Monday, August 29, 2011

Hildegard von Bingen: Her Life and Music

by G. Jack Urso 

Dedicated to Professor Max Lifchitz, my instructor in Music in the Western World at the University at Albany Liberal Studies Graduate Program (1999-2000), who encouraged my interest in Hildegard von Bingen and inspired me as a teacher with his vast knowledge and gentle manner.


Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179), the "Sibyl of the Rhine," and Gregorian chant has experienced something of a revival. Since the popular success of Chant by the Benedictine Monks of Domingo de Silos in the 1990s, more attention has been paid to this style of music. In today's secular society, it is ironic that Gregorian chant should find a large audience even more so that Hildegard von Bingen, a Catholic saint, should be riding the wave of this revival.
Why should a relatively obscure 12th century nun experience a resurgence of interest nearly a thousand years after her birth? In the course of my research, I came across nineteen books on Hildegard von Bingen; twelve were written in the 1990s and five others in the 1980s. Not bad for an "obscure" 12th century nun. Certainly, part of the interest may be attributed to the rise in the popularity of Gregorian chant on the record charts in the 1990s. Additionally, Hildegard von Bingen has also attracted interest from post-feminist writers and holistic healers.
Today's listeners appreciate von Bingen's music perhaps for the peace of mind chant can help create. However, while the quietly whispered Latin phrases sound to us like mystical incantations, to von Bingen they were words of praise. These are songs of love and adoration to the God she worshipped. Like the great Gothic architecture of her time, these songs were used to create a space where the worship of the supernatural could take place.
Early Life
Little is known of von Bingen’s family, and she is not known to have commented on the subject. It is likely that she came from the "illustrious family of Stein, whose descendants are the present Princes of Salm" (Flanagan 22). Her parents' names, as recorded by her first biographer (the monk Godfrey of Disibodenberg), were Hildebert and Mechthilde. Her father served as a soldier in the service of Meginhard, Count of Spanheim. While the nature of their title and the precise locations of their lands have not been recorded, their many donations to the church have been noted and it is through these sources that we can infer their noble heritage.
Von Bingen is referred to in several sources as being the tenth child of a noble family. This had been concluded by her reference to herself as a "tithe child" in early sources. There was a custom that the tenth child was considered the tithe child. From the biblical term for giving ten percent of your harvest or wealth to the church (a tithe), the tithe child would be given over to the church to be trained for service. By the time the tenth child was born it is likely that a family would not have the money to provide a sufficient dowry for her.
Von Bingen was frequently sick as a child, and taking into account the lack of a dowery, the prospect of marriage was slim. As a result, she was probably seen as something of a burden, even to her allegedly "highborn" family. There is no direct evidence regarding the rest of von Bingen's family. Though it is thought she came from a family of ten children, only eight names, including her own and that of seven siblings, have been recorded. Two others may have died in childhood (Lehrman). Given the high mortality rate of children at the time, and von Bingen's own sickly nature, this is a plausible explanation.
Her environment while growing up is another area of mystery, as little information of it is known. Von Bingen, a devout and deeply religious person, related her childhood in spiritual terms, overlooking the daily routines and occurrences that seem to fascinate biographers in the modern age. A few hints do give us a peek though. She had a pet calf of sorts, which suggests an agricultural environment.
Von Bingen’s education was limited; the nature of which can only be inferred from what we know of her times. She was taught some reading and writing skills, but only so much as was relevant to basic religious instruction. She would have likely received a great deal of instruction via the oral traditions of the times. In a era when most people were illiterate, stories, songs, and rhyming mnemonic devices were used to assist in memorization (Lehrman).
While von Bingen did not go into specifics about her childhood, we have gleaned some insights from her comments. She did make reference, albeit indirectly, to the lack of personal space in her childhood, which is something that would have been common to all classes, including the nobility, during the Medieval Age (Flanagan 25). When compared to the secluded life and private cells enjoyed in the monasteries, von Bingen probably found the change of living space dramatic. Despite this apparent lack of personal space, little Hildegard was often housebound as a child due to illness, and, as a result, received little exposure to the outside world. On this subject she is quoted as saying, "I was ignorant of many outside things because of the frequent illnesses I suffered" (Flanagan 25). In a way, however, her fragile health helped to prepare her for a life of seclusion.
Hildegard Von Bingen entered the church at the age of seven or eight into an abbey that was opened to the daughters of highborn families. Von Bingen's origins with the upper classes of society would have a significant impact on her personality and was a contributing factor in her psychological makeup which allowed her to so forcibly exert her power and opinions in the very male dominated society of 12th century Europe.
