Hildegard of Bingen Composes the Cosmos

In all, Hildegard comes across as something of a world-maker, the inventor of a richly appointed fantasy realm. She goes so far as to fashion her own language—the “Lingua Ignota,” or “Unknown Tongue”—which has a vocabulary of more than a thousand words. God is “AIGONZ”; the Devil is “diuueliz”; tongue is “ranzgia”; womb is “veriszoil.” The purpose of the Lingua remains obscure, but Sarah Higley, in a monograph on the subject, plausibly describes it as an attempt at “making the things of this world divine again through the alterity of new signs.” In the antiphon “O orzchis Ecclesia,” Hildegard interpolates invented words into a Latin text:

O immense [orzchis] Church
girded by divine arms
and ornamented in jacinth
Thou art the fragrance [caldemia]
of the wounds of peoples [loifolum]

The blurring of meaning into sound has the effect of pulling language into the nocturnal landscape of music, where, in Hildegard’s view, ultimate truth resided.

Modern musical notation stemmed from an assertion of centralized authority. The Holy Roman Emperors, beginning with Charlemagne, wished to propagate a uniform version of liturgical chant across their territories, and notation facilitated that process, eliminating local deviations. Early chants tended not to show distinctive features, but composers soon introduced artful elaborations, which drew the scrutiny of doctrinal watchdogs. The Cistercian Order, as part of its campaign against luxury and pomp, discouraged melodies that indulged in excessively long melismas or had a range wider than an octave.

If Hildegard’s songs had circulated in her lifetime, her disdain for such regulations might have proved controversial. Consider the responsory “O vos angeli” (“O you angels”), the text of which appears in “Scivias.” Angels, archangels, cherubim, seraphim, and other higher powers are exalted because they “see the inward force of the Father, / which breathes from his heart like a face. / Praise to you, who behold in the fountain / the strongbox of the ancient heart.” In a transcription in modern notation, the setting departs from the E above middle C, at the lower end of the soprano range. During a fifty-one-note melismatic passage on the first syllables, the line gyrates between the C above middle C and the G below middle C—deep in the contralto register. The traversal of an octave and a fourth already exceeds Cistercian boundaries, but the adventures in angelic regions have just begun. At the mention of the archangels, who “receive the souls of the just,” the music climbs to a stratospheric D, more than two octaves above middle C. The same note figures in an eighty-note melisma on the first syllable of the song’s final word, aspicitis (“behold”).

These are the earmarks of an ambitious composer who is pushing the limits of the singable. The range of “O vos angeli”—two octaves plus a fifth—exceeds that of Wagner’s Isolde or of Strauss’s Salome. One musicologist, Vincent Corrigan, has suggested that copyists must have made a mistake in notating the clefs, with the result that the first section is pitched too low. When I consulted with the Hildegard specialist Jennifer Bain, though, she pointed out that several other Hildegard chants prowl in the lower range, especially in opening sections. Possibly, the line was subdivided among members of the convent ensemble, so that contraltos handled the opening and high sopranos took the climaxes. One person can, in fact, sing the entire thing, as the Finnish soprano Anneliina Rif has proved, in a hypnotic recording on the Alba label. Certainly, this exploration of vocal extremes is an apt metaphor for the celestial sphere.

When Hildegard’s music first became known, in the later nineteenth century, the exceptional breadth of “O vos angeli” and several other of her chants excited comment. In fact, as Bain and other scholars have shown, this feature was not as unusual as it appeared. Despite the mandates against undue complexity, many other expansive pieces can be found in eleventh- and twelfth-century repertories, notably those of Germany. The chants of the eleventh-century theorist and composer Hermann of Reichenau move across a broad span, and they are also organized around primary tones of the fifth and the octave. (In the key of C, this would be F, G, and the C above.) Hildegard, too, liked to hit those structural nodes: some of her chants begin with a dramatic rising gesture of a fifth followed by a fourth.

Such resemblances hardly diminish Hildegard’s originality. Bain, in an essay on the composer’s style, writes, “Even while working within an established repertorial style, she also played with the structural forms that she received.” A musical narrative unfolds by way of calculated repetitions and nuanced variations. Conspicuous extensions of the line often coincide with crucial statements in the texts. Bain notes that Hildegard’s chant “O Jerusalem” begins “in a contained, almost subdued way, with a narrow range and short melodic phrases,” before scaling the heights: “The climactic pitch G also occurs at a critical moment in the text when Hildegard makes the connection between heaven, the saints, and the humans who are singing their praises.”

