The Music of Hildegard von Bingen
By Olivia Carter Mather
Created on 25 November 2002 and updated 15 June 2003
Hildegard of Bingen is widely known for her extraordinary works and
her accomplishments in the fields of music, poetry, theology, the
visual arts, and the natural sciences. Her compositions and writings
have experienced a revival in recent years in conjunction with an
increased interest in women's studies among scholars in a variety
of disciplines. Scholars have published new editions and facsimiles
of her works, and professional performers of medieval music such as
Sequentia, Gothic Voices, and Anonymous 4 have recorded her music.
This article is a general introduction to her music according to genre.
Top of page | Biography
| General Aspects of Hildegard's Music | Manuscript
Sources of Hildegard's Music | Sequences |
Other Chants for the Mass | Hymns
| Antiphons | Responsories
| Symphoniae | The Ursuline
Office | The Ordo Virtutum | A
List of Hildegard's Writings | A List of Songs
of the Symphonia | Sources and Further Reading
| Discography | Helpful Hildegard
Hildegard of Bingen was born to noble parents in the year 1098 at
Bermersheim in the Rhineland as the youngest of ten children and was
offered to the church as a small child. She claimed to have visions
at a very young age, and this may have encouraged her parents to dedicate
her special abilities to religious life. It was in 1106, at the age
of eight, that Hildegard was sent to the Benedictine monastery of
Disibodenburg under the care of Jutta of Spanheim, the abbess of a
very small community of nuns under the oversight of Benedictine monks.
Hildegard received only a basic education from Jutta, probably learning
how to recite from the Latin Psalter. We have little information about
Hildegard's exact education but she lamented that she lacked advanced
formal training in Latin, the Bible, or musical notation.
In 1113 Hildegard took the veil and lived an unremarkable life at
Disibodenburg until 1136. In 1136, Jutta died and Hildegard was named
abbess. Hildegard saw visions and heard voices throughout her life,
but according to her account in Liber scivias domini ("Know
the Ways of the Lord," hereafter Scivias), it was soon
after becoming abbess that she was told to "tell and write"
what she saw and heard. Because her visions were frequently accompanied
by illness, she was often bedridden just before she began to write.
In 1141 Hildegard began writing her first work, Scivias, a
record of her visions, after receiving support from her friends and
permission from the Bishop of Mainz to do so. She described her visions
as "the reflection of the living Light."
In 1147-48, Pope Eugenius III visited nearby Trier and heard of Hildegard's
special gift of prophetic visions. He sent delegates to Disibodenburg
to obtain a copy of her partially completed Scivias which he
then read. He blessed Hildegard's endeavor and commanded her to continue
writing her visions. She finished the Scivias in 1151, after
ten years of work.
Recognition from the pope increased Hildegard's popularity throughout
the region and attracted people to Disibodenburg. Hildegard's prophetic
abilities as well as her powers of healing and exorcism drew people
to her. Not only did pilgrims come to the monastery to visit, but
women also came to join the community of nuns. Lay people, clergy,
and political leaders increasingly sought her advice and help, including
Frederick Barbarossa and Odo of Soissons, master of theology at Paris.
Odo's letter of c. 1147 to Hildegard praises her prophetic abilities
and compositions: "It is reported that, exalted, you see many
things in the heavens and record them in your writing, and that you
bring forth the melody of a new song, although you have studied nothing
of such things" (Newman, Voice of the Living Light, 244-245).
In the late 1150s and early 1160s Hildegard traveled on preaching
tours to Cologne, Liège, and several towns in the region of
Swabia. These journeys would have been very difficult for a sixty-year-old
woman, possibly involving travel by foot. It was unusual enough for
a nun to travel and preach to monasteries, but even more remarkable
was the fact that Hildegard preached in public to many of the towns
One of the most important events of Hildegard's life was her decision
to move her nuns away from Disibodenburg in 1148. She was told in
a vision to reestablish Rupertsberg, an abandoned monastery on the
Rhine a day's journey from Disibodenburg. Hildegard's decision met
with much resistance from the monks of Disibodenburg, church hierarchy,
and even her own nuns. By 1150, however, the building at Rupertsberg
was complete and Hildegard moved her nuns from the comfortable and
abundant Disibodenburg to the desolate and infertile mountain home
of Rupertsberg, outside the town of Bingen. In 1165 she founded yet
another convent across the Rhine at Eibingen. Hildegard continued
to write and to lead her nuns until her death in 1179. A list
of Hildegard's writings is included at the end of this article.
General Aspects of Hildegard's Music
Hildegard's musical and poetic compositions are divided into two
large works: the Ordo Virtutum ("The Play of the Virtues")
and Symphonia armonie celestium revelationum ("Symphony
of the Harmony of Celestial Revelations," hereafter Symphonia).
The Ordo Virtutum is a morality play set to music. The Symphonia
is a collection of 77 songs for the Mass and Office including
antiphons, responsories, sequences, hymns, a Kyrie, and an Alleluia
(a list of the songs of the Symphonia
is included at the end of this article).
Hildegard's music was largely ignored by musicologists until recently
in part because of its apparent difference from other music of the
Middle Ages. Even though she is one of the few medieval composers
we can identify by name, she was not originally included in music
textbooks perhaps because her unique style was difficult to reconcile
with much of medieval music and music theory. Hildegard's musical
vocabulary includes extremely wide vocal ranges (up to two octaves),
large leaps, and florid melodies. A few key gestures characterize
her melodic passages, most importantly, the open ascending fifth.
