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Hildegard of Bingenfree

  • Ian D. Bent
  •  and Marianne Pfau

(b Bermersheim, nr Alzey, 1098; d Rupertsberg, nr Bingen, Sept 17, 1179). German Benedictine abbess, visionary, writer and composer. She is known for her literary, musical and scientific works, and for her religious and diplomatic activities. Her oeuvre includes recorded visions, medical and scientific works, hagiography and letters; also lyrical and dramatic poetry, which has survived with monophonic music.

1. Hildegard with her amanuensis, Volmar: miniature from ‘Scivias’, completed 1151 (ex-D-WIl Hs 1)

Hessische Landesbibliothek, Wiesbaden
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She was born into the free nobility of Rheinhessen. When she was eight her parents, Hildebert and Mechthild of Bermersheim, promised her to the Church, and when she was 14 bound her over to the newly constructed Benedictine monastery at nearby Disibodenberg. She entered a stone cell (a ‘tomb’) with Jutta von Spanheim (1092–1136), who came from another powerful and wealthy local family. Their vows were received by Bishop Otto of Bamberg on All Saints’ Day, 1112. Jutta instructed Hildegard in the Psalter, reading Latin and strict religious practices.

Although their contact with the outside world was via a single window, their isolation was not complete. Jutta corresponded with people of all social classes who, by way of letters, approached her for prophecies and spiritual instruction. The monk-priest Volmar, possibly from the monastery at Hirsau, apparently nurtured Hildegard’s fundamental theological knowledge, providing access to sermons and treatises. The enclosure attracted other daughters from local noble families, expanding into a convent. After Jutta’s death Hildegard, appointed ‘prioress’, became its leader but subject to the abbot, a role she fulfilled until about 1150 when the community had grown to about 20 members.

The convent’s exclusivity and eccentric theological observances came under fire. Compelled by divine command, Hildegard sought to establish her own house at Rupertsberg, near Bingen, an endeavour unprecedented in her time. With endowments from the noble community the site was purchased in 1147, construction begun, and the move initiated in about 1150. In 1152 the Archbishop of Mainz issued founding documents. By 1158 Hildegard had secured complete financial independence from Disibodenberg, and, already under archiepiscopal protection, in 1163 she obtained protection from Emperor Friedrich Barbarossa who acknowledged her ‘abbess’. When, in 1165, numbers at the convent had reached over 50, she established a daughter house with room for another 30 nuns at Eibingen, near Rüdesheim, where the Abbey of St Hildegard stands today.

She was famous for her prophecies and miracles. Later described as the ‘Sibyl of the Rhine’ (1383), she was consulted by and held lengthy correspondences with popes, emperors and other secular and ecclesiastical leaders as well as lower members of the clergy and lay persons, and involved herself in politics and diplomacy at a time of immense political and ecclesiastical turmoil. Exceptionally for a woman, she undertook four preaching missions through Germany between 1160 and 1170. But above all, as spiritual mother and ‘magistra’, she guided her nuns by fortifying their commitment to the Virgin through the teaching of scripture and the Rule of St Benedict, and the discernment of the right path in monastic life.

In 1223 a protocol was drawn up for her possible canonization, but neither Pope Gregory IX (1227–41) nor Pope Innocent IV (1243–54) granted approval. Clement V (1305–14) and John XXII (1316–34) also hesitated, but in 1324 the Avignon papacy sanctioned her cult. In the 16th century she appears in the Roman martyriology of Baronius, and in 1940 her feast day was officially approved for all German dioceses; but these efforts have never resulted in a formal canonization. However, as Newman (1998) has pointed out, between 1198 and 1461 no Benedictine nun was canonized, with female sainthood shifting to the newer Dominican and Franciscan orders and the lay penitents associated with them.

