Saint Hildegard of Bingen (1098 – 1179 AD) lived through the 12th century, one of the most intensely creative periods in world history. This century saw the proliferation of universities throughout Western Europe and the development of Gothic architecture. In the Far East, a similar explosion of creative power culminated in monumental architecture like Angkor Wat. St Hildegard herself was roughly contemporary with another one of history’s most remarkable women, the Byzantine Princess Anna Komnene.
History remembers Hildegard primarily as a great Benedictine abbess. She was known in her own lifetime for her piety and her learning. As mother of a major monastic community, she had a deep knowledge of contemporary medical techniques, as well as botany. Her opus includes several major works on theology and medicine, as well as one of the earliest morality plays. Most importantly for our purposes, Hildegard is also one of the most important composers of plainchant.
Plainchant, or plainsong, is a distinctly Western musical form of the Middle Ages. It consists of a monophonic melodic line, usually sung a cappella (without instruments). Plainchant uses modes, which are a set of eight scales with distinct melodic behaviors. Another characteristic feature of this music is the use of melismata. A melisma (μέλισμα) is a phrasing in which the singer uses multiple notes to express one syllable. These give the music a distinctive texture. The video below is an example of St Hildegard’s plainchant, “O rubor sanguinis”, a meditation on the suffering of Jesus Christ.
A Life of Contemplation
Hildegard was born somewhere around 1098. Her family was of the lower nobility in the then Holy Roman Empire. We don’t know exactly how old she was when she took monastic vows, but as a young woman she entered the Disibodenburg Monastery (left) and lived there for 39 years. It was probably here that she learnt to play the psaltery, a 10-stringed, harp-like instrument. It is also likely that the monk Volmar instructed the young Hildegard in musical notation. She went on to found other monasteries, at Rupertsburg and Eibingen. These monasteries functioned as centers of learning, commerce and medicine. They were the engine that fueled European progress through the high and late middle ages.
Hildegard’s musical and philosophical writings are suffused with the concept viriditas, literally translated as “greenness”. The Latin root of this word survives in all Romance languages as the word for “green”. Hildegard articulated this principle in relation to the abundance and tenacity of life on Earth. For her, this “greenness” is reflected in the capacity of living things to heal, grow and proliferate. This divine attribute, emanating from the triune God, inheres in creation and gives it its dynamic, renewing quality. If you listen closely you will hear this lushness and vigor in Hildegard’s music. She pushed the limits of the Gregorian form, both in terms of its melodic potential and sheer vocal range. The result is one of history’s most profound meditations on the mystery of the Gospel.
Hildegard’s Legacy in Our Times
In recent years, interest in ancient and medieval music has surged. For aspiring musicians who are seeking to carve out a niche identify for themselves, antiquity and the middle ages are both fertile ground. Immersing yourself in these worlds can also invigorate your approach to the better known baroque, classical and romantic eras, because all of these draw on older, pre-modern sources and influences.
St Hildegard in particular is a wonderful antidote to the absurd modern notion that women in the middle ages were “oppressed” or “invisible”. In a period of great creativity and vigor, women like Hildegard occupied an indispensable place in the advance of human culture. Thankfully, we have a huge amount of her material, readily available, to listen to, appreciate, and, if we have the requisite skill, reproduce and perform. The International Society of Hildegard von Bingen Studies is an extensive repository of her work and its reception in our times.
“The Word is living, being, spirit, all verdant greening, all creativity. This Word manifests itself in every creature.”