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 musicand individualsthat 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 Churchonly 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 changessome 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, whocoincidentally or notalso
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
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 excommunicatedshe 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 canonizationwhich 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 intercessionPope Benedict XVI raised Hildegard to the altars for the universal
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
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 Officeas opposed to singing
the prayersas 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. Musicwhether instruments or singinghelps 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
The Ordo Virtutum
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
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.