Here is the essence of the art of composing: the ability to conceive music in architectural terms, as a shaping of sound through time. The most stunning thing about Hildegard’s creations is how they demarcate structure through a single melodic line. (Bach accomplished the same feat in his pieces for solo cello and solo violin, but he had the advantage of four strings.) This past fall, the Los Angeles Philharmonic presented a multi-composer event titled “Electric Fields,” during which the soprano Barbara Hannigan gave semi-operatic renditions of two Hildegard chants—“O vis aeternitatis” and “O virga mediatrix.” I’d heard Hildegard sung in church spaces, but it was a new thrill to encounter her in an auditorium built for Beethoven and Mahler. I thought of the latter’s comment about his Eighth Symphony: “Imagine the entire universe beginning to ring and resound.” With Hildegard, we hear the cosmos singing in one voice.

Hildegard suffered a crushing humiliation in the final year of her life. The Rupertsberg convent had arranged for the burial of a wealthy patron who had been excommunicated, for unknown reasons. Officials in Mainz, ignoring the fact that the man had repented of his sins, decreed that until the body was removed the nuns would be forbidden to sing Mass. Hildegard, in her reply, unleashed another masterpiece of righteous rage, acidly asking the prelates of Mainz if they were “certain that you are drawn to this action out of zeal for God’s justice, rather than out of indignation, unjust emotions, or a desire for revenge.” Music is the language of God, she thundered; only the Devil would seek to forbid it. This time, her intransigence won out, and her nuns were allowed to resume singing Mass. She died six months later.

In hindsight, the effort to silence Hildegard feels like a premonition. Within the walls of a convent, she had found latitude to cultivate her gifts; so had other brilliant religious women of the late medieval period, such as Roswitha, Herrad of Landsberg, Hadewijch of Brabant, and Marguerite Porete. But when universities began to replace monasteries as centers of learning an all-male regime took hold. The Catholic philosopher Prudence Allen notes that women were officially excluded from the University of Paris by 1231; Hildegard found no place in the curriculum. Even as European civilization moved toward the putative liberation of the Renaissance, it was undergoing a social regression. Women continued making music in convents and in aristocratic spaces, but for many centuries none could equal Hildegard’s reach.

Contemporary female composers have often saluted Hildegard as the one who blazed a difficult path. A memorable ceremony took place in 1993, at CBGB, the venerable arena of rock aggression. A quartet of New York composers—Eve Beglarian, Kitty Brazelton, Elaine Kaplinsky, and Mary Jane Leach—walked through the venue draped in black, holding candles and singing Hildegard antiphons. Subsequent generations have paid their respects, albeit in ways that might well have baffled the honoree. Lingua Ignota, an experimental-pop project launched by the multidisciplinary artist Kristin Hayter, takes its name from Hildegard’s “unknown tongue” and channels her spirit through darkly vengeful chants that unfurl before walls of noise. The Australian American singer-composer Jane Sheldon, by contrast, cherishes Hildegard’s regard for the divinity of nature. For an installation in a former timber mill in Tasmania, Sheldon is writing a composition based on Hildegard’s “O nobilissima viriditas,” which begins with the lines “O noblest green viridity / you who are rooted in the sun.”

Nothing in Hildegard’s philosophy is more pertinent to our wounded planet than her concept of viriditas—greenness, verdancy, fecundity. She almost always associates the term with the female body, especially with the womb, and it counterbalances the violence of male sexuality. At the same time, it is the primary medium of God’s power on earth. Hildegard’s final theological testament, “Book of Divine Works,” begins with a vision of Caritas, the spirit of Divine Love, who, clad in a robe as bright as the sun, speaks as nature incarnate:

I am the supreme and fiery force who sets all living sparks alight and breathes forth no mortal things, but judges them as they are. Circling above the circumscribing circle with my superior wings, which is to say circling with wisdom, I have ordered the cosmos rightly. But I am also the fiery life of divine essence: I blaze above the beauty of the fields, I shine in the waters, I burn in the sun and the moon and the stars. And with the airy wind I quicken all things to life, as with an invisible life that sustains them all. For the air lives in viriditas and in the flowers, and the waters flow as if alive, and the sun lives within its own light, and when the moon has waned it is rekindled by the light of the sun and thereby lives anew, and the stars shine forth in their own light as though alive.

Caritas is, naturally, a woman, and, like the virgins of Hildegard’s convent, her head is covered with a band of gold. ♦

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