St. Hildegard of Bingen (1089–1179) will soon be the Catholic Church’s 35th Doctor. The formal proclamation will make her the fourth woman to be declared a Doctor of the Church, joining the ranks of Saints Teresa of Avila, Catherine of Siena, and Therese of Lisieux.
Pope Benedict announced on Pentecost Sunday during his Regina Coeli address that now, after having formally declared (on May 10, 2012) Hildegard’s sainthood by way of “equivalent canonization,” he will proclaim (on October 7, 2012) that Hildegard is an official Doctor of the Church.
Benedict seems to have a soft spot for Hildegard. Back in 2010, he devoted not one but two of his Wednesday general audience talks to her. Perhaps this is related to his well-known love for all the best music.
Consider this: For how many saints can you say that you have a playlist of audio files? But with St. Hildegard, Benedict has amped up the ranks of Church Doctors who can teach us about what sacred music at its best sounds like.
Hildegard’s music had something of a “pop culture” moment back in 1994, when Richard Souther’s album Vision: The Music Of Hildegard von Bingen became a hit. It ended up winning the Billboard Classical/Crossover album of the year award.
Purists recoiled at Souther’s blending of Hildegard’s Gregorian chants with electronic effects and additional modern instrumentation. But who is to say that future artists should rule out any similar innovations as they rediscover Hildegard’s music for the 21st century?
After all, Hildegard herself was a mystical genius who pushed beyond the boundaries of the musical conventions of her own time. (She even invented her own language for some of her lyrics! Perhaps the only similar phenomenon today is what the Icelandic progressive rock band Sigur Rós does.)
And who knows how tomorrow’s best musicians will take up her sacred legacy? God only knows how a future musical Doctor might remake or rework Hildegard’s heavenly melodies. I wouldn’t want to put the Spirit into a straightjacket (although the Church does have norms for sacred music). In the end, hearing is believing.
Of course, any serious future innovator will first have to become familiar with the classic Hildegard albums that have already been recorded to date. Well over a decade before Souther’s success with Vision, the soprano Emma Kirkby had already put Hildegard in the forefront of elite musical consciousness with her stunning album, A Feather On The Breath Of God (1982). If you could only take one artist’s Hildegard disc to a desert island, this is arguably it.
Then again, there are the justly famous Hildegard discs recorded by the Anonymous 4, 11,000 Virgins: Chants for the Feast of St. Ursula (1997) and The Origin of Fire: Hildegard von Bingen (2005). Both are proof that once Emma Kirkby’s Feather album had kicked off a veritable Hildegard craze, enthusiasts of Gregorian chant were soon faced with a wonderful problem: choosing which “one disc only” to take in that “desert island” thought experiment. Only with reluctance would we leave behind Emma’s disc in order to take an Anonymous 4 disc with us—and vice versa! And the high-quality recordings have kept coming.
Now, to think about a “desert island disc” when it comes to Hildegard is not an idle exercise. Why not? Well, it amounts to picking the “one disc” you would recommend to a friend who wants to get started and to learn from the new musical Doctor.
Still, I would say that the best way for someone who wants to retreat into the desert and spend time with Hildegard’s music would be this: do not focus on just one disc. Instead, thanks to today’s technology, it has never been easier to put together a short, digestible playlist of Hildegard music. This is the best way to gain access to Hildegard’s beautiful soundscapes.
But if I had to recommend a single purchase for someone wishing to learn from Doctor Hildegard, it would have to be the complete works of Hildegard recorded by the ensemble for medieval music, Sequentia—an amazing project released in successive years during the 1990s.
Hildegard’s music fills eight Sequentia CDs and you might think that the box set containing them all would be expensive. But you would be wrong. Thanks to Sony Classical, Sequentia’s great achievement is today easily available online for about 25 dollars. That’s roughly three dollars per disc!
It will cost you somewhat more to download Hildegard’s entire musical output from iTunes. But if you wish, you can start your downloading project with only a few selections taken from the Sequentia treasure chest. After all, unless you have the musical skills of a Mozart, being deluged with St. Hildegard’s lifetime musical achievement will probably be overwhelming for you. So why not start with a playlist of 12 of her best?