Hildegard built pieces around all four possible finals (d, e, f, and
g) and two cofinals (a and c), but e a mode often described
as unstable in medieval music is the most common modal center
of her music. The ascending fifth is most common in pieces on d, e,
Earlier Hildegard scholars such as Ludwig Bronarski and Joseph Schmidt-Görg
analyzed Hildegard's music in terms of "motivic variation."
In many of Hildegard's pieces, short melodic fragments appear in the
opening phrases and are repeated throughout the piece. The fragments
vary with repetition and do not necessarily appear in a pattern or
in regular intervals throughout the piece. These musical motives are
besides mode and genre some of the most distinguishing
markers of Hildegard's style.
Hildegard's Symphonia and Ordo Virtutum were connected
to her theological writings and everyday responsibilities as an abbess
in a larger religious program for her nuns. Her texts illustrate her
theology and were written in response to local concerns; often they
praise regional saints or deal with issues particularly relevant to
a community of women striving to keep vows of chastity, poverty, and
obedience. They served to teach and encourage the women under her
care while providing new musical material for the nuns to sing at
Mass, Office, and possibly on special occasions.
Hildegard's music has also been interpreted in terms of female sexuality
and the homosocial environment of the monastery. In his recent book,
Music, Body, and Desire in Medieval Culture: Hildegard of Bingen
to Chaucer, Bruce Holsinger argues that not only the texts but
Hildegard's melodies were an expression of sexuality centered around
the female body, womb, and virgin community. The act of singing Hildegard's
music would have connected the worship of God with the physical pleasure
of singing as an enactment of sexual fulfillment through God's love.
Holsinger locates this virginal sexuality in the open fifths and wide
leaps of Hildegard's melodies: their "openness" represents
the womb and their movement represents the "wind of pleasure,"
an erotic movement in the womb that originates with God's speech,
as described in Hildegard's Causae et curae and in the sixth
book of Liber vitae meritorum. Some scholars have difficulty
making such direct connections between Hildegard's music and a specific
kind of sexuality since, as with most medieval music, we have limited
sources from the time period that interpret chant positively in terms
of sexuality. However, Holsinger's framing is certainly an intriguing
one that will perhaps encourage more scholars to explore the context
of Hildegard's music and its possible meanings.
Manuscript Sources of Hildegard's Music
There are two main manuscript sources of Hildegard's music: Dendermonde,
St.-Pieters-&- Paulusabdij, Codex 9 ("Dendermonde")
and Wiesbaden, Landesbibliothek, Hs. 2 ("Riesenkodex").
Together they contain all 77 songs of the Symphonia as well
as the Ordo Virtutum. Aside from Dendermonde and the Riesenkodex,
four other manuscripts contain fragments of Hildegard's music and
poetry: Vienna, Nationalbibliothek, Cod. 881, 963, and 1016; and Stuttgart,
Landesbibliothek, Cod. Theol. Phil. 253.
Dendermonde contains Hildegard's Liber vitae meritorum, 57
songs of the Symphonia, and Liber viarum domini ("Book
of the Ways of the Lord") by Hildegard's friend and contemporary,
Elisabeth of Schoenau. (Elisabeth of Schoenau is discussed in Garber's
ORB article on Medieval
German Women Writers.) Several folios are missing from the Symphonia
section, so Dendermonde originally contained several more songs of
the Symphonia. The manuscript was copied at Rupertsberg in
the 1170s for the monks of Villers who requested it, and it is likely
that Hildegard supervised its production herself.
The Riesenkodex was copied in the 1180s, just after Hildegard's death
in 1179. The nuns of Rupertsberg probably compiled the Riesenkodex
as part of their request for Hildegard's canonization since it contains
all of her theological writings, 75 songs of the Symphonia,
and the Ordo Virtutum.
The most interesting difference between Dendermonde and the Riesenkodex
(other than the greater coverage of Hildegard's music in Riesenkodex)
is the order of the songs of the Symphonia in both sources.
In Dendermonde, songs to the Virgin Mary are placed before those
to the Holy Spirit and Trinity, and Saint Disibod, a local saint,
is paired with Saint John as an Apostle. The Riesenkodex, by contrast,
places songs to Mary after those to the Holy Spirit, and local
saints are grouped either as "Confessors" (a category not
as important as "Apostles") or simply as "Saints."
The order of the songs in the Riesenkodex is much more orthodox (and
thus more appropriate to send to higher church authorities as part
of a canonization request) while the layout of Dendermonde reflects
the importance of Mary and local saints to the Rupertsberg community.
In his article entitled "The Composition of Hildegard von Bingen's
Symphonia," Peter Dronke points out another difference
between the two manuscript sources: the emphasis on chant type in
the ordering of the Riesenkodex. Roughly the first two-thirds of the
songs in the Riesenkodex are antiphons and responsories, while the
remaining songs are mostly sequences and hymns. The compiler followed
this classification even if it meant dividing songs with similar subject
matter. For instance, antiphons and responsories to St. Rupert appear
earlier in the source--in the section of "Songs to the Celestial
Hierarchy"--while the sequence devoted to him appears in the
last section of the Riesenkodex.