From the age of five Hildegard experienced visions, and in 1141 her abbot gave her permission to record what she saw, with the aid of Volmar. The result, Scivias, which contains 14 lyric texts that later appeared with music, took ten years to write and comprised 26 revelations. Two works on natural science and medicine followed: Physica and Causa et cure (written between 1150 and 1160). Then came the Liber vite meritorum (1158–63) and the Liber divinorum operum (1163–73). The three visionary tomes have been described as a trilogy of apocalyptic, prophetic and symbolic writings. Her Lives of St Disibod (1170–72) and St Rupert (1172) and the Explanatio of the Rule of St Benedict round out her religious prose works.

Collection of Hildegard’s musical settings of her poetry had begun by the early 1150s but the settings themselves may go back at least to the 1140s. The texts are laden with brilliant imagery and share the apocalyptic language of the visionary writings. They have some affinity with the poetry of Notker Balbulus (9th century) and are akin in richness and imaginative quality to those of Peter Abelard and Walter of Châtillon.

The two main notated sources, Dendermonde, Benedictine Abbey, MS 9 (c1163–1175) and the ‘Riesenkodex’, D-WIl 2 (c1180–90), preserve 77 songs in German neumes. Eight of the songs, all short antiphons, form part of a liturgy to St Ursula, so the total number is sometimes cited as 71. Collectively these songs are entitled Symphonia armonie celestium revelationum by all modern editors, although that designation does not appear in any of Hildegard’s sources (Willimann). Of the songs, 43 are labelled ‘antiphons’ (fig.2), 18 ‘responses’, seven ‘sequences’ and four ‘hymns’; the remainder comprises a Kyrie, an alleluia and three undesignated items. Taken together they form a liturgical cycle, with some items bearing designations to feasts or classes of feast. Most feasts have an antiphon-respond pair. Some, especially the locally revered saints, have more: thus St Rupert has three antiphons and a sequence, St Disibod two antiphons, two responds and a sequence, St Ursula and her 11,000 virgins eight antiphons, two responds, hymn and sequence. The remaining sequences are to the Holy Spirit, the BVM, St Eucharius and St Maximinus.

2. ‘O gloriosissimi’, antiphon from Hildegard of Bingen’s ‘Symphonia armonie celestium revelationum’, c1163–1175 (Dendermonde Abbey, MS 9)

Benedictine Abbey of St Peter and Paul
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The music is not drawn from plainchant and is in some respects highly individual. Hymns and sequences are nearly syllabic, while prolix responds are extravagantly complex, with elaborate melismas extending up to 75 notes; antiphons occupy a stylistic middle ground, alternating syllabic and melismatic styles. The responds are supplied with verse and repetenda, and occasionally also Gloria Patri using melodic material from the verse; some antiphons have ‘EVOVAE’ and the hymns ‘Amen’. The sequences use poetic and melodic parallelism, but far from strictly.

The music of Hildegard is made up of a comparatively small number of elemental melodic patterns, which recur constantly under different melodic and modal conditions and are the common property of her poetic output. The patterns differ from the recurrent melodic ‘timbres’ (Aubry) of Adam of St Victor’s work. While the latter are fixed phrases assembled in a ‘patchwork quilt’ manner akin to Centonization, Hildegard’s formulae rather provide melodic ‘matrices’ with innumerable realizations. Highly decorative, the text and music of Hildegard’s songs are intimately related and inseparable, as parallel syntaxes mirroring (and at times contradicting) one another, while unfolding within an idiosyncratic system of modes. On another level, the songs are meditations upon visionary texts, that in turn represent poetically condensed exegesis of complex theological issues, expressed at greater length in the prose trilogy of visions. Like all the writings received ‘in visio’ by the presence of the Living Light, ultimately the music’s raison d’être lies in fostering ruminatio (‘chewing over’), a method of penetrating the deeper spiritual meaning behind both words and music. As such, the songs are a special Hildegardian facet of contemplative medieval practice.

Hildegard also created a morality play, Ordo virtutum, in dramatic verse. This contains 82 melodies, many more nearly syllabic in setting than the liturgical songs. The earliest morality play by more than a century, it presents the battle for the human soul, Anima, between 16 personified Virtues and the Devil.

