Hildegard’s Philosophy of Music

For Hildegard, the world was alive with music at all levels of existence, from God through the ranks of Heaven to humans and animals, to plants. Her conception of the cosmos incorporated the notion of the music of the spheres that was prevalent in her time, whereby earthly music for voice and instruments mirrored an ideal heavenly music. Hildegard received in an earlier Vision the configuration for the music of the spheres.  In nine concentric circles, her illumination depicts the music-making of the cosmos, inhabited by the angels in the outer ring, moving inward toward the seraphim at the center, all of whom she calls the “armies of heavenly spirits” (Illustration 5).[1] These armies sing “with marvellous voices all kinds of music about the wonders that God works in blessed souls,” and they “make known…by indescribable sounds their great joy.”[2]

To describe the world of sound, Hildegard employed several different words: sound (“sonus”), music (“musica”), voice (“vox”), and harmony (“harmonia”) as general terms for music, and, for composing or making music together in song, “symphonizat” and “symphonia in unanimitate.” In the Vision of Music, she noted that music possesses the qualities of concord, awakening, power, and variety.  Concord implies both “consonance” and the absence of discord; it also has to do with being in step with God. She observed that “…the song does not only harmonize and exult over those who persevere in the path of rectitude, but also exults in the concord of those who are resurrected from their fall out of the path of justice, and are at last uplifted to true beatitude.”[3]  In this way, she further interpreted the ramifications of the morality play, going on to say that, “with joy the Good Shepherd has brought back to the flock the sheep that was lost.”[4]

Hildegard described the ways in which music awakens and moves people. Directly following the morality play, she wrote that their song went through her body, “et sonus earum ita pertransivit me,” such that she understood its meaning perfectly.[5]  We have already seen how this visionary apprehended the voice of the living light with great sensitivity, so this comes as no surprise. Music is like “divine grace” which “banishes all dark obscurity and makes pure and lucid [that which was] obscure to the bodily senses because of the weakness of the flesh.”[6]  She described this for herself—as musician, synesthete, and composer—but also believed that music can move all sentient beings whose senses can be awakened by the sounds of earth and Heaven alike. She credited a musical composition (here called “symphonia”) with the ability to move the soul and the heart, stating that “by this song the sluggish soul is aroused to watchfulness” and “the song…softens the hard heart…[and] summons the holy spirit.”[7]

The power of music relates closely to the quality of awakening, for its strength and force cause change to come about.  Elaborating on this process, Hildegard equated God’s force with music’s strength: “And as the power of God is everywhere and encompasses all things…, so too the human intellect has great power to resound in living voices, and arouse sluggish souls to vigilance by the song.”[8] Again Hildegard uses the word “symphonia” for the musical composition, or song, but now also introduces the idea of human voices contributing to the strength of the sound, or “sounding,” itself: “sonare.” Worth noting, too, is the role played by the intellect, “rationalitas,” in music-making, in the conscious improvisation, creation, or composition of music—words uttered in truth by the composer herself.

The world is put right when music allows sentient beings to hear and sound out God’s words, and becomes out of tune when this contact is lost. The morality play, which stands at the center of the Vision of Music, reflects the prevalent 12th-century concern of the struggle between the virtues and the vices. Hildegard allows a range of music-making to humankind, from rejoicing through lamenting. The only creature deprived of music is the discordant Devil, the fallen angel Lucifer who lost access to the beautiful and the holy. God’s punishment for the Devil via Hildegard’s vision is frightening in the drama, but even more threatening at the conclusion of the Vision of Music, and indeed of the entire Scivias:

If anyone rejects the mystical words of this book, I will draw My bow against him and transfix him by the arrows from My quiver; I will knock his crown from his head, and make him like those who fell in Horeb when they murmured against Me. And if anyone utters curses against this prophecy, may the curse that Isaac uttered come upon him….Whoever rashly conceals these words written by the finger of God, madly abridging them, or for any human reason taking them to a strange place and scoffing at them, let him be reprobate; and the finger of God shall crush him.[9]

Hildegard’s closing words follow a lengthy exegesis on Psalm 150, 3–5, for the final section of the Vision of Music deals with these important and celebrated “words of David:”[10]


Laudate eum in sono tubae;

Laudate eum in psalterio et cithara.

Laudate eum in tympano et choro;

Laudate eum in chordis et organo

Laudate eum in cymbalis bene sonantibus;

Laudate eum in cymbalis iubilationis.

Omnis spiritus laudet Dominum.


Praise him with the sound of the trumpet;

Praise him with psaltery and harp.

Praise him with timbrel and dance;

Praise him with strings and pipe.

Praise him with loud clanging cymbals;

Praise him with cymbals of jubilation.

May all praise God.

Scivias, 633. Translation mine.

