Chant, the Mass and Hildegard of Bingen (1098 – 1179)

Constantine is the first Roman Emperor to convert to Christianity. His predecessor, Diocletian, had waged a fierce persecution against the Christians, the severest in Christian history. Civil War had erupted.  Constantine was commanding his army against rebel forces that were twice the size of his.  The night before battle, Constantine had a dream, the contemporary reports of which conflict in details but are consistent in general affect: if the sign of the cross of the crucified Christ led his soldiers into battle, he would be victorious. He did so, was victorious, and continued in military successes with the same talisman.  The final battle was seen as a religious war: Christianity against paganism.  Constantine prevailed.  He saved the Empire, attributing his success to the Christian God.  He then proceeded to organize Christianity throughout the Empire, and made it the new state religion.  He called church leaders to Nicaea, where he led the Council in establishing a common creed which would resolve various conflicting statements of faith, particularly concerning the divinity or humanity of Christ and that relationship to God and the Holy Spirit.   That council addressed those issues and Constantine established uniformity throughout the empire concerning the Trinity. It remains as the predominant creed of Christians, although later councils would adjust it for their own particular interpretations of the Bible.  In its current English form, it states:

We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen.

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made,
of one Being with the Father.
Through him all things were made.
For us and for our salvation
he came down from heaven:
by the power of the Holy Spirit
he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man.
For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate;
he suffered death and was buried.
On the third day he rose again
in accordance with the Scriptures;
he ascended into heaven
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead,
and his kingdom will have no end.
We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of Life,
who proceeds from the Father and the Son.
With the Father and the Son he is worshipped and glorified.
He has spoken through the Prophets.
We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic Church.
We acknowledge one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.
We look for the resurrection of the dead,
and the life of the world to come. Amen 

See, also, The Nicene Creed at and The Need for Creeds at

By the time of Pope Gregory, (540 – 604), the official chants of the church were established as Gregorian chant.

Although there were some variations among churches of different regions throughout the Holy Roman Empire,  It was established generally as the Ordinarily Mass  which was observed each Sunday, the which long before had been established as the holy day of worship in commemoration of the disciples’ experience of Jesus’ resurrection.

The mass became a central part of Christian worship and was celebrated with Gregorian chant, in which the priest, monks, perhaps a choir, or even the congregation, might participate.  The Ordinary Mass has five parts:

Kyrie Eleison (” Lord Have Mercy”)

Gloria (” Glory to God in the Highest”)

Credo (” I Believe in One God”), the Nicene Creed

Sanctus (“Holy, Holy, Holy”)

Agnus Dei (“Lamb of God”)

Because the Mass was a central part of worship, and it’s melodies were officially recognized by the Church throughout the Empire, there was opportunity to embellish those melodies, not unlike the renditions of the national anthem that we often hear at our sport events today.  In time, not only might the melodies be embellished, but additional parts may have been added, such as a drone below, a counter melody, a descant, or even interplay of the various melodic parts, each interesting in its own right, together making a lively musical discourse.  As the embellishments became more ornate, or as more melodic lines were added, notation became necessary for teaching and performance purposes.  Guido of Arezzo (991-1050) met that need by devising a system of notation to aid participants in their performances.  Hildegard was one of its beneficiaries.

Hildegard of Bingen was one of the earliest composers of embellished melodies of Gregorian chant, to which she added her own original and notated melodies.  She was born in 1098 in the portion of the Holy Roman Empire that is now known as Germany.  She was a nun, or “abbess,” of the Benedictine order, and, although she was one of the first names to be submitted to church authorities for canonization, it was resisted until 2012 when she wasn’t canonized, but the church finally relented to give her what has been described as the “equivalent” of canonization, or “sainthood:” “Doctor of the Church.”  She was known as the “Sibyl (prophetess) of the Rhine” for her visions; she was a German writer, philosopher, mystic, and composer, predating what would later become known as a “Renaissance man,” or, rather, she was a Renaissance woman.

Early in her life Hildegard had remarkable visions.  By the time she was three years of age, she had her first vision that was described as “The Shade of the Living Light.”   By age eight, her parents cloistered her in a nunnery.  That, of course, would also provide her  an education at an early age, quite unusual for a child of her age or, for that matter, for any female of that day.

She continued to have visions throughout her life, until she had a vision, not unlike that of Mohammed, in which God told her to “write down that which you see and hear.”  This was quite disconcerting for her.  Doubtful of the authenticity of the command, she resisted. She described those struggles in Scivias (“Know the Ways”).  She suffered many illnesses before she took seriously that “message from God,” not unlike Jonah, and did what she was told to do in her vision.  She wrote several books on religious subjects and theology, becoming well known. Ultimately, Pope Eugenus gave his approval that she document her visions. Even more unusual, he authorized her to preach.  She wrote two volumes on natural medicine; a gospel commentary; three volumes of her visionary experiences, which were artistically decorated as she directed; and a morality play, which was popular during the latter part of the Middle Ages, entitled, Play of the Virtues.  The morality plays of that time included music, which were precursors to later polyphonic music and included instruments in its performance. She developed her own alphabet, indeed her own language called, “Lingua ignota,”and was a prolific correspondent by letter.   She wrote monophonic music, elaborately and delicately ornate, some based upon existing chant, and some her own.  About 70 pieces of her music are known to us, much of it with her poetic text.