Von Bingen was given over to the care of Jutta, who was the sister of Count Meginhard, in whose army von Bingen's father fought. Jutta lived as an anchoress (a monk or nun who never left their cell or monastic building) at Disenberg in the Diocese of Speyer. She was part of an order of nuns located at the Benedictine monastery of Mount St. Disibode. Jutta came from noble stock herself as were all the nuns and novitiates at this particular abbey (Mershman).
Even at this young age it was noticed that von Bingen, though often sick, was "high-strung, keenly intelligent . . . uncannily able to foretell coming events" (Beer 16). She received some basic instruction in Latin, probably as part of her religious instruction. While certainly an intelligent woman, von Bingen's frequent illnesses may have resulted in her receiving less formal education than other women of her class. She never felt confident with her level of literacy and, in later years, often employed a secretary to record her words in proper grammar (Mershman).
Once under the care of Jutta, von Bingen began to become accustomed to Benedictine ways. The Benedictines were a monastic order whose daily rituals followed a routine of work and worship. They had certain dietary requirements that had to be observed. Fish and fowl were permissible, but not meat from a four-footed animal. Mealtimes and the menu were prescribed by the order and took into account fasting days or feast days when fish was the only meat that could be eaten.
The calendar was full of special days of observation and the diet adjusted so. Allowances were made for the diets of the very young, old, or sick. While local varieties of fruits and vegetables differed from one region to the next, it was otherwise a simple and unchanging menu. Monotonous, to be sure, but the communal lifestyle ensured a steady, plentiful supply. A circumstance that was often better than for many in Europe at the time (Mershman).
The time spent alone, due to her illnesses, fostered von Bingen's studious nature. During her periods of recuperation she would have been freed from the strict schedule of the abbey, which allowed her to spend extra time developing her talents in art, music, and medicine. In fact, her illnesses also inspired her art. Her manuscript illuminations included symbolism taken from the visions that were caused by her migraine headaches (Beer 23).
In the Church
Von Bingen became a Benedictine nun when she was near eighteen years old. After Jutta dies in 1136, von Bingen was held in high enough esteem to take her place as leader of her sister nuns, about twelve in all (Fox 7). Von Bingen now entered a very creative period of her life. Her literary output consists of nine books and more than seventy poems. The first book, Scivias (Know the Ways) contained both von Bingen's words of wisdom and hand-painted illuminations. In addition to artwork for illuminated manuscripts she wrote extensively on medicine and matters of health and sexuality, including the first medical description of a female orgasm (Mershman). Von Bingen also had extensive correspondence with a broad range of people.
As previously stated, due to her rudimentary education Hildegard von Bingen employed a secretary to assist her. Two are most noteworthy, a young Benedictine monk named Volmar and her trusted assistant, a sister nun, Richardis von Stade. When reading her letters we must allow for the fact that von Bingen's weak grammatical skills were compensated for by her secretaries (Beer 25). Nonetheless, the broad range of her talents is indicative of a very literate person. She is, however, as known for her powerful visions (likely due to migraine headaches) as she is for her music.
 Fig 2: Ruins of the Convent St. Disibodenberg (Corrêa de Oliveira). 
Hildegard von Bingen chaffed under the control of Abbot Kuno of the monastery of Mount St. Disibode (St. Disibodenberg, see fig. 2, above). After her recognition by Pope Eugenius III she began to attract many more new members of her order. In time the need for larger space and autonomy to run her community persuaded von Bingen in 1151 to move her community to Rupertsburg where she became an abbess and was beholden only to the Archbishop of Mainz, superseded the local control of such church officials like Abbot Kuno. This move provoked strife between the two communities of Benedictine Monks and Nuns, which was further aggravated by other disagreements. The friction continued for thirty-three years, at times spurred on by von Bingen's own uncompromising attitude. She died in September 1179, and was honored as a saint almost immediately and later canonized in 1233 (Newman 15).
Her Visions
Hildegard's von Bingen's visions form the central basis for her mystique; indeed, her visions are part of her legacy as a Catholic saint. They provide a divine voice to her muse that is hard to critique; however, there is a pathological explanation for her visions - migraine headaches. Dr. Oliver Sacks, the noted Professor of Neurology at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, provides us with three presumptions we must acknowledge while investigating the medical reasons for her visions.
1. There is no such thing as valid spiritual experience. Speaking in tongues, dream visions, prayer, etc., are invalid experiences.
2. There is no such thing as valid psychic experience.
3. Given that the first two experiences are true, there is spiritual realm(s) and/or no interaction between the spiritual and the physical that cannot be explained solely in physical terms (Sacks 1).
