Listen: there was once a king sitting on his throne. Around him stood great and wonderfully beautiful columns ornamented with ivory, bearing the banners of the king with great honour. Then it pleased the king to raise a small feather from the ground and he commanded it to fly. The feather flew, not because of anything in itself but because the air bore it along. Thus am I 'A feather on the breath of God'.
That is how one of the most remarkable creative personalities of the Middle Ages describes herself. Hildegard of Bingen was born to noble parents in the small village of Bemersheim, near Alzey, Rheinhessen (now in West Germany), in the year 1098. In her eighth year she was put into the care of Jutta of Spanheim, the abbess of a small community of nuns attached to the Benedictine monastery of Disibodenberg, near Bingen, about twenty-five miles south-west of Mainz. So began a life in which she was destined to become the most celebrated woman of her age as a visionary, naturalist, playwright, poetess and composer. In 1141, having succeeded Jutta as abbess, she saw tongues of flame descend from the heavens and settle upon her. Thereafter she devoted herself to a life of intense and passionate creativity. Among her literary works she produced two books on natural history and medicine (Physica and Cause et cure) and a morality play, the Ordo Virtutum, which pre-dates all other works in that genre by some hundred years. Her book of visions, Scivias, occupied her for ten years between 1141 and 1151.
This recording draws upon Hildegard’s large collection of music and poetry, the Symphonia armonie celestium revelationum – ‘The Symphony of the Harmony of Celestial Revelations’ – which she continued to enlarge and enrich throughout her life. It contains some of the finest songs ever written in the Middle Ages, and a number of the most elaborate, the Sequences, are recorded here for the first time. They are so profoundly motivated by Hildegard’s devotional life that it is hard to tell whether she is exploring music and poetry through spirituality or vice versa. The songs are conceived on a large – sometimes a massive – scale; it is in superabundance that Hildegard found herself both as poetess and composer. Profligacy of imagination relieved the intensity of her impressions whilst validating her as a visionary in the eyes of her contemporaries. The corresponding musical resources are immense, ranging from the most tranquil melody to an almost obsessive declamation at high pitch. Everywhere we sense a movement of the mind in music. This is the work of deeply engaged artistry: in Hildegard’s words, of ‘writing, seeing, hearing and knowing all in one manner’.
Hildegard’s fame was not confined to Germany. She was also involved in politics and diplomacy; her friendship and advice were sought by popes, emperors, kings, archbishops, abbots and abbesses with whom she corresponded voluminously. The ‘Sybil of the Rhine’, as she was known, died at the monastery she had refounded on the Rupertsberg on 17 September in the year 1179. The following century Popes Gregory IX and Innocent IV proposed her canonization, followed later by Clement V and John XXII. This, however, never came to pass.
With a great desire I have desired to come to you and rest with you in the marriage of Heaven, running to you by a new path as the clouds course in the purest air like sapphire.
Columba aspexit presents a vision of Saint Maximinus as a celebrant at Mass. The imagery and general conception owe much to Ecclesiasticus 50: 1–26 (not in the Authorized Version), a celebration of the High Priest, Simon. The Holy Ghost hovers (symbolized by the dove and the lattice – Hildegard explains the latter symbol in the Scivias as the window of Christ’s mercy through which shines the perfect revelation of the New Testament) as Maximinus celebrates; flooded with grace he is a building – Saint Paul’s edifice of the temple which is in the devout heart. God’s love, represented in biblical fashion by the heat of the sun, blazes in the dark sanctuary. The ‘stone’ (lapide) of stanza four is the altar – these lines are rich in imagery drawn from the liturgy for consecrating and anointing an altar; as he moves to it in his celebration, Maximinus is like the hart of Psalm 41 (42 in the Authorized Version). Stanza five turns to the clergy who surround Maximinus in the ceremony. The ‘perfume-makers’ (perfume is a metaphor of Divine Grace) are the clerics of Trier: Maximinus was the patron of the Benedictine abbey there and Hildegard probably wrote this sequence for them. The ‘holy sacrifice with the rams’ was required by God in the ordination of Aaron’s sons to the priesthood (Exodus 29), but the ‘rams’ may also be the choirboys at Trier (Scivias, 2:5:45). Hildegard ends with a eulogy of Maximinus as celebrant, ‘strong and beautiful in rites and in the shining of the altar’.
Ave, generosa is a testimony to Hildegard’s devotion to the Virgin. The imagery is frequently erotic. O ignis spiritus is Hildegard’s apostrophe to her Muse, the Pentecostal fire which settled upon her and imparted knowledge of the major biblical books.
O Ierusalem celebrates Saint Rupert. Hildegard re-founded his monastery in 1150 and moved there with her nuns. The original buildings were destroyed by the Normans (the ‘fools’ of the Sequence), providing Hildegard with a potent but implicit comparison between her monastery and Jerusalem, destroyed on Earth and rebuilt in Heaven (Revelations 21, whence some of the imagery of this Sequence is derived). The ‘living stones’ (‘vivis lapidibus’) have been taken from the hymn Urbs beata Ierusalem for the dedication of a church (but compare 1 Peter 2: 4–5). Perhaps Hildegard composed this Sequence for the dedication ceremony, or for its commemoration. In this case the ‘ostensio’ of stanza six may be an ostension, or ‘showing’, of the relics of Saint Rupert during the ceremony.
O Euchari, like Columba aspexit, was almost certainly written for the clergy at Trier. Saint Eucharius was a third-century missionary who became the bishop of the city. Stanza one evokes his years as an itinerant preacher (during which he performed miracles). The ‘fellow-travellers’ of stanza two are presumably Valerius and Maternus, his companions in the missionary work. The ‘three shrines’ of stanza five (compare Matthew 17: 4) represent the Trinity and perhaps, if we follow the Glossa Ordinaria, the triple piety of words, thoughts and deeds. The ‘old and the new wine’ of stanza six represent the Testaments: Ecclesia savours both, but the Synagogue, like the ‘old bottles’ of Christ’s parable, cannot sustain the New. Hildegard closes the Sequence with a prayer that the people of Trier may never revert to the paganism in which Eucharius found them, but may always re-enact the redemptive sacrifice of Christ in the form of the Mass.
With superb control Hildegard in O viridissima virga elaborates the image of Mary as the branch of Jesse. Mary’s fertility endows the animal and vegetable kingdoms with new life and brings mankind to God through the sheer joy of contemplating the Divine agency.
O presul vere civitatis celebrates Saint Disibod, the patron of the monastery where Hildegard was raised. She composed this sequence in response to Abbot Cuno of Disibodenberg who wrote to her asking for a copy of anything ‘that God reveals to you about our patron’. She certainly sent him this poem; we do not know whether it was accompanied by the music. Hildegard evokes the itinerant hermit’s life that brought Disibod to the place later to be the site of the monastery, and emphasizes his founder’s role through a stream of architectural, cloistral imagery. The ‘finial-stone’ which introduces this imagery is, of course, Christ (see, for example, Matthew 21: 42).
O Ecclesia celebrates Saint Ursula who, according to legend, was martyred with eleven thousand virgins at Cologne. Ursula, a woman who had rejected an earthly marriage for a heavenly one, who had died in Cologne, and who led a company of Christian women, naturally occupied a special place in Hildegard’s devotion. There were relics of Ursula at Disibodenberg where Hildegard had been raised, and Elisabeth of Schonau (a mystic whom Hildegard knew) created a stir in 1156/7 with her visions of Ursula and her companions. Hildegard does not appear to have been directly influenced by these visions, but this is her most sustained response to a legend that was clearly popular and much in the minds of clerics and laymen.
Christopher Page © 1982