Hildegard and Music

Music held a central place in the life of Saint Hildegard (1098–1179), from singing and playing the psaltery as a child, to the completion of her compositional oeuvre including psalmody, informal singing, and works for Mass and Office. Hildegard wrote her credo for music early on in her career, the Vision of Music, included as the final segment of her substantial treatise Scivias in the 1140s, and, close to her death, another credo in reaction to the banning of music by the Prelates of Mainz. This study examines and analyzes the Vision of Music as a masterpiece, moving virtuosically from songs (antiphon and responsory) to sung morality play to Biblical exegesis in prose. Ultimately, this study seeks to discover the inherent musical drama in the play as a prototype for the well-known later Ordo Virtutum. The electronic medium offers a unique opportunity to implement the otherwise nearly impossible feat of hearing the songs adorn and inform the play. The accompanying illuminations by Hildegard answer to the constituent visual part of the Vision of Music.

A few words about performance practice are in order here. The monophonic music of Hildegard leaves open many possibilities. In the songs and the play, a variety of performers bring their imaginations and talents to their interpretations. For instance, in the antiphon for the Apostles, the Oxford Camerata recreates the sound of the Office by alternating the text of ‟O cohors miliciae” with verses from Psalm 22. Abundant performances by Sequentia, of the songs as well as of the entire morality play, enhance the ambiance with some of the instruments named by Hildegard in the final portion of the Vision of Music: flute, harp, hurdy-gurdy, and fiddle. Many of the instruments improvise patterns with which to weave in and out of the voices. A successful approach used by many of the selected ensembles calls for a chorus of voices singing the final pitch of the chant as a grounding drone, supporting the solo singer or singers above. The ensemble Tapestry finds the solution to performing the heavenly, ‟superhuman” responsory, ‟O vos angeli,” by connecting low voices with very high voices seamlessly, in order to span the requisite 2 1/2 octaves.

In order to appreciate Hildegard’s Vision of Music fully, it is necessary to know that her talents extended well beyond composition alone. Distinguished in so many areas of activity, Hildegard could have been the perfect Renaissance woman, had the term been coined sooner.[1] As a visionary, she created three books together forming a trilogy: Scivias (Know the Ways),[2] Liber vite meritorum (Book of the Rewards of Life),[3] and Liber divinorum operum (Book of Divine Works).[4] As a healer, she assembled a compendium of natural phenomena: the Liber subtilitatem diversarum naturam creaturarum (The Subtleties of Various Natural Creatures).[5] As a correspondent, she wrote abundantly to emperors, popes, and nobles, but also to nuns, monks, and lay people.[6] As an artist, her palette included not only a wide variety of spectacular illuminations, but also a generous array of beautiful lyrical poetry set as musical monophony in songs. At one point, she referred to her compositions as the Symphonia armonie celestium revelationum (Symphony of the Harmony of Celestial Revelations), in our time usually shortened to the ‟Symphonia,”[7] With the creation of a morality play for which she composed both dialogue and music, one of Hildegard’s greatest accomplishments was as a playwright: the Ordo Virtutum (The Order of the Virtues) is preserved in a ‟giant manuscript,” the Riesenkodex.

In the opening Declaration to her Scivias, Hildegard described her visionary experience in this way:

…when I was forty-two years and seven months old, Heaven was opened and a fiery light of exceeding brilliance came and permeated my whole brain, and inflamed my whole heart and my whole breast, not like a burning but like a warming flame, as the sun warms anything its rays touch. And immediately I knew the meaning of the exposition of the Scriptures, namely, the Psalter, the Gospel and the other catholic volumes of both the Old and New Testaments, though I did not have the interpretation of the words of their texts or the division of the syllables or the knowledge of cases or tenses. But I had sensed in myself wonderfully the power and mystery of secret and admirable visions from my childhood—that is, from the age of five—up to that time, as I do now.[8]

{See Illustration 1}

The well-known first illumination in Scivias illustrates this ‟fiery light of exceeding brilliance … permeat[ing]” Hildegard’s head as she dictated her vision to her scribe, the monk Volmar (Illustration 1).[9] The mystical ‟voice of the living light” [10] instructed her to write down what she saw and heard, thus the enormous output of her career from that moment onward. With the help of Volmar, she was able to record the visions of the Scivias over the course of the decade 1141–51.[11]Hildegard’s visionary power was credible to the religious authorities of her time, including more than one pope. Thanks to the German pope of today—the first one since the sixteenth century—Hildegard’s canonization took place at last in May 2012.

