Hildegard von Bingen: Ordo Virtutum

We are quickly approaching the dawn of recorded history as we enter the heart of the Medieval era.  The year is somewhere around 1098.  And Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179) has just been born in Germany.

Everything looks more historical with a vignette. 

Apart from having one of the coolest names of any composer ever, Hildegard happened to be particularly remarkable in pretty much every way possible.  Firstly, she was a "she" and in the middle ages, society typically was male-dominated, so the fact that history remembers her so well and kindly is nothing short of remarkable.  The church at the time even banned women from interpreting or teaching about the scripture, which did little to stop Hildegard from becoming a highly sought after knowledge base for the Christian church at the time.  

Hildegard was a Renaissance woman in the Middle Ages.  She was a writer, a philosopher, a mystic, and an abbess (female version of an abbot).  She was well known for her philosophy and divine insight into Christianity.  However, the most notable thing about Hildegard was that she saw visions.  In her writings she could recall witnessing  "The Shade of the Living Light" from an age as early as 3, but that she did not understand the significance until she was around 5.  She mostly kept the visions to herself and presumably to her parents, and also to her eventual caretakers, Jutta and Volmar.  

God, taking the form of a red octopus, communicates with Hildegard.

Around her preteens, Hildegard's parents relinquished her unto the church as an oblate.  Essentially, an oblate is a person who becomes dedicated solely to the service of the Lord and those who worship Him.  She entered the care of Jutta von Sponheim who was a nun who lived sequestered away in a one room building.  Jutta taught Hildegard (as well as many other children) to write and most likely was the one who introduced music into the young girl's life.  

The records of Hildegard's life at this point get pretty sketchy, but Jutta and an abbot named Volmar were Hildegard's teachers and companions after her parents gave her to the church.  Volmar most likely introduced the style of writing that liturgical music used to Hildegard and it is highly likely that both Jutta and Volmar noticed the exceptional abilities that Hildegard possessed from a very early stage.  It's generally assumed that she lived and worked at the monastery until Jutta died, at which point Hildegard was elected to replace her as Magistra which is essentially a female teacher.

Just...not this teacher...

Hildegard was never formally educated, however she still became a transformative figure in the church of her time.  She wrote letters frequently, mostly corresponding with other clergy, but even Popes and political leaders of her time would seek her religious insight.  Her views were so extraordinary, but she continually professed that she herself was a simple woman, incapable of possessing such amazing beliefs, thereby convincing many that her philosophy came from a higher power.  Her self-deprecating attitude seems to me to be a bit tongue-in-cheek as she frequently used it to further her credence as one who spoke from God and therefore was allowed to transcend the existing prohibition of women speaking on religious matters.  She used this platform to combat corruption within the church and preached throughout Germany in her lifetime.  

Music at this point in history was significantly more basic than what we know today.  The majority of what Hildegard wrote can be characterized as monophonic.  If you recall our discussion about polyphonic, you should remember that it implies multiple, independent voices.  Well, monophonic is the opposite.  One line, one voice.  Little or no accompaniment.   Simple.  

However, Hildegard's music went a bit further than the other chants of her time as she wrote well above the normal range boundaries of her contemporaries.  He music has also been noted to be significantly more melismatic than the contemporary style.  A melisma is where multiple notes occur per syllable as opposed to one note for each syllable (which unsurprisingly is just known as syllabic).  Below is an example of this, if you can't read music just notice that each note lines up with a syllable in the first example and each syllable has a TON of notes in the second.

Or, you know, don't notice it.  I don't care.  It's a free country.

Hildegard's writing goes hand in hand with music.  Much of the liturgical text from this time would be set into chants (many of which still survive through the Catholic church of today).  The notation system at the time did not present rhythms in a manner that we would be accustomed to, often leaving much to the interpretation of the performer.  

One of her most regarded works is a play, specifically, a liturgical drama.  It is unique in that it is the oldest surviving play of its type (that can be attributed to a specific author) with both music and text intact by at least a century.  The Ordo Virtutum depicted a struggle for a human soul, known as Anima, between Virtue and the Devil.  All the text is sung except for the Devil as Hildegard considered him to be incapable of "divine harmony".  I found two fairly interesting examples of staged productions of both.  The first has subtitles to translate the Latin into English, whereas the second does not.  I've also found a website that offers the Latin and the English side by side to help out in case you don't understand Latin.  

The first excerpt starts near the end of the work and the other example is the complete production, but for the sake of comparison I've set it up to begin at about the same point in the story.  If you've got an hour to kill you could watch the whole thing.  The first one also has someone playing a Psaltery in the background which was a zither (stringed instrument) common at this point in history.

I'll just leave now.
Quite the Psaltery lady if you catch my drift.

The story so far is that Anima (the soul) learns about Heaven and wants to skip life and go right on in.  The "Virtues" contend that she must first live her life.  The Devil takes advantage of this delay and exposes her to worldly things.  Eventually each Virtue is introduced (there's 17 of 'em, things like Hope, Chastity, Mercy, Modesty, Discretion, etc.) and the soul (Anima) decides to return to her original path and the Virtues bind the Devil and yell at him a bit before taking Anima to Heaven.  Both clips start just after they beat up on the Devil and everyone's pretty much singing about how cool God is and how much the Devil sucks.  

If you want to see some Virtues literally get Medieval on the Devil go to 49:20 or so in the second clip.

If you really want to nerd out, click here to see a manuscript which includes the Ordo Virtutum (complete with neume music notations).  The score for this piece is on the last 5 or 6 pages.  The whole document contains several of Hildegard's works bound and preserved in the later years of her life. 

Homework: Write about a religious or spiritual experience in your life that holds special importance to you.

You can leave your answers in the comments.

See you next Friday.


The example of the Syllabic vs. Melisma was from Wikipedia user: Hyacinth
The score is custody of the International Music Score Library Project at www.imslp.org