Allow me to give you that recommended playlist, below. I will list 12 downloads for which you need only pay about $0.99 each. This custom playlist introduction is the best way I can think of to get you started, short of recommending one of the “desert island” albums that I already mentioned above.
And this playlist is not just for beginners. This is my own custom “Hildegard highlights” iPhone playlist, and it probably resembles the playlists on the iPhones of other advanced chant enthusiasts.
By the way, if you ever do move from a beginning to an advanced comprehension of Hildegard’s entire musical corpus, you will want to compare the different recorded versions of every single one of her works. Thanks to the Internet, this task has never been easier, as an exhaustive and well-ordered discography of every recording of Hildegard’s music is available.
But here’s what you need to know just to get started: Hildegard’s music consists of the 69 songs Symphonia armonie celestium revelationum, that is, those written for the Mass (one Alleluia, one Kyrie, and seven sequences) and for the Divine Office (43 antiphons—14 of which are votive—18 great responsories, three hymns, and four devotional songs), and the musical mystery play Ordo virtutum, which includes more than 80 songs and song segments and also opening and closing processions. Thus, each item in her output is easily numbered, which you will notice below (and also in the discography linked to above).
And now for that limited playlist of 12. Where to begin? Well, not necessarily with Hildegard’s longer masterpieces. Fortunately, Hildegard is also a master of the short masterpiece. Those who are new to chant will appreciate these shorter pieces as they try to wrap their minds around the highly unusual, ecstatic melodies of Hildegard.
In fact, Margot Fassler (who is Keough-Hesburgh Professor of Music History and Liturgy and co-director of the Master of Sacred Music Program at the University of Notre Dame) has keenly observed of Hildegard’s music: “Not the least inspired of the songs are the seer’s brief, almost epigrammatic antiphons,” in which “a single indelible image is etched on the mind.” I include many good examples at the top of the playlist:
PLAYLIST: “BEGINNER’S GUIDE TO ST. HILDEGARD OF BINGEN”
“Caritas habundat” (no. 25), from Canticles of Ecstasy, by Sequentia
“O quam mirabilis” (no. 3), from Symphoniae, by Sequentia
“O rubor sanguinis” (no. 61), from Voice of the Blood, by Sequentia
“Laus Trinitati” (no. 26), from Voice of the Blood, by Sequentia
“O virtus Sapientiae” (no. 2), from Symphoniae, by Sequentia
“O viridissima virga” (no. 19), from Canticles of Ecstasy, by Sequentia
“O orzchis (immensa) Ecclesia” (no. 68), from Voice of the Blood, by Sequentia
“O frondens virga” (no. 15), from O Jerusalem, by Sequentia
“O ignee spiritus” (no. 27), from O Jerusalem, by Sequentia
“Qui sunt hi, qui ut nubes?”, from Ordo virtutum, by Sequentia
“O Euchari in leta via” (no. 53), from Saints, by Sequentia
“O mirum admirandum” (no. 41), from Saints, by Sequentia
Note: all the songs above are available in Sequentia’s comprehensive Hildegard box set, but for convenience of reference I also designate the individual disc names on which they first appeared.
I include below Latin lyrics and translations (mine, except where otherwise indicated) for the four shorter pieces that begin my playlist of 12. I also include an example of Hildegard’s mystic language, “O orzchis Ecclesia.” And there is also an example of Hildegard’s Latin punning, “O frondens virga”—note that the punning metaphor associates the lively green vigor of a healthy “branch” (virga) with the fruitful gifts of the “Virgin” (virgo).
Try following along with the Latin words of the four shorter pieces first. Even if you haven’t yet learned Latin, attempt to listen along to the words in Latin as they are sung. (If you do know classical Latin, don’t stumble over the variations in medieval spelling, but just go with the flow and you will soon catch on.)
