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Catholic Composers: Hildegard von Bingen

The life of this mystic, composer, and saint was in many ways as tumultuous as the era in which she lived.

St. Hildegard of BIngen is depicted on a gilded altarpiece inside the Rochuskapelle, a pilgrim church dedicated to St. Roch in the town of Bingen am Rhein, Germany. (CNS photo/courtesy of KNA)

One of the beauties of so-called “classical” music is the sheer and vast variety of music—and individuals—that you will find under that single umbrella. Many of us may hear the term “classical music” and think simply of Mozart, Beethoven, and Bach. Perhaps we will even think of Palestrina, or Stravinsky. But one figure in a class all her own is the 12th-century German mystic, composer, saint, and Doctor of the Church Hildegard von Bingen.

In recent years, the popularity of Hildegard von Bingen both in the fields of Christian spirituality and musicology has grown rapidly and in leaps and bounds. Her popularity has exploded. In many ways she was sort of an underground figure, known primarily only to specialists and those who seek out historical oddities. She was thrust into the public spotlight in 2012 when Pope Benedict XVI officially canonized her and named her a Doctor of the Church—only the fourth woman to be granted that honor.

Hildegard was a mystic who experienced profound, wondrous, and terrifyingly awe-some visions; a visionary who wrote treatises on science, medicine, and music; a gifted composer who had a significant influence on the development of music; and a cloistered Benedictine nun. And from that cloister, she would send shockwaves that still resonate today.

Hildegard was born in about 1098 and died in 1179. During her long life, the Europe in which she lived was in turmoil and upheaval, and going through tremendous changes—some bearing incredible fruit, and others with decidedly less positive results. The so-called “Twelfth Century Renaissance” was in full bloom, the first European universities began to be established, and scholasticism was quickly becoming the most prominent intellectual and philosophical system thanks to such thinkers as Peter Lombard.

It was the time of the First and Second Crusades, papal schisms, and powerful temporal rulers vying for, and warring over, power. Gothic architecture had arisen out of St. Denis and the influence of Abbot Suger, and the music of the poet-composer trouvéres was flourishing in France.

The so-called “dark ages” were in reality shining brightly, and few individuals shone brighter than Hildegard von Bingen. A clear, ringing voice of truth, Hildegard’s own tumultuous life and her profound spirituality and relationship with the triune God have much to say to modern listeners.

Hildegard wrote that she experienced mystical visions from a very young age. She was offered as an oblate to the local Benedictine monastery by her parents, and as such she was attached to the monastery. While the age at which she entered the monastery is a matter of some debate, in her autobiography Hildegard wrote that she entered at the age of eight. She entered with an older woman named Jutta, who—coincidentally or not—also experienced visions.

Hildegard’s time in the monastery allowed for a great deal of study, a constituent part of Benedictine life. She learned how to read and write; she studied Scripture and the interpretation of biblical texts; she learned to play the 10-stringed psaltery, and began to learn musical notation and composition. She was unanimously elected as the magistra of her community, and her influence rapidly grew.

In 1150, Hildegard and about 20 other nuns relocated to the monastery of St. Rupertsberg, near Bingen on the Rhine River. Her community continued to grow, and in 1165 she founded a second monastery in Eibingen.

Hildegard is now known widely as a visionary, one who experienced such visions since the age of three. During her life, however, she was always hesitant to speak of her visions except with her closest confidantes and confessors. It was not until 1141 that she felt compelled to record those visions. Her local bishop and clergy felt that her visions were indeed from God; Pope Eugene III heard of her writings during the synod in Trier, sometime in late 1147 or early 1148, and she was granted approval to document her visions as “revelations from the Holy Spirit.” This papal approval encouraged Hildegard to continue her writing.

Hildegard’s fidelity to the precepts of the Church on occasion led to major controversy and clashes with the great powers of Europe. One example is the confrontation with Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa. Starting in 1159, Frederick vociferously supported several antipopes during a schism that divided the Church. Hildegard, who had become quite close with the emperor, wrote him caustic correspondence, denunciating his support of these usurpers of the See of Peter. In spite of this, Frederick continued to support and protect Hildegard and her nuns, although she seems to have not quite convinced him of his error.

