“A Dripping Honeycomb”: Hildegard of Bingen’s Liturgical Songs, with particular reference to the Songs to St Ursula

An essay I wrote in 1995, which was commended in the Gregory Dix Memorial Awards at Elmore Abbey. I thought it deserved an airing!

Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179)1 has become justly famous in the latter part of this century for her mystical, scientific and medical writings and her extensive correspondence with the religious and political leaders of her time. Her work as liturgist, composer and dramatist has only more recently received attention and Barbara Newman’s critical edition of Hildegard’s song cycle, the Symphonia armonie celestium revelationum [Symphony of the Harmony of Celestial Revelations]2 has done much to make Hildegard’s liturgical compositions3 widely accessible. Peter Dronke’s description of the Symphonia as containing “some of the most unusual, subtle and exciting poetry of the twelfth century”4 conveys something of the distinctive beauty of the songs and of their appeal both in medieval times and for twentieth century listeners. Christopher Page in his introduction to the score of Hildegard’s sequences and hymns describes the Symphonia as containing “some of the finest songs ever written in the Middle Ages.”5

While the theological themes Hildegard deals with were those familiar and fundamental to twelfth century Christians, her treatment of them was revolutionary and her popularity perhaps stems from this and from the arresting strength of religious conviction her writings convey. Aside from the obvious aesthetic attraction of her work, it is perhaps the certitude of Hildegard’s faith and the mystical expression she gives it that resonates most strongly with those seeking to live a spiritual life today.

This essay seeks to demonstrate the importance to both the medieval and contemporary church of Hildegard’s liturgical songs and to address this within the context of her musical and liturgical background. I have chosen to focus on the songs to St Ursula as they comprise a unit of material representative of Hildegard’s treatment of the liturgical genres in which she wrote and of her poetic style and theology generally. The cult of St Ursula was popular in the mid-twelfth century and Ursula emerges in the Symphonia as a saint with whom Hildegard strongly identified on a personal level, and who epitomized a theological ideal of virginity and martyrdom crucial to Hildegard’s understanding of the religious life. The songs to Ursula outnumber those to any other saint in the cycle except the Blessed Virgin and include some of the finest examples of Hildegard’s work.

Hildegard was born in Bermerheim near Alzey in the summer of 1098, the youngest of ten children of Mechtilde and Hildebert who dedicated her to a life of religious enclosure. In 1106 when she was eight years old, Hildegard entered the cell of the anchoress, Jutta of Spanheim (d.1136), which was attached to the Benedictine monastery at Disibodenberg. There she was instructed by Jutta in the recitation of the psalms and in playing the psaltery, a ten-stringed instrument introduced in Europe early in the 12th century.6

The enclosure gradually expanded to house a small Benedictine community and in c.1113 Hildegard made her profession as a Benedictine nun. In 1136, on Jutta’s death, Hildegard was unanimously elected as magistra of the convent. From her fifteenth year Hildegard had visionary experiences but was cautious about disclosing them. 1141 marked a turning point as Hildegard, aged forty-two, was repeatedly commanded by God to record and relate her visions. Resisting at first, Hildegard became ill and was eventually compelled by her illness, which she saw as a divine punishment, to write. The result – the Scivias were completed over a period of ten years with the help of Volmar, the nuns’ provost, and Richardis, a nun.

At the synod of Trier in 1147-8 Hildegard’s work was brought to the attention of Pope Eugenius by Archbishop Heinrich of Mainz. Following an investigation of Hildegard and her visionary writings which were approved as authentic, Eugenius commanded Hildegard to record all such experiences. As a result of the synod Hildegard began corresponding extensively with many people including political and ecclesiastical leaders and soon established her reputation as a prophet and advisor on religious and political affairs.

Hildegard’s growing fame attracted a flood of postulants to Disibodenberg and in 1148 she received a divine command to establish her own convent on the Rupertsberg thirty kilometres from Disibodenberg. Hildegard’s proposal was resisted by Abbot Kuno and the monks who were reluctant to lose their chief source of prestige and income. However, Kuno eventually conceded when, unable to lift Hildegard’s head from her pillow, he realised that the illness to which she had then succumbed was of divine origin, and with the help of the Marchioness, Richardis von Stade and Heinrich of Mainz, Hildegard purchased the site at Rupertsberg.

