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Composer Biography: Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179)

Hildegard has a reputation as a composer and a visionary, but in truth, she was way more than that. Yes, she’s the first named composer in western music, and yes, she had visions, but she was also an herbal healer, a preacher, a moralist, a frequent correspondent with kings and popes, and a societal reformer. It’s no wonder that feminists have taken her as an icon, although she would have been more than a little horrified by that. She firmly believed that women had their place in the church and society, and that it was not as leaders. But times were changing in the 12th century and Hildegard was part of it all.

As the choir (a trained group of musicians) took over singing during religious services from the priests (not trained as musicians) in the 4th and 5th centuries, women began to participate in the services, most notably in monasteries. Life in a monastery revolved around the eight daily Divine Offices and regular Masses, but in between, the women worked, learned to read Latin, and learned to make music.

Women were forbidden to instruct or supervise men, and all communication outside the monastery would have been through abbots and bishops or male family members. But Hildegard didn’t need intercession. She claimed to have direct communication with God in the form of visions and prophecies, and it didn’t take long for her voice to be heard outside the convent.

Even as a small child, Hildegard’s health was poor and she suffered serious headaches, probably a type of migraine that causes visual hallucinations. Because of the nature and frequency of both her illnesses and her visions, Hildegard wanted to become a nun. She was also a tenth child, traditionally the child sent to a monastery as a tithe, so her family was thrilled that Hildegard was as eager to go to the monastery as they were to send her there.

She was the daughter of Hildebert and Mechtild (people didn’t have last names back then), a noble family in Bermersheim bei Alzey in the Rhein region of Germany. Several of her siblings would also enter the church. Some of them would help her later in life, but most are not documented--even some of their names are not known.

At age six or eight (there’s some disagreement on this) she left home to be boarded into an anchorage (a type of hermit life) with her-slightly older (and hyper-fanatical) cousin Jutta, and by age 14, she had taken vows herself. She spent the next 30 years boarded in with her cousin at Disibodenberg Abbey, a double monastery (both men and women). When her cousin died after 30 years of incarceration, Hildegard was unboarded from the anchorage and was soon elected to be the magistra, the leader of the women.

Not long after her release, Hildegard had a vision that she should write her visions down, and as a result, she developed a correspondence with the already-famous Bernard of Clairvaux. He thought fondly of her and was supportive of her writing, and brought her visions before the pope, who declared her a prophet and encouraged her work.

Soon, Hildegard found life at Disibodenberg restrictive and she made plans to build her own monastery further north, on a pleasant kink in the Rhein River, near the village of Bingen and about half way between Köln and Frankfurt. But the abbot and monks didn’t want her to leave (at least in part because of the dowries and benefactor-income that Hildegard and the nuns brought to the monastery), and in order to encourage them to change their minds, God struck her down with a wasting illness. She lay in her bed like a block of stone, according to her biographers. Even the abbot was unable to lift her head and began to question whether he dealt with human suffering or divine punishment.

Finally, against the wishes of the abbot and at least one of the priests at Disibodenberg, in 1148, she and most of the nuns went to Bingen and built a monastery there. The first attempt, at Rochusberg, burnt to the ground when nearly finished, and Hildegard moved to a more auspicious location where the Rhein met the Nahe River at Rupertsberg (across the Nahe from Bingen. Both structures were within a few minutes’ walk from the village of Bingen).

Controversy regarding the nuns’ dowries raged for many years—when Hildegard left Disibodenberg, she argued that the wealth of the nuns belonged with them and would provide independence for the Bingen monastery. The abbot at Disibodenberg profited from the nuns’ dowries and continued association with Hildegard, and he refused to relinquish the funds for more than a decade. Hildegard’s abbeys (there were two, in the end) were never to be free of the “parentage” of Disibodenberg in Hildegard’s lifetime, and even once the dowries were released, they still owed the presence of a priest and many other benefits to Disibodenberg.

Hildegard was so famous and popular (largely as a result of publishing her visions), that she formed a second monastery across the Rhein, in Eibingen. Breaking with tradition, this house was meant for merchant-class women rather than nobility, and these women had to earn their keep. To do this, they made pottery, grew medicinal herbs, gleaned honey from their own honey farms, and made small silver jewelry. (These activities continue to this day, in a refined form, in the Eibingen monastery. Both Bingen and Disibodenberg monasteries are ruins now.)

