By: Charissa L. Rhine
Why study the music of the Middle Ages? What composers should a student search for? It is with these very questions that we can explore the fascinating works and reasoning of a musical master. You may be surprised to find that one of the most prolific musicians in the Medieval Period was an abbess by the name of Hildegard of Bingen. Born of a noble family in Germany(1179), Hildegard's life was dedicated to the church almost at birth. She began to have visions at the age of three, at a time when most of us were merely beginning to reason and establish social structures. Anyone that is familiar with the contributions of Hildegard may have become aquainted through the study of her preachings, visions, herbal remedies, teaching, organization of monasteries, studying, writing, illuminations, manuscripts, or compositions. The focus of this research is to outline the philosphy and purpose of Hildegard's music, and lightly touch the parallelisms of her music to her life.
There are three quotes by Hildegard that may aid us in understanding Hildegard's need to compose music and participate in the arts. Hildegard believed in an invisible relationship between science and spirituality, and this spirituality was recognized in art, music, and poetry. By examining the creativity and imagery that is required in composing music, one can really experience their individual soul. It was for this reason that Hildegard dedicated her life to the church, but also used her music to test the values by which she lived her life. "Music wakes us from our sluggishness," she said to a sister in the abbey on the banks of the Rhine River, and it is easy to see that Hildegard by no means lived her life in relaxtion. The second quote by Hildegard is, "Music makes cold hearts warm." Hildegard practiced a life vowed in educating others and glorifying God, but also ministered those with "blood stilled in their veins." It was these people that needed music to loosen the hardened blood in their arteries and warm their hearts that were chilled from all sin and wrongdoing. Music helped to reverse the effects of God's punishment as long as the music glorified God. The third quote, "Humans are the musical instrument of God," allows us to fully realize the most important reason for music was for the glorification of God. She envisioned that God used the music of his followers to preach the good word to others. There is also historical evidence that certain instruments were invented to honor solely Christianity.
Hildegard knew that music throughout the past had been a revelation of what was to come in the future, and that the composition of music awakened new feeling and emotion. The literature produced in this time merely suggested what might happen in in the years to come. Somehow, singing the words to a beautiful melody revealed the true meanings directly to the soul through bodily vibrations. It was this passionate relationship between the body, which included the mouth, throat, vocal chords, diaphragm, and lungs, that connected music and body, body and soul. The most important ingredient in binding the music to God, was the breath or spirit of the individual. Another one of Hildegard's interesting reasonings for musical hierarchy, was her belief in the story of Adam and Eve. Hildegard had visions of Adam singing with a beautiful and pure voice before Eve sinned against God. After Adam's death he ascended to Heaven with a multitude of angels, and his voice could be heard as he rose with them. It is music historians belief that Hildegard's music reflects and imitates what we imagine angels sound like singing.
Now that we are more aware of the reasonings for Hildegard's compositions we can focus on the purpose and context that her works were performed for. Being that Hildegard dedicated her life to the church, it became her sole focus of musical output. Hildegard concentrated on composing for the Divine Office where her music displayed lessons on the struggles of the soul and directly to the needs for monastic life. All of her music was developed and conceived for strictly religious natures and purposes. "Liturgical Songs," became the title by which her music was labeled. antiphons, responsorials, sequences, and hymns were utilized in her music. Her music was not limited to use in the Divine Office, but rather appeared in almost all aspects of the Mass. There is also mention of her moral drama, "Ordo Viritum" (Play of Virtues) being performed in her convent. This was referred to as a Liturgical Drama.