In 1150 Hildegard, with eighteen nuns, moved to the new convent. This was a tumultuous period as several nuns left, dissatisfied with the harsh conditions at the new convent which experienced financial hardship, and in 1151, Hildegard’s close friend and secretary, Richardis, was appointed abbess of a convent near Bremen, a move which Hildegard vehemently opposed.

However the independence that accompanied the move to the Rupertsberg enabled Hildegard to write prolifically. In the early 1150s she wrote her medical and scientific books the Physica and Causae et curae and continued to compose the liturgical poetry and music for which she was already well known by 1148 and which she was later to edit into the Symphonia.7 In the preface to her second visionary work the Liber vitae meritorum, written between 1158-63, Hildegard lists the Symphonia among her writings undertaken between 1150-8.8 In spite of a prolonged illness from 1158-61, she undertook a series of preaching tours which included preaching in public in Trier in 1160. In 1165 she founded a second convent at Eibingen with which she maintained close contact. Her later years were a time of increasing ill health although she continued to travel and advise on monastic problems. Her last journey to monasteries in Swabia in 1170 covered some 400km.

Hildegard’s final visionary work, the Liber divinorum operum, was worked on intermittently from 1163-74, its completion hindered by the death of her close fiend and secretary, Volmar, in 1173. Gottfried replaced Volmar as the nuns’ provost and began writing the Vita Sanctae Hildegardis but died in 1176 before its completion.

Much of the detail of Hildegard’s final years can be gleaned from her correspondence with Guibert of Gembloux who was to become Hildegard’s last secretary and who also wrote an incomplete account of her life.

The last year of Hildegard’s life was somewhat clouded by an interdict imposed by the Bishops of Mainz in response to Hildegard’s refusal to allow the body of a man who had died excommunicate to be exhumed from the convent burial ground. Hildegard asserted that the man had been reconciled to the church on his deathbed and she went so far as to bless his grave and obscure its outline. Under the terms of the interdict the nuns were denied the sacrament, which they usually received once a month, and were restricted to reciting the office in an undertone behind closed doors. The interdict evidently caused Hildegard and the nuns a great deal of distress and her appeal for its removal is both impassioned and condemnatory of the clergy who imposed it. The interdict was finally lifted, following an appeal by Hildegard to the Pope, in March 1179 – six months before Hildegard’s death on 17 September.

It seems likely both from Hildegard’s skill as a composer and liturgist, and from the emphasis she places on the importance of music in the praise of God, that her liturgical and musical background was strong. Hildegard’s early tuition in the psaltery and in reading the psalms would support this and leads us to speculate that despite Hildegard’s perception of Jutta as “unlearned” the anchoress, whom we know was literate in Latin, may also have been a competent musician.

According to Guibert of Gembloux the proximity of the cell to the monastery church would have enabled Jutta and Hildegard to listen to the monks chanting the Office.9 However if the anchoresses themselves followed the Benedictine Rule at this stage we might suppose that they would have been active participants, rather than merely observers, in the Opus Dei. Indeed it is likely that the significance of Hildegard’s instruction in the psalms was not only as the source of her grounding in Latin but in the recitation of the Office which would have provided the structure for their use.10

In the light of the information we have about her background, Hildegard’s own view of her musical skill is puzzling. She states that she was “untaught by anyone” and  “composed and chanted plainsong in praise of God and the saints although [she] had never studied either musical notation or any kind of singing.”11

It seems likely that Hildegard’s denial of any previous musical experience was part of a tendency she had to downplay her own role in her work – whether visionary, liturgical or advisory – in an effort to ensure that the authority of divine inspiration in her compositions was recognised. As Barbara Grant points out, the tone of her autobiographical writing is  “simultaneously strident and defensive” while in her letters “inflated prophecies and moralistic judgements are punctuated by assurances that she herself is nothing but a vessel, a mouthpiece.”12 It is pertinent to note that in a socio-religious milieu in which the prophetic activity of women was subject to authentication by a male priestly hierarchy the reticence of women in acknowledging their own skill and authority was not uncommon.13

