Music Forum

Hildegard von Bingen (1098–1179)

Singing Hildegard


by Elena Modena

Hildegard’s music is not only music. Her sacred repertorie is a place of culture, theology, poetry, and a precious casket of sounds and words heard from heaven, written then in neumes so that even today we could listen to it and sing it.

In Hildegard’s thought, music is at the center, like a directing light bringing women and men back to their original harmony.

 Naturally, the importance of the role of music is part of the Benedictine monastic rule, ora et labora, according to which she had been educated at Disibodenberg, the monastery in which she entered very young (about 1105/6), entrusted to the spiritual mother Jutta von Sponheim.


The rule combines the needs of daily life – manual maintenance and organization of the convent spaces and functions, cultivation of land products and cooking, management of the guesthouse, assistance to the sicks – with the needs of the spirit and religious practice – study of sacred books, meditation and prayer, singing, artistic activities like ars illuminandi and painting, copying of ancient texts to the scriptorium.

Although she defines herself as a paupercula femina (Ep. 149R), Hildegard is a culture woman, with a wide knowledge of Platonic-Christian theology, including Hugh of St. Victor, and promotes culture and awareness of her nuns, who generally came from noble families. This intent, like a life project, was best done when she founded, in 1147, the monastery of St. Rupert, at the confluence of the Nahe and the Rhine, in Bingen am Rhein; so Hildegard with several nuns become an autonomous female community, settling in 1150. Here, in addition to playing the role of abbess, she was able to respond fully, encouraged by St. Bernard of Clairvaux and Pope Eugene III, to her divine calling as a visionary and prophetess, then dictating the contents which she saw and heard inspired by the living Light. Her writings are all in Latin, the language of the Church, and two of the three theological texts are illuminated: Scivias (1141–1151, miniatures made at Rupertsberg scriptorium) and Liber divinorum operum (1163–1173), illuminated about 40 years after Hildegard’s death, in Codex Latinum 1942, I-Lucca, State Library.
The musical repertoire includes about 70 carmina and one liturgical drama, Ordo Virtutum; it’s entitled Symphonia harmoniae celestium revelatiomun and is noted in gothic neumes, on tetragrammaton. The main codes are Rupertsberger Riesenkodex: Wiesbaden Handschrift n. 2, and Codex Dendermonde: Sint-Pieters-en Paulusabdij– ms. 9. It was certainly composed starting from 1141, as the latest vision of Scivias demonstrates; in fact, some of the texts of the Symphonia and some passages of the Ordo virtutum are there reported, although without music.

Since different music and sounds accompanied the visions, it is likely that Hildegard dictated his compositions together with the writing of her texts, which were not only theological but also scientific and medical, and that she wrote until late maturity.
Hildegard’s music and sacred lyrics, always of her composition, reflect the vastness of her being, perceiving, thinking; contents sound like a poetic theology, absolutely original but never in conflict with the doctrine of the church.
Her message, although so far in time, is still recognizable today, especially by people sensitive to themes such as divinity of the human creature, purity and original power, micro and macro cosmos, and by people listening and searching for sacred, beauty and harmony as true nourishment (pabulum) for soul, mind and body, in a holistic vision.

Hildegard’s actuality is confirmed by the renewed interest that her proclamation as Doctor of the Church, on 7 October 2012, rekindled.
But the current pandemic has also highlighted her thinking, due to the acute attention she had devoted to nature and the relationship between man and nature, already compromised at that time according to what she wrote: in fact, in Liber vitae meritorum (1158–1163) the elements complain about the way humanity treats them. Between her favorite themes, now really topical, is music. Without music, without musical harmony between different aspects of the human creature, humanity is depressed, degraded, debased. At Rupertsberger music was so important that Hildegard composed a proper repertorie, enclosed in Symphonia harmoniae. Music from heaven for the abbess and her nuns, music to make more united the monastic community; but also music for her soul and heart, as documented in the Acts of the canonization process: Hildegard sang the Marian sequence O virgo ac diadema with a radiant face, inspired by Holy Spirit, walking in the cloister (Acts of the canonization process, XIII century)
Hildegard’s carmina, being poetry, summarize theological themes – specially the same as Scivias, Liber vitae meritorum, Liber divinorum operum – linking them to the destiny of humanity. So she calls everyone back to the best condition of soul and body within the nature to which we belong and to interior of God’s creatural project. An example of this unique poetic style is when she sings the purity and virginal strength of Mary comparing them to the beauty of nature, the luxuriance of vegetation, the heavenly song of birds, the budding of plants and flowers. The attention to the Marian theme, as well as to the local Saints, characterizes her repertoire; in fact, in the same years St. Bernard of Clairvaux wrote the Praise (Laudes) to the Blessed Virgin, recognizing to Mary a centrality in the salvific role of humanity unknown to the sacred texts.