The final vision of the Scivias (Book III, Vision 13), to which I shall refer as the Vision of Music, provides rich material for musicology. The vision divides into 16 sections. Unlike in the previous visions, here Hildegard brings together (1) 14 antiphons and responsories from the Symphonia, numbered as sections 1–7, (2) the text of a short morality play numbered sections 8–9, which is recognizable to those familiar with the musical setting of the longer morality play Ordo Virtutum, and (3) biblically-inspired texts that have to do with the divine power of music in sections 10–16. It acts as a grand coda to the Scivias, its crowning Vision, containing several hours of music and narrative.

{See TABLE 1}

Table 1 shows the close relationship between the Scivias play and the Ordo Virtutum, with portions that remain constant between the two (colored in olive green), that were shifted around (in red, yellow, grey, bright green, teal, and dark green), and that are found only in the long Ordo Virtutum, such as lines 1–8, 75–155, 229–41, and 252–69 (in black and white). It is important to note that both the 14 Scivias songs of sections 1–7 and the morality play of sections 8–9 exist as text only in the Scivias. Yet, as this table makes clear, the texts correspond completely with existing music. Hildegard used textual shorthand—text without music—for both the songs and the play, as she would with the poetry for several musical pieces in her correspondence.[12]

The plot of the long Ordo Virtutum as compared with that of the short Scivias play remains essentially the same. A Soul (Anima) seeks guidance and receives assurance from the Virtues that she will be protected by them, but the lure of the world is too strong for her to resist. She wanders into the world at the behest of the Devil (Diabolus). After an experience so horrid that it leaves her dirty and disheveled, Anima returns to the Virtues (Virtutes) and together they bind and kill the Devil, Anima is saved, and the life of the convent triumphs.[13]

The Scivias play has a small number of dramatis personae: the group of Virtues consists of an unspecified number of ensemble members along with the personifications of Humility (Humilitas), Knowledge of God (Scientia Dei), and Victory (Victoria), and the roles of Anima and the Devil. By contrast, the Ordo Virtutum features a ‟Showcase of the Virtues” spanning lines 75–155, in which each of the 17 Virtues describes her characteristics in a short chant number; for instance, World-Rejection (Contemptus Mundi ) says, ‟I … am the blaze of life. Oh wretched, exiled state on earth, with all your toils—I let you go…,” (‟Ego … sum candor vite. O misera terre peregrinatio in multis laboribus—te dimitto…” .).[14] The Ordo Virtutum requires at least 23 performers, in order of appearance: two or more Patriarchs and Prophets; two or more Embodied Souls; Anima; the Devil; Humility, Queen of the Virtues; and the 17 remaining Virtues: Knowledge of God, Victory, Fear of God, Obedience, Faith, Hope, Chastity, Innocence, World-Rejection, Heavenly Love, Charity, Discipline, Shamefastness, Mercy, Discretion, Celestial Love, and Patience. By contrast, the short Scivias play requires a minimum of six performers. In order of appearance, there are three or more Virtues (presented as a group including Humility, Knowledge of God, and Victory), two or more Embodied Souls (presented as a group including Anima), and the Devil.

Although the Scivias play, transmitted as text only, seems to represent the kernel from which grew the long morality play Ordo Virtutum, with text and music, we cannot be sure that it might not have been the Ordo Virtutum that was composed first and then abbreviated as a play within the Scivias Vision of Music. Peter Dronke has cautioned against assuming the former, arguing that on literary and philological grounds, the long play must have been composed first and preceded the short one:

The wording of much of Scivias III 13 is in large measure identical with that of songs in Hildegard’s 'Symphonia', and with parts of her play, the 'Ordo Virtutum'. The editors [of the Brepols edition of the Scivias] assume without discussion that the lyrical works, both songs and play, derive from and are later than 'Scivias'…. Thus the two MSS of the 'Symphonia' (D, Rs) are listed simply as «Handschriften der Exzerpten-Überlieferung». I have on two previous occasions suggested how difficult it is to ascertain priority for the prose or lyrical versions of these passages…. In the case of the 'Ordo Virtutum', close attention to the parallel passages can establish that a text of the play was in existence when Scivias III 13 came to be written.[15]

Dronke refers to the two manuscripts of music that contain the material under discussion here: D is the Dendermonde manuscript (Belgium: Dendermonde, St.-Pieters & Paulusabdij, Ms. Cod. 9) from ca. 1160s, which contains the 14 Scivias songs but not the Ordo Virtutum, and R is the Riesenkodex (Germany: Wiesbaden, Hessisches Landesbibliothek, Cod. 2) from as late as 1179, which has the Scivias, the 14 Scivias songs (which he calls the Rs in the quoted passage), and the entire Ordo Virtutum.[16] 

Maura Böckeler suggested the opposite order, but expressed skepticism that the play in the Scivias was worthy of performance:

