Chronology and Performing Forces

The visions of the Scivias and many of the songs of the Symphonia were written in the period 1141–51, the last of the three decades that Hildegard lived at the men's monastery at the Disibodenberg. When her parents tithed her to the Church in 1106 at age eight, she began living with the noble ascetic Jutta von Sponheim, six years her senior, and Lady Uda, a widow. In 1112, the fourteen-year-old Hildegard and the twenty-year-old Jutta along with one or two other women established an anchorhold at the newly expanding monastery, St. Disibod.  According to the vita of Jutta, when Jutta died in 1136, there were ‟three of her disciples, that is, Hildegard and two others sharing her name [Jutta].”[1] Hildegard learned a great deal from her mentor—including instrumental instruction and daily rituals of psalmody and song.[2] The vita of Hildegard goes into further detail regarding her musical training from Jutta:

Jutta carefully fitted her for a garment of humility and innocence, and, instructing her in the songs of David, showed her how to play on the ten-stringed psaltery. For the rest, except for some simple psalm notation, Hildegard received no other teaching in the arts of literature or of music from a human source.[3]

Five years after Jutta's death, Hildegard received the divine message of the Scivias Declaration of 1141, telling her to ‟cry out and write.”  Almost a decade later, she experienced as powerful a revelation, instructing her this time that she must establish her own women's monastery at the Rupertsberg, not far from the Disibodenberg, at the confluence of the Nahe and Rhine rivers near Bingen. Even though Hildegard met with powerful opposition from the Disibodenberg community, she prevailed and founded her new monastery by about 1151.  Several scholars have suggested that it was for the Rupertsberg monastery that Hildegard composed the Ordo Virtutum.[4] This is plausible especially if the sketch for such a play already existed in the Scivias Vision of Music. If the Scivias Vision had been written before the move to Rupertsberg, all that would have been required of the busy new abbess was to rearrange sections, compose four new portions, and prepare for the production of the Ordo Virtutum, in itself a demanding task, since the play requires at least 18 female singers: the 17 Virtues in addition to the role of Anima.

But in the abbreviated form of the morality play found in the Scivias Vision, just four female singers are called for. As mentioned above, when Jutta died, she left three disciples: Hildegard (who could have been cast as Humility) and two other women. Some time thereafter, they were joined by Richardis von Stade, who became Hildegard’s trusted companion and assistant. These four women could have handled the parts in the Scivias Vision, but not the expanded Ordo Virtutum, with its larger cohort of female singers needed to embody each Virtue and to sing her solo(s).

Hildegard’s vita describes a ‟vision [that she] had been shown, that with [her] girls [she] should move from the Disibodenberg.”[5] She did not specify the number of girls at that point, but after the move, she went on to say: ‟we came to the Rupertsberg…. I stayed in that place with twenty girls of noble and wealthy parentage.”[6] We are not sure when these women joined Hildegard. But we do know that the four women named above lived together at Disibodenberg long before the move to Rupertsberg. It seems logical that the Scivias Vision was first performed by this smaller group and the Ordo Virtutum by the larger one, giving virtually every woman a solo role.

The Visionary Experience and Synesthesia

As Hildegard described it in the Declaration quoted above, she could perceive much more than just a visual image; she could feel the touch of the flame in her brain, heart, and breast, and she could both see and hear the exposition revealing the contents of the holy texts. Further on in the Declaration, she stated that she saw and heard ‟with a pure mind and the eyes and ears of the inner self, in open places, as God willed it.”[7] In sum, Hildegard received the Visions of the Scivias as complete works revealed as inductive entities, rather than as deductive notions acquired through the creative process. Indeed, it was in the nature of the initial visions of the Scivias that Hildegard would perceive all of her senses at once in a synesthetic experience, and which she dated back to others that she had undergone since 1103, at age 5.

In the Scivias, Hildegard does not specifically mention a musical product beyond that of ‟eyes and ears” quoted above, whereas in her subsequent visionary work, the Book of the Rewards of Life (Liber vite meritorum) she refers to the experience of ‟envisioning” the Symphonia songs:

The following happened in the ninth year after a true vision had shown me, a simple person, the true visions which I had previously labored over for ten years [i.e., Scivias]. This was the first year after that vision had shown me the [subtleties] of the various natural creatures with responses and warnings for [many] greater and lesser people [i.e., 1150]. It had also shown me the symphony of the harmony of heavenly revelations, and an unknown language with letters with certain other explanations.  I had been physically sick and weighed down with a lot of work for [eight] years after the true vision had shown me these things so that I might explain them.[8]

Hildegard received her musical revelations alongside a new ‟unknown” language and a treatise on natural phenomena—all of these grasped together at once. We can appreciate the physical toll taken by these formidable experiences; the pain of mortal creativity pales by comparison to the labors of a saint involved in the visionary process.[9] 