It is also feasible that Hildegard’s liturgical songs were a by-product, so to speak, of her visionary experiences, her gift at liturgical composition beginning quite abruptly after 1141 when she was commanded to record and make known the content of her visions. Indeed Guibert links the composition of Hildegard’s sequences directly with her visions:

“after she had enjoyed the sweetness of celestial harmony in her visions, she would “make the same measures – more pleasing than ordinary human music – to be sung publicly in church, with sequences (prosis) composed in honour of God and the saints.”14

This seems to be the case with the final “vision” of the Scivias which comprises the texts of fourteen of the Symphonia songs honouring the Virgin, the angels and the saints, and in the preface of which Hildegard wrote that she had heard a “sound like the voice of a multitude singing in harmony, in praise of the celestial hierarchy.”15

The title Hildegard gave to her cycle of songs – the Symphony of the Harmony of Celestial Revelations – is indicative that she did in fact regard her compositions as the fruit of her visionary experiences. It also accords with her theological view of music by which she saw music as the outward expression of one’s inner devotion to God in praise and of humankind’s search for the voice of the spirit and for the harmony with the voices of the angels that was lost by Adam after the Fall. She believed that the prophets, inspired by the Holy Spirit, composed psalms and hymns and invented musical instruments so that humankind might remember the celestial harmony enjoyed by Adam before the Fall and would be enticed to praise God.16

Within this theological framework, Hildegard composed her songs primarily for use in the worshipping life of her community, and their original context thus lies in the Benedictine liturgies of the Office and the Mass. The songs were eventually edited into a cycle of over seventy liturgical pieces in the forms of sequences and hymns, antiphons and responsories. The cycle also includes an alleluia verse, a setting of the Kyrie and three through-composed songs.

It is perhaps useful to include a brief explanation of these genres before discussing the composition of the cycle and commenting on the songs themselves. The sequence was sung between the Gospel and the Alleluia in the Eucharistic liturgy. Its origins are disputed and are often thought to have been in the development of the Alleluia, however Dronke suggests that the form owes as much to secular and vernacular lyric as to the Latin liturgy.17 The sequence is composed of pairs of versicles, each pair matched syllabically and musically, with the textual form and melody changing between pairs.  With the growing sophistication of liturgical music in the tenth – mid-eleventh centuries, the syllabic parallelism of the sequence became increasingly regular in metre and rhyme.

The Rule of Benedict allowed for a hymn to be sung at each hour of the Divine Office. By the twelfth century hymns were regular in structure – accentual and rhymed, with each stanza sung to the same simple melody.

Antiphons (from “antiphonos” – “responsive”) precede and follow the psalms and canticles of the Office. With the exception of the more elaborate votive antiphons which accompanied the gospel canticles at the major hours, medieval antiphons were generally brief chants, the text often derived from the psalm itself or from a passage of scripture or another source relevant to a particular Sunday or feast day.18 Musically the antiphon determines the psalm tone and cadence of the psalm it introduces. Because in the Benedictine Office the entire psalter was recited in one week, a vast number of antiphons were required, hence their predominance in the Symphonia.

Responsories were sung after each of the lessons in the nocturns of matins and towards the end of the Day hours. Complex in form and florid in style, they involve the intonation of the refrain by a cantor; the refrain is continued by the chorus and then repeated in abbreviated form as a “repetenda” by the chorus after a solo verse. The last responsory of each nocturn ends with the short doxology (sometimes referred to as a verse). Usually the repetenda is progressively shortened after the doxology and each additional verse.

Although not so precisely ordered to the liturgical year, the Symphonia, which comprises seventy-seven songs, is most closely comparable in size and scope to Notker’s Liber Hymnorum, a late ninth century cycle of sequences which, along with similar works, provided a precedent for the compilation of originally independent liturgical units into a unified structure.19

The precise dating of the songs and their original arrangement into the cycle is problematic. Dronke suggests that Hildegard conceived of the Symphonia as a lyrical whole and believes that a comparison of the two extant manuscripts of the songs – the earlier Dendermonde codex [D] and the better known Wiesbaden “Riesenkodex” [R] – provides vital clues to the process of composition.20 Dronke posits c.1175 as the date of [D] which was copied at the Rupertsberg scriptorium, probably under Hildegard’s supervision,21 while [R] was copied at Rupertsberg in the decade following Hildegard’s death – the weighty manuscript also containing Hildegard’s visionary works was likely  compiled as evidence of Hildegard’s sanctity in the appeal for her canonization.