With its deeply dogmatic thought and its symbolism rich in form and color, Scivias was fresh in the mind of St. Hildegard when she put together the Ordo Virtutum…. To preserve the individuality of each work, we must establish the concept that the Scivias-vision is no drama. It is much more an abundance of individual appearances, which among themselves are only connected through their symbolic meaning, rather than through the dramatic development of a unified treatment. It is different in the Ordo. There before our eyes is the vivid animation of the struggle, sin, and return of the human soul. The compiler was able to penetrate the story of this one particular soul so intimately with the deep thought of the Scivias-visions and expand it in such a way as to encompass the whole history of redeemed humankind.[17] 

I propose a re-evaluation of both views, suggesting instead that the Scivias version constitutes a prototype that was intended for performance.  I argue that Hildegard must have drawn upon the dramatic nature of the Scivias morality play when later composing her Ordo Virtutum, based on the criteria of (1) chronology and performing forces, (2) the visionary experience and synesthesia, (3) the setting of the musical modes, (4) the codicological evidence, (5) the 14 Scivias songs, (6) the structure of the Scivias drama, and (7) her philosophy of music.[18]

[1] I would like to acknowledge the help I have received from the following colleagues and to thank them: Benjamin Bagby, Sharon Elkins, Margot Fassler, Esther Hugenberger, Honey Meconi, Marianne Richert Pfau, Ardal Powell, Lawrence Rosenwald, Hiltrud Walsh, and Tom Zajac.
[2] Mother Columba Hart and Jane Bishop, English trans. Hildegard of Bingen, Scivias (New York and Mahwah: Paulist Press, 1990) and Adelgundis Führkötter and Angela Carlevaris, ed. Hildegardis Bingensis Scivias. Corpus Christianorum Continuatio Mediaevalis 43 and 43A (Turnhout: Brepols, 1978). In this enumeration, I have limited my sources to Latin editions and English translations that are readily available, purposely avoiding rare Latin sources and translations into German.
[3] Bruce W. Hozeski, English trans. Hildegard of Bingen, The Book of the Rewards of Life (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994) and Angela Carlevaris, ed. Hildegardis Bingensis Liber vite meritorum. Corpus Christianorum Continuatio Mediaevalis 90 (Turnhout: Brepols, 1995).
[4] There is no corresponding English translation, but the editors of the following Latin edition wrote a meticulous and lengthy critical apparatus in English. See Albert Derolez and Peter Dronke, eds. Hildegardis Bingensis Liber divinorum operum. Corpus Christianorum Continuatio Mediaevalis 92 (Turnhout: Brepols, 1996).

[5]  Reiner Hildebrandt and Thomas Gloning, eds. Hildegard von Bingen, Physica – Liber subtilitatem diversarum naturam creaturarum (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2010). Available English translations have divided the book in two: Priscilla Throop, English trans. Physica (Rochester, VT: Healing Arts Press, 1998), and Manfred Pawlik, Latin trans. and Patrick Madigan, English trans. Holistic Healing (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1994).

[6] Latin editions include Jacques-Paul Migne, Sanctae Hildegardis Abbatissae Opera Omnia in Patrologia Latina Cursus Completus 197 (Paris, 1855; repr. Turnhout: Brepols, 1976) and Lieven van Acker, ed. Hildegardis Bingensis Epistolarium: Prima Pars. Corpus Christianorum Continuatio Mediaevalis 91 (Turnhout: Brepols, 1991). Joseph L. Baird and Radd Ehrman, English trans. The Letters of Hildegard of Bingen. 3 vols. (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994–2004).

[7] Barbara Newman, ed. Saint Hildegard of Bingen, Symphonia. A Critical Edition of the Symphonia armonie celestium revelationum [Symphony of the Harmony of Celestial Revelations]. Second Edition. (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1998). Hildegard’s reference to the phrase comes from her Book of the Rewards of Life (see note 26).

[8] Hart and Bishop, Scivias, 59–60. With the exception of the translations of the lyrics of the 14 Scivias songs below, this book is the source of all English translations from the Scivias found here. Führkötter and Carlevaris, Scivias, 3–4: ‟…cum quadraginta duorum annorum septemque mensium essem, maximae coruscationis igneum lumen aperto caelo veniens totum cerebrum meum transfudit et totum cor totumque pectus meum velut flamma non tamen ardens sed calens ita inflammavit, ut sol rem aliquam calefacit super quam radios suos ponit. Et repente intellectum expositionis librorum, videlicet psalterii, evangelii et aliorum catholicorum tam veteris quam novi Testamenti voluminum sapiebam, non autem interpretationem verborum textus eorum nec divisionem syllabarum nec cognitionem casuum aut temporum habebam. Virtutem autem et mysterium secretarum et admirandarum visionum a puellari aetate, scilicet a tempore illo cum quinquennis essem usque ad praesens tempus mirabili modo in me senseram sicut et adhuc…,”