Of Hildegard's 77 songs, seven of them are sequences. The sequence
is a chant of the Mass sung between the Alleluia and the Gospel. Sequences
were probably first composed in the ninth century, and by the eleventh
century were widely sung in the Western liturgy until the liturgical
reforms of the Council of Trent (1545-63). Until changes in the late
twelfth century, the sequence was loosely characterized by paired
vesicles, two lines of text set to the same musical line. Words did
not necessarily rhyme and the lengths of lines varied from pair to
pair. Sequence texts were newly composed and while often based on
Biblical topics, were not directly derived from Scripture in the same
way as other chants of the Mass.
The texts of Hildegard's sequences draw upon three sources: the Bible,
Hildegard's own theology, and the vitae of local saints. Most
(all but "O ignis Spiritus Paracliti" and "O virga
ac diadema") are constructed from material of all three sources.
The sequences are dedicated to specific local or regional saints who
are then compared with Biblical events or concepts. For instance,
"O Ierusalem" praises St. Rupert, supposedly the original
but perhaps legendary original founder of the monastery of Rupertsberg.
When Hildegard refounded Rupertsberg with Rupert as its patron saint,
it had been in ruins since its sack by Normans in c. 882. "O
Ierusalem" praises St. Rupert, describing him as a building,
specifically the beautiful city of celestial Jerusalem. Thus Hildegard
used a building metaphor to connect a local saint and monastery with
heaven as described in the book of Revelation. Not only did she praise
St. Rupert, but she encouraged her nuns at St. Rupertsberg by comparing
their city (the monastery itself) to the heavenly city and reminding
them of their future citizenship.
Similarly, Hildegard addressed issues of virginity in "O Ecclesia,"
where she compares a local saint, the virgin Ursula, to the church
in general, ecclesia. According to legend, Ursula was a noble
woman who made a pilgrimage to Rome with a group of 11,000 virgin
companions, only to be martyred by Huns upon their return. Regional
devotion to Ursula increased in the early twelfth century when a mass
grave believed to be that of Ursula and her companions was found near
Cologne. In "O Ecclesia," Hildegard encouraged the nuns
under her care her own virgin friends by explaining
how Christian virginity ultimately defeats Satan, just as the Christian
church will finally reign victorious with Christ.
The text of "O Ecclesia" draws heavily on imagery from
Song of Songs, an Old Testament book of Hebrew love poetry. The two
main characters of the book are the "Lover," the husband
who initiates lovemaking as he praises his wife's beauty, and the
"Beloved," his wife who responds in turn with words of adoration
and affection. Christian interpretation, especially in the Middle
Ages, views the Lover as Christ and the Beloved as the Church. Thus
Song of Songs becomes a metaphor for the love between Christ and the
Church. Hildegard's references to imagery from the book were therefore
very useful for reminding her nuns of their status as Christ's Beloved.
In creating text and music for her sequences, Hildegard followed
many typical characteristics of the sequence genre while still finding
space to express her own musical style and particular historical situation.
Like other sequences of the twelfth century, Hildegard's texts were
set in a mixed manner: each sequence contains examples of syllabic,
neumatic, and melismatic text setting (with one, several, or many
notes per syllable, respectively).
Regarding form, most of her sequences are based on the paired-line
structure, but none follow the common outline x AA BB CC DD
The main body of a sequence in this traditional form is made of poetic
couplets, the two lines of the pair being set to the same musical
phrase. These two lines of text would often match each other in accent
placement and number of syllables, so the music could simply be repeated
note for note. At the beginning and end of the sequence there would
usually be a single line of text, each set to their own musical phrase.
Most of Hildegard's sequences are generally based on a paired structure
with single opening and closing lines, but none adhere to it exactly.
For example, the form of "O presul vere civitatis" is AA
BB CC DD EE FF and that of "O Ierusalem" is AAA BB
CC DD E F G H I J. Also, her text pairs almost never have the
same number of syllables, so the music of the first couplet line varies
for the second couplet line.
Since there was no musical mode particular to the genre, Hildegard's
sequences do not all fit into any one modal category. One sequence,
"O presul vere civitatis" steps outside of the traditional
eight-mode system and ends on c. Because c was not used as a final
for much sacred medieval music and was not considered a legitimate
mode by many theorists, it is possible that the sequence was simply
transposed from f. The purpose of the transposition may have been
to aid in notation and copying, or to place the music in an appropriate
range for the female voices for whom it was written.
Hildegard's melodic style in these pieces is characterized by large
intervals (often a fifth) and wide ranges (as large as an octave plus
a fifth). In "O Ecclesia" she begins with a rising open
fifth from a to e, followed by an ascending fourth to a, all on the
syllable "O." The use of rapid, annunciatory leaps such
as these, often at the beginning of phrases, is common throughout
Hildegard's oeuvre and is one of the stylistic aspects that
distinguishes her music from that of her contemporaries. In "O
Ecclesia" in particular, almost every line begins with an open
fifth, in contrast to cadences that are made of clusters of pitches
only a whole or half step apart. Since "O Ecclesia" does
not fit the traditional paired structure but is made of a series of
different single musical lines, Hildegard provides musical consistency
through common opening motives and closing cadences. In all of her
sequences, almost every melodic line is a complete musical statement
that cadences on the final in a common closing gesture (for instance,
by approaching the final from a whole step below or half step above).
Other Chants for the Mass
Besides the seven sequences, Hildegard wrote two other songs for
use in the Mass: a Kyrie and an Alleluia. The Kyrie is one of five
Ordinary chants in the Mass (the others being the Gloria, Credo, Sanctus,
and Agnus Dei), having a set text that could be combined with different
melodies. The text of the Kyrie is:
Kyrie eleison (3X) ("Lord have mercy")
Christe eleison (3X) ("Christ have mercy")
Kyrie eleison (3X) ("Lord have mercy")
Hildegard's setting is in many ways a textbook example of a Kyrie.