See  for a scholarly but interesting article entitled HILDEGARD of Bingen: Cosmic Christ, Religion of Experience, God the Mother, which was apparently posted by Institute in Culture and Creation Spirituality, Holy Names College, Oakland, CA, from which I quote: “Hildegard awakens us to symbolic consciousness. An awakening to symbolism is an
awakening to deeper connection-making, to deeper ecumenism, to deeper healing,
to deeper art, to deeper mysticism, to deeper social justice..

See  for another scholarly and interesting article entitled EGO PAUPERCULA FEMINEA FORMA Hildegard of Bingen and the Re/Visionary Feminine for articlefrom a feminist view.   See  for a similar view but with excerpts from various entitled, A BLAZING MIND LONGING TO SOAR ABOVE THE CLOUDS.”   It includes several excerpts of Hildegard’s writing as translated to English.

Illumination from the Liber Scivias showing Hildegard receiving a vision and dictating to her scribe and secretary

Hildegard von Bingen

See  for the source of the above photograph of the original medieval painting.   I note that the figure of Hildegard seems to float above the floor, perhaps indicating that the painter considered her to be representative of the divine, even then a saint, which would be consistent with her well – known writings describing her visions.   Also in the foreground you will note a contemporary organ, precursor to the modern organ, and in the background, mounted on the wall, is some contemporary music manuscript.   The notes that are shown on it are not in modern form, and are called neumes, which indicated the pitches , but only approximated  the rhythms  of the chant.

See, also,

Medieval Illuminated Music Manuscript

For examples of modern performances of Hildegard’s music, see

See for a beautiful Kyrie  from Marriage of the Heavens and the Earth.      I don’t know how much of this performance is true to any original manuscript I Hildegard and how much is interpretation or adaptation.  But, it is beautiful.

See for a gorgeous contemporary homage , “Hildegard von Bingen, The Marriage of the Heavens and the Earth”  I note one comment to that post questions some of the performance as not being necessarily historical  or introducing elements not common to late medieval musical culture.   I take this homage To be a contemporary expression of gratitude for the music of Hildegard , expressed in contemporary language.

See, also,  a German language tribute to Hildegard, with English subscripts, which is  an official US trailer to the film,  FROM THE LIFE OF HILDEGARD VON BINGEN.    This clip was uploaded by Zeitgeist Films on August 4, 2010.

See Hildegard von bingen- O vis aeternitatis- Cantides of Ectasy sequantia- Chants de l’extase, at is sung by women over a true instrumental drone ( single note ). It also features some beautiful graphics of visual art and photography.   The word in the title, sequentia, refers to chant that was not part of the Gregorian chant repertoire, but rather based upon poetic texts that are not partthat are not part of, arising in the ninth century.   that is a form that Hildegard inherited that might seem to have been made in anticipation of her life, poetry, and music.


See for a contemporary interpretation and  tribute to Hildegard for two voices, guitar accompanimen that sounds like a synthesize sound of orchestra.   It is possible that some of  Hildegard’s  melodies are incorporated  in the arrangemt but the melodies are so romanticized that I cannot recognize medieval qualities in it . This is more like  mood music  in response to  the woman, Hildegar.  Having said that, there are a number of  moving graphics  which   range from  script  to  pictures of  artistic  responses  from that time to the present  which I take  to be authentic.    I, personally,  don’t care  too much  for the style  as being what I consider trite; however,  it works and  is a beautiful tribute when  joined  with so much visual  artistic  and  informational substance. Iin addition,  the site contains  some information concerning  her and the church that she served , from which I quote  excerpts as follows:  “She refused to allow the church to treat women as subservient to men, she rejected negative stereotypes of evil seductresses, and taught that woman was indeed created in the image and likeness of god.”

At the age of 80, she defied the church by burying a revolutionary at her abbey. Fellow clerics ordered her to exhume the body. She protested that the man had had his sins absolved. The clerics authorized local authorities to exhume the body, but she formally blessed all of the graves and then removed the tombstones so that they could not tell which grave was his. The clerics placed a ban on mass and music within her abbey, but the ban was later lifted.

It is no wonder that it has taken almost 1000 years  for the  Catholic Church,  even yet a man’s  organization,  to give her special  recognition ,  but not exactly sainthood, and that women would take so much inspiration from her life and gifts to us in music,  her poetry,  her theology  and in her own story.  What a remarkable woman!

See  for a collection of performances of the 11th Century French polyphony.

See  for an extensive list of Hildegard recordings available  for purchase at Classical Archives.


Links to my site:


Graphic Arts




Home Page

See for other musical resources regarding Hildegard.


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