Hildegard of Bingen (1098–1179)

Hildegard of Bingen

This remarkable woman was one of the earliest known composers. A contemporary of the famous medieval lovers Abélard and Héloïse, who also ended their lives in monastic institutions, Hildegard was born into a noble German family. As the tenth child she was considered a tithe and therefore due to the church, and was dedicated to religious service. When she was eight years old, she was sent as a novice to the Benedictine monastery of Disibodenberg.


In 1136 Hildegard became an abbess in her own right, and around the age of 50 she founded a nunnery near Bingen in the Rhine Valley. She died at the advanced age of 81, and her name was put forward by several popes as a candidate for canonization. Though never formally canonized, she is often referred to as a saint and has a feast-day which is particularly celebrated in Germany.


Mysticism and music

Hildegard was a visionary, and soon gained a wide reputation as a prophetess. Popes, emperors, monarchs, archbishops, and clergymen of all kinds flocked to Bingen to consult this "Sybil of the Rhine". Between 1141 and 1170 she recorded her mystical experiences; she also wrote two important works on natural history and medicine, and a great deal of lyric and dramatic poetry, collected together in a volume called Symphonia armonie celestium revelationum.


Most of her poetry is liturgical, including antiphons, sequences, and hymns designed for performance on the feast-days of particular saints. Among her work is the earliest known surviving morality play, Ordo virtutum, which describes the 16 Virtues battling with the Devil for a human soul. This and many of her poems have music attached, written in German neumatic notation. Unlike much music of this period, Hildegard's melodies are not drawn from monastic plainsong, but are strikingly original, and sometimes highly complex and decorative.


Many of her works have been performed and recorded during the recent revival of interest in early music: the album released under the title A Feather on the Breath of God (1984) has enjoyed huge popularity.