Chapter 2

Chapter 2: Chant and Secular Song in the Middle Ages

Composer Biographies

Hildegard von Bingen

Born: 1098, Bermersheim, Germany

Died: September 17, 1179, Rupertsberg, Germany.

Abbess, mystic, musician, and writer. Composed plainchant and wrote learned treatises on natural science, medicine, and theology.

Was Hildegard inspired by divine visions, or did she suffer from migraines? The question has been asked in this century, but the answer only reveals our own view of the world. Hildegard's reality was indeed one of inspired visions, and these visions reinforced a powerful will to succeed that made her one of the most remarkable women of the Middle Ages.

Hildegard enjoyed a relatively privileged position as abbess of a wealthy convent. When she was eight, her parents sent her to a local convent for religious training. She eventually rose to the rank of abbess, and succeeded in forming an independent convent near Rupertsberg. Over the course of her life, Hildegard managed to educate herself far beyond what was demanded for a woman of her rank. Significantly, she passed her knowledge on in the form of learned studies of natural science, medicine, and other matters. At the same time, Hildegard was a mystic, experiencing visions of what she called "the divine light" from an early age. These visions were accepted as authentic by the church and added to Hildegard's stature. She exploited this by being an outspoken advocate of all she believed, even to the point of confronting popes and emperors when she thought they were not following God's will.

Hildegard also excelled in the craft of musical composition, and she wrote a large number of monophonic pieces for use in church services, along with a mystery play with music (Ordo virtutum). Her musical style is individual. Perhaps because she wrote her works for female voices, her melodies explore a much wider range than those of her contemporaries and often contain dramatic leaps. Her chants also use repeating melodic motives much more than other pieces in this style. Not surprisingly, since she never would have received the formal musical training that her male counterparts would have, her pieces have an improvisatory quality that suggests that they are the creations of a singer rather than of a "composer."

Hildegard was not the only woman of her time to write music, but much of the music of others is lost to us or hidden in anonymity. Hildegard, however, uniquely among composers of her time, claimed authorship for all her works by overseeing their copying into manuscripts. It is thanks to this somewhat audacious act that we can listen to her music today.


  • 77 pieces in the Symphonia armonie celestium revelationum and a mystery play, Ordo virtutum (including 82 musical pieces)

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Musical Examples

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