There are indications that at least some of the songs, and perhaps the play, were used in the liturgy at Rupertsberg, at Disibodenberg, in Trier and at the Cistercian monastery of Villers that received the Dendermonde manuscript as a gift in about 1175. Specifically, the responds to Mary, St Disibod and St Ursula would have been sung at Matins on the respective feast days. Some of the Ursula antiphons are indicated for Lauds, others (the Gospel antiphons) are suitable for Lauds or Vespers. In addition, as the antiphons are supplied with notated ‘EVOVAE’ psalm-tone cadence formulae (far more of these appear in Dendermonde than in the ‘Riesenkodex’), they must have framed the recitation of psalms. The songs for the patron saints of Disibodenberg and the Trier monasteries might have been included in the liturgies there. The Ordo may have been performed in 1152, at the dedication of the church at Rupertsberg (Dronke, 1981).

The two musical manuscripts represent the song cycle in two states of development. Dendermonde, in its present fragmentary state, does not include the Ordo, but it is possible that the play may have been included at the beginning of the music section (Dronke, 1969–70), which contains 56 songs. The ‘Riesenkodex’ adds many items while excluding two short antiphons, and ends with the Ordo. Moreover, it shows the single cycle of Dendermonde reshaped into two by the separation of antiphons and responds from hymns, sequences and symphoniae, with the Kyrie in the middle. Thematically, both song collections are organized into eight hierarchically arranged groups, from God the Father to the BVM, then to Virgins, Widows, Innocents and finally the Church. Yet the detail of this arrangement differs. In the ‘Riesenkodex’ the items to the Holy Spirit (nos.24–8 in Pfau’s edition) precede those for the Virgin Mary (8–23), and the items to St Ursula and her companions (60–65) come under the heading of ‘Virgins’ rather than ‘Innocents’; the manuscript also has additional items, including all those for the Trier saints Matthew (50), Eucharius (52–3) and Maximinus (54), the item for St Boniface (51) and O viridissima virga (19).

Dating the songs remains problematic. Nearly half appear without melodies in prose contexts, and it is unclear which came first, the musical composition or the lyric poetry. A ‘Miscellany’ of homilies, letters and other materials by Hildegard (D-WIl 2, ff.404–407v) includes 26 song texts (some with variants) but without their repetenda, doxologies, Amen or liturgical cues. These materials, which represent a different recension of the texts from the main song collection, possibly reflect rough transcriptions of the liturgical text, made at Rupertsberg, that Hildegard later revised to make them suitable for liturgical celebrations in other places (Newman, 1998). That is, the musical versions may have preceded these text versions. Or, they may represent transcriptions from an ‘intermediary’ song collection now lost (Berschin). Scivias (completed in 1151) culminates in 14 song texts, followed by a shorter version of the Ordo. It has been postulated that the song texts were incorporated at the end of the book of visions, as a ‘transcription of a celestial concert’ (Newman, 1988) from individual (notated) exemplars that are now lost. Alternatively, they may have been set to music after the completion of Scivias. They have the same hierarchical arrangement as the notated sources, but on a smaller scale. Similarly, alternative scenarios have been proposed for the Ordo text. It may represent an early, unpolished sketch before music was added (Newman, 1988) or a later, abridged rendering (Dronke, 1981) of the play. All this suggests that the planning and fleshing-out of a liturgical cycle was a gradual process, and that Hildegard collected her songs into a systematic order over time, her last songs being incorporated posthumously into the cycle preserved in the ‘Riesenkodex’. Newman has tentatively suggested a division into early, middle and late compositions: the 14 pieces in Scivias and all or part of the Ordo by 1151; the 26 of the ‘Miscellany’ from the late 1150s; and the text and music of the remaining pieces after the 1150s.