In addition to citing one of the most important musical psalms, Hildegard also suggests an instrumentarium with which she was acquainted. In the opening line, King David originally referred to the shofar; in a twelfth-century Christian context, such an instrument would have been a horn or trumpet that can play loudly. Percussion instruments also inhabit the psalm: the timbrel—a kind of tambourine—and the cymbals.  The “chordis et organo” are the least specific instruments listed. They must be bowed strings, to contrast with the plucked strings of line 2. Usually translated in the Bible as flute, “organo” connoted a pipe or a set of pipes. The main point of the closing section of the Vision of Music is that all must praise God with any sounding medium available to them. And this sound could be quite loud, like the blast of the shofar or the “clanging” of the cymbals of jubilation; human beings must mirror the celebratory music of the spheres.[11]

Hildegard emphasized the variety of instruments in this psalm, as a complement to the diversity of people’s voices mentioned throughout the Vision of Music: the “voice” or “voices of a multitude.” She described the final chorus of the morality play (number 86) as sounding joyfully with multiple voices, for the “voice of a multitude makes music in praise among the ranks of Heaven.”[12] To further interpret the meaning of the morality play, Hildegard invokes Jeremiah, who inspired the many laments contained within it. It is important to note that lamenting holds pride of place in the play, for so much of it deals with the conflict felt by Anima; lamenting is a virtue, not a vice, and it is an important part of faith.

Hildegard gave equal weight to both Old Testament figures associated with music: “David shows [the power of God] by his songs of prophecy and rejoicing; and Jeremiah shows it by the sorrowful voice of his lamentation.”[13] The modes determine the quality of the song, whether it be for rejoicing or for lamentation. Might this be what Hildegard meant when she wrote about the “different kinds of music” in the following passage?

Thus, O human, you see the lucent sky, which symbolizes the brilliance of the joy of the citizens of Heaven; in which you hear different kinds of music, marvellously embodying all the meanings you heard before. You hear the praises of the joyous citizens of Heaven, steadfastly persevering in the ways of Truth, and laments calling people back to those praises and joys.[14]

The “voice of a multitude” harks back to the central argument of the entire Vision of Music, which is that “sweet song,”  “lamentation,” and “rejoicing” are all-encompassing musical expressions that need to be made by a group of virtuous people, by soft and loud instruments, and, most importantly, by the music of the spheres: the seven ranks of heaven represented by the paired Symphonia songs, and the nine orders of the heavenly spirits contained within those ranks.

Hildegard’s Vision of Music extends from the largest imaginable cosmology through to her own individual music-making.  In closing, I would like to consider the work of a contemporary writer who devoted a treatise to the plucked psaltery and its ramifications, Hildegard’s instrument.  Joachim of Fiore (c. 1135–1202) illustrated the instrument, which he “was ‘given’ in a vision,”[15] in his Psalterium Decem Chordarum. Joachim’s depiction does not name the pitches of the strings (for this, see Table 2), but instead names the nine orders of the heavenly spirits with the tenth string given to man, “homo” (Illustration 6).[16] These are enumerated, as Hildegard does in her mandala,[17] from the lowest string on the bottom left—equivalent to the outer ring—representing the angels, with higher and higher pitches moving inward and upward toward man. On the right side of the psaltery is a set of qualities that overlap with four of Hildegard’s virtues: man is paired with Caritas, the seraphim are paired with Spes, the cherubim with Fides, and, on the lowest string of the instrument, the angels are paired with Timor Domini. The remaining personifications are of Wisdom (Sapientia), Intellect (Intellectus), Counsel (Consilium), Fortitude (Fortitudo), Scientia (Knowledge), and Pietà (Piety). The psaltery was considered to be God’s instrument, as its triangular shape represented the Trinity.

Hildegard’s instrument not only could determine mode as it reflected the order of the cosmos,[18] but it represented musica mundana (the music of the spheres) meeting musica humana (the music of mankind). Such a soft and portable instrument served her well as a learning and creative musician in the anchorhold with Jutta, and as a teaching, composing, and performing musician at the Disibodenberg and later at the Rupertsberg. While it is impossible to say whether a performance of the Vision of Music was ever undertaken in Hildegard’s lifetime, this electronic book has brought together its visual, aural, and conceptual aspects in our time.

[1] Part I, Vision Six. Hart and Bishop, Scivias, 139; Führkötter and Carlevaris, Scivias, 100: “…duas acies supernorum spirituum….”

[2] Hart and Bishop, Scivias, 143; Führkötter and Carlevaris, Scivias, 107: “Sed hae acies omnes, ut audis, in omne genere musicorum mirabilibus vocibus miracula illa resonant quae Deus in beatis animabus operatur….”

