Recently I’ve been listening to a lot of “early” music. Many songs in this genre were first performed in the convents and monasteries of the medieval Catholic Church. My favorites are by a German composer and nun, Saint Hildegard von Bingen.
Who Was Hildegard?
In 1098, Hildegard was born into a noble family who lived in Bermersheim, in what is now southwestern Germany. According to her autobiography, Hildegard was just eight years old when her parents offered their daughter to the Church as a “tithe,” dedicating her life to a monastic vocation. At that time, it wasn’t uncommon for families to give up their children as religious oblates, but when Hildegard became an adult, she discouraged the practice.
Young Hildegard was sent to live with a holy woman, Jutta von Sponheim, whose own autobiography contradicts Hildegard’s story somewhat. But, what seems true is that Jutta established a religious community for women and girls alongside a pre-existing male monastery at Disibodenberg. Jutta taught Hildegard to read and write and to sing religious music.
Many years passed, and Hildegard was well into adulthood, when Jutta died in 1136. Hildegard replaced Jutta as the community’s abbess, and it can be argued that this is when her life truly began — at age 38.
Since childhood, Hildegard had experienced what she thought were mystical visions. In them, luminous, emotional male and female figures (divine and human) appeared against powerful, strange backdrops of earthly and cosmic spheres. In 1141, Hildegard began dictating these visions to her friend Volmar, a more learned writer who was a monk at Disibodenberg.
In 12th-Century Europe, women were considered the weaker sex, in both intellect and social station. Consequently, the patriarchal society allowed them only limited means for expressing their opinions and ideas. Women were generally forbidden to challenge authority or to travel outside their hometowns. So, it was quite remarkable when powerful men in the Church — including the Pope — read and warmed to Hildegard’s writings, giving her freedom to grow beyond the limits of her cloistered life to continue her self-expression.
Hildegard became a sought-after spiritual advisor and seer, earning the trust of clerical leaders and royalty alike. Around 1150, with moneyed backers, she and her nuns achieved something unimaginable for women: they left their brothers at the Disibodenberg monastery and built their own convent at Rupertsberg near Bingen.
From Rupertsberg, Hildegard issued three major books based on her visions: Scivias (1151), The Book of Life’s Merits (1163), and The Book of Divine Works (1173). Her writings explored Church theology and her own views on spirituality, morality, and social issues. Throughout her work, she described a world that required an interdependent relationship among nature, the Divine, and human behavior. She professed that people, as part of greater Creation, were inherently filled with the light of God. To accompany the written manuscripts, Hildegard also “dictated” illuminated artwork of her visions.
As a further expression of her vocation, Hildegard composed choral music that was sung by the women in her community. Her liturgical drama Ordo Virtutum may be the oldest morality play still in existence. In 1158, Hildegard compiled all of her music into one large collection, the Symphony of the Harmony of Celestial Revelations.
Central to her beliefs was Hildegard’s great love for the natural world. She was an expert in plant science and herbal medicine and wrote seminal texts on those subjects.
At about age 60, Hildegard continued her trailblazing ways when she left her convent for long periods to travel on four preaching tours in Germany. In a famous speech on the steps of the old Cologne cathedral, she upbraided the local clergy for corrupt and immoral behaviors. She also founded a second convent at Eibingen in 1165.
Hildegard lived to age 82. Her life story (which includes her autobiography) was compiled and published after her death as Vita Sanctae Hildegardis.
In recent years, there has been renewed interest in Hildegard’s work. Her convent at Eibingen is thriving after a 100-year hiatus that ended in 1904. Contemporary writers explore and debate the spiritual meaning of her texts and music. Throughout the world, professional musicians record and perform her songs. And, modern practitioners of natural medicine recognize Hildegard as a pioneer in their field.
In 2016, I attended a live concert of Hildegard’s music in the ancient cliff-side town of Rocamadour, France. Soprano Anne Bertin-Hugault’s soaring high notes echoed off the walls of a stone basilica that has welcomed Catholic pilgrims since Hildegard’s lifetime.
My Song about Hildegard
The lyrics of The Living Light are based on my interpretations of Hildegard’s visions and writing. The terms greenness and Living Light are hers and illustrate that all parts of creation make one whole. Hildegard thought that we frail humans are, in truth, perfect and beautiful elements of Divinity. We corrupt ourselves only when we choose harmful thoughts and behaviors, and these transgressions can be reversed.
The final word of the song features modulating notes, sung over multiple measures. Hildegard used this vocal technique, one of her innovations, to emphasize key words and syllables in her music. ∗