In addition to the reception of multiple aspects in one visionary revelation, or perhaps characteristic of it—hence the opening remark about her being a ‟Renaissance woman”—Hildegard’s visions were synesthetic.  She experienced the crossover of the senses that are common among synesthetes, defined as follows by neuroscientist Richard Cytowic:

The word anesthesia, meaning ‟no sensation,” shares the same root with synesthesia, meaning ‟joined sensation.” It comes from the Greek syn, union + aesthesis, sensation. It denotes the rare capacity to hear colors, taste shapes, or experience other equally strange sensory fusions whose quality seems difficult for the rest of us to imagine. For example, my voice would be not just something that is heard, but also felt, seen, or tasted. A synesthete might describe music whose sound looks like ‟shards of glass,” a scintillation of jagged, colored triangles moving in the visual field. Or, seeing the color red, a synesthete might also perceive the ‟scent” of red.[10]

Hildegard’s synesthesia exemplified this mingling of the senses. For instance, Barbara Newman has pointed out that the composer could ‟hear wounds sobbing” as she composed O clarissima mater, one of her monumental responsories.[11] Evidently, Hildegard’s synesthesia unified all senses, a mingling displayed completely only in her musical works.  Take, for instance, her well-known sequence Columba aspexit, in which—in addition to the unification of sight and the sound of poetry typical of all of her music—she also refers to the senses of smell (‟dulcia aromata,” sweet spices; ‟o pigmentarii,” o spice-dealers; and ‟ut fumus aromatum,” the smoke of incense), taste (‟fontem purissime aque,” the spring of purest water), and touch (‟calor solis,” the heat of the sun).[12] 

Hildegard devoted Book II, Vision 7 of the Scivias to an examination of the qualities of the Devil. In the first of two illuminations for that vision, the image corresponds with the plot of the morality play (Illustrations 2–3).[13] It is the final scene, where the Virtues and Anima succeed in binding the Devil, and Victory sings out triumphantly. Hildegard waited for the Vision of Music to flesh out that story. She laid out the perverse and repellent nature of the Devil without reference to the Virtues whatsoever. This vision presents yet another tangible example of Hildegard as synesthete, for whom a ‟burning light” and a ‟burning flame” warm the sight but touch the body with incinerating effect, as ‟shouts” and ‟whistling arrows” can be heard, and as the stench of the Devil's ‟hideous and foul-smelling vapor” brings all of the visionary's senses to the fore:

Then I saw a burning light, as large and as high as a mountain, divided at its summit as if into many tongues [Illustration 2]. And there stood in the presence of this light a multitude of white-clad people, before whom what seemed like a screen of translucent crystal had been placed, reaching from their breasts to their feet. And before that multitide, as if in a road, there lay on its back a monster shaped like a worm, wondrously large and long, which aroused an indescribable sense of horror and rage. On its left stood a kind of market-place [Illustration 3, lower half], which displayed human wealth and worldly delights and various sorts of merchandise; and some people were running through it very fast and not buying anything, while others were walking slowly and stopping both to sell and to buy. Now that worm was black and bristly [Illustration 2], covered with ulcers and pustules, and it was divided into five sections from the head down through the belly to its feet, like stripes. One was green, one white, one red, one yellow and one black; and they were full of deadly poison. But its head had been so crushed that the left side of its jawbone was dislocated. Its eyes were bloody on the surface and burning within; its ears were round and bristly; its nose and mouth were those of a viper, its hands human, its feet a viper's feet, and its tail short and horrible. And around its neck a chain was riveted, which also bound its hands and feet; and this chain was firmly fastened to a rock in the abyss, confining it so that it could not move about as its wicked will desired. Many flames came forth from its mouth, dividing into four parts: One part ascended to the clouds, another breathed forth among secular people, another among spiritual people, and the last descended into the abyss.

And the flame that sought the clouds was opposing the people who wanted to get to Heaven (Illustration 3, upper half). One was close to the clouds, one in the middle space between the clouds and the earth, and one moved along near the earth; and all were shouting repeatedly, ‟Let us get to Heaven!” But they were whirled hither and thither by that flame; some did not waver, some barely kept their balance, and some fell to the earth but then rose again and started toward Heaven. The flame that breathed forth among secular people burned some of them so that they were hideously blackened, and others it transfixed so that it could move them anywhere it wanted. Some escaped from the flame and moved toward those who sought Heaven, reiterating shouts of ‟O you faithful, give us help!” But others remained transfixed. Meanwhile, the flame that breathed forth among spiritual people concealed them in obscurity; but I saw them in six categories. For some of them were cruelly injured by the flame's fury; but when it could not injure one of them, it burningly breathed on them the deadly poison that flowed from the worm's head to its feet, either green or white or red or yellow or black. But the flame that sought the abyss contained in itself diverse torments for those who had worshipped Satan in place of God, not washed by the font of baptism or knowing the light of truth and faith.