[3] Hart and Bishop, Scivias, 533; Führkötter and Carlevaris, Scivias, 631–32: “…quia symphonia non solum in unanimitate exsultationis in via rectitudinis fortiter persistentium gaudet, sed etiam in concordia resuscitationis de via iustitiae lapsorum et tandem ad veram beatitudinem erectorum exsultat….”

[4] Adapted from Hart and Bishop, Scivias, 533; Führkötter and Carlevaris, Scivias, 632: “…quoniam et pastor bonus ovem quae perierat cum gaudio reportavit ad gregem.”

[5] Hart and Bishop, Scivias, 532; Führkötter and Carlevaris, Scivias, 629.

[6] Hart and Bishop, Scivias, 534; Führkötter and Carlevaris, Scivias, 632: “…quoniam, ubi divina gratia operata fuerit, omnem tenebrositatem obumbrationis aufert, illa pura et lucida faciens quae carnalibus sensibus in infirmitate carnis obscura sunt.”

[7] Hart and Bishop, Scivias, 533 and 534; Führkötter and Carlevaris, Scivias, 631: “Quod per symphoniam rationalitatis torpens anima excitatur ad vigilandum,” and 632: “Quod symphonia dura corda emollit et umorem compunctionis inducit et spiritum sanctum advocat.”

[8] Hart and Bishop, Scivias, 533; Führkötter and Carlevaris, Scivias, 631: “Et ut potestas Dei ubique volans omnia circuit nec ei ullum obstaculum resistit, ita et rationalitas hominis magnam vim habet in vivis vocibus sonare et torpentes animas ad vigilantiam in symphonia excitare.”

[9] Hart and Bishop, Scivias, 536; Führkötter and Carlevaris, Scivias, 635–36: “Unde et quisquis mystica verba huius libri recusaverit, arcum meum super eum extendam et sagittis pharetrae meae eum transfigam et coronam eius de capite ipsius abiciam, atque eum illis similabo qui in Horeb ceciderunt, cum contra me murmuraverunt….  Sed si quis haec verba digiti Dei temere absconderit et ea per rabiem suam minuerit aut in alienum locum alicuius humani sensus causa abduxerit et ita deriserit, ille reprobatus sit. Et digitus Dei conteret illum.”

[10] Hart and Bishop, Scivias, 534; Führkötter and Carlevaris, Scivias, 633: “Verba David de eadem re.”

[11]  11. For information about Pythagoras, Plato, and Boethius on the music of the spheres, see Calvin M. Bower, "The Role of Boethius's De Institutione Musica in the Speculative Tradition of Western Musical Thought," in Michael Masi, ed. Boethius and the Liberal Arts: A Collection of Essays, Utah Studies in Literature and Linguistics. Bern, Frankfurt, and Las Vegas: Peter Lang, 1981, 157–74; and Jamie James, The Music of the Spheres: Music, Science, and the Natural Order of the Universe. New York: Grove Press, 1993.

[12] Hart and Bishop, Scivias, 532; Führkötter and Carlevaris, Scivias, 630–31: "Quapropter et sonus ille ut vox multitudinis in laudibus de supernis gradibus in harmonia symphonizat…."

[13] Hart and Bishop, Scivias, 533; Führkötter and Carlevaris, Scivias, 631: "Quod et David in symphonia prophetiae suae probat et Ieremias lamentabili voce in planctu suo ostendit."

[14] Hart and Bishop, Scivias, 532; Führkötter and Carlevaris, Scivias, 630: "Unde vides, o homo, lucidissimum aerem candorem gaudii supernorum civium designantem, in quo audis in omnibus praedictis significationibus mirabili modo diversum genus musicorum in laudibus civium supernorum gaudiorum in via veritatis fortiter perseverantium, ac in querelis revocatorum ad laudes eorundem gaudiorum…."

[15] Marjorie Reeves and Beatrice Hirsch-Reich, The Figurae of Joachim of Fiore (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1972), 199.

[16] MS. Oxford, Corpus Christi College, 255A, fol. 8r.

[17] Gerda Lerner has observed the frequency of holistic symbols in the work of Hildegard: "It is no accident that the illuminations of her visions abound in circles, curves and waves, in mandala-like designs, which avoid any concept of hierarchy in favor of wholeness, roundedness and integration." See The Creation of Feminist Consciousness—From the Middle Ages to Eighteen-seventy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), 63, as well as footnote 46, in which Lerner posits a link with the East in the transmission of the mandala.

[17] At the end of Hildegard's life, the Prelates of Mainz ordered that there to be no music at the Rupertsberg. In Hildegard's letter to them, she wrote another philosophy of music, this time focusing on the role of Adam and the Fall. See Baird and Ehrman, The Letters of Hildegard of Bingen, vol. I, 76–80, particularly at 77: "The material composition and the quality of these instruments instruct us how we ought to give form to the praise of the Creator and turn all the convictions of our inner being to the same."