The following introduction to Hildegard of Bingen music was reviewed and researched by Dr. Barbara Stuehlmeyer, a foremost expert on Hildegard’s music. For additional general information on Hildegard music, see our post of the same name.
Hildegard of Bingen was a creative force. Her prolific contributions transcended her theological dedication to include art, music, natural science, and medicine. Her work in the natural world and visionary theology contributed to advancement in both theology and medicine, eventually earning her sainthood in 2012.
Hildegard of Bingen music for the Medieval Period
Of all her contributions to humanity, Hildegard of Bingen music would carry her message the furthest, remaining relevant to this day.
Throughout the latter years of her monastic life, Hildegard produced volumes of music alongside her other work. She composed 77 unique works of music, including one of her better-known works, Ordo Virtutum (Play of the Virtues), a musical play on morality.
One of the most well-known German composers of the Middle Ages
Her creations filled the chambers of the Abbey some 650 years before Beethoven. In a time when composition itself was held to a remarkably high standard and when women, especially in monasteries, were not only expected to possess such talent but also to use it, she surprised her contemporaries with a rate of composition that was likely unmatched until well into the Renaissance – three hundred years later.
In spite of her prodigious contribution to medieval music, she is perhaps less familiar that the German composers that would follow, though her contributions live on to this day.
Hildegard of Bingen music and Medieval contemporaries
We know from Hildegard’s own correspondence, her reputation as a composer reached as far as Paris, the center of European music at that time. Her work may have even influenced Master Leoninus of Nôtre-Dame, who had established the first school of polyphony, the combination of melody in a single verse.
Although Hildegard never formally adopted the emerging sounds of medieval polyphony, her work is often closely associated. The tools Hildegard employed for her music were derived from the qualities of Gregorian chants and inspired by the natural sounds of people passing playfully in their environment. Part of what makes Hildegard of Bingen music special is the nature of this inspiration.
The sounds of nature in Hildegard’s music
Hildegard’s music truly appears to have been inspired by nature. She developed sounds centuries ago that still appeal to modern listeners. Perhaps it is the simplicity of her sounds that make her compositions seem like a timeless reflection of her essence.
In 1992 Jim Wilson got the idea to slow down a recording of chirping crickets to the relative speed of a human life. He called the revealed sound “Gods cricket chorus”, and it reminds the listener of Hildegard’s work.
Origins of Hildegard of Bingen Music
Hildegard described the origins of her music as sounds she had heard with her “inner ear”. As with many of her undertakings, Hildegard felt compelled to develop the resources necessary to bring her inner music to her outer ear.
Hildegard of Bingen music is rooted in Gregorian chant. But, like much of her other work, her creative power imparted her music with a unique expressiveness that moved her music beyond some of the formal limitations of her time. The tonal range within her music is greatly expanded to high notes. And while she still adhered to the strict forms of her time, she would take liberties quite freely, combining new, larger structures into her compositions.
Hildegard’s Boundless Creativity
According to a letter from Hildegard to her secretary and friend, Volmar, obtaining musical instruments was common in her monastery. But Hildegard went further than mere music. She would go on to design a different type of monastic life for her convent. Her belief in the power of creativity would inspire a lifestyle focused on inner freedom and pursuing encounters with that creative power she called the “living light.” Music was a way to express this freedom, just as was the custom of dressing-up for the Eucharist and the performance of her liturgical play.
Hildegard, along with her sisters, performed a religious musical drama, the “Ordo Virtutum”, which is considered the first known form of opera. In its performance, nuns were given creative liberty to appear in jewelry and exposed hair.
Hildegard’s Liturgical Play
Hildegard’s Ordo Virtutum is remarkable in many ways. Unlike the other known liturgical plays, she based it not on biblical scenes but instead created a sort of pscyho-dramatic realization based on the situation of her convent.
The “Ordo” is written after a tense and stressful time during the founding of her own monastery on the Rupertsberg. Many of the nuns were not in favor of this new convent and would take their leave. Hildegard sought a way to forge a union among her remaining sisters. She would do so by writing about each of their inner virtues, to be forever enshrined in Ordo Virtutum.
Her use of Tonality
Hildegard used the tonality of her time, but in a particularly expressive way. There is a strong connection between the mode she chose and the content it transported. She also used modes to express emotional states, like that of the modes in the Gregorian chants, as evidenced in writings by some musicologists and theologians of her time – and before. Even though we can feel the unique expressiveness of Hildegard’s use of modes, it is still embedded within the tradition of that period.
Hildegard of Bingen music can take some getting used-to
It is said that her music contains light in the highest vibration, which can overwhelm the soul. So it is best not to listen to too much at once, but rather to settle into the same piece and play it over a few times in a row in order to truly examine it.
When Hildegard was composing, she drew from her experience of what she called “celestial harmony”, something she described as “the trumpet sound of the living light”, exalting that “the whole world is filled with sound and every creature has a tone.”
Her music represents a unique body of work that has a highly recognizable style. It is rooted in the late Gregorian chant, but it also has a very expressive air that makes it special.
Of all of Hildegard’s contributions, her music seems to have gained the most enthusiastic recognition in the US. In recent years, a wide range of professional musicians have gathered to perform Hildegard’s music while preserving the integrity of its origin. Sequentia, a medieval music ensemble with deep experience in performing Hildegard of Bingen music, released the Complete Works of Hildegard of Bingen in 2017. This 9-CD set is now available through Sony Records.
Hildegard’s Influence on Music and Creativity Today
Several modern musicians have rediscovered Hildegard’s music in a contemporary setting. They have added experimental sounds with modern arrangements to create a colorful synthesis of the middle-ages with modern times. We recently discovered a contemporary take on Ordo Virtutum, performed by Deepak Ram and Diana Rowan, along with the San Francisco Renaissance Voices.
We were impressed and surprised by David Lynch and Jocelyn Montgomery’s collaboration in 2010, resulting in the album, Lux Vivens, which combines the past with the present in a powerful and enchanting way.
Musicians such as Linn Maxwell have sought to preserve Hildegard’s original intent and character. The same goes for groups like Vocatrix and performances such as «O tu illustrativ» performed by the Ensemble Vocame Munich/ Germany.
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In all of Hildegard’s work we find her unique expression of creativity. We hope you do as well. Take some time to explore her music and perhaps it will inspire you to awaken your own unique creativity.