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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 Websites |


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 she visited.

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, and a.

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…y. 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
mortem superaverunt
et venter tuus
omnes creaturas illuminavit
in pulcro flore
de suavissima integritate
clausi pudoris tui orto.
O branch, mediatrix,
your holy body
overcame death,
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 fifth.

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" (Davidson, 14).

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)
  • Songs:
    • 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 Questions)
    • Epistolae (Letters)

A List of Songs of the Symphonia armonie celestium revelationum

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 Riesenkodex:

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 music]
  • 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 structure]
  • 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 writings]
  • 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 sexuality]
  • 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 Hildegard's antiphons]
  • 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 Press, 1998.
  • 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 modes]
  • 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 notation]


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, and links.

  • 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.
  • Pierre-F. 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.
  • Kristina Lehrman's Page Includes biography and a list of major works, a bibliography and discography, and discussion of Hildegard as a migraine sufferer.
  • Norma 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.
  • Medieval 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 Websites |

For other ORB Music articles:

visit http://the-orb.net/encyclop/culture/music/musindex.html

Copyright © 2002-03, Olivia Carter Mather. This file may be copied on the condition that the entire contents, including the header and this copyright notice, remain intact.

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Last revised Friday, July 18, 2003