Sacks goes on to explain further that the "experience represents a hysterical or psychotic ecstasy, the effects of intoxication, or an epileptic or migrainous manifestation." Von Bingen's medicinal writings indicate she had knowledge of herbs and spices (like nutmeg) which are capable of producing mild hallucinogenic effects.
Because of the great deal of correspondence left behind by von Bingen we know that she suffered from migraine headaches, which she described (as part of her visions) in detail. Points of light which move in wave-like patterns or as "shimmering circles of light" are typical of the visions inflicted on migraine sufferers and described by von Bingen herself (Sacks 1). Von Bingen describes the condition in the following passage:
From my infancy up to the present time, I being more than seventy years of age, I have always seen this light in my spirit and not with external eyes, nor with any thoughts of my heart nor with help from the senses. But my outward eyes remain open and the other corporeal senses retain their activity. The light which I see is not located but yet is more brilliant than the sun, nor can I examine its height, length, or breadth, and I name it the "cloud of the living light." And as sun, moon, and the stars are reflected in water, so the writings, sayings, virtues, and works of men shine in it before me. Likewise I see, hear, and understand almost in a moment and I set down what I thus learn. (Singer)
From the above quote it can be inferred that von Bingen did not fall into a trance-like state when visited by her visions, but rather was awake and alert. This accounts for how she was able to keep her visions a secret until she was ready to discuss them with church elders. While we regard von Bingen and her visions with some mystery, she recounted her experiences in a very matter-of-fact manner, without the passion and fervor we accord to such visionaries. This stems, one can conjecture, from the very pragmatic approach she took to her duties and what she perceived as her calling. Other such "visionaries," like von Bingen's contemporary Elisabeth of Shönau, would become incapacitated during a vision and be incapable of performing any other functions (Beer 28).
Von Bingen felt a divine calling to set the visions, and her interpretations of those visions, down in a book. The Scivias (shorten from the Latin 'Scito vias Domini' meaning 'Know the Ways of the Lord') was her first volume of a trilogy relating her 'mystic' visions and wisdom (Beer 29). Interlaced throughout the Scivias are numerous "visios," her illuminated artwork, which integrated visual images she claimed to receive in her visions. Pope Eugenius received a selection of the Scivias circa 1147-48. So impressed was he by it, the pope said the work was "divinely inspired" and gave her the Church's authorization to complete it.
Fig. 3: Sample of von Bingen's artwork (von Bingen, "Hildegard of Bingen Mandala").
Fig. 3, above, is a sample of Hildegard von Bingen's manuscript illumination artwork. The migraine sufferer's "circles of light" are plainly seen here in a piece evocative of a Far Eastern mandala. We can infer, from the distance of 900 years, pathological reasons for Hildegard's visions and the inspirations for her illuminations. Nevertheless, this does not take away from the beauty of her work nor its significance to the devout.
Her Music
Hildegard von Bingen's music was inspired by the daily performance of the Daily Office. The Divine Office is a Catholic term for a liturgical prayer, which is sung eight times a day. For almost four hours every day von Bingen and her sister nuns chanted. In her monastic world, von Bingen had everything she needed to develop her musical skills," A scriptorium where experienced copyists could pen her music; a skilled and practiced performing body to sing it; and occasions for the performance of her music-the liturgy" (Fierro).
Von Bingen assembled her collected body of compositions into a cycle called The Symphony of the Harmony of the Heavenly Revelations. This title reflects not only the divine aspect of her work, but its benefice as well. Von Bingen felt that music was a way for the believer to recover the unity of our body, mind, and soul in our relationship with God (Fierro). Seventy plus compositions contained in the cycle represent what we know of her as a composer.
After her move away from the monastery of Mount St. Disibode, von Bingen began to compose more, and for other monasteries as well. She wrote not only worship music, but also songs celebrating the lives of various saints and moral drama as well. Her Play of Virtues features vocal parts for the Devil, patriarchs and prophets, the soul, and even a part as abstract as "The Knowledge of God." This is a type of morality play. Imagine the classic medieval morality play Everyman set to music and that's the general idea (von Bingen 119).
The various compositions can be categorized as follows (Fierro):
Antiphons: A melody sung before and after a psalm, her largest category of pieces.
Responsories: Chant with music and lyrics performed after a scripture lesson, alternates between solo and group responses. Her second largest category.
Sequences: Sung between the alleluia and gospel during mass. Hildegard's sequences were non-rhyming dramatic pieces and poems.
Hymns: Devotional pieces composed with or without melodic repetition. 
There are stylistic elements that are characteristic of von Bingen's music, which have been commented on by musicologist Marianne Pfau (Fierro). 
Soaring: Compared to the chants of her contemporaries Hildegard employed a wide vocal range.
Leaps: 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.
Contour: Rapid ascents in the melodies with a slow, falling decline. Her melodies were more "angular than her contemporaries" (Fierro).
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" (Fierro).