Singing Hildegard was projected during the first period of the pandemic and it was realized at the end of 2020 like a crowdfunding. Why a similar project in the year just ended (…but not finished yet)? Hildegard von Bingen is the first voce, into the Christian era, who declared how much is important music for human life as a whole. A life without music is a life that lacks its wholeness, because human psychic and corporeal system is like a musical ensemble, a vibrating set of pitches, sounds and tunes that harmonize mind and heart with each other. Silence, which characterizes monastic life, is systematically alternated with “ruminant” reading (ruminatio, the practice of reading in a low voice to oneself) and singing; silence prepares it by creating the space that listening needs.
But the cloistered silence is the preliminary condition for the soul to seek in the stillness within itself; while the silence that we experienced in 2020 was often an empty, forced silence, and without music. No music in the churches, in the theatres, in the schools and academies. We have all suffered from the lack of music, just as Hildegard suffered from the ban on singing imposed on his community in 1178 by the Diocese of Mainz for the accusation of having buried a man suspected of heresy within the convent walls. Like she wrote to the prelates of Mainz, to impose silence by removing the possibility of singing the Office of Hours and the Mass was like making a deal with the devil, who neither sings nor speaks more rationally because of his fall – the loss of the original condition of angel. Thus, singing is the first way to preserve health and to save soul and body in life on earth and in heaven, prefiguring the life of angels.

Hildegard’s message is the same as what neuroscientists said in the XX century: a society without music does not die, but gets sick, loses strength, goes into depression. So, singing Hildegard inspired and sustained us through long difficult months, in the belief that her music and sacred poetry could also be good for others. Although her texts deal with Christian truths (Mary, the saints, God, the Trinity …), Hildegard’s style speaks to many people for the personality, the intense impulses, the sensations of wonder for the divine and natural beauty: therefore, it sounds modern. Here an exemple, from the responsory O vos imitatores, last track on the CD.

O vos imitatores excelsae personae in pretiosissima et gloriosissima significatione. O quam magnus est vester ornatus, ubi homo procedit solvens et stringens in Deo pigros et peregrinos, etiam ornans candidos et nigros, et magna onera remittens.

O You! who are in imitation of the Most High in a most precious and glorious form, how great is your dignity! In it proceeds the Man (Christ) who loosens and binds the lazy and wandering in God, dressing those in the light and those in the shadow with beauty, and freeing everyone from their burdens.

And in the verse Hildegard reveals that she is writing and singing about confessors, men and women of great faith, witnesses of God – who is unity, beauty, total light – without shedding blood like martyrs.
V. Nam et angelici ordinis officia habetis, et fortissima fundamenta praescitis, ubicunque costituenda sunt, unde magnus est vester honor.
You carry out your task among the angelic choirs and your solid foundations already know in advance where to place them. Therefore great is your honor.

Precious and glorious form, dignity, honor: these are all words of great quality, that elevate human thinking and feeling, in all those who live seeking and practicing goodness and beauty; for Hildegard, acting in favor of life.
In this sense, for the examples it offers (the saints, the martyrs, the fathers of the church), the depth of the texts, the spaces of beauty at its disposal, the very high value of the musical repertoire – as human heritage in all – the image of the sacred that today Hildegard gives us back should be a model of a life in fullness, regardless of personal choices of faith.

Elena Modena
1 March 2021

InUnum ensemble Elena Modena, Ilario Gregoletto
Music by Hildegard von Bingen (1098–1179), musician, therapist, scientist, theologian.

Supporting this project is not just a beautiful gesture, it does not only honor a woman of exceptional quality and her music. Supporting this project means looking at today and at the immediate future, supporting its thirst for life, that keen desire to be reborn to women and men with active listening, a watchful eye, an aware mind.

Our heartfelt thanks to those who believe in this project like us.
Donations go to the Centro Studi Claviere (Vittorio Veneto, I-Treviso), which is dedicated to the research of vocal sound, to the knowledge of ancient and sacred music, to the conservation of ancient musical instruments.