Der heiligen Hildegard von Bingen Reigen der Tugenden: ‘Ordo Virtutum’ (Berlin, 1927), ed. M. Böckeler and P. Barth (Berlin, 1927) [B]

Hildegard von Bingen: Lieder, ed. P. Barth, M.I. Ritscher and J. Schmidt-Görg (Salzburg, 1969) [L]

Abbess Hildegard of Bingen (1098–1179): Sequences and Hymns, ed. C. Page (Newton Abbot, 1983) [P]

The ‘Ordo virtutum’ of Hildegard of Bingen, ed. A.E. Davidson (Kalamazoo, MI, 1985) [O]

Hildegard von Bingen: ‘Symphonia armonie celestium revelationum’, ed. M.R. Pfau (Bryn Mawr, PA, 1997–8) [Pf]

Manuscript sources: Belgium, Dendermonde, Benedictine Abbey of St Peter and St Paul, MS 9 [D]

D-WIl 2, ff.466r-481v, songs [Ra]

D-WIl 2, ff.132v-133r, Scivias (song texts only) [Rb]

D-WIl 2, ff.404r-407v, ‘Miscellany’ (song texts only) [Rc]

Scivias and Miscellany items are indicated after the title by Rb and Rc respectively, followed by the number, in parentheses (Rb 1), (Rc 1). Parentheses under ‘type’ indicate that the designation does not appear in a manuscript. Further source information is given in Pf.

I. Trinity, Father and Son

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O vis eternitatis (Rc 10)


Ra 1

L 58, Pf 1

O magne pater (Rc 6)


D 1, Ra 2

L 1, Pf 6

O eterne Deus


D 2, Ra 3

L 2, Pf 7

O virtus Sapientie


Ra 4

L 59, Pf 2

O quam mirabilis


Ra 5

L 60, Pf 3

O pastor animarum (Rc 12)


Ra 6

L 61, Pf 4

O cruor sanguinis (Rc 11)


Ra 7

L 77, Pf 5

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II. Virgin, Mother and Son

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O tu illustrata (Rc 21)

ant (with verse)

Ra 11

L 62, Pf 23

Hodie [Nunc] aperuit nobis (Rc 24)


D 6, Ra 12

L 6, Pf 11

Quia ergo femina (Rc 25)


D 7, Ra 13

L 7, Pf 12

Cum processit


D 8, Ra 14

L 8, Pf 13

Cum erubuerint


D 9, Ra 15

L 9, Pf 14

O frondens virga (Rc 13)


D 10

L 10, Pf 15

O quam magnum miraculum (Rc 20)


D 11, Ra 16

L 11, Pf 16

Ave Maria O auctrix (Rc 22)


D 3, Ra 17

L 3, Pf 8

O clarissima mater (Rc 23)


D 4, Ra 18

L 4, Pf 9

O tu suavissima (Rb 2)


D 14, Ra 19

L 14, Pf 21

O quam preciosa (Rc 26)


Ra 20

L 63, Pf 22

Alleluia, O virga mediatrix (Rc 19)


Ra 61

L 70, Pf 18

O virga ac diadema (Rc 15)


D 13, Ra 62

L 13, P 17, Pf 20

O viridissima virga (Rc 18)

Ra 63

L 71, P 10, Pf 19

Ave generosa (Rc 14)


D 12, Ra 64

L 12, P 2, Pf 17

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III. Trinity, Holy Spirit

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Karitas habundat


Ra 9

L 16, Pf 25

O ignee Spiritus (Rc 17)


D 18, Ra 60

L 18, Pf 27

O ignis Spiritus Paraclitus (Rc 16)


D 19, Ra 59

L 19, P 4, Pf 28

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IV. Celestial Hierarchy

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O vos angeli (Rb 4)

resp, angels

D 21, Ra 22

L 21, Pf 30

O spectabiles viri (Rb 5)

ant, prophets, patron saints

D 22, Ra 23

L 22, Pf 31

O vos felices radices (Rb 6)

ant, patron saints, prophets

D 23, Ra 24

L 23, Pf 32

O cohors milite floris (Rb 7)

ant, apostles

D 24, Ra 25

L 24, Pf 33

O lucidissima apostolorum (Rb 8)

