Hildegard of Bingen

1098–1179

Medieval

Hildegard of Bingen was an extraordinary human being. In our modern era, we are still addressing the fact that women composers have lacked opportunities and recognition. A hundred years ago, few were encouraged. Yet this woman composer, who lived nearer to 1,000 years ago, shines out like a beacon. She is one of the first composers – male or female – whom we know of in the history of Western music.

Hildegard was born into a rich family in Germany. She said in her own writings that she was as young as three when she saw ‘visions’ – a kind of extraordinary light from another place that she couldn’t describe. She felt that these visions were a gift from God. When she was still a child, she entered a convent and was a nun for the rest of her life. It was harsh: one small meal a day in winter and two in summer, and just one window to the outside world. She set up her own convent near Bingen (which is why her name is ‘Hildegard of Bingen’) and although she was a tough leader she did allow her nuns to wear their hair long and crown it with flowers. That was quite a luxury! Greatly respected, she spoke to emperors and popes, was involved in politics, and preached sermons throughout Germany.

In 1150, Hildegard completed a collection of religious music and poetry. It was given a grand title: Symphonia armonie celestium revelationum (‘Symphony of the harmony of heavenly relevations’). She had no formal training in Latin, so the words just pour out without any grammar rules getting in the way. Her melodies soar freely, as if they’re being made up as they go along, often with several notes for one syllable of a word. Her songs would have been sung in her convent.

When you listen to Hildegard’s music, you will find that it is all similar – one line of music only, called ‘chant’. The 12th century was a very early time for music! But once you tune into the style you may be caught by its spell. You can start to hear how a line can shift forward and pull back, soar up and flow down, and imagine how these sounds are the ancient roots of today’s musical variety.

Hildegard of Bingen, courtesy of imageBROKER_Alamy Stock Photo

Play Music!

Play Music!

Try out some music by Hildegard of Bingen

O vos imitatores (‘O you disciples’)

Female voices sing, ‘O you disciples of the most excellent being,’ – listen to how pure and clean the sound is. More than one voice is singing, but it is so polished and together that it sounds like one voice. Imagine this sound ringing out in a large building, with silence. At 3.07 there is just one solo voice singing ‘Nam et angelici ordinis official habetis’ (‘For, of the angelic order, you have responsibility’). At 5.09, back come the others. This subtle variety in the texture of the music means that the solo is framed in the middle.

Performers: Oxford Camerata (Abigail Boreham, soprano); Jeremy Summerly

Taken from Naxos 8.557983

O dulcis electe (‘O sweet, elected one’)

Here, it is men who sing the line. It is a responsory, which means that the choir alternates with a solo voice. At the start we hear the choir (four voices here), and at 4.08 there is just one man singing: ‘Tu enim auxisti pluviam…’ (‘For you have swelled the rain…’) before the choir return for the final line at 5.13: ‘Prebe adiutorium peregrinis’ (‘To pilgrims lend your aid’).

Performers: Oxford Camerata (David Brown, tenor); Jeremy Summerly

Taken from Naxos 8.557983

Kyrie eleison (‘Lord, have mercy’)

You might recognise these words, ‘Kyrie eleison’. They are part of the Latin Mass, and have been set to music by composers for centuries.

Performers: Oxford Camerata (Rebecca Outram, soprano); Jeremy Summerly

Taken from Naxos 8.550998

Do You Know?

Do You Know?

See if you can answer the questions below!

 What did Hildegard become?

a. A monk
b. A nun
c. Married

 Hildegard’s music was for:

a. Orchestras
b. Voices
c. Children

 Her music and poetry was always:

a. Comic
b. Long
c. Religious

 What did she see in her ‘visions’ from a young age?

a. Light
b. Dark
c. Cake

 In which century did Hildegard’s music become popular?

a. 19th
b. 17th
c. 20th


Key Facts...

Key Facts…
  1. Hildegard created an ‘alternative alphabet’ – it was like a secret code.
  2. Hildegard also wrote about nature, science and medicine, and could apparently help sick people through a combination of physical and spiritual remedies.
  3. There are more surviving chants by Hildegard than by any other composers of the Middle Ages.
  4. Hildegard was one of few composers to have written both words and music for her pieces.
  5. It was only in the late 20th century when interest in Hildgard of Bingen really took off.

Play More Music!

Play More Music!

Listen to more music by Hildegard of Bingen, as well as other works inspired by her.

Hildegard’s Music


Alleluia! O virga mediatrix (‘Alleluia! O branch and mediatrix’)

This is in praise of the Virgin Mary. Men begin the piece together with ‘Alleluia’, and at 0.45 a solo voice continues the words. At 3.09, all the men sing ‘Alleluia’ again, ending the piece the way it began.

Performers: Oxford Camerata (Robert Evans, bass); Jeremy Summerly

Taken from Naxos 8.550998


Ave generosa (‘Hail, noble one’)

There are a lot of words in this piece. Sometimes, Hildegard used many notes for one word in her music, but here the words move along a bit faster – otherwise the piece would go on for a very long time! It is a hymn to the Virgin, and has seven verses. What is interesting here is that you can sometimes hear voices quietly singing a long note underneath a solo – listen at 0.58, for example. This is called a ‘drone’, and it gives the line a kind of anchor.

Performers: Oxford Camerata (Rebecca Outram, soprano); Jeremy Summerly

Taken from Naxos 8.550998


Laus Trinita (‘Praise to the Trinity’)

A fairly short piece, this is in praise of the Holy Trinity: the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Just one solo bass voice sings it throughout.

Performers: Oxford Camerata (Michael McCarthy, bass); Jeremy Summerly

Taken from Naxos 8.550998


O ignis spiritus paracliti (‘Flame of the paraclete spirit’)

There is more movement in this music – the notes go from one to the other more quickly than in some of the other pieces, and there is even a little twiddle at 0.21 on ‘sanctus’ (‘holy’)! We don’t hear many twiddles in Hildegard’s music. This is a ‘sequence’ – originally for singing during the Eucharist in a service, before the Gospel.

Performers: Oxford Camerata; Jeremy Summerly

Taken from Naxos 8.550998

Hildegard’s Influence Today

Tarik O’Regan (b. 1978)
Tarik O’ Regan: Columba aspexit (‘The dove peered in’)

Although this music begins in the same way as Hildegard’s other pieces, it soon starts doing surprising things! The voices separate into different lines after the first 20 seconds, and it is then clear that it was not written by her. The composer is Tarik O’Regan and he wrote it in 2003 – hundreds of years after Hildegard had died – as a homage to her. It is based on her own Columba aspexit and uses her words.

Performers: Jessica Malcolm, soprano; Lydia Ward, alto; Wells Cathedral School Choralia; Christopher Finch

Taken from Naxos 8.573427

Stef Conner (b. 1983)
Stef Conner: O splendissima gemma (‘O jewel resplendent’)

Written in 2016, this combination of voices with solo saxophone and clarinet captures a little of the magical atmosphere that we find in Hildegard’s music. See what words you can think of to describe it as you listen. The text is by Hildegard and it is set in a simple style for the voices, but the weaving around of the solo instruments is what gives us the colour and other-worldly feeling.

Performers: Blossom Street; Hilary Campbell

Taken from Naxos 8.573991