The text of the Symphonia in [D] is fragmentary and lacks nineteen of the songs found in [R] and Hildegard’s morality play, the Ordo virtutam, although it does contain two songs that do not appear in [R]. Dronke conjectures that the songs occurring in [R] but not in [D] must be later compositions – ie. after 1158 (the date by which it is usually assumed Hildegard had substantially completed the Symphonia),22 written to meet local demand on the feast days of saints and on the occasions of the dedication of churches. Among these later works he also lists the sequence “O viridissima virga” [19:126] which in view of its complexity and developed lyric style he sees as one of the high points of Hildegard’s work. By the same token the antiphons “O frondens virga” [15:120] and “Laus trinitati” [26:142] which occur in [D] but not in [R] may have been excluded from the cycle due to their inferior quality.23

The arrangement of the songs in the two manuscripts varies slightly with those in [D] being grouped thematically and those in [R] essentially grouped into two cycles: of hymns and sequences; antiphons and responsories. Dronke believes that the careful thematic arrangement of the material in [D] must be Hildegard’s.24

The texts, without neumes, of twenty-six of the Symphonia pieces are also found in an additional prose miscellany occurring later in [R]. Study of the miscellany has prompted Newman to reject Dronke’s hypothesis that Hildegard intended to compose a cycle of liturgical music. She believes that Hildegard collated her songs, which were written to supply the liturgical needs of the isolated Rupertsberg convent, only once she had a substantial collection of material which required organization.25 She further suggests that the miscellany is instrumental in enabling us to discern, albeit tentatively, various stages in Hildegard’s development as a liturgist.  Newman suggests that all the songs Hildegard wrote before 1151 were incorporated (without notation) in the Scivias with which they bear a stylistic resemblance and where they are followed by the nucleus of the Ordo virtutum which Hildegard later expanded and set to music.26 The twenty-six songs from the miscellany belong to the middle period – in the late 1150s, which includes most of the Marian songs and a hymn and sequence to the Holy Spirit; and the remaining more than thirty songs are ascribed to the later period.27

Hildegard’s literary output was vast and her reputation as a prophet and religious/political advisor was widespread. Her liturgical works too were evidently well known28 but it is difficult to say just how extensively they were used. We know that in c1175 Hildegard sent a notated copy of the Symphonia (the extant Dendermonde codex) to the Cistercian monks at Villers.29 She had earlier supplied the monastery at Disbodenberg with two antiphons and a sequence for St Disibod – following a request from abbot Kuno for liturgical material honouring the patron of his monastery,30 and she wrote a further antiphon and a responsory to Disibod after this.31 The songs to Matthias, Eucharius and Maximinus – saints of the town of Trier, and to Boniface, an important Benedictine saint, were likely also commissioned to supply the need for liturgical material of monasteries and churches to whom Hildegard was well known and where she preached in 1160. [R] also contains two antiphons written, presumably on request, for the dedication of a church. Given the popularity of St Ursula inspired by the visions of Elisabeth of Schonau in the mid-twelfth century, it would be interesting to know whether Hildegard’s songs to St Ursula were used outside of her own community. In view of Hildegard’s friendship with Elisabeth for instance, it is possible that the nuns of Schonau were familiar with Hildegard’s material.

Of the seventy-seven songs, thirteen are about St Ursula and the 11,000 virgins. Hildegard wrote noticeably fewer songs for the other saints she honours – including Rupert, the patron of her own convent. Songs to the Blessed Virgin alone outnumber those to Ursula, whose story Hildegard honours as a true martyrdom.32

