Sounds of Heaven

When a medieval German nun was struck at the age of 43 by a vision – flames descending upon her from heaven – it signified to her that she should write music. 900 years after her birth, the chant of Hildegard of Bingen has never been more alluring. Barry Witherden tells her story.

Circa 970 AD, just outside Bingen, Archbishop Hatto II was eaten by mice as punishment for mistreating his flock. In the late 1140s a more dignified kind of fame returned to the neighbourhood when Abbess Hildegard – Saint Hildegard, according to the Roman martyrology and some German diocese, though she was never formally canonised – established a new convent at Rupertsberg just a few miles away. Hildegard was born at Bemersheim in 1098, the tenth child of aristocratic parents who sent her to be educated at the Benedictine convent at Disibodenberg when she was eight. She stayed until about 1147, succeeding as prioress in 1136. By 1150 she had founded her own community at Rupertsberg. She had had visions since she was a child, but in her forty-third year she saw tongues of flames descending onto her from heaven. After a council appointed by the Archbishop of Mainz confirmed the authenticity of her revelations, a monk, Volmar, was commissioned to record them. He continued to act as her secretary at Rupertsberg, and collected 26 of her visions in Scivias (Know the Ways), completed in 1152.

Dubbed the ‘Sibyl of the Rhine’, Hildegard was responsible for many other writings, including lives of saints. One of these of Rupert, founder of an earlier oratory on the site of her convent, may have been a means of confirming the legitimacy of her claim to the Rupertsberg. Her extensive correspondence with heads of the Church and secular states contained prophecies and allegorical states, and these powerful figures turned to her for spiritual (and no doubt temporal) guidance. Some received unlooked-for tips on courtesy too: she chided Frederick Barbarossa for the tardiness of his response to one letter. She also produced works on compound and herbal medicine and natural history which are considered ahead of their time in the accuracy of their observation.

In the year following the completion of Scivias Hildegard assembled her poems and compositions into the Symphonia Harmoneae Caelestium Revelationum (The Symphony of the Harmony of Heavenly Revelations), and led four missions across Germany, consolidating her fame and influence. She died on 17 September 1179.

What makes Hildegard’s music really great?
Hildegard’s music is little more than glorified plainchant – modal, monophonic, accompanied (if at all) by a simple drone – but the emphasis is very much on glorified. She stands out because of her use of startling intervals and elegant ornamentation. Compared with traditional plainsong her music is elaborate, but the purpose is not to show off the quality of her musical and poetical intelligence. She meant to glorify God, not her own ability. When she asks for the voices to hit an almost unattainable pitch at the top of a difficult interval, there’s no sense of artistic hubris, but of a testing of faith.

She is one of those figures who, despite their enormous artistic importance, contributed little to the development of the art, inspired no new musical school. Given that she was admired and celebrated during her lifetime, and her art was so well documented, why did she fade into obscurity until recently? And (just as puzzling as her long centuries of neglect) why her sudden revived celebrity?

Until the 1980s she was, even for early music buffs, an obscure figure, languishing in the shadows behind the more celebrated Leonin (fl1160-1201) and Perotin (c1170-1236) who are credited with creating the Notre Dame School and with being the fountainhead of polyphony and regular rhythm. Yet, over the last 15 years, thanks partly to Hyperion’s Gothic Voices album A Feather on the Breath of God, she has eclipsed the Parisian-based composers. As they gave primitive but crucial impetus to the emancipation of European serious music, why is it that, for many of us, Hildegard von Bingen’s more archaic music is so much more engaging and impressive?

Western art has been a long struggle for individual freedom, the expression of the personality. Hildegard’s music has more in common with Eastern traditions, where individual expression is generally less important than usinon with some fundamental collective ideal. She shares many qualities with contemporary composers like Arvo Pärt and John Tavener, who have also achieved popularity over the last decade or so, and whose styles are deeply rooted in medieval liturgy. The music, though elaborate by plainsong standards, is austere compared with almost everything that followed. It appeals for a wide range of reasons.

Why is she more popular now than ever before?
For some it is a refuge from the more unsettling music of the modern era, serving as a reassuring aid to serenity. For others, it fills a spiritual vacuum, perhaps in the same way as the remarkable public mourning for Diana, Princess of Wales. We inhabit a society where there is allegedly no collective good, only the truce that may flow from enlightened self interest. We talk about community spirit, but are reluctant to subordinate our own needs and aspirations. Hildegard’s philosophy was posited on a collectivity: ecclesia meant ‘gathering’ and, like ‘church’, denotes an assembly of people connecting with a greater whole.

It also meant a place, a building or a human heart, where spirit is received, and perhaps we feel good about tapping into that without actually having to subscribe. Or maybe there’s a more straightforward reason. Maybe it’s the sheer, heart-stopping beauty of the music. Though it’s technically less complex than Leonin and Perotin, what Hildegard does with her simpler means is magnificent: those soaring intervals and shimmering textures, those graceful melodies which float and circle like… well, feathers on the breath of God.

Classic CD magazine, 1998

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