Hildegard von Bingen

1098 1179

Hildegard von Bingen

Composer

Biography

Hildegard of Bingen was a German composer, writer, scientist and philosopher of the Medieval period.

Hildegard’s exact date of birth is unknown but it is thought that she may have been born around the year 1098 into a family of the free lower nobility of Rheinhessen at Bremersheim. Hildegard was promised to the church from the age of eight and was enclosed in a stone cell with an older nun named Jutta who instructed Hildegard in Latin and religious practices. Their contact with the outside world was through a single window but they were not completely isolated – Jutta corresponded with people of all social classes by letter and many of them contacted her for spiritual instruction. Both Jutta and Hildegard were said to have experienced visions – in fact, historians believe that it was Hildegard’s clairvoyant abilities that influenced her parents’ decision to send her to the church. The enclosure attracted other girls from noble families and soon expanded into a convent.

Hildegard wished to establish her own house at Rupertsberg near Bingen, due to the convent becoming somewhat eccentric in its observances. Her endeavour of setting up of this establishment was unprecedented at the time and even more unusual was the fact that endowments from the noble community enabled the construction, which began in 1150. In 1163, Hildegard obtained protection from the Emperor Friedrich Barbarossa, who acknowledged her as an abbess. The number of persons in the convent grew to over 50 and Hildegard established a ‘daughter house’ to house 30 more nuns at Eibingen where the Abbey of St Hildegard stands today.

Collections of Hildegard’s musical settings of her poetry date from the 1150s, but some are thought to go back to the 1140s. The texts contain resplendent imagery with the apocalyptic language of her visionary writings. The two main notated sources, named the Dendermonde manuscript and the Riesenkodex manuscript contain 77 songs which are collectively known asSymphonia armonie celestium revelationum. 43 songs are labelled ‘antiphons’, 18 as ‘responses’, seven ‘sequences’ and four ‘hymns’.

Hildegard also composed a morality play – the earliest of its kind by more than a century entitled Ordo virtutum, (Play of the Virtues) in dramatic verse. It contains 82 melodies, or which many are very syllabic, compared with her liturgical songs. The play centres on the battle between 16 personified virtues and the devil for the human soul, orAnima.

Hildegard’s music is highly individual and is not drawn from plainchant, as was common at the time. According to Grove: “the songs are a special Hildegardian facet of contemplative medieval practice”. It is all monophonic – that is, consisting of one melody line. Its style is characterised by soaring melodies with much more scope and range than plainchant or Gregorian chant and is highly melismatic, with one syllable of text sung across as many as 75 notes, one of the 12th century innovations in chant.

The dating of Hildegard’s songs has always been problematic. It is unclear which came first, the musical composition or the lyrical poetry. Nearly half appear without melodies in prose contexts. It is sometimes thought that the music may have preceded the text or that the melodies may represent transcriptions from an intermediary collection of song that may now be lost.

Besides her musical compositions and lyrical poetry, Hildegard wrote theological, botanical and scientific texts. She invented an alternative alphabet and the text of many of her writings and compositions reveal this version of modified Medieval Latin. Scholars believed she used her Lingua Ignota to encourage solidarity among her nuns. She has been recognised as a saint by the Roman Catholic Church for centuries and on 7 October 2012, Pope Benedict XVI named her a Doctor of the Church.

In our solar system, Hildegard has a planet named after her, the minor planet 898 Hildegard, which orbits the sun, discovered on 3 August 1918. Also the Hildegardia plant genus is named after Hildegard for her extensive contribution to herbal medicine.