And I saw sharp arrows whistling loudly from its mouth, and black smoke exhaling from its breast, and a burning fluid boiling up from its loins, and a hot whirlwind blowing from its navel, and the uncleanness of frogs issuing from its bowels; all of which affected human beings with grave disquiet. And the hideous and foul-smelling vapor that came out of it infected many people with its own perversity. But behold, a great multitude of people came, shining brightly; they forcefully trod the worm underfoot and severely tormented it, but could not be injured by its flames or its poison.[14]

The conclusion of the Vision of the Devil with its ‟multitude of people…shining brightly” purposely connects to the story of the Ordo Virtutum, concerning how the ‟worm” would be trod underfoot; indeed, the Vision of Music has numerous instances also referring to the multitude of people.[15] Given the proximity of the Vision of the Devil to the morality play in the Vision of Music, it seems all the more likely that it would have been paired with the shorter morality play rather than with the Ordo Virtutum. The solemnity of the morality play is heightened by the knowledge of this vision; without it, the Devil seems merely a hindrance to Anima—and almost laughable—rather than the terrifying creature described here.

[1] Anna Silvas, trans. Jutta & Hildegard: The Biographical Sources (University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1999), 80.

[2] Ibid., 79.

[3] Ibid., 139. In her footnote 42, Silvas provides much of the Latin original: ‟et carminibus tantum Daviticis instruens in psalterio dechacordo [sic] iubilare premonstrabat.”

[4] In Davidson, ed. The Ordo Virtutum, Pamela Sheingorn (51) and Gunilla Iversen (97) suggest that the Ordo Virtutum may have been prepared for a service of the Dedication of Virgins rather than for the strictly liturgical occasion that must have inaugurated the Rupertsberg. See, too, Gunilla Iversen, ‟O Virginitas, in regali thalamo stas; New Light on the Ordo Virtutum: Hildegard, Richardis, and the Order of the Virtues,” The Early Drama, Art, and Music Review 20/1 (1997): 1–17 at 4.

[5] Peter Dronke, Women Writers of the Middle Ages: A Critical Study of Texts from Perpetua († 203) to Marguerite Porete († 1310) (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984), 232:  ‟Que ideo passa sum, quia non manifestavi visionem que michi ostensa fuit, quod de loco in quo deo oblata fueram in alium cum puellis meis moveri deberem.”

[6] Ibid., 233:  ‟Et ita in isto loco cum viginti puellis nobilibus et de divitibus parentibus natis mansi.'

[7] Hart and Bishop, Scivias, 60. Führkötter and Carlevaris, Scivias, 4: ‟…circumspecta in pura mente, oculis et auribus interioris hominis, in apertis locis, secundum voluntatem Dei accepi.”

[8] The English translation is by Bruce W. Hozeski, Hildegard of Bingen, The Book of the Rewards of Life, 9. My alterations and additions appear in brackets in the English translation. The Latin comes from Angela Carlevaris, ed. Liber vite meritorum, 8: ‟Et factum est in nono anno postquam vera visio veras visiones, in quibus per decennium insudaveram, mihi simplici homini manifestaverat; qui primus annus fuit, postquam eadem visio subtilitates diversarum naturarum creaturarum, ac responsa et admonitiones tam minorum quam maiorum plurimarum personarum, et symphoniam harmonie celestium revelationum, ignotamque linguam et litteras cum quibusdam aliis expositionibus, in quibus post predictas visiones multa infirmitate multoque labore corporis gravata per octo annos duraveram, mihi ad explanandum ostenderat….”

[9] On Hildegard’s symptoms of migraine headaches, see Oliver Sacks, The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat and Other Clinical Tales (New York: Harper Perennial Library, 1990), 166–70.

[10] Richard E. Cytowic, Synesthesia: A Union of the Senses (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2002), 2. I am grateful to composer Jenny Olivia Johnson for this source.

[11] Newman, Symphonia, 271.

[12] Ibid., 212–15.

[13] For deeper interpretive levels and expansion on the Devil's other characteristics, see Hans Liebeschütz, Das allegorische Weltbild der heiligen Hildegard von Bingen (Leipzig: B.G. Teubner, 1930), and Johannes May, Die heilige Hildegard von Bingen aus dem Orden des heiligen Benedikt (1098–1179): Ein Lebensbild (Kempten and Munich: Jos. Kösel, 1911).

[14] Hart and Bishop, Scivias, 293–94. Führkötter and Carlevaris, Scivias, 308–10. In the interests of space, I have not included the original Latin in this footnote.

[15] For instance, see the quotation starting ‟The 14 Scivias Songs” below.