Hildegard von Bingen was one of the very first named composers, and among her extraordinary achievements in different fields, it is her music above all, that has given her lasting fame. Mostly ignored, by music text books and dictionaries as well as performers until late in the last century – a fate common to most female composers – she was resurrected thanks to various early-music pioneers.
In 1979, director Philip Pickett and the New London Consort were among the first to revive her music. And borrowing its title from a line in Scivias, the best-selling 1985 A Feather on the Breath of God recording by Gothic Voices, directed by the scholar-musician Christopher Page, transformed Hildegard’s modern reputation.
· Hildegard von Bingen: A Feather on the Breath of God
Important recordings by Barbara Thornton and Sequentia, Anonymous 4 and others are central to Hildegard’s story.
Music in her time was perceived as the mirror of divine order. Before the Fall, Adam’s voice was in tune with the natural harmony of the cosmos, the Music of the Spheres. As Hildegard wrote: ‘For, before he sinned, his voice had the sweetness of all musical harmony’.
For post-lapsarian humans, singing praises to God was a way to address that loss. Written in one line and probably sung in unmeasured time, her chant reflected the groupings of words, rather than following an imposed rhythm.
Most performers, unable to read music or sharing from a single copy, would have committed the music to memory. One reason compositions began to be written down around this period was in response to the Church’s desire to control the liturgy – though it is hard to see how Hildegard’s often ecstatic, decorative vocal line and glittering, poetic texts obeyed anyone’s idea of order and restraint.
The two chief bodies of work are the morality play Ordo Virtutum and the Symphonia, songs set to Hildegard’s own texts on a wide range or religious subjects from the Virgin Mary, to angels, saints, martyrs, confessors and their numerous feast days.
Certain imagery recurs, always in service to the sacred purpose: greenness (viriditas), growth, fertility, flowers, jewels, precious metals, fire, purity, womanhood and Christ as husband and lover (often using erotic language from the Song of Songs).
O Ecclesia celebrates St Ursula and her 11,000 virgin martyrs, who reject marriage on earth and await God ‘with desire’. Rhapsody, upward leaps (often of rising fifths) and a sense of improvisation make Hildegard’s music instantly recognisable.
So many questions jostle to be asked concerning Hildegard’s music. Few have categorical answers. For listeners or performers alike today, an act of enquiry is essential to the way we approach her work.
How did it sound? Who sang it? Did the single line of chant have an instrumental accompaniment? Was the music known beyond the walls of her monastery? Who notated it? Was it written down at the time of composition or gathered later? Is it like other music of the time? Can we even be sure she wrote it? If it wasn’t her, then who did write it?
This is not to suggest any scepticism in describing Hildegard as a composer, but to ask what it meant to be a composer at a time when art was made to serve God. The names of artists and makers who painted church walls or carved in wood or stone, or made glass or, too, wrote music, are forgotten.