InUnum ensemble

Elena Modena voice, gothic harp, lyra, tenor fiddle
Ilario Gregoletto medieval recorders, double recorder, romanic fiddle, organistrum

Elena Modena graduated in Literature at the University in Padua, she went on to gain diplomas in Piano, Harpsichord, Organ, Composition, Gregorian Chant. In 2001 she qualified as a teacher of the Gisela Rohmert Method of Functional Voice Training (Institute for Applied Physiology of the Voice in Lichtenberg, D–Darmstadt). Devoted herself to early music for over thirty years, she began with music of Baroque period with harpsichord and Classicism with fortepiano arriving to Renaissance and Middle Age vocal and instrumental repertoire. She has played concerts in Italy, Switzerland, Germany, Poland, Slovenia, Russia. Artistic director of Centro Studi Claviere, Vittorio Veneto (I – Treviso), a cultural centre founded in 2003 for vocal research, collection of old instruments and knowledge of early music, she has been teaching Musical Analysis, History of Musical Instruments and Organology at the University Ca’ Foscari in Venice (2003-2017);

She has written about musical analysis on Italian journals and translated in Italian Counterpoint in Composition by F. Salzer and C. Schachter (Contrappunto e composizione, Torino, EDT, 1991). Her publications include L’altrOrfeo. Considerazioni analitiche sulla vocalità (Aracne, 2009); Strumenti musicali antichi a raccolta (Aracne, 2010); Anima symphonizans. La musica come terapia nella visione di Santa Ildegarda, in «Vita Nostra», 1,2015-1,2016; La polifonia medievale, in Guida alla Musica Sacra (Zecchini 2017).

Up to now she has conceived, promoted and edited the conference proceedings (eight volumes) of the cycle Mistica, Musica e Medicina (Provincia di Treviso, 2012-2019). She has recorded for label RivoAlto (1993-1999) as harpsichord continuist, fortepiano four hands (Duo Claviere, with Ilario Gregoletto).

As singer she has recorded: sacred medieval music with Ensemble Oktoechos (Jubilemus exultantes (TC.100008, 2006), Crucem tuam adoramus (TC.210001, 2008); with InUnum ensemble (Hildegard von Bingen, Divina dulcedo et laudatio, CSC003, 2013; Hildegard von Bingen, Il canto di Ildegarda / Hildegard singing, crowdfunding project 2020); renaissance sacred music with I Cantori di San Marco (C. Monteverdi, A. Gabrieli, Madrigali accomodati, Tactus 530002, 2012; A. Gabrieli, Missa Vexilla Regis, Mottetti a 6 e 7 voci, Tactus 530701, 2015).

Since 2016 she has been the solo singer of Cappella Marciana, Basilica of San Marco, Venice. With Cappella Marciana she has recorded: Willaert e la Scuola Fiamminga a San Marco, Concerto, 2019 (1st prize ICMA 2020, Early Music, audio and video category); A. Grandi, In Vesperis Purificationis Sanctae Virginis, Amadeus, 2020; G. Legrenzi, Christmas Mass in St. Mark 1685, Concerto, 2020.

Ilario Gregoletto has learned degrees in piano and harpsichord with studies in organ and early wind instruments at the Conservatory Benedetto Marcello in Venice. He has devoted himself to early music for over thirty years. He began with music of the late Middle Ages and its instruments arriving at Classicism with fortepiano and harpsichord. Prof. Gregoletto has played about one thousand concerts in Italy, Spain, France, Switzerland, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Slovenia, Poland, Greece, Germany, Holland and Belgium. He has been Professor of Harpsichord for over twenty years in Italian Conservatories and, from 1991, at the Conservatory of Udine. From 2004 is furthermore teacher at the Conservatory Buzzolla in Adria (History of Ornamentation) and from 2005 at the Ca’ Foscari University (TARS Department) in Venice (History of Musical Instruments). He has recorded as harpsichord continuist, harpsichord soloist, fortepiano soloist in duo and in ensemble, with labels Rivoalto, Tactus and Brilliant, and recently, with Marius Bartoccini, a CD with the complete 4 hands sonata by Frantisek Xaver Dusek and the complete 4 hands sonata by L.Kozeluch for the Brilliant label on his original Schanz fortepiano.

He is interested in the conservation of early instruments and has with E. Modena a wide collection of wind and string copies of instruments from medieval to baroque period, harpsichord copies and original fortepianos from the second half of XVIII’ s. to late XIX’ s. Ilario Gregoletto has published in Recercare an important article about an original 18th century Venetian fortepiano of Luigi Hoffer, one of two extant restaured instrument of this type which can still be played and of which he is the owner. (The other instrument belonged to Gioacchino Rossini).

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