Hildegard von Bingen Music


De Spiritu Sancto

At the heart of Hildegard von Bingen's extraordinary creativity was her accomplishment in music. In the poetry and melody of her songs, she reveals the full authority, intelligence and striking originality of her genius. She wrote profusely as no woman before her. Even though she received no formal training in music, her talent and motivation drove her to write 77 chants and the first musical drama in history, which she entitled The Ritual of the Virtues. She writes in her autobiographical passages: "I composed and chanted plainsong in praise of God and the saints even though I had never studied either musical notation or singing." Unlike the mild, mainstream music of her day, her lyrical speech breaks into rhapsodic emotion; her zesty melodies soar up to two and one half octaves, leaping and swirling into flourishing roulades which leave the singer breathless. Hildegard's music can only be fully understood, however, in the light of all her work.


The beauty and depth of theme found in Hildegard’s theology, philosophy, cosmology and medicine can all be found condensed in her music as in a jewel. For Hildegard, music was an all-embracing concept. It was the symphony of angels praising God, the balanced proportions of the revolving celestial spheres, the exquisite weaving of body and soul, the hidden design of nature's creations. It was the manifest process of life moving, expanding, growing towards the joy of its own deepest realizations and a profound unity of voices singing the praises of God here on earth. It was beauty, sound, fragrance and the flower of human artistry. Over 300 times in her writings, Hildegard uses music to illuminate spiritual truths.


Hildegard combined all her music into a cycle called The Symphony of the Harmony of the Heavenly Revelations. This title refers not only to the heavenly inspiration of her music but to the place music held in her schema as the highest form of praise to God. She believed that many times a day, we fall out of sorts, lose our way or find ourselves off center. Music was the sacred technology which could best tune humanity, redirect our hearts toward heaven and put our feet back onto the wholesome pathways of God.
"Symphonia" was a key concept in Hildegard's thought and meant not only the joyful harmony achieved in blending voices and instruments but the spiritual field of unity we all long for when we sing. In singing and playing music, we integrate mind, heart and body, heal discord between us, and celebrate heavenly harmony here on earth. According to Hildegard, this becomes our "opus" – the epitome of good work in the service of God.


Musically, the most important thing that Hildegard experienced as a child in the monastery was the opportunity to take part in the Divine Office. According to the Benedictine rule, monastics sang the Office eight times each day, beginning in the dead of night at 2.a.m. and concluding around 9 p.m. Every three hours, she listened to the musical interplay of words and tones. Musician and scholar Christopher Page puts it very well when he says, "life was spent singing the words of the liturgy and reading the words of the Latin Bible until the fabric of [her] memory was dyed with them to the deepest, to the most irremovable, tint." Thus, we see that Hildegard was immersed in music from the start.
The women's cloister had two windows, one that opened to the outside and one that opened into the church from a small choir where the nuns sat and participated in the liturgy. Through this window, Hildegard heard the form of the music, deciphered the eight modes and absorbed the subtle match of text and sound. Singers might also read notes from one large manuscript book called the Graduale.
Every day, the sisters sang during the Divine Office and at the celebration of the Eucharist. This means that the nuns chanted for almost four hours a day. For Hildegard the composer, the monastery provided an ideal situation. It had a scriptorium where experienced copyists could pen her music; a skilled and practiced performing body to sing it; and liturgical occasions for its performance.


Most of Hildegard's music was written for the eight canonical hours of the Divine Office. The hours consisted of readings from scripture and singing of the psalms and hymns which gave the monastic an opportunity to encounter God through a specific mood or season of time. Four kinds of musical forms were used in liturgy:


Plainchant consists of a single melody sung by soloist or choir. Often no instruments are used to accompany the music. Though, as we shall see later, Hildegard may have used instruments to accompany her music. Plainsong was derived from earlier Jewish chants. Pope Gregory I (590-604) collected and preserved some of the oldest chants and notated them using neumes, or written “gestures,” that in the beginning simply indicated if the music went up or down.
The following gives an idea of what music was like 900 years ago when Hildegard was composing:


Hildegard was a very expressive person. She loved beautiful clothing, exquisite sounds, fragrant scents and bright-colored gems. As a composer, she expressed herself intensely both in the sound and in the words of her music. The following are some musical features we can find in her compositions. The style characteristics listed stem from my own observations and from the thoughtful analysis of musicologist Marianne Pfau.


In contrast to the narrow scope of most chants in her day, Hildegard's music has a very wide range. She uses extremes of register as if to bring heaven and earth together. According to Pfau, by adding and omitting pitches and pitch groups in repetitions of melodic phrases, Hildegard stretches and contracts melodic phrases to create the "soaring arches" that we are familiar with in her music.


Plainchant usually never employed intervals larger than a second or third. Hildegard's music vaults upward and downward with wide intervals of fifths and fourths. She traverses up and down the octave scale with as much ease as she moved between the mystical world and the world of mundane affairs.


Unlike the Romanesque curves of most plainchant melodies, Hildegard's melodies are more angular. Often we hear rapid ascents in the melodies with a slow, falling decline. The heights of her songs are like the spires of Gothic cathedrals shooting upwards into the sky.

Dramatic Flourishes

Hildegard's chants contrast neumatic and melismatic passages. Neumatic passages are organized with two or three notes per syllable. Melismatic passages use three or more notes per syllable. Hildegard often uses melismatic or decorative passages to articulate form, to animate the line, to create agile, supple melodies and to separate sections of pieces. Combined with an ascending passage at the end of the piece, Hildegard uses melismas to anticipate the joy we will experience in arriving at our final celestial destiny.


We do not know whether or not Hildegard used instruments to accompany chants at the monastery. We do know that she affirmed the use of instruments and considered them a means to soften the heart and direct it toward God. She gave certain instruments a special function and meaning.


Thomas Moore, author of Care of the Soul, says that when we have the courage to be ourselves, we leave a mark in this world. When we let our unique gifts shine, we "sting" the world with our vision and challenge it with new ways of being. Hildegard left us her "sting" in a little motif she left behind in her chants. In her music, we find a melodic leap of a fifth followed by a leap of a fourth upwards. This motif is like a musical signature (see, for example, the opening of her chants, “De Spiritu Sancto” and “O Virtus Sapientiae”). When we hear it, we can remember our own gifts and talents. Inspired by her generosity, we can let them shine out onto the world.

O virtus Sapientiae



Prepared by N. Fierro/1997
HTML edited by Genevieve MacLellan 2008