime and until very recently it was not Hildegard’s music that led to her fame; rather, it was her spirituality. Indeed, Hildegard’s was a holistic life, and her music can only be understood as one facet of a creativity that mirrored and was generated by her religious beliefs.
Works like O gloriosissimi lux vivens angeli (O most glorious living light of the angels) and O vos angeli (O you angels), while not settings of biblical texts, show how the influence of the Bible as understood in Hildegard’s Roman Catholic tradition, her visions as a mystic, and her compositions are connected. The melody of the former she attributed to a vision of angels that she had, and what she has to say about angels reflects the way Pope Gregory the Great interpreted certain parables in the Gospel of Luke.
In addition to engaging with the Bible in her musical compositions and in her writings about the Bible, Hildegard also indicated (in response to an order from a superior that she and her community cease celebrating the chants of the Divine Offices) that she understood the prophetic Spirit whose voice we hear through the Bible to not merely permit but order that music and song be offered to God.
Have a listen to more of Hildegard’s music, and perhaps read a bit more about her fascinating life while you do so! Try to at least take a glimpse at some of her impressive literary output. Works like her Solutions to Thirty-Eight Questions illustrate just what a learned and insightful interpreter of the Bible she was.
For Further Reading
Bain, Jennifer. Hildegard of Bingen and Musical Reception: The Modern Revival of a Medieval Composer. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015.
Coakley, John W. Women, Men, and Spiritual Power: Female Saints and Their Male Collaborators. New York: Columbia University Press, 2006.
Fassler, Margot. “Composer and Dramatist: ‘Melodious Singing and the Freshness of Remorse.’” In Voice of the Living Light: Hildegard of Bingen and Her World, edited by Barbara Newman, 149–75. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998.
Flanagan, Sabina. Hildegard of Bingen: A Visionary Life. London: Routledge, 1998.
Hildegard of Bingen. Homilies on the Gospels. Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2011.
———. Symphonia: A Critical Edition of the “Symphonia Armonie Celestium Revelationum” (Symphony of the Harmony of Celestial Revelations). New York: Cornell University Press, 1998.
Kienze, Beverly Mayne. Hildegard of Bingen and Her Gospel Homilies: Speaking New Mysteries. Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 2009.
———. Hildegard of Bingen, Gospel Interpreter. Lanham, MD: Lexington/Fortress, 2020.
Maddocks, Fiona. Hildegard of Bingen: The Woman of Her Age. New York: Doubleday, 2001.
Meconi, Honey. Hildegard of Bingen. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2018.
- In chapter 20, we focus on the subject of allusions. ↵
- Andrea Janelle Dickens, The Female Mystic: Great Women Thinkers of the Middle Ages (New York: I. B. Tauris, 2009), 26. ↵
- Honey Meconi, Hildegard of Bingen (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2018), 1–2. ↵
- On this, see Tova Leigh-Choate, William T. Flynn, and Margot E. Fassler, “Hearing the Heavenly Symphony: An Overview of Hildegard’s Musical Oeuvre with Case Studies,” in A Companion to Hildegard of Bingen, ed. Debra Stoudt, George Ferzoco, and Beverly Kienzle (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 2013), 176–77. Video of the recording by Sequentia released by deutsche harmonia mundi, on whose behalf it is licensed to YouTube by SME. ↵
- See the excerpt from a letter she sent to the prelate of Mainz around the year 1178, provided in Josiah Fisk, ed., Composers on Music: Eight Centuries of Writings (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1997), 2–3. ↵
- On Hildegard’s educational background and her acceptance and authority as a mystic, see Gerda Lerner, The Creation of Feminist Consciousness: From the Middle Ages to Eighteen-Seventy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), 52–54. ↵