Hildegard of Bingen: An Interview with Dr. Margot Fassler
This video was created by students of Dr. Esther Morgan-Ellis at the University of North Georgia. The students involved were Jonathan Whitmire, Emily Nelson, Cameron Adams, Jacob Evans, Savannah Heisey, Nick Henderson, Taylor Johnson, Nick DiPaola, Taylor Stone, Justin Baker, Hope Douds, Ashlynn Nash, Haley Dover, Sawyer Kitchens, Andrew Ferguson, and Ethan Southern.
ca. 1098: Hildegard of Bingen is born
1112: Hildegard takes vows as a Benedictine nun at the Disibodenberg
1136: Hildegard is elected magistra of her monastery
1142-1151: Hildegard writes the Scivias, which contains 14 of Hildegard’s chants with music notation, comprising the sacred drama Ordo virtutum
1150: Hildegard and about 20 of the nuns in her community move to a new monastery in Rupertsberg
1158-1163: Hildegard writes the Liber vitae meritorum
1163/4–1172 or 1174: Hildegard writes the Liber divinorum operum
Sept. 17, 1179: Hildegard dies in Bingen am Rhein
Transcript of the interview:
Narrator: Hildegard of Bingen was an extraordinary person. She travelled extensively, produced an enormous body of work, and exerted significant power and influence in the Catholic church at a time when women seldom had a voice.
Fassler: The first question I’m going to talk about is the understanding of Hildegard’s works and what was her most significant contribution, whether to knowledge or to art. And I would say with Hildegard that’s not a particularly great question, because she’s a theologian who is also a composer, and an artist and dramatist. And so it’s very difficult to extricate one thing from another. Her work as a theologian, her massive treatises that she wrote—three of them in number—and then her work as an artist are completely, holistically bound to one another.
Narrator: Hildegard was born in 1098 in Bermersheim, Germany. She was a composer, poet, scientist, and philosopher. Hildegard was the youngest of 10 children, the daughter of Mechtild of Merxheim and Hildebert of Bermersheim. Hildegard was given to the church by her parents at the age of 8 and joined the Benedictine monastery at Disibodenberg.
At the age of 14, Hildegard was sent to live with a nun named Jutta who eventually becomes the head of the Disibodenberg monastery. During her time with Jutta, Hildegard became a nun herself and learned how to read by means of Jutta’s teaching and mentorship. Hildegard also began to learn music by memorizing psalms associated with the mass and the daily office. Most of her later musical works were likewise chanted and exhibited a monophonic texture.
When Jutta died in 1136, Hildegard became abbess of Disibodenberg at the age of 38. She wanted greater independence for herself and her nuns, so she moved to Rupertsberg, where she founded her own monastery around 1150 after finally winning approval from Archbishop Henry I. Hildegard founded a second monastery around 1165 at Eibingen.
The daily life of Hildegard and her nuns was highly structured, not unlike that of the monks. The nuns celebrated the canonical hours, or the daily services, just as the monks did. However, their time outside of the daily services was different. Hildegard, along with a growing number of fellow nuns at Disibodenberg, spent a good portion of her life inside of a “tomb,” an “anchorage,” in an area away from the monastery. Volmar, Hildegard’s lifelong friend and secretary, wrote about life in the anchorage. This cell had one window, which was the only thing that connected the nuns to the outside world. They were fed sparsely: one meal a day in the winter and two a day in the summer. Because of the sparse eating and the poor accommodations, the nuns were often sick and bedridden. Hildegard spent over thirty years of her life in what would basically be a prison by today’s standards. Their lives would change, however, after the passing of Jutta, and the election of Hildegard as the next abbess of Disibodenberg. Hildegard and her nuns would eventually relocate to Rupertsberg, a monastery that she founded.
At age 3, Hildegard began seeing spiritual visions. She understood these visions to be the commands of God delivered through the five senses. One of her visions included a command from God to write down what she saw and heard. She didn’t initially broadcast her visions to the public, but she eventually shared the visions with Jutta and Volmar. Volmar was a Disibodenberg monk who taught Hildegard alongside Jutta. Volmar believed Hildegard had a special spiritual gift because of her visions and wanted her to remember the visions and record them. Volmar was a close friend to Hildegard and eventually became her secretary. He assisted her in editing and composing her musical works.