I emphasize that for maximum enjoyment you need to try and follow the Latin. This is because what you need to listen for most, in order to fully appreciate the music of Hildegard, is the melismatic character of her melodies: i.e., one syllable within a Latin word will have multiple notes of melody sung on that one syllable—which is what the word “melisma” technically designates.
The highly melismatic character of her songs is what gives Hildegard’s music its most ecstatic, heavenly qualities. Usually, the popular music that most people listen to has, for the most part, only one note sung per syllable. This kind of “syllabic” singing is easy to grasp—and being easy to grasp is no doubt one reason why music becomes popular—but merely syllabic singing is certainly not in the upper echelon of musical possibility.
Hildegard, however, frequently ascends above and beyond the mundane possibilities. Her ecstatic melodies dance up and down with elaborate melodic movements on just one syllable. For example, take the first syllable of the word caritas (“love”) in the first item on my playlist. Listen to how the Doctor sings of “love” in her melismatic way. Then compare this with every other word she sings. Soon you will be creating your own playlists, and I look forward to comparing favorites with you as the future Hildegard renaissance unfolds.
atque amantissima in omnia,
quia summo Regi
osculum pacis dedit.
in all things,
from the planetary depths
to her highest dwelling place
beyond the stars,
and love is surpassing herself in all things,
because she has given the kiss of peace
to the highest King.
O quam mirabilis
est prescientia divini pectoris,
que prescivit omnem creaturam.
Nam cum Deus inspexit faciem hominis,
omnia opera sua in eadem forma
hominis integra aspexit.
O quam mirabilis est inspiratio,
que hominem sic suscitavit.
O how wondrous
is the foreknowledge of the divine heart
that knew every creature in advance.
For when God looked upon the human face
that he had formed,
he glimpsed all his works,
in that same human form, all summed up.
O how wondrous is the inspiration
that has thus animated the human being.
O rubor sanguinis,
qui de excelso illo fluxisti,
quod divinitas tetigit,
tu flos es,
quem hiems de flatu serpentis
num quam lesit.
O blood red,
which has poured down from that height
which divinity has touched,
you are the flower,
which the winter of the serpent’s breath
can never harm.
quae sonus et vita
ac creatrix omnium in vita ipsorum est,
et quae laus angelicae turbae
et mirus splendor arcanorum,
quae hominibus ignota sunt, est,
et quae in omnibus vita est.
Praise be to the Trinity,
who is sound and life
and creator of the very life that animates all things,
and who is praised by the angelic host,
and who radiates the marvel of secrets
that are unknown to men,
and who in all things is the life.
O orzchis (immensa) Ecclesia,
armis divinis praecincta,
et hyazintho ornate,
tu es caldemia (aroma)
stigmatum loifolum (populorum)
et urbs scientiarum.
O, o, tu es etiam crizanta (uncta)
in alto sono, et es chorzta (corusca) gemma.
O orzchis (vast) Church,
shielded by might divine,
and adorned with hyacinths,
you are the caldemia (fragrance)
of the stigmata of the loifolum (peoples),
and a city of knowledge.
O, o, you are indeed crizanta (anointed)
with a lofty sound, and you are a chorzta (shining) jewel.
O frondens virga,
in tua nobilitate stans,
sicut aurora procedit.
Nunc gaude et laetare
et nos debiles dignare
a mala consuetudine liberare,
atque manum tuam porrige
ad erigendum nos.
O blossoming branch,
you send forth your noble beauty
in the same way the dawn arises.
Now rejoice, and be glad,
and consent to free us who are weak
from our bad habits,
and reach out your hand
so that you will lift us up.
Finally, note that the playlist ends with “O mirum admirandum” (no. 41). Margot Fassler suggests that this antiphon, “with its haunting beauty and mysterious apocalyptic close, reads almost as an epitaph for the seer herself.” She thus sees this song’s final words as apocalyptically true of Hildegard herself. This is Fassler’s lovely translation:
…arise in the end
as you rose in the beginning
when the blossom that sustains you
on all the boughs in the world.
… surges in fine,
omnium ramorum mundi,
ut primum surrexisti!