“With music, God has left people with the memory of paradise lost”- Hildegard von Bingen”.
Hildegard von Bingen remains unique in the history of music. Before there were any real composers, in a world dominated by men, Hildegard created a wealth of wonderful songs with completely unique musical characteristics.
Hildegard created over 70 unique songs. She considered music the point where heaven and earth meet. She believed harmony to be more than the combination of voices and instruments, for her it represented the balance of body and soul, the interconnectivity of man with the universe. According to Hildegard, it is through music that we experience the paradise that once reigned as reality on earth.
Hildegard lived an unconventional life and her music was a reflection of the way she lived. She was untrained in music, thus she was not bound by conventional music theory or the rules of ecclesiastical chant. Instead, Hildegard was driven by her divine revelations of symphonic harmony. Despite, or perhaps as a result of her free forms, her songs beg to be played, heard, and studied. Like all of her creative work, Hildegard considered her music to be the expression of an “Instrument of God”.
Her reputation as a composer eventually reached Nôtre-Dame, in Paris, which was then the center of European music, and where Master Leoninus had established the first school polyphony. The Abbess Hildegard never formally adopted polyphony, the theory of combining several parts, each forming an individual melody and harmonizing with each other. Instead, she relied on the tools of Gregorian chant, and the sounds of troubadours of her time, as the basis of her sound.
What makes Hildegard’s music so significant is the source of her inspiration. Since childhood, Hildegard had experienced clairvoyance and clairaudience. She received her visions through all of her senses, hearing, seeing, and feeling the light, which she described in several of her works including Scivias.
The sounds Hildegard experienced in her visions came through the “inner ear”, as she described it. Her musical compositions served the same purpose as the descriptive narrative and thumbnails found in Scivias, an illumination of her transformational visions. Hildegard also expressed the visions she had experienced through her music. She based her means of expression on the tenants of Gregorian chant, which she personalized with a broader tonal range. Hildegard experimented with higher notes, expanding on existing forms to create new structures that would elevate her style to new heights.
Along with sleep and wake, Hildegard viewed music as the key to opening a third state of consciousness, a trance-like state. Her firm mooring in faith, combined with openness to the metaphysical, enabled Hildegard and her contemporaries to use music as an auto-suggestive relaxation technique. This meditation was based on the belief that music provides the human organism with positive influence in the healing processes.
A nun’s strict schedule depended on the sequence of chants and prayers. Like the modern practice of mindfulness or Buddhist meditation, music and prayer helped to regulate natural biorhythms. Today, we recognize the phenomenon of the brain’s alpha state, achieved in deep sleep or relaxation. These alpha brainwaves induce greater creativity and learning.
Oliver Sacks, the great neuroscientist and admirer of Hildegard, observed that humans naturally keep time to music, using hypnotic sounds to enter trance-like states of meditation. Further, music has been found to contribute to synchronicity between the two brain hemispheres, resulting in more effective whole-brain thinking.
Today, Hildegard’s belief in the power of music to heal and calm the body continues to gather support from scientific research. The modern basis for Hildegard’s belief rests on the notion that our brainwaves achieve alpha state through the rhythm and flow of quiet music.
Musical instruments were often heard in Hildegard’s monastery, an activity otherwise not allowed under the Benedictine order. As a Benedictine nun, Hildegard designed a monastic life based on the inner freedom she had discovered through her encounters with the “living light”. Upon establishing some independence, Hildegard and her sisters went so far as to perform a musical morality play, “Ordo virtutum” wherein the nuns performed adorned in jewelry with hair flowing freely, quite unorthodox for her time and station.
Hildegard of Bingen music was ahead of its time for several reasons, including her use of “major” and “minor” tones, which were later explored in the 17th century. In addition, she incorporated light via use of the highest vibrations. Whether or not Hildegard’s music appeals, her belief in using music as a tool for relaxation, healing, and creativity is something we can all incorporate into our lives.