Hildegard was a prolific writer in many areas, including natural science, poetry, and theology. She was a botanist, and she was fascinated by the medicinal properties of the plants she studied, as well as by animals, minerals, and gemstones. In her work Liber simplicis medicinae, also called Physica, she wrote of the medicinal properties of 293 plants and trees and 45 animals. The information in Physica, as well as that in Liber compositae medicinae or Causae et curae, was extremely well respected, and she was consulted by kings, bishops, and popes for medical advice.
Hildegard was also quite interested in poetry, and she wrote many poems that were inspired by her devotion to her faith. The style and structure of her poetry does not mirror that of other authors, which could very well have been a purposeful attempt by Hildegard to create her own unique style and structure rather than a result of a lack of education in the typical rules of poetry at the time. Regardless of her poetry’s structure, however, it is very clear that each word chosen by Hildegard held deep meaning, which makes the style and overall effect of her poetry quite amazing.
Perhaps the most famous of Hildegard’s writings, however, are to be found in her theological work titled Scivias. Scivias is the compilation of the descriptions of 26 separate religious visions which were experienced by Hildegard throughout her life. The work can be dated to between the years of 1151 and 1152 and there are 35 beautifully-drawn illustrations in the book, which help bring Hildegard’s visions to life on each page. The book is also divided into three parts, mirroring the Holy Trinity. The last vision in the book additionally includes 14 songs and an early variation of Hildegard’s morality play titled Ordo Virtutum. Scivias became an extremely popular read for many people within the Catholic church, including the Pope. In addition to Scivias, Hildegard later wrote two other books that discussed visons, titled Liber vitae meritorum and De operatione Dei.
Fassler: Hildegard’s Scivias is a unique treatise, because it has so many different aspects to it, and really it’s the only kind of work of its time that survives in its entirety. It’s a very rich, three-book treatise. In addition, it has a version of her play attached to it (the text of it) and then 14 of her songs, all of which we have the music for. And then, there is one copy which survives with illuminations that were planned, I believe, by her, and certainly the scribes who copied that, some of them were scribes that were active in her own scriptorium and in her lifetime. And we know that the manuscript was planned for the artworks that are contained with it. So, we have a theological treatise, drama, music drama, music, and art. All of them in one book.
Narrator: Hildegard is famous for her evocative, celestial music, which follows a formulaic structure but breaks some of the typical traditions of the time period. She believed that music should come from the soul, and that singing brings life to God’s words. As a result, her music is extremely expressive and invokes intense feelings of Revelation, as her music is shaped by the spiritual text. While most music of the time followed a predictable structure and typically fell within a range of a fifth, Hildegard expanded the ranges in her music to two-and-a-half octaves in some cases. She is also known for the relaxed structure in some of her compositions, in which her versicles form only loose pairs or variations rather than adhering to strict repetition. To balance these complex ideas, she tended to use repetitive motifs and words, which some attribute to her limited knowledge of the Latin language. A common musical technique of the time was to end chants with the Latin phrase “et in secula seculorum Amen,” which is to be found in many of Hildegard’s hymns and antiphons.
Fassler: Let’s talk a little bit about Hildegard’s compositional style. When it comes to Hildegard’s music, I very much like the work of the medievalist Jennifer Bain, who teaches at Dalhousie University in Canada. Her speciality is music theory, and I like her analyses of Hildegard’s work very much. One of the things that she’s shown, and that I believe is true, is that Hildegard’s work is very much of a cloth, with many of the compositional processes of her own time. On the other hand, I would also say that she is something of a dynamiter of musical genre, and she will insert the stick of dynamite, light it, and blow the genre up, so that her antiphons, her responsories are sometimes more expansive, longer, more ornate than the works of many of her contemporaries, although related in style, certainly. And her music drama, the Ordo virtutum, is a unique work. It’s based on other kinds of liturgical drama, but the way that she treats the drama is uniquely her own, and very important in understanding her theology as a whole.
Narrator: Hildegard’s work was unique for her time, and stands out because of the heavy spiritual influence in her writings and music. More than eighty of Hildegard’s manuscripts have been preserved by the monasteries that she influenced during her life as Abbess. In fact, her repertoire is one of the largest existing music collections from a Medieval composer, which is particularly astounding considering she was a woman living in an era in which there are very few recorded female writers or composers. Her entire body of compositions is called the Symphonia, or Symphony of the Harmony of Heavenly Revelations.