It is highly melismatic, has a range of more than an octave, employs
large leaps, and includes descending scale passages of several notes.
It is interesting that these characteristics are also attributes of
Hildegard's music more generally and that the Kyrie as a genre fits
her compositional style. The musical structure of Hildegard's Kyrie
setting is AAA BBB CCC', one of the most common Kyrie forms.
One of the piece's most unique features is its modality in relation
to Hildegard's other music: it is her only musical work in the f mode.
Hildegard's Alleluia, "O virga mediatrix," was written
for the Virgin Mary and would have been sung in the Mass after the
Gradual and before the sequence or Gospel. Alleluias are chants of
the Proper of the Mass and are made of the "Alleluia," jubilus,
and verse. The first musical phrase is set to the word "Alleluia."
This is followed by a lengthy melisma called the jubilus, sung to
the final syllable of the word "Alleluia." The verse is
often a Psalm verse or, in Hildegard's case, a newly composed text.
In most cases, the Alleluia and jubilus are repeated after the verse.
The typical musical style of Alleluias is melismatic, and often the
verse and Alleluia share musical material. While some Alleluias have
a very small range (a sixth), others have wider ranges. Many have
descending passages of several notes like the melismatic Kyrie. Hildegard's
Alleluia is also melismatic and segments of the verse are restatements
or variations of melodic material from the music that sets the word
"Alleluia." Hildegard also included descending scalar passages
of four, five, and six notes.
The imagery of Hildegard's Alleluia text is very characteristic of
her poetry in general and deals with one of her favorite topics: the
triumph of the Virgin and her body. The translation is from Barbara
Newman's critical edition of the Symphonia.
O virga mediatrix,
sancta viscera tua
et venter tuus
omnes creaturas illuminavit
in pulcro flore
de suavissima integritate
clausi pudoris tui orto.
O branch, mediatrix,
your holy body
and your womb
illuminated all creatures
with the beautiful flower
born from the sweetest integrity
of your chaste honor.
As the abbess of about twenty nuns, Hildegard was especially concerned
with edifying her friends and encouraging them to remain chaste. As
in her sequence "O Ecclesia," Hildegard celebrates a virgin's
ultimate victory over evil through steadfast sexual purity. Hildegard's
depiction of Christ as a flower and the Virgin's influence upon nature
are part of Hildegard's theology and her poetic style.
Hymns are probably one of the oldest forms of Christian chant. We
know very little about their music before musical notation, but Christians
were singing them by at least the second century. They were not a
regular part of the Mass, but would have been sung at Offices and
special occasions. Like sequences, hymns texts are newly composed
material. However, hymns texts are more often in a poetic form with
a regular number of lines (four or six) and a regular number of syllables
per line (typically eight). Each stanza is set to the same music with
a form such as ABCD, AABC, or AABA.
Hildegard's five hymns do not fit the traditional hymn pattern. While
they are obviously divided into stanzas, none have a regular number
of lines per stanza or syllables per line. As a result, new music
must be created for each stanza. Also, each individual stanza is through-composed,
lacking internal repetition of complete lines. Hildegard achieves
a sense of unity in these pieces through motivic repetition. In hymns
such as "Ave generosa" and "O ignee Spiritus"
many stanzas begin with an ascending fifth, even though the remaining
music of each stanza is not repeated.
One of Hildegard's hymns, "Mathias sanctus," even adopts
paired melodic lines and therefore is musically more like her sequences
than her other hymns. Most editors have labeled it a hymn because
the Riesenkodex gives this indication and because it ends with a florid
"Amen" just as her other hymns (and none of her sequences).
Overall, these five pieces by Hildegard are syllabic with occasional
melismas of four or five notes, usually descending scalar passages.
Textually, the hymns illustrate Hildegard's theology and poetic style
by employing imagery of gemstones, trees as genealogical stems, nature
in general, the power of chastity, and comparisons between saints
and Scriptural figures. Two hymns are for saints, two are Marian,
and one is to the Holy Spirit.
Antiphons are short additions to the chant liturgy that are sung
with chants for both the Mass and Office. They are sung before and
after Psalms, or in between each verse of a Psalm. The chants of the
Mass that include antiphons are the Introit, Communion, and Offertory.
In the Office, antiphons simply accompany the singing of the Psalms
(the entire book of Psalms is sung through each week). Antiphons are
usually very short sometimes only one line and syllabic.
There are thousands of antiphons in the repertory of the Western Liturgy,
many of which can be reduced to a small group of standard melodies.
Antiphons that stand independent of Psalms or other chants are called
"votive antiphons." They are usually longer and more elaborate
than Psalm antiphons or antiphons that accompany chants of the Mass.
Hildegard's forty-three antiphons fall into three categories: Psalm
antiphons (28), votive antiphons (14), and gospel antiphons (1). Her
pieces were written to God the Father, Christ, the Holy Spirit, the
Virgin Mary, and various saints, virgins, and apostles. Typically,
Psalm antiphons are short and syllabic while votive antiphons are
longer and more elaborate, but this is not true of Hildegard's pieces.