In addition to the visions, Hildegard also became notorious for the music she composed. She claimed that her music was divinely inspired, and it resembled no other music at the time. There’s a kind of ecstatic quality to the chant, and she wrote her own poetry rather than using Bible verses, like other religious music. People who came to Bingen for medicinal help or to hear Hildegard speak about her visions made copies of Hildegard’s music, which is why it survives today—the originals were destroyed or lost in countless wars and battles.

A nun called Richardis, who was a sister to the Archbishop Hartwig of Bermen, came to Disibodenberg around 1148 and they formed a very close relationship. There are some rumors of a lesbian affair, based on rather explicit descriptions of female orgasm in Hildegard’s writing, but the nature of the relationship was never established one way or the other. In 1151, Richardis’ mother arranged for her to become abbess (and out from the shadow of Hildegard) at Bassum, near her brother in Bremen. Hildegard objected strenuously and many letters were written beseeching officials not to separate her from her friend. But Richardis went off, and within a few months, Richardis died, leaving Hildegard tormented by grief. She had lost the one friend she’d ever had.

After a lengthy grieving period, Hildegard poured herself into her work again, and began writing books, music, and sermons like no one ever before. She came to the attention of the pope, clergy, church hierarchy, and the general public, including rulers and magistrates. She became so popular and powerful that she took to giving people unsolicited advice, an activity that could have cost her head on several occasions.

In 1164, she wrote a letter to Frederick Barbarossa, a notoriously violent emperor, condemning his lax attitude toward the Cathars (a nomadic fundamentalist group) and for his role in the appointment of the anti-pope Paschal III. Barbarossa had already written a letter of protection for Hildegard and the Bingen monastery in 1163, and despite his tendency to ruthlessly slaughter folks who disagreed with him, he continued his protection of Hildegard and her monasteries until and beyond her death.

She was renowned outside the monastery and the Catholic church as a visionary in her own time and in ours. Her writings and music were edited and published in the 19th century, starting a resurgence of interest in her. By the late 20th century, she had become almost a cult figure among philosophers, feminists, musicians, and naturopaths. She was canonized and made Doctor of the Church in 2012 (after many delays). She’s one of the most recorded and best-known composers of sacred monophony (chant), and one of very few known to have written both the music and the words. (Most chant from the period uses biblical passages.)

Although she claimed to be ignorant and uneducated, she wrote in Latin, and was clearly familiar with the writings of two musical theorists, Boethius (c480-524) and Guido D’Arezzo (c991-after 1033, who invented Do-Re-Me, and about whom you can read here: Composer Biography, Guido D'Arezzo ). She probably denied her education (she had private tutoring when she was boarded into the anchorage) as part of her efforts to make people accept that she was divinely inspired, and partly because of gender politics.

She was a prolific writer. Between 1143 and 1171, she wrote Scivias (chronicling 26 visions), Physica and Causae et Curae (medical advice), Vita Meritorium (on virtuous living), Liber Divinorem Operum (on the works of the devine), Vita Sanct Disibod (biography of Saint Disibod, the hermit who founded her childhood home), and other books, which amounted to several thousand pages. She supervised a large number of illustrations for her visions, corresponded heavily with nobility and royalty throughout Europe, advised and sometimes chastised public figures—including church leaders—for what she thought was bad behavior, and spoke publically for church reform (mostly against the Cathars, an extremist and fundamentalist group).

Traditional (and almost reflexive) pressure to remain humble through humility and self-abnegation caused Hildegard, like most other composers of the time, to insist that her work came through external forces. She declared that she was merely a vessel for divine revelations. Men also made these claims, but it was particularly important for a woman to decry any ability to compete with the men who composed or documented music. But because others wanted copies of her music, we are fortunate both that they have survived and that we know who wrote them.

Hildegard set her own religious poems to music starting in the 1140s. There are 77 pieces in all, plus the morality play Ordo Virtutum, that includes another 82 antiphons. There are more surviving chants from Hildegard than any other composer in the entire Middle Ages.

Many of her works were written to honor a particular saint, with Disibod, Rochus, Rupert, and Ursula featured among them. The Ursulan antiphons are a cohesive group of eight songs that form a narrative, and tell the story of Ursula, a 6th or 7th century British saint who traveled with 11,000 virgins and was murdered by the Visigoths in Köln. This collection was a particular favorite of Hildegard’s and happens to be my favorite of her compositions as well. If you ask me to sing Hildegard, that’s probably what you’ll hear.

Most of Hildegard’s songs were antiphons and responsories for the Office and sequences for the Masses, some dedicated to local saints (Disibod, Rupert, Barbara, Ursula), or praising the Virgin Mary or the Trinity. They were preserved in two books, the Dendermonde manuscript, which was copied under Hildegard’s supervision, and the Reisencodex, which was copied after her death and contained slightly more of the music, including Ordo Virtutum.

