Hildegard of Bingen endured profound mystical visons, while writing theological, botanical, and medicinal texts, as well as letters, liturgical songs, and poems, supervising miniature illuminations (usually the exclusive domain of monks) and composing some of the most important music from the medieval world, suggests long before Leonardo da Vinci, Europe had their first Renaissance genius; and it was a woman!
The Life and Times of Hildegard
Born September 16, 1098, Bermersheim vor der Höhe, Germany, she died famous on the 17 of September, 1179, in Bingen am Rhein, Germany. At the time of her death she was known as Saint Hildegard, and the Sibyl of the Rhine who had a far reaching reputation as a Christian mystic; she was also a German Benedictine abbess, deemed a visionary by her peers and a famous polymath (a polymath is a person whose expertise spans a significant number of different subject areas; such a person is known to draw on complex bodies of knowledge to solve specific problems). Elected a magistra by her fellow nuns in 1136, she founded the monasteries of Rupertsberg in 1150 and Eibingen in 1165.
By the natural light of a single window in her Rhineland monastery Hildegard wrote books on medicine, botany and theology and corresponded with Popes and penitents and composed music; arguably her greatest legacy that is still performed today. Between 70 and 80 compositions have survived, which is one of the largest repertoires among medieval composers. Hildegard left behind over 100 letters, 72 songs, seventy poems, and 9 books.
One of her better known works, Ordo Virtutum (Play of the Virtues), is a morality play. It is unsure when some of Hildegard’s compositions were composed, though the Ordo Virtutum is thought to have been composed as early as 1151. The morality play consists of monophonic melodies for the Anima (human soul) and 16 Virtues.
In addition to the Ordo Virtutum Hildegard composed many liturgical songs that were collected into a cycle called the Symphonia armoniae celestium revelationum. The songs from Symphonia are set to Hildegard’s own text and range from antiphons, hymns, sequences, to responsories. Her music is described as monophonic; that is, consisting of exactly one melodic line. Hildegard’s compositional style is characterized by soaring melodies; often well outside of the normal range of chant at the time. Additionally, scholars such as Margot Fassler and Marianna Richert Pfau describe Hildegard’s music as highly melismatic, often with recurrent melodic units, and also note her close attention to the relationship between music and text, which was a rare occurrence in monastic chant of the twelfth century. Hildegard of Bingen’s songs are left open for rhythmic interpreation because of the use of neumes without a staff. The reverence for the Virgin Mary reflected in music shows how deeply influenced and inspired Hildegard of Bingen and her community were by the Virgin Mary and the saints.
Hildegard’s musical, literary, and scientific writings are housed primarily in two manuscripts: the Dendermonde manuscript and the Riesenkodex. The Dendermonde manuscript was copied under Hildegard’s supervision at Rupertsberg, while the Riesencodex was copied in the century after Hildegard’s death.
She claimed to have been uneducated, and her letters suggest a compositional practice inspired only by faith. “Hearing earthly music,” she wrote, “enables humans to recall their former state.” Her work remained cloistered, though; it’s believed that none of it was ever heard outside her convent in her lifetime.