The song, “O Virga Ac Diadema (Praise for the Mother) on Richard Souther’s album Vision: The Music of Hildegard von Bingen (Angel Records, 1994) has many of the classic elements of Gregorian Chant that mark this period. Click on the clip above to hear this song.
Fig. 4: Lyrics to "O Virga Ac Diadem."
The song seems composed especially for the range of the female voice and the as the verses are sung together at the polyphonic peak of the piece. Melismatic organum structures the song in a manner that reminded me of the Gothic cathedrals of Hildegard's time. The higher voices stretching skywards like the flying buttresses that supported the cathedrals' great walls. Latin, as foreign to our ears as it probably was to many German serfs, enhances the mystic quality of the song. Not being able to comprehend the words, we turn inwards in contemplation, considering the emotional reaction the music provokes in us.
In making her music more accessible, Hildegard did not write her lyrics in the proper Latin used by the Church. Instead she wrote in the vulgate, a more common form of Latin, practical in use and more widely understood (Foil).
Musical instruments were probably not frequent guests during the performance of the Divine Office in von Bingen’s lifetime. We do know, however, that she included some instruments to remind the worshipper of certain virtues (Fierro).
Tambourine: The taut skin of the tambourine inspires us to keep to a fast and maintain our discipline.
Flute: The sound of this wind instrument was to remind us of the Holy Spirit.
Trumpet: The powerful, clear sound to remind us of the prophets.
Strings: The sound of the soul as it strives for the light.
Harp: The "instrument of heavenly blessedness (Fierro)." It evokes our heavenly origins.
Psaltery: A plucked instrument played on the top and bottom strings reminded one of the union of heaven and earth.
Organ: The harmonies it can play create a sense of community.
Fig. 5: One of von Bingen's compositions in her own handwriting (Fierro).
 The composition style has elements similar to modern notation, yet is less developed. Certainly, chant required a less complicated notation language than the vocal gymnastics of Baroque orchestras several hundred years later.
Von Bingen, in addition to being one of the first composers to sign her name to her works, also employed the use of a musical signature. Described as "a melodic leap of a fifth followed by a leap of a fourth upwards," it serves as a kind of musical fingerprint, as in the following notation (Lehrman). See fig. 6, below:
Fig. 6: The notation for von Bingen's musical "signature" (Lehrman).
We can hear this musical signature in "O Euchari In Leta Via" (Vision), from Richard Souther's album, Vison: The Music of Hildegard of Bingen, which opens with this sequence of notes. 