The existence of the Dendermonde and the Reisen codices provide implied evidence that Hildegard’s music was performed beyond her own monastery and heard by others, who wanted to bring it home to their own monasteries. The originals were destroyed, but copies allow us to see the music in the hand of the priest Volmar, her steady tutor and friend until his own death in 1173.

Ordo Virtutum, written in 1151 or so, was a liturgical drama, yet not attached to liturgy. It’s a drama in verse with 82 separate songs that form a morality play with allegorical characters. In it, the Virtues lead the Soul back to the community of the faithful and out of the clutches of the Devil. All of the characters sing except the Devil, whose spoken part symbolizes his separation from God. This marvelous piece of musical theater is credited with being the earliest known liturgical morality play. The next one wasn’t written for two hundred years.

Hildegard’s music varies from highly syllabic to dramatic melismas (swirling melodies on a single open syllable). Her music is quite distinctive and easily recognizable, with unusual elements for the time, including exceeding an octave by a fourth or fifth, and large and frequent leaps. Her repertory of rhythmic and melodic tricks was small, making the music quite distinctive—like she had a theme she kept working on. Where Gregorian chant uses the words as a foundation, Hildegard writes to lengthen and emphasize the syllables of particular words using a concept of stable and unstable notes—in modern terms, that’s kind of like unmoving and moving notes in terms of gesture. She chose this over traditional Gregorian chant as a method for increasing contemplation on the words, making them a kind of sung prayer.

Because Hildegard wrote for women's voices, there are many differences between her songs and traditional Gregorian chant. For one thing, women’s voices often have a greater range than men's, so Hildegard’s songs can contain up to two octaves, where men’s chant seldom exceeds a single octave. Women’s voices are often more flexible, so quick little turns and flourishes are also a popular feature in Hildegard’s music that isn’t found in Gregorian chant.

It’s clear that she used music as a vehicle for her own mystical experience, and for those with a less audible connection, it was a way of making God seem palpable. It’s easy to imagine the songs being sung in a woodsy bower, little silvery songs of happiness floating up to the heavens.

Although she didn’t invent the concept, Hildegard loved to play with word-painting, where the shapes and sounds were often descriptive even without the text. For instance, “virga” was a favorite word: in music notation, it’s a 7-shaped squiggle that represents the most stable of notes,  in Latin, the word means a branch, like a branch of a tree (not the root but the result of growth), and it’s also the Latin term for virgin, a famous Christian theme. Another big theme for Hildegard was veriditas (greening), which was a way for heavenly integrity to overcome earthly dualisms. Many of Hildegard’s poems have to do with veriditas and how nature is a metaphor for a relationship with God.

Some theorists claim that Hildegard’s music and poetry is filtered within the female-centered religious experience that includes homo-erotic desire, while others claim it to be asexual, with metaphors of ecstasy and romance having more to do with the tradition of Christ as a bridegroom.

It was common for abbeys to have a special collection of chants written to celebrate whoever their local saints were, used on feast days and at other times during the year. But Hildegard went a little further. Many of her songs are about women: 16 to the Virgin Mary, 13 to St. Ursula, and four to various other groups of women. Sixteen of her songs are addressed to local or individual male saints, and the remaining 28 are dedicated to God and the Holy Spirit. Her imagery is predominantly woman-centered, but she was a nun, after all.

She corresponded with Bernard of Clairvaux  (1090-1153, prime builder of the Cistercian order of monasteries and probably the father of the movement that led to the Spanish Inquisition) and Frederick Barbarossa (1122-1190, prime motivator for the separation of church and state in Germany and a brutal enemy in war) and largely through the intercession of the former, she became a public figure, attracting people to her music and her advice (medical and societal). She wrote over 400 letters that have survived; she was clearly a prolific correspondent throughout her long life.

The texts on medicine that she wrote (or had written), Physica and Causae et Curae, were still consulted by physicians into the 15th century. They didn’t discover mistakes when they stopped consulting them, it’s just that they had learned a few things in 300 years.

There were three manuscripts illustrating the visions. It’s doubtful that these were done by Hildegard herself, but they were surely done under her watchful eye. Possible artists include the priest Volmar, her great friend Richardis, and any number of gifted and wealthy nuns or patrons. Sadly, one such manuscript was sent to Dresden for safekeeping during WWII, and like the rest of Dresden, was destroyed (or went missing). Luckily for posterity, there are black and white photocopies that survived, along with a full-color facsimile produced by the nuns at Eibingen in 1928. Without them, the text to Scivias might be missing or rather hard to reassemble from the remaining illustrations.