[9] The illuminations in full color reproductions can be found in the German translation of Scivias by Maura Böckeler, trans. Hildegard von Bingen Wisse die Wege Scivias (Salzburg: Otto Möller Verlag, 1954), 17–85; also throughout the Latin edition by Führkötter and Carlevaris. Of the two remaining visionary works, only the Liber divinorum operum also has illuminations; see the miniatures in color from the Lucca codex in Derolez and Dronke, ‟Plates,” preceding p. 1 of the text. See, too, the Illuminations of Hildegard of Bingen. Commentary by Matthew Fox (Santa Fe, NM: Bear and Company, 1985).

[10] Hart and Bishop, Scivias, 60.

11] For Hildegard’s chronology, see Derolez and Dronke, ‟The place of the Liber divinorum operum in Hildegard’s writing,” vii–xiii in Hildegardis Bingensis Liber divinorum operum.

[12] For more about those letters, see Codicological Evidence and the footnotes to Table 4 below.

[13] The theme of the virtues versus the vices is a universal one. A study of one work contemporary with Hildegard’s is Gérard Camès, Allégories et symboles dans l'Hortus deliciarum (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1971).

[14] Peter Dronke, ed. Nine Medieval Latin Plays. Cambridge Medieval Classics 1 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 168–69. The line numbers in Table 1 refer to this translation.

[15] Peter Dronke published his ‟Problemata Hildegardiana,” in Mittellateinisches Jahrbuch 16 (1981): 97–131, which was reprinted in his book Intellectuals and Poets in Medieval Europe (Rome: Edizioni di Storia e Letteratura, 1992), 143–91. The present quotation is found on p. 100 in the former, pp. 147–48 in the latter; in the passage quoted above, Dronke makes reference to two of his previous works: ‟Hildegard of Bingen as Poetess and Dramatist” in Peter Dronke, Poetic Individuality in the Middle Ages (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1970), 150–79, and ‟The Composition of Hildegard of Bingen's Symphonia,” in Sacris Erudiri 19 (1969/70): 381–93.

[16] ‟Problemata Hildegardiana,” 146, n. 7: ‟Albert Derolez has offered codicological reasons for believing that the main part of R must have been copied before, not after, Hildegard’s death—i.e. that, with the exception of one later addition, September 17, 1179 is the terminus ante quem of the 'Riesenkodex',” I thank Margot Fassler for assistance with the dating of the Riesenkodex.

[17] Maura Böckeler, Pudentiana Barth, and Joanna Schwanke—Abtei Sankt Hildegard. Der Heiligen Hildegard von Bingen Reigen der Tugenden Ordo Virtutum—Ein Singspiel (Berlin: Sankt Augustinus Verlag, 1927), 58: ‟Scivias mit seinen tief dogmatischen Gedanken und seiner formenreichen, farbenprächtigen Symbolik war in der hl. Hildegard lebendig, als sie den Ordo Virtutum verfaßte…. Um jedem der beiden Werke seine Eigenart zu bewahren, müssen wir die Vorstellung festhalten, daß die Scivias-Vision kein Drama ist. Sie ist vielmehr eine Fülle von Einzelerscheinungen, die untereinander nur durch die symbolische Bedeutung, nicht aber durch die dramatische Entwicklung einer einheitlichen Handlung verbunden sind. Anders ist es im Ordo. Da wird uns der Kampf, die Sünde und die Rückkehr einer menschlichen Seele in anschaulicher Lebendigkeit vor Augen geführt. Die Verfasserin hat es verstanden, die Geschichte dieser Einzelseele aufs innigste mit den tiefen Gedanken der Scivias-Visionen zu durchdringen und sie so zu erweitern zur Geschichte der erlösten Menschheit überhaupt,” I am grateful to Hiltrud Walsh for her assistance with this translation.

[18] Besides Führkötter and Carlevaris, others have shared the view of the primacy of the Scivias morality play. See Mark Atherton, trans. Hildegard of Bingen—Selected Writings (London and New York: Penguin Books, 2001), 100, as well as Audrey Ekdahl Davidson (5) and Robert Potter (36) in Audrey Ekdahl Davidson, ed. The Ordo Virtutum of Hildegard of Bingen—Critical Studies. Early Drama, Art, and Music Monograph Series 18 (Kalamazoo, MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 1992). Barbara Newman also sees the Scivias play as preceding the Ordo Virtutum; see Symphonia, 26, as do Fiona Bowie and Oliver Davies, eds. Hildegard of Bingen, Mystical Writings (New York: Crossroad, 1993), 15.