Hildegard of Bingen was a creative force. Her prolific contributions transcended her already deep theological thinking to include art, music, natural science, and medicine. Her work in the natural world and visionary theology earned her sainthood and led to progress in theology and medicine.
Hildegard of Bingen music for the Medieval Period
Hildegard’s contribution to music carried her message the furthest, as it would echo throughout history, and remain relevant to this day. Linn Maxwell is an example of someone carrying the torch of Hildegard of Bingen music.
Throughout the latter years of her monastic life, Hildegard produced volumes of music alongside her other work. She composed over 70 unique works of music, including one of her better-known works, Ordo Virtutum (Play of the Virtues) a musical play on morality.
The First of the Great German Composers
Her creations filled in the chambers of the Abbey some 650 years before Beethoven. In a time when composition itself was in its infancy and when women were not expected to possess such talent, she was composing a rate that was likely unmatched until well into the Renaissance, three hundred years later.
While much less familiar than the German composers that would follow, her contributions to music would live on to this day.
Hildegard of Bingen music and Medieval contemporaries
Her reputation reached as far as Paris, the center of European music at that time. Her work influenced Master Leoninus of Nôtre-Dame who had established the first school of polyphony, a combination of melody in a single verse.
Although Hildegard never formally adopted the emerging sounds of medieval polyphony, her work is often closely associated. The tools Hildegard deployed for her music were Gregorian chants and the natural sounds of people passing playfully in their environment. The importance of Hildegard of Bingen music comes from its inspiration.
The sounds of nature in Hildegard’s music
Hildegard’s music truly appears to have been inspired by nature. Without formal training, she developed sounds that appeal to modern listeners. Perhaps because of the simplicity of her sounds, her compositions seem like a timeless reflection of her essence.
In 1992 Jim Wilson got the idea to slow down a recording of chirping crickets to the relative speed of a human life. He called the revealed sound “Gods cricket chorus”, and it reminds the listener of Hildegard’s work.
Origins of Hildegard of Bingen Music
Hildegard described the origins of her music as sounds she had heard with her “inner ear”. As with many of her undertakings, Hildegard felt compelled to develop the resources to bring her inner music to her outer ear.
Hildegard of Bingen music has its roots in Gregorian chants. But, like much of her other work, her creative power moved her music beyond the formal limitations of her time. The tonal range within her music is greatly expanded to high notes. And while she used the existing strict forms, she would take liberties quite freely, combining new, larger structures into her compositions.
Hildegard’s Boundless Creativity
Obtaining musical instruments was not allowed in her monastery so Hildegard, a Benedictine nun, designed a different monastic life for her convent with a focus on inner freedom and pursuing encounters with the living light, which she thought of as creative power.
Hildegard, along with her sisters performed religious musical dramas, such as “Ordo Virtutum”, which are considered the first known forms of opera. In these performances, nuns had creative liberty, and were allowed to appear in jewelry and with exposed hair.
Hildegard’s Creation of Opera
Amid theological constraints, Hildegard of Bingen music was ahead of its time. Her fearlessness and determination propelled her creativity to new levels. She emphasized free forms of music, expanding beyond the confines of her epoch.
She clearly influenced the development of the first-known forms of opera groundbreaking morality play, Ordo Virtutum. And, her expansive work was certainly foundational in the progression of music overall.
Her use of Modern Tonality
In retrospect, we see a far-reaching peculiarity in Hildegard of Bingen music. During her time, eight modes of music were designated to classify Gregorian chants. Much later, in the 1500s, four more modes were added, for a total of twelve modes, giving way to a modern system of tonality.
In Hildegard of Bingen music, we observe a clear preference for two unique tone modes, which were later utilized in 17th century Baroque music as “major” and “minor”. The reduction to major and minor tones led to the development of classical and romantic music in the 18th and 19th centuries. These fundamental attributes of what constitutes some of the greatest music of Western Civilization emerged in Hildegard of Bingen music, five hundred years earlier.
Hildegard of Bingen music takes some getting used-to
It is said that her music contains light in the highest vibration, which can overwhelm the soul. So it is best not to listen to too much at once, but rather to settle into the same piece and play it over a few times in a row in order to truly examine it.
When Hildegard was composing, she created from her experience of what she called “celestial harmony.” She drew from what she described as “the trumpet sound of the living light”, exalting that “the whole world is filled with sound and every creature has a tone.”
Hard to Classify Hildegard’s Style
Her music represents a unique body of work that is difficult to classify in any single style, if for no other reason than it pre-dates nearly all of musical history. Our delineation of music throughout history comes well after the fact so it is a testament to her creative innovation and openness to her own unique vision that her music is so difficult to categorize.
Of all of Hildegard’s contributions from health, to healing, to mysticism, her music seems to have gained the most enthusiastic recognition in the US. In recent years, a wide range of professional musicians has gathered to perform Hildegard’s music while preserving the integrity of its origin.
Hildegard’s Influence on Music and Creativity Today
Several modern musicians have rediscovered Hildegard’s music in a contemporary setting. They have added experimental sounds with modern arrangements to create a colorful synthesis of the middle-ages with modern times. For example we recently discovered a contemporary Ordo Virtutum performed by Deepak Ram and Diana Rowan, along with the San Francisco Renaissance Voices.
We were impressed and surprised by David Lynch and Jocelyn Montgomery’s collaboration in 2010, resulting in the album, Lux Vivens, which combines the past with the present in a powerful and enchanting way.
In all of Hildegard’s work we find her unique expression of creativity. We hope you do as well. Take some time to explore her music and perhaps it will inspire you to awaken your own unique creativity.
Musicians such as Linn Maxwell have sought to preserve Hildegard’s original intent and character. The same goes for groups like Vocatrix and performances such as «O tu illustrativ» performed by the Ensemble Vocame Munich/ Germany.
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