Hildegard had a biography of her own life written, although much of her early life is skipped over—30 years locked away with her cousin, and she barely comments on it! The work, which took several years to complete, was begun by her friend, the tutor and priest Volmar. After his death, it was continued by two monks from Trier, her cousin Wezelin, a monk named Gottfried, and finally, it was finished by Theodoric just after her death.

In her later years, Hildegard conducted preaching tours by boat and on foot, speaking to clergy and laymen, mostly against the Cathars, and urging reform from church officials. Women are STILL seldom invited to preach, so you can imagine how many feathers Hildegard’s invitations ruffled. It’s clear that she was invited, although her early sermons were probably offered at home in Bingen.

In what turned out to be the final year of her life, she suffered interdiction (which means that she was not allowed to take communion or sing) because she insisted that an excommunicated man had been reconciled to the church before death, and she refused to unbury him from consecrated grounds. The debate raged between religious leaders in Köln, Mainz, and the pope in Rome, and was finally resolved in her favor. It must have been a rough year, unable to make music, and all but excommunicated herself.

She died September 17, 1179 after a short illness. Witnesses insist that a ray of light emanated from her mouth as she breathed her last. Other stories say that two vast arcs illuminated the night and a red cross glowed beneath them, surrounded by cross-studded circles.

If reading non-fiction about Hildegard seems a bit much for you (some of it’s pretty heavy, I’ll admit), there are a few works of fiction that might interest you. I hope to add my own to the list shortly.

·        “Illuminations,” by Mary Sharratt. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 2012 (ISBN: 978-0-547-56784-6). A lovely tale, focusing for the first half on the 30 years Hildegard spent in the anchorage—even Hildegard doesn’t write much about this—combining the darkness of the time with the gorgeous imagery that Hildegard both wrote and inspired. I also really enjoyed the development of the friendship with Richardis, another subject that biographers tiptoe around.

·        “The Seer and the Scribe,” by G.M. Dyrek. Luminis Books, 2011 (ISBN-13: 978-1-935462-39-2). A clearly self-published novel (my opinion is based on historical and typographical errors) that turns the friendship of Hildegard with her scribe into a romance. The author clearly ran out of steam about three-quarters of the way through, rendering the last 75 pages not worth reading (although I did).

·        “Scarlett Music: Hildegard of Bingen,” by Joan Ohanneson. Crossroad Publishing Company, 1997 (ISBN: 0-8245-1646-X). A quick view of Hildegard’s lifetime, rendering Hildegard lively and real, rather than the somewhat distant paragon that her list of accomplishments might otherwise make her seem. The imagery in this book is delightful.

·        “The Journal of Hildegard of Bingen,” by Barbara Lachman. Bell Tower and Crown Publishers, 1993 (ISBN: 0-517-59169-3). A fictional account of a year in Hildegard’s life, focusing on the first year at the Rupertsberg Abbey.

Sources:

“A History of Western Music,” by J. Peter Burkholder, Donald Jay Grout, Claude V. Palisca, W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 2010

“Women & Music: A History,” by Karin Pendle, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 2001

“Women Making Music: The Western Art Tradition, 1150-1950,” edited by Jane Bowers and Judith Tick, University of Illinois Press, Urbana, 1987

“The Encyclopedia of the Middle Ages,” edited by Norman F. Cantor, Viking, 1999

“Medieval Women Writers,” edited by Katharina M. Wilson, University of Georgia Press, Athens, 1984, article by Kent Kraft, “The German Visionary: Hildegard of Bingen”

“Uppity Women of Medieval Times,” by Vicki Leon, Conari Press, Berkeley, 1997

“Women in Music,” edited by Carol Neuls-Bates, Northeastern University Press, Boston, 1996

“Hildegard of Bingen,” by Regine Pernoud, Marlow & Company, New York, English translation 1998

“Hildegard of Bingen; A Visionary Life,” by Sabina Flanagan, Routledge, London, 1989

“Sister of Wisdom; St. Hildegard’s Theology of the Feminine,” by Barbara Newman, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1987

“Jutta & Hildegard: The Biographical Sources,” translated and introduced by Anna Silvas, Pennsylvania State University Press, University Park, 1998

“Hildegard of Bingen: The Woman of Her Age,” by Fiona Maddocks, Doubleday, New York, 2001

“Hildegard of Bingen: Scivias,” translated by Mother Columba Hart and Jane Bishop, introduced by Barbara J. Newman, Paulist Press, New York, 1990

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