Her votive and Psalm antiphons are sometimes stylistically difficult
to distinguish, both kinds having characteristics in common. While
many of her votive antiphons are longer and more melismatic than many
of her antiphons, there are many exceptions. For instance, the votive
antiphon "O pastor aminarum" is short and another votive
antiphon "O virgo Ecclesia" is not very melismatic. Also,
many of her Psalm antiphons are longer and more melismatic than those
in the standard repertory.
The only consistent distinguishing factor between Hildegard's votive
and Psalm antiphons is the presence or absence of differentiae.
A differentia is a group of tones at the end of an antiphon
that help singers smoothly join the end of the antiphon to the following
Psalm. Therefore, antiphons with differentiae are meant to
be sung with a Psalm and those without differentiae are meant
to stand alone. Because all of Hildegard's antiphons are often stylistically
similar, those that have differentiae are simply labeled Psalm antiphons
and the rest are labeled votive (the single gospel antiphon is indicated
as such). Probably the most well-known antiphon of Hildegard's among
scholars is "O quam mirabilis," whose musical structure
has been much debated regarding Hildegard's compositional process
(see Pfau, 60-83; and Bain, 15-30 and 31-48 in the bibliography).
Responsories are chants sung at Offices after readings or recitations
from the Bible and they may be divided into two categories. The "Great"
Responsories sung at Matins follow Lessons (a long section from Scripture)
and are long and elaborate. The "short" responsories of
the Compline and Lesser Hours of the Office follow Chapters (a single
verse from Scripture) and are short chants in comparison to the Great
Responsories. Responsories consist of a respond and a verse, followed
by a repeat of all or part of the respond. The end of the respond
often contains a lengthy melisma in an AAB form.
Hildegard's responsories appear to be Great Responsories and are
her most melismatic and florid chants. They are characterized by wide
ranges, rapid changes between low and high ranges, and descending
scalar passages of six or more notes. Like other responsories, several
of Hildegard's have a long melisma at the end of the respond in AAB
form. Her "O vos felices radices" has one melisma of eighty-one
notes and several descending scalar passages of seven or more notes.
In addition to sequences, hymns, antiphons, and responsories, Hildegard
wrote two songs which she seems to have called "symphonia."
These represent a type not otherwise represented in medieval music
and should not be confused with the larger group of her songs of the
same name: these two "symphoniae" are simply two pieces
in her Symphonia. "O dulcissime amator" and "O
Pater omnium" are symphonies of virgins and widows, respectively,
and were probably written for these two types of women at the abbey.
The texts of both represent the struggles involved in vows of chastity
and symbolic marriage to Christ, the symphonia for virgins relying
heavily on imagery from the Song of Songs.
Both are neumatic and in the e mode, the mode used most by Hildegard.
Musically, the symphoniae resemble Hildegard's hymns more than any
of her other pieces. Their texts are set neumatically like those of
the hymns (unlike the highly melismatic responsories) and are structured
by several long, un-paired lines of text (making them longer than
antiphons), giving them the textual structure of her hymns. The pieces
were probably meant to stand alone not as tropes or additions
to another chant because of the coherent nature of their texts
that only refer to the Trinity, not to a particular feast day, saint,
or other chant.
Hildegard's symphoniae are examples of the complicated relationship
between Hildegard's music and musical genre. Elsewhere in her larger
Symphonia, Hildegard uses generic titles but sometimes does
not adhere to basic characteristics of those genres. This was not
the result of ignorance of conventional composition, but instead a
result of her willingness to adjust conventional forms to her purposes.
With the two symphonia, it seems that Hildegard's purpose was to provide
songs for her nuns from their perspective about their relationship
to their heavenly Husband and Father. While her antiphons, responsories,
hymns, and sequences incorporate themes of virginity and spiritual
marriage, these genres have particular functions within liturgy and
their texts point to a particular saint or feast day. Therefore Hildegard
may have conceived of the symphoniae as songs free of any official
liturgical function and thus completely devoted to the praise and
contemplation of her nuns' status as brides of Christ.
The Ursuline Office
Nine antiphons, two responsories, a hymn, and a sequence make up
a group of songs devoted to Saint Ursula and were probably sung at
Offices for a feast day of this local saint. As reviewed in the section
on the sequences, Ursula was a virgin who
was murdered with her 11,000 virgin companions upon their return from
a pilgrimage to Rome. She served as an appropriate saint for Hildegard
and her nuns at Rupertsberg, and perhaps Hildegard's songs to Ursula
were part of her religious program for the women under her care. The
songs of the Ursuline Office tell the story of the virgins and their
martyrdom through themes of virginity, betrothal to Christ, and the
blood of Christ. Hildegard compared Ursula's story to Biblical imagery
such as Abraham's sacrifice of Isaac, Christ's sacrifice, and the
love poetry of Song of Songs. Musically the songs are connected by
their use of the open fifth, and every piece is centered on d, e,
or a modes that are often characterized by the ascending open
The Ordo Virtutum
Hildegard's Ordo Virtutum ("The Play of the Virtues")
is a morality play set to music. The work is unique in the history
of medieval drama because its author is known and because it is one
of the earliest morality plays, a type uncommon until the fourteenth
century. A morality play is a play in which the members of the cast
are allegorical, often personifications of concepts, virtues or vices,
as in the well known Everyman.