The legend of St Ursula, preserved in two hagiographic passiones from the tenth and eleventh centuries, was founded on the spurious evidence of a fourth century inscription commemorating some un-named women martyrs in Cologne. According to the legend, Ursula, an English princess, undertook a pilgrimage to Rome in order to delay by three years the marriage to a pagan prince that had been arranged for her. She was accompanied on her journey by 11,000 maidens all of whom were martyred by the Huns at Cologne on their return journey from Rome. Ursula refused to become the concubine of Atilla in order to avoid martyrdom.33 The legend enjoyed a revival in the early twelfth century with the discovery of an ancient Roman cemetery near the church of St Ursula. Subsequently a trade in relics began, some being purchased by the monastery at Disibodenberg. In the mid twelfth century, the discovery of male skeletons at the burial site led to doubts that the relics were genuine. Their authenticity however, was confirmed by Elisabeth of Schonau who (on request!) had received a number of revelations concerning the identities of the women and their male companions – devout bishops. While Hildegard’s songs bear no textual resemblance to Elisabeth’s “Liber revelationum de sacro exercitu virginum Coloniensium”,34 it is unclear whether Hildegard was directly influenced by Elisabeth’s visions which date from c.1156-7.35 As the monastery at Disbodenberg possessed relics of St Ursula she may well have been a favourite of Hildegard’s from early on.

Hildegard’s treatment of the Ursula legend shows little sign of the rather charming naivety evident in the tale itself and in the popular devotion to St Ursula it inspired. For Hildegard the passion of St Ursula is an actuality of self-giving akin to that of any of the early Christian martyrs and equally worthy of commemoration. The legend takes on a profound theological significance in Hildegard’s hands, its subject, Ursula, becoming the archetypal embodiment of the entire faith history of the Judeo-Christian tradition from the call of Abraham in “Spiritui sancto” [60:230] to the foundation and ongoing life of the church in “O Ecclesia” [64:238] and “Cum vox sanguinis” [65:244]. Hildegard draws these vast themes together around the central image of Ursula’s fusion to the point of identification with Christ in martyrdom, and the conquest of evil in the choking of Satan by the maidens who have themselves become the substance of the Logos (“O Ecclesia”).

The Ursula songs comprise a sequence, a hymn, nine antiphons and two responsories. Hildegard’s sequences, regarded by Dronke as “the most spectacular songs in the cycle”36 bear little resemblance to the regular stanzaic sequences of her contemporaries. Rather they are musically unconstrained and nonmetrical in form – stylistically akin to those of the ninth and tenth centuries, those of Notker for example, when the form was at its most subtle. It is possible that Hildegard was familiar with Notker’s work – Dronke suggests for instance that her sequence to the Holy Spirit, “O Ignis Spiritus Paracliti” [28:148] most probably reflects direct knowledge of Notker’s “Sancti spiritus”.37 However he points out that Hildegard also diverges from the strict syllabic and melodic symmetry evident in Notker’s sequences so that even when each pair of versicles is similar, a trace of melodic and syllabic asymmetry is always present.38

The uniqueness of Hildegard’s poetic style is most easily discernible in her sequences of which “O Ecclesia” is one of the finest examples.39 In “O Ecclesia” Hildegard moves away from the parallelistic sequence and follows the “repetitionless” sequence in form. The use of this rare through-composed form, in which the free stanzaic development is unified only by the modified recurrence of musical motifs, first occurs in eight of Notker’s forty sequences and had largely fallen from use after the tenth century.

In the sequence Ursula, through her martyrdom, takes on the role and theological significance of Ecclesia to whom the song is addressed. Hildegard develops her concept of Ecclesia extensively in the Scivias. She is the virgin bride of Christ, priest, and mother of Christians.40 As the stanzas unfold we are presented with an extraordinary transposition from individual to archetype in the figure of Ursula, alike in scale and magnitude to that undergone in Christian thought by Eve and Mary. As Eve becomes the mother of fallen humanity and Mary the Theotokos, giving birth to redeemed humanity, so Ursula adopts an archetypal significance as the eschatalogical embodiment of the church in union with the lamb of God. This transformation is carried out by means of mystical and eschatalogical imagery, much of it drawn from the Old Testament – the description of Ecclesia reminiscent of the vision of Ezekiel and the Song of Songs. As the narrative unfolds the repetition of images both echoes and develops the stated themes, while other images extend across the stanzas. Ursula’s journey begins as her gaze is directed towards the divine sun and she leaves the world and her earthly bridegroom. Here Hildegard alludes to the eagle, reputed in legend to be able to gaze directly at the sun, and thus a symbol of the contemplative whose gaze is fixed on the divine.41 Ursula’s abandonment of the world is effected as she races like clear sapphire on wings of cloud towards her heavenly bridegroom. The ethereal purity of her flight is both crushed and consummated as she is overtaken by the giddy music of mockery and the intolerable burden of martyrdom, the refining fire illuminating for all the world Ursula’s vision and the cosmic reality of Ecclesia.