Another example of Hildegard’s clash with authority came in the final year of her life. In the cemetery of her abbey, she had permitted the burial of a young man who had been excommunicated—she had allowed this because he had been reconciled with the Church and received the sacraments before his death. However, this was unknown to the bishop, who considered the man to have died out of communion with the Church. She refused to remove the body, and, as a result, he placed the monastery under interdict, forbidding the celebration of Mass and singing at the monastery at Bingen. After much pleading, the interdict was lifted a matter of months before Hildegard’s own death. Hildegard died on September 17, 1179.

At the end of the 16th century, Hildegard’s name was included in the Roman Martyrology, although she had not been officially declared a saint. In May of 2012, through the canonical process known as equivalent canonization—which acknowledges the sainthood of someone who has been beatified, and has a long-established liturgical cult, consistent historical recognition of their virtues, and a reputation for miracles through their intercession—Pope Benedict XVI raised Hildegard to the altars for the universal Church.

Hildegard’s contributions to natural science reverberate to this day. In honor of her contributions to scientific understanding, there is a minor planet in our solar system that has been named after her (898 Hildegard), as well as a genus of tree (Hildegardia), based on her contributions to the science of herbal medicine.

Hildegard on music

Hildegard’s views on music are beginning to garner more attention in recent decades. There are around 70 of her compositions extant, which is among the most of any medieval composer. She certainly felt strongly about the importance of music, and often expressed this in no uncertain terms in her correspondence.

In her letter to the prelates at Mainz in 1178-79, when she and her sisters had been banned from singing in the liturgy, Hildegard described the mere reading of the Divine Office—as opposed to singing the prayers—as celebrating it “incorrectly.” “Therefore,” she says, “those who, without just cause, impose silence on a church and prohibit the singing of God’s praises and those who have on earth unjustly despoiled God of his Honor and glory will lose their place among the chorus of angels, unless they have amended their lives through true penitence and humble restitution.”

For Hildegard von Bingen, music is meant to uplift, to elevate to a higher plane. Music reflects the greatest of God’s creation, in its purest and most profound state. We have tremendous insight into her thought on music from the copious correspondence that is extant.

In one letter to the prelates at Mainz (letter 23), protesting the interdict that had been placed on her monastery, she wrote that, when Adam sinned, he lost contact with the divine voice, the divine harmony, the celestial hymn. Music—whether instruments or singing—helps to raise the soul back to celestial harmony.

Music should be incorporated into our lives, Hildegard felts, and can inspire us to act in accordance with God’s will. The ability to join perfectly in the celestial harmony was lost with Adam’s sin, but music helps bring us closer to that ideal, and encourages us to unite our wills with that of God.

How fitting, then, that a mystic who sees music as playing a critical role in man’s descent into vice, should compose a liturgical morality play that illustrates man’s ascent back into God’s good graces through the Virtues. This work is known as the Ordo Virtutum, composed around 1151, and it is one of Hildegard’s greatest legacies.

The Ordo Virtutum

The Ordo Virtutum is a liturgical drama, a morality play, depicting the fall of a soul through temptation by the devil, and the soul’s rise again into God’s good graces through the virtues. In this piece, Hildegard is communicating the profoundly important truth that God’s grace is the most powerful redemptive force there is, but that the soul must cooperate with it and seek to do the will of God in order for God’s grace to yield its fruit.

The Ordo tells us much about Hildegard’s theology of sin, redemption, and music. The devil is the ultimate unmusical spirit; he is overcome by jealousy of Adam’s voice, and the sweetness of the songs of heaven, which he has abandoned in his pride; the sin of Adam caused him to lose the divine voice he had been given; and this voice can be regained through virtuous living.

Rather than being simply some sort of catechetical instruction for the illiterate on the importance of fighting temptation (and that, it certainly was), the Ordo Virtutum becomes a profound exposition of Hildegard’s spirituality in regards to the power and importance of music.

About Paul Senz 27 Articles
Paul Senz recently graduated from the University of Portland with his Master of Arts in Pastoral Ministry. He lives in Oregon with his family.

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