The main source for the text and music of Ordo Virtutum is
the Riesenkodex. The play includes seventeen solo parts for female
vocalists (sixteen virtues and Anima, a soul), a group of lamenting
female souls, one part for a male soloist (Diabolus, the Devil),
and a group of patriarchs and prophets who appear only at the very
beginning of the play. The story of the play is about a female soul,
Anima, who is tempted by the Devil but eventually returns to
the Christian life with the help of the Virtues. Each of the Virtues
is a female personification and is given at least one chance to sing
a description of her qualities. Humility, Chastity, and Victory are
the most vocal of the Virtues, Humility being the Queen of the Virtues.
The Ordo Virtutum as it appears in the Riesenkodex is not
divided into scenes or sections, but recent editorial divisions are
useful in understanding the plot of the play. The play begins with
a Prologue that simply introduces the Virtues to the Patriarchs and
Prophets. In Scene One, the chorus of Souls laments the difficulties
of earthly life, but one soul, Anima, happily celebrates life.
By the end of the scene, however, Anima has become discouraged
and decides to turn away from the righteous life to pursue the world
after hearing the persuasive arguments of Diabolus.
In Scene Two, we are introduced to each of the Virtues: Humility,
Charity, Fear of God, Obedience, Faith, Hope, Chastity, Innocence,
World-Rejection, Heavenly Love, Discipline, Shamefastness, Mercy,
Victory, Discretion, and Patience. The text alternates between the
chorus of all the Virtues and solo statements by each one in turn.
In Scene Three, the Virtues mourn their lost sheep, Anima,
and eventually convince her to return. Diabolus returns in
Scene Four to taunt Anima and the Virtues, but under the command
of Humility, they bind him and praise God for their victory. The play
concludes with a chorus that summarizes the history of God's people,
including the Creation, Fall of Nature, and suffering of Christ. The
last line exhorts listeners to worshipfully respond to the events
depicted in the play: "So now, all you people, bend your knees
to the Father, that he may reach you his hand." (Lines 267-69).
Musically, the Ordo Virtutum is like many of Hildegard's other
works: it employs a wide range (about two octaves) and is mostly neumatic,
with several melismatic passages. Several short, melodic gestures,
such as ascending fifths, repeat throughout the piece. The most striking
musical contrast in the play is the juxtaposition of the part of Diabolus
with the rest of the music. As in other medieval plays, the Devil
does not sing, he only speaks or shouts. The copyist of the Riesenkodex
marked strepitus for his text, indicating a noisy shout.
Audrey Ekdahl Davidson makes many helpful observations about the
music of the play in her article "Music and Performance: Hildegard
of Bingen's Ordo Virtutum." She notes several instances
of correspondence between the words and music in the parts of Anima
and the Virtues. She argues that the variation in Anima's tessitura
highlights her unstable emotions: higher pitches set feelings of elation
while lower ones express moments of discouragement. Also, Davidson
shows how the most melismatic passages occur in the section of the
drama where the individual Virtues announce themselves. Specifically,
the song "Flos campi," sung by the chorus of Virtues in
lines 109-111, is particularly melismatic and, in Davidson's opinion,
one of the musical high points of the entire play. It is also falls
in the center of the work, "like the capstone of an arch"
One final comment should be made about modality in the Ordo Virtutum.
A definite modal classification for the entire play is impossible
because of its high degree of ambiguity and alternation between two
modes: d and e. The work begins in the d mode, but most songs of Scene
Two end on e. Scenes Three and Four are characterized by d as final
and the d-to-a fifth, but the last song of the play begins and ends
in the e mode.
No records have survived that indicate if or how the Ordo Virtutum
might have been performed in Hildegard's time. Several scholars have
speculated that it may have been presented for the dedication of the
St. Ruberstberg monastery, since important guests would have been
in attendance for the ceremonies. We do know that Hildegard envisioned
possible costumes for each of the Virtues. In her Scivias,
she described the colorful garb and jewelry of the Virtues, each having
a color or design appropriate to her character.
It seems that the play was written to be performed specifically by
the Rupertsberg nuns, as there were about twenty nuns under Hildegard's
care and eighteen solo parts for women in the play. Peter Dronke has
pointed out that as there was only one man at Rupertsberg, Hildegard's
secretary Volmar, so there is only one male solo part. The Patriarchs
and Prophets only sing two short songs at the beginning of the play,
so a few monks at a neighboring monastery could have performed these
choruses with little rehearsal time.