Within the Symphonia, there are several different types of chant. It contains 43 antiphons, 14 votive antiphons, 18 responsories, 7 sequences, 2 symphonies, and 4 hymns. It also contains a Kyrie and Alleluia, and 3 unclassified works, as well as the morality play called Ordo Virtutum. This equals 77 works in all.
Most of these works are included in one of Hildegard’s two codices, which together make up the Symphonia: the Dendermonde Codex and the Riesencodex. While the two manuscripts are nearly identical in terms of content, the order in which the compositions are presented is different in each. The Riesencodex follows a typical layout of the time, featuring 1) Songs to the Father and Son; 2) Songs to the Holy Spirit; 3) Songs to the Virgin; and so on. The Dendermonde Codex, however, is generally regarded as Hildegard’s more authoritative manuscript. The Dendermonde Codex starts with Songs to the Father and Son, but is followed by Songs to the Virgin and then Songs to the Holy Spirit. Since this version is more personal to Hildegard, it is likely that this work reflects her theological beliefs, controversial though they were. Both codices are ordered into eight hierarchically laid out groups, from God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, to the Virgin Mary, then to Virgins, Widows, Innocents, and the Church.
Fassler: Several of the questions that you’ve asked me are about controversy. Hildegard couldn’t have done the work that she did in the 13th century, which was in some ways more difficult for women. But in the 12th century, many aspects of her work were not especially controversial. She is certainly a profoundly orthodox Christian thinker. There is nothing really about her thought that is really problematic. Sometimes people say it is but I think that’s because they don’t know her theology. So this idea of her as a controversial thinker is something that’s not exactly true or authentic. What was controversial about her was the way that she sometimes conducted her liturgies, where the women under her control had a certain kind of vestment, and did certain kinds of things with their hair and their garb, and that’s because the authority of consecrated virgins within the church was very important to her, and it was fine with her to privilege that particular kind of service to the church in her work and in her theology, and Scivias, I think, does do that.
Narrator: Her religion and visions were always big influences for Hildegard, but they were not her only inspirations. Hildegard was a very well-respected composer of her time, and was commissioned to write songs for saints from nearby towns or villages. She wrote antiphons, sequences, hymns, and responsories dedicated to St. Rupert, St. Disibod, St. Ursula and her 11,000 Virgins, St. Eucharius, and St. Maximin, as well as the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary. Her Ordo Virtutum, one of the earliest morality plays, portrays a battle for the human soul, Anima, between 17 personified Virtues and the Devil, and is comprised of several different musical ideas and acts, including 82 melodies.
Hildegard died on September 17, 1179. Following her death, the Catholic Church began the canonization process to officially recognize Hildegard as a saint. In 2012, Pope Benedict XVI recognized Hildegard as a Doctor of the Church, and she is officially recognized as a saint of the church due to her work in theology and music.
Hildegard was canonized and named as a saint and a doctor of the church by Pope Benedict XVI in 2012. Becoming a saint is a long process. One may only be named a saint after at least five years have elapsed following death. Later, the bishop of the deceased’s diocese can open a case to investigate that person’s life, their works, and their virtue, after which they can be named a “Servant of God.” The Congregation for the Causes of Saints analyzes the person’s holiness and then, if approved, sends the case to the Pope who determines if they lived a life of “heroic virtue,” in which case they can be named “venerable”. The next step is Beatification, in which verified miracles must be documented, and the individual is named “blessed”. Finally, with the exception of a martyr, one more miracle must be verified and then the Pope holds a special canonization Mass where he reads the person’s life history and chants a prayer to declare the individual as a saint. Hildegard is one of only four women to be named doctor of the church, which is a special title given to saints that have contributed writings that are foundations of Christian teachings.
Fassler: Hildegard had a major influence in her own time. Not only were her treatises read and copied, and her music—people asked for it, and she sent it out—but also she preached on several preaching tours. And then of course there are her letters. She has nearly 350 letters that survived. Many people wrote to her from all over Europe, and her letters testify to the great influence that she had in her own time.