The language in these stanzas echoes an autobiographical passage in the Vita where Hildegard, who gazes at the divine Sun, is summoned thus by an angel:

“Ah, ah my eagle, why do you sleep in knowledge? Rise from your doubt, you are known! Oh gem full of splendour, every eagle shall behold you. The world shall mourn, but heavenly life shall rejoice. And so, in the dawn, fly up to the sun. Rise, rise, come eat and drink!”42

Similarly, in her letter to Guibert Hildegard describes the words she receives in her visions as “a sparkling flame and a cloud moved in pure air” while she herself is as a feather flying through the wind carried upwards by God, her spirit mounting upwards “into the height of the firmament and into changing air”.43

The sequence may date from the period shortly after Hildegard’s move to the Rupertsberg – an event which was the subject of much controversy and opposition and for which Hildegard was widely criticized and subsequently suffered the disloyalty and defection of some of her nuns. Dronke links this experience of Hildegard’s with the mockery to which Ursula is subjected for her mystical expression of her faith in the sequence – a detail not present in the hagiographical sources of the legend. He suggests that these lines (in stanzas 4 and 5) may contain a projection of Hildegard’s and that she regards Ursula as a figura – an embodiment of a religious ideal to which she herself aspires.44

Hildegard’s use of language in “O Ecclesia” is characteristically sensuous, almost visual, the clusters of images vividly evocative of sound, scent, colour and movement. The narrative is unified by the vision of the cosmic Ecclesia in the first stanza and the celestial harmony in praise of the divine word in the last, Ursula having become the substance of both.

“Cum vox sanguinis” [65:244] is one of four hymns in the Symphonia, all of which display the structural irregularity and freedom of treatment characteristic of Hildegard’s style.45 The hymn to Ursula with its profusion of Old Testament allusions is particularly noteworthy. Hildegard’s knowledge of the exegetical tradition is clearly apparent and the hymn itself takes on an exegetical function as Hildegard’s exposition of Old testament proof texts is transposed onto the implicit legend of Ursula. Here Ursula signifies Christ who is prefigured in the sacrifice of Abel, the substitution of the ram for Isaac and the sacrificial calf of the Torah, and who is foreshadowed in Abraham’s vision of the Trinity. The incompleteness of God’s revelation to Moses is transformed by the martyrdom of the 11,000, signified by the miracle of the burning bush, through whom the church becomes worthy of praise.

The antiphons to St Ursula are, with two exceptions, psalm antiphons and as such are among the simplest of this genre in the Symphonia. However the eight antiphons labelled “In matutinus laudibus” [63:236] in [D] and “Laudes” in [R], although independent liturgical units each with their own psalm differentia, form a literary whole – each antiphon linked with that preceding it in narrative progression. The precise liturgical setting of this group of antiphons is uncertain. The sixth piece, like “O rubor sanguinis” [61:232] also to St Ursula, is labelled “In evangelium”. Newman suggests that this antiphon may have been intended for the Benedictus at Lauds (while “O rubor sanguinis” possibly accompanied the Magnificat at Vespers) and that matins may have been so closely followed by Lauds that the two were sung consecutively as one service.46

The antiphons “In matutinis laudibus” are concerned primarily with the journey of the 11,000 virgins and the following they attracted. Newman points out the similarity between the antiphons and Hildegard’s account of her own move, with eighteen of the nuns, to the Rupertsberg convent.47 In both accounts, the women are accompanied by supporters, and suffer the mockery of the devil. Hildegard’s sense of identification with Ursula is strong. In the Vita she likens the tribulations that surrounded the move to the Rupertsberg to those of Moses in the wilderness.48 In antiphon 7 the allusion to Exodus 16:13f is implicit while Hildegard refers directly to the story of Moses in “Cum vox sanguinis”.

Antiphons 3-6 confirm Hildegard’s awareness of Elisabeth’s revelation concerning the male skeletons found at Cologne. Hildegard here provides a justification for the presence of monks and learned men on the pilgrimage. Their task is to protect the maidens as the powers of the firmament sustain the air that nurtures the creation. The analogy is characteristic of Hildegard’s anthropology and cosmology49 and she takes this further to assert the care of the maidens by Christ and their nurturing in the eyes of the world by God, their honour watered by dew from heaven becoming as manna for all.

