St. Hildegard of Bingen is depicted on a gilded altarpiece inside the Rochuskapelle, a church in the town of Bingen am Rhein, Germany. (CNS photo/courtesy of KNA)
Hildegard of Bingen (10891179) 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
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
he will proclaim (on October 7, 2012) that Hildegard is an official Doctor of
seems to have a soft spot for Hildegard. Back in 2010, he devoted not one
of his Wednesday general audience talks to her. Perhaps this is related to his
well-known love for all
the best music.
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.
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.
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?
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.)
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.
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.
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 usand vice versa! And the high-quality
recordings have kept coming.
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
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.
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, Sequentiaan
amazing project released in successive years during the 1990s.
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!
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?
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.
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.
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.
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 antiphons14 of which are
votive18 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).
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
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”
habundat” (no. 25), from Canticles of
Ecstasy, by Sequentia
quam mirabilis” (no. 3), from Symphoniae, by
rubor sanguinis” (no. 61), from Voice of
the Blood, by Sequentia
Trinitati” (no. 26), from Voice of the
Blood, by Sequentia
virtus Sapientiae” (no. 2), from Symphoniae, by
viridissima virga” (no. 19), from Canticles
of Ecstasy, by Sequentia
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
sunt hi, qui ut nubes?”, from Ordo
virtutum, by Sequentia
Euchari in leta via” (no. 53), from
Saints, by Sequentia
mirum admirandum” (no. 41), from
Saints, by Sequentia
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.
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).
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
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 syllablewhich is what the word “melisma” technically designates.
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 graspand being easy to grasp is no doubt one reason
why music becomes popularbut merely syllabic singing is certainly not in the upper
echelon of musical possibility.
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.
when God looked upon the human face
that he had formed,
he glimpsed all his works,
in that same human form, all summed up.
how wondrous is the inspiration
that has thus animated the human being.
O rubor sanguinis,
de excelso illo fluxisti,
hiems de flatu serpentis
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
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,
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.
orzchis (immensa) Ecclesia,
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, you are indeed crizanta (anointed)
with a lofty sound, and you are a chorzta
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.
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,