A List of Hildegard's Writings
- The Visionary Trilogy:
- Liber scivias domini (Know the Ways of the Lord)
- Liber vitae meritorum (Book of Life's Merits)
- Liber divinorum operum (Book of the Divine Works)
- Natural Science:
- Liber subtilitatum diversarum naturum creaturam (Book
on the Subtleties of Many Kinds of Creatures)
- Physica (Also known as Liber simplices medicinae,
Book of Simple Medicine)
- Causae et curae (also known as Liber compositae
medicinae, Book of Compound Medicine)
- Symphonia armonie celestium revelationum (Symphony
of Harmony of Celestial Revelations)
- Morality Play:
- Ordo Virtutum (The Play of the Virtues)
- Miscellaneous Works:
- Expositiones Evangeliorum (Discourses of the Gospels)
- Litterae ignotae (Cryptic Writings)
- Lingua ignota (Cryptic Language)
- Explanatio Regulae Sancti Benedictini (Explanation
of the Rule of St. Benedict)
- Explanatio Symboli Sancti Athanasii (Explanation of
the Symbols of St. Athanasius)
- Vita Sancti Ruperti (Life of St. Rupert)
- Vita Sancti Disibodi (Life of St. Disibod)
- Solutiones triginta octo questionum (Solutions to Thirty-Eight
- Epistolae (Letters)
A List of Songs of the Symphonia armonie
The following is a list of songs of the Symphonia as they
appear in the Riesenkodex:
- Songs to the Father and Son
- O vis eternitatis (responsory)
- O magne Pater (antiphon)
- O eterne Deus (antiphon)
- O virtus Sapientie (antiphon)
- O quam mirabilis (antiphon)
- O pastor animarum (antiphon)
- O cruor sanguinis (antiphon)
- Songs to the Holy Spirit
- Spiritus sanctus vivificans vita (antiphon)
- Karitas habundat (antiphon)
- Songs to the Virgin
- O splendidissima gemma (antiphon)
- O tu illustrata (antiphon)
- Hodie aperuit (antiphon)
- Quia ergo femina (antiphon)
- Cum processit factura (antiphon)
- Cum erubuerint (antiphon)
- O quam magnum miraculum (antiphon)
- Ave Maria (responsory)
- O clarissima mater (responsory)
- O tu suavissima virga (responsory)
- O quam preciosa (responsory)
- Songs to the Celestial Hierarchy
- O gloriosissimi lux vivens (antiphon)
- O vos angeli (antiphon)
- Patriarchs and Prophets
- O spectabiles viri (antiphon)
- O vos felices radices (responsory)
- O cohors milicie floris (antiphon)
- O lucidissima apostolorum (responsory)
- Saint John Evangelist
- O speculum columbe (antiphon)
- O dulcis electe (responsory)
- O victoriosissimi (antiphon)
- Vos flores rosarum (responsory)
- O vos imitatores (responsory)
- O successores (antiphon)
- Saint Disibod
- O mirum admirandum (antiphon)
- O viriditas digiti Dei (responsory)
- O felix anima (responsory)
- O beata infantia (antiphon)
- Saint Rupert
- O felix apparicio (antiphon)
- O beatissime Ruperte (antiphon)
- Quia felix puericia (antiphon)
- Songs to Virgins, Widows, and Innocents
- O pulchre facies (antiphon)
- O nobilissima viriditas (responsory)
- Saint Ursula
- Favus distillans (responsory)
- Spiritui sancto (responsory)
- O rubor sanguinis (antiphon)
- In matutinus laudibus (a group of antiphons dedicated
to the 11,000 virgins)
- Studium divinitatis
- Unde quo
- De patria
- Deus enim
- Aer enim
- Et ideo
- Deus enim rorem
- Sed diabolus
- Rex noster promptus (responsory)
- Songs to Ecclesia
- O virgo Ecclesia (antiphon)
- Nunc gaudeant (antiphon)
- O orzchis Ecclesia (antiphon)
- O choruscans lux stellarum (antiphon)
- Kyrie (Kyrie)
- More songs to the Holy Spirit
- O ignis Spiritus Paracliti (sequence)
- O ignee Spiritus (hymn)
- More songs to the Virgin
- Alleluia O virga mediatrix (Alleluia)
- O virga ac diadema (sequence)
- O viridissima virga (hymn)
- Ave generosa (hymn)
- Songs to various saints
- Saint Matthew
- Mathias sanctus (hymn)
- Saint Boniface
- O Bonifaci (antiphon)
- Saint Disibod
- O presul vere civitatis (sequence)
- Saint Eucharius
- O Euchari columba (responsory)
- O Euchari in leta via (sequence)
- Saint Maximin
- Columba aspexit (sequence)
- Saint Rupert
- O Ierusalem (sequence)
- Saint Ursula
- O Ecclesia (sequence)
- Cum vox sanguinis (hymn)
- O dulcissime amator (symphonia)
- O Pater omnium (symphonia)
*Two songs are included in the Dendermonde manuscript but not the
- O frondens virga (antiphon)
- Laus Trinitati (antiphon)
A discussion of other differences between the Dendermonde and the
Riesenkodex is found above under Manuscript Sources.
Sources and Further Reading
- Apel, Willi. Gregorian Chant. Bloomington, IN: Indiana
University Press, 1958. [A good introduction to chant, including
genres, notation, and style]
- Bain, Jennifer. "Selected Antiphons of Hildegard von
Bingen: Notation and Structural Design." Masters Thesis: McGill
University, 1995. [Focuses on "O quam mirabilis est"]
- Bronarski, Ludwig. Die Lieder der hl. Hildegard: Ein
Beitrag zur Geschichte der gestlichen Musik des Mittelalters.
Leipzig, 1922. [One of the earliest modern commentaries on Hildegard's
- Davidson, Audrey Ekdahl. "Music and Performance: Hildegard
of Bingen's Ordo Virtutum" in Davidson, ed., The
Ordo Virtutum of Hildegard of Bingen: Critical Studies. Kalamazoo,
MI: Medieval Institute Publications, 1992. [Comment on the music
of the Ordo Virtutum especially regarding text-painting and overall
- Dronke, Peter. "The Composition of Hildegard of Bingen's
Symphonia." Sacris Erudiri 19 (1969-70): 381-393.
[Dronke compares the contents of the Riesenkodex and Dendermonde
manuscript to infer which songs were and were not originally included
in the lost portions of the Dendermonde source.]
- Dronke, Peter, trans. and ed. Nine Medieval Latin Plays.
Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1995. [Includes translation
and commentary on Ordo Virtutum]
- Dronke, Peter. Poetic Individuality in the Middle Ages:
New Departures in Poetry 1000-1150. 2nd ed. London: Committee
for Medieval Studies of Westfield College, University of London,
1986. [First edition published in 1970. Includes a chapter on Hildegard's
poetry and the Ordo Virtutum. One of the first studies in
English including Hildegard as an important part of medieval poetry]
- Dronke, Peter. Women Writers of the Middle Ages: A Critical
Study of Texts from Perpetua to Marguerite Porete. Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 1984. [Includes one chapter on Hildegard's
- Fassler, Margot. "Composer and Dramatist: Melodious
Singing and the Freshness of Remorse'" in Voice of the Living
Light: Hildegard of Bingen and Her World. Edited by Barbara
Newman. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998. [Discusses
Hildegard's songs in the context of liturgy and theology]
- Flanagan, Sabina. Hildegard of Bingen: A Visionary Life.
London: Routledge, 1989. [A general biography of Hildegard]
- Garber, Rebecca. "Medieval German Women Writers (1100-1450):
Biographies and Sources." In ORB: The Online Reference Book
for Medieval Studies. URL: http://the-orb.net/encyclop/culture/women/biogs.html
- Holsinger, Bruce. "The Flesh of the Voice: Embodiment
and the Homoerotics of Devotion in the Music of Hildegard of Bingen
(1098-1179)." Signs 19 (1993): 92-125. [Holsinger argues
that in the Middle Ages music was linked to the body and sexuality,
and that Hildegard's music was part of her expression of feminine
- Holsinger, Bruce. Music, Body, and Desire in Medieval
Culture: Hildegard of Bingen to Chaucer. Stanford, CA: Stanford
University Press, 2001. [A series of chapters on various topics
that illustrate the connection between medieval conceptions of music
and the body. Includes a chapter on Hildegard which is an expansion
of his Signs article.]
- Newman, Barbara, ed. Hildegard of Bingen: Symphonia:
A Critical Edition of the Symphonia Armonie Celestium Revelationem.
Translated by Barbara Newman. Ithaca: Cornell University Press,
1988. [A critical edition and translation of all the poetry of the
Symphonia with Newman's comments and helpful introduction.
Also includes an article by Marianne Richert Pfau on the music of
- Newman, Barbara. Sister of Wisdom: St. Hildegard's Theology
of the Feminine. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987.
[Devoted to Hildegard's theology as discussed in her religious writings]
- Newman, Barbara. Voice of the Living Light: Hildegard
von Bingen and Her World. Berkeley: University of California
- Pfau, Marianne Richert. "Hildegard von Bingen's Symphonia
Armonie Celestium Revalationum': An analysis of musical process,
modality, and text-music relations." Ph.D. dissertation: State
University of New York at Stony Brook, 1990. [A comprehensive treatment
of the songs of the Symphonia according to style and the
- Schmidt-Görg, Joseph, Prudentia Barth, O.S.B.,
and M. Immaculata Ritscher, O.S.B., eds. Hildegard von
Bingen: Lieder. Salzburg, 1969. [An edition of Hildegard's
Symphonia and Ordo Virtutum in four-line square-note
The following is a selected discography. See the web links for more.
- Sequentia. "Hildegard von Bingen: 900 years" Deutsche
Harmonia Mundi 77505 (1998). [This eight-CD set includes the following
CDs which are also sold separately]
- "Ordo Virtutum" 77051
- "Canticles of Ecstasy" 77320
- "Voice of the Blood" 77346
- "O Ierusalem" 77353
- "Symphoniae Spiritual" 77020
- Gothic Voices with Christopher Page. "Abbess Hildegard of
Bingen: A Feather on the Breath of God." Sequences and Hymns.
Hyperion 66039 (1988).
- Anonymous 4. "11,000 Virgins, Chants for the Feast of St.
Ursula." Harmonia Mundi USA 907200 (1997).
Helpful Hildegard Websites
The following websites are just a few of the many sites devoted to
Hildegard. Many are helpful for more extended biography, discography,
- Hildegard of Bingen:
This extensive site includes links to several short articles
(some in German) on Hildegard's biography, modern-day Bingen, and
Hildegard as a religious figure. Also includes many links.
Roberge's Discography: A very helpful discography
that lists hundreds of recordings by medium and song title.
- Rupert Chappelle's Page:
Contains texts for several of Hildegard's songs with pictures of
the manuscript sources as well as links.
Lehrman's Page Includes biography and a list of major works,
a bibliography and discography, and discussion of Hildegard as a
Gentile's Page: Helpful for texts and translations
of several of Hildegard's songs, illuminations, and a comparison
of modern and facsimile editions of Hildegard's music.
German Women Writers (1100-1450): Biographies and Sources.
An ORB article by Rebecca Garber. Offers biographies and discussions
of the writings of Hildegard and other medieval women authors from
Germany and environs.
- Hildegard Publishing Co.
Hildegard Publishing Co. publishes Hildegard's music in modern
notation as well as that of other women composers.
- Leonarda Productions, Inc.
Leonarda also publishes Hildgard's music in modern notation
as well as that of other women composers.
To Return to the Contents of this Article:
Top of page | Biography
| General Aspects of Hildegard's Music | Manuscript
Sources of Hildegard's Music | Sequences |
Other Chants for the Mass | Hymns
| Antiphons | Responsories
| Symphoniae | The Ursuline
Office | The Ordo Virtutum | A
List of Hildegard's Writings | A List of Songs
of the Symphonia | Sources and Further Reading
| Discography | Helpful Hildegard
For other ORB Music articles:
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