Hildegard von Bingen presents many facets for us to study. Doctors read her works on medicines and health, poets read her words, artists study her manuscript illuminations, historians read her voluminous correspondence, Feminists and the religious study her life, and, of course, musicians study her music. She remains relevant today because the passions that drove her life, and the way she expressed them, are timeless aspects of the human character. In passion as well as with art, both always find expressions.

In the end, von Bingen presents to us a character study in the strength and force of will of the human psyche. In the depths of the European Middle Ages, a woman plagued by chronic pain and living in a male-dominated world expressed her love and devotion to God througha prism of many talents. With pen, in song, in art, and in music, Hildegard von Bingen called out to her world in a voice that reaches our own nearly a thousand years later.

 Works Cited
Beer, Francis. Women and Mystical Experience in the Middle Ages.
        Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 1992. Print. 
Corrêa de Oliveira, Plinio. “St. Hildegard von Bingen, September
        17. Tradition in Action, n.d. Web. 28 Aug. 2011. <http://>.

Dreyer, Elizabeth, Passionate Women: Two Medieval Mystics. New
        York: Paulist Press, 1989. Print. 
Fierro, Nancy. “Hildegard of Bingen: Symphony of the Harmony of
        Heaven.” Hildegard von Bingen. Johannes Gutenberg
        University Mainz, 1997. Web. 12 Dec. 1999. <http://>.  
Flanagan, Sabina. Hildegard of Bingen, 1098-1179 A Visionary Life.
        2nd ed. London: Routledge, 1990. Print. 
Fox, Matthew O.P., with text by Hildegard of Bingen. Illuminations
         of Hildegard of Bingen. Santa Fe: Bear & Company Inc., 1985.
Lehrman, Kristina. "The Life and Works of Hildegard von
        Bingen." Hildegard of Bingen. University of California, Santa
        Barbara, 17 Oct. 1998. Web. 12 Dec. 1999. <http://>.    

Mershman, Francis, "St. Hildegard," The Catholic Encyclopedia.
         New Advent, 1999. Web. 12 Dec. 1999. <http://>. 
Newman, Barbara. Sisters of Wisdom. Los Angeles: University of
         California Press, 1987. Print. 
Sacks, Oliver, Ph.D. "Vision as Pathology." Hildegard of Bingen.
         Millersville University, 6 Jan. 1996. Web. 12 Dec.
Singer, Charles. "Hildegard's Migraines: The Pathological Basis of
         the Visions." Hildegard of Bingen. Millersville University, 
         6 Jan. 1996. Web. 12 Dec. 1999. <http://
Souther, Richard. Vision: The Music of Hildegard von Bingen. With
          Emily von Evera and Sister Germaine Fritz, OSB. Liner notes 
          by David Foil. Angel, D106215, 1994. CD. 
von Bingen, Hildegard. "Hildegard of Bingen Mandala" Hildegard
         of BingenMillersville University, 6 Jan. 1996. Web. 12 Dec.
         1999. <
- - -. The Letters of Hildegard of Bingen. Trans. Joseph L. Baird,
         Radd K. Ehrman. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.
- - -. Secrets of God: Writings of Hildegard of Bingen. Trans. Sabina 
         Flanagan, Ph.D. Boston: Shambhala Publications Inc., 1996.
●             ●             ● 


  1. Well done. Nothing like the past to inform the present. I believe Patricia Routledge - Hyacinth Bucket from British comedy - played her on TV in the 1980's. What voices they both had.

    1. Yes she did. There seemed to have been something of a revival of interest in HVB in the 1990s.