resp, apostles

D 25, Ra 26

L 25, Pf 34

O speculum columbe

ant, St John the Evangelist

D 26, Ra 27

L 26, Pf 35

O dulcis electe

resp, St John the Evangelist

D 27, Ra 28

L 27, Pf 36

O victoriosissimi (Rb 9)

ant, martyrs

D 31, Ra 29

L 31, Pf 37

Vos flores rosarum (Rb 10)

resp, martyrs

D 32, Ra 30

L 32, Pf 38

O vos imitatores excelse (Rb 12)

resp, confessors

D 33, Ra 31

L 33, Pf 39

O successores fortissimi (Rb 11)

ant, confessors

D 34, Ra 32

L 34, Pf 40

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V. Patron saints

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O Bonifaci lux vivens

ant, St Boniface

Ra 66

L 73, Pf 51

O mirum admirandum

ant, St Disibod

D 28, Ra 33

L 28, Pf 41

O viriditas digiti Dei

resp, St Disibod

D 29, Ra 34

L 29, Pf 42

O presul vere civitatis

seq, St Disibod

D 30, Ra 67

L 30, P 11, Pf 45

O felix anima

resp (St Disibod)

Ra 35

L 64, Pf 43

O beata infantia

ant (St Disibod)

Ra 36

L 65, Pf 44

O Euchari columba

resp, St Eucharius

Ra 68

L 74, Pf 52

O Euchari in leta via

seq, St Eucharius

Ra 69

L 75, P 8, Pf 53

Columba aspexit

seq, St Maximinus

Ra 70

L 76, P 1, Pf 54

O felix aparitio (Rc 2)

ant, St Rupert

D 35, Ra 37

L 35, Pf 46

O beatissime Ruperte (Rc 3)

ant, St Rupert

D 36, Ra 38

L 36, Pf 47

Quia felix pueritia

ant (St Rupert)

Ra 39

L 66, Pf 48

O Jerusalem aurea civitas (Rc 1)

seq, St Rupert

D 37, Ra 71

L 37, Pf 49

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VI. Virgins, Widows and Innocents

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O nobilissima viriditas (Rb 14)

resp, virgins

D 39, Ra 41

L 39, Pf 56

O dulcissime amator (Rc 4)

symphonia, virgins

D 40, Ra 74

L 40, Pf 57

O pater omnium (Rc 5)

symphonia, widows

D 41, Ra 75

L 41, Pf 58

Rex noster promptus est

resp, Holy Innocents

D 42, Ra 53

L 42, Pf 59

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VII. St Ursula and her Companions

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O rubor sanguinis

Gospel ant

D 44, Ra 44

L 44, Pf 61

Favus distillans


D 43, Ra 43

L 43, Pf 62

Studium divinitatis

Laudes ant

D 46, Ra 45

L 46, Pf 63.1

Unde quocumque


D 47, Ra 46

L 47, Pf 63.2

De patria etiam earum


D 48, Ra 47

L 48, Pf 63.3

Deus enim in prima


D 49, Ra 48

L 49, Pf 63.4

Aer enim volat


D 50, Ra 49

L 50, Pf 63.5

Et ideo puelle iste

Gospel ant

D 51, Ra 50

L 51, Pf 63.6

Deus enim rorem


D 52, Ra 51

L 52, Pf 63.7

Sed diabolus


D 53, Ra 52

L 53, Pf 63.8

O ecclesia oculi tui


D 54, Ra 72

L 54, Pf 64

Cum vox sanguinis


D 55, Ra 73

L 55, Pf 65

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VIII. Ecclesia

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Nunc gaudeant materna (Rc 8)

ant, dedication of a church

D 57, Ra 55

L 57, Pf 67

O orzchis ecclesia (Rc 9)

ant, dedication of a church

Ra 56

L 67, Pf 68

O coruscans lux stellarum


Ra 57

L 68, Pf 69

Kyrie eleison


Ra 58

L 69

Ordo virtutum

(liturgical drama)

Ra ff.478–481v

B, L 165–205, O

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