There are many characteristics of Hildegard's music that make her a musical genius of her time. Although her music appeared the same as Gregorian Chant with it's single melody line, it was uniquely different. Hildegard's music was complex and challenging not only for the music historians of today, but for the performers then. Her compositions were incredibly physical. This relationship can be united with her thoughts and experiments as a physical scientist. The performers of Hildegard's music have been known to pass out during a performance of her music. She composed from a comfortable range to the outer limits of the voice. Hildegard was known to write a quiet, lyrical passage, followed by shocking loud outbursts and shouts. These extreme measures of variety did not follow the strict code of Gregorian Chant. With her individual gift for melodic simplicity, she was often compared to a bel canto opera composer. A woman composer having referred to as a bel canto opera composer and Medieval rock star at the same time, must have the wide variety of musical interpretation that only a genius could conjur. Lastly, Hildegard exploited uses of parallelism, subtle effects of emphasis within text and music, melismatic melodies, syllabic phrases, and recitation styles.
With Hildegard's expansive use of textures and musical styles, she could not limit her songs to one mode. Within a composition, she often jumped to one or more modes to create variety. Thematic development is another early characteristic found in Hildegard's music. It is in the later study of the Classical Period that we find similarities stemming from the Middle Ages. These early uses of thematic material are found in the well-remembered and famous works of Haydn and Mozart, who utilized the renewal of themes to create technically challenging, well organized compositions. It is possible that old themes created by Hildegard came to create new expressions in faith, musical style, textures, and was the birthing ground for not only the heightened music of the Classical Period, but the Romantic as well. Her melodies have been justified as vastly expansive, a term often used in relation to the works of Schubert, Tchaikovsky, Berlioz, and Mendelssohn. It is through these studies that we can not limit Hildegard's compositions to one historical period, but rather unite them as a precursor of what is to come musically. Brendan Doyle stated in the book, "Hildegard of Bingen's Divine Works," that Hildegard's music is unique for its' time - unique for any time.
Knowing already that Hildegard composed for religious purposes, it is safe to assume that her overall subjects for composition were religious stories or lessons she wanted to convey. Her songs were arranged according to their subjects, with God at the top of the chain. The Virgin Mary, St. Disibod, and St. Ursula and the 11,000 virgins were example subject material for her songs.
Here is an example of Hildegard's lyrics of a song about Mary from the book, "Hildegard of Bingen's Book of Divine Works."
DE SANCTA MARIAIn Praise of Mary
O Mary, artist of life, hail!
By recreating wholeness, you have convulsed death itself.
You have destroyed the serpent which, blown up with pride,
raised its outstretched neck to Eve.
You have trampled on it by giving birth out of heaven
to God's son,
breathed into you by the Spirit of God.
O lovliest and most loving Mother, hail!
You have given forth into this world your Son,
sent from heaven and breathed into you by the Spirit of God.
Praised be the Father, the Son, and Holy Spirit.
Breathed into you by the Holy Spirit.
Hildegard's musical output includes a cycle of over seventy songs, and plays, but her overall output as a writer and composer stems much deeper. Her oldest surviving manuscript dates back to 1170, and is the "Dendermode." The "Scivias"is another manuscript that holds great works that address lessons on how to deal with everyday moral and value questions. This manuscript also contains pictures, music, and plays with reflections.
Hildegard's amazing life spanned the greater part of the 12th Century. She valued education so highly that she painfully taught herself to read and write. Ahead of her time, Hildegard questioned everything that was both realistic and spiritual. She dedicated her life to knowing it. She was a feminist by her deeds but not by her words, and her talents should stand as successful as those genius's that followed in her footsteps. Many of these heroes and heroines modeled her very image.
Clogan, Paul. "Medievalia Et Humanistica." Case Western Reserve. Cleveland; 1970.
Flanagan, Subina. "Hildegard of Bingen" Routledge, New York; 1989.
Fox, Mathew. "Hildegard of Bingens, Book of Divine Works." Bear and Company. Sante Fe, New Mexico; 1987.
Fox, Mathew. "Illuminations of Hildegard of Bingen" Bear & Company. Sante Fe, New Mexico; 1985.
Grout, Donald. "A History of Western Music." W.W. Norton & Company. New York; 1996.
Hart, Mother Columbia. "Hildegard of Bingen. Paulist Press. New York; 1990.
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