Dronke discusses “O rubor sanguinis” as a notable example of the “daring and directness” of Hildegard’s imagery, a feature of the songs he regards as striking and innovative.50 The antiphon honours the sanctity of those who suffer martyrdom and who become in death like a pure flower untouched by the cold barrenness of Satan. The starkness of the images – blood red against winter snow, the fragile but imperishable flower untouched by the ravaging serpent – serves to evoke the startling reality and mystical triumph of martyrdom. Dronke suggests the implicit linking of the martyr’s blood with that of Christ.51 The Eucharistic overtones of “O rubor sanguinis” and “O Ecclesia” are undeniable. The sacrifice of the maidens is by implication redemptive, the out-pouring of blood calls to mind the illumination of the sixth vision of part two of the Scivias in which Ecclesia is married to the crucified Christ and receives as a dowry the redeeming blood which flows from the wound in his side into the chalice she holds.52

The Symphonia includes eighteen responsories intended primarily for use at matins, two of which, “Spiritui sancto” [60:230] and “Favus distillans” [62:234], are to St Ursula. These songs are structurally identical, each comprising refrain, one verse and the short doxology, with the repetenda unabbreviated, as is Hildegard’s custom, in each repetition. “Spiritui sancto” describes the beginning of Ursula’s pilgrimage and her rejection of marriage for the sake of union with Christ. The responsory could by implication be intended as a celebration of the religious life. The song is characteristically evocative of the Old Testament as Ursula in relinquishing her homeland is likened to Abraham. The dove is a recurrent motif in Hildegard’s songs to the saints. “Favus distillans” echoes the imagery of “Spiritui sancto” as Ursula again seeks the Lamb’s embrace and gathers the maidens around her, this time the flock of doves has become a fruit-bearing orchard and a blossoming garden. As Abraham becomes the father of Israel, so Ursula and the maidens are fecund in their chastity. The influence of the Song of Songs 4:11-13 is unmistakable while the phrase “honey and milk beneath her tongue” is more traditionally used of Christ and may serve here to stress Ursula’s fusion with him in martyrdom. The eroticism of the first stanza is not uncommon in medieval religious verse. The lush imagery of line 1, “A dripping honeycomb was Ursula the virgin” is not dissimilar to that of Hildegard’s sequence to Maximin, “Columba aspexit” [54:212], in which “a balm rained down, raining from lucent Maximin.”

The remainder of the cycle includes songs to the Creator, Wisdom, Holy Spirit, the Blessed Virgin Mary, angels, apostles, patriarchs and prophets, martyrs and confessors, virgins, widows and innocents and various saints. As Newman points out, Hildegard’s originality lay not in the themes of the Symphonia which were those central to medieval religious thought, nor in the liturgical genres in which she wrote, but in her unique and imaginative treatment of them.53 Hildegard’s unique and visionary treatment of these liturgical forms is evident in both the striking nature of her language and the arresting beauty, unpredictable freedom and complexity of her music. Her skill in literary and musical composition as well as in teaching her nuns to sing such musically demanding material54 is to be marvelled at. The songs convey the essence of the theological astuteness evident in Hildegard’s visionary writings and letters, her deep knowledge of scripture and her exegetical ability. They provided her community and the others for whom she wrote with devotional material of an inspired and undoubtedly inspirational nature. Dronke aptly sums up the distinctiveness of Hildegard’s contribution to medieval liturgical poetry: “At its finest…Hildegard’s poetry…achieves a visionary concentration and an evocative and associative richness that set it apart from nearly all other religious poetry of its age.”55

Hildegard’s obvious passion for God and the church shines through her songs. The strength of her commitment and her ability to focus on crucial theological themes give the songs a timeless quality that enables them to speak to something in our spiritual consciousness today. When Hildegard wrote in her letter to the Prelates of Mainz that the holy prophets composed psalms and hymns – “So that human beings would not live from the memory of exile, but with thoughts of heavenly bliss and the song of praise that Adam enjoyed with the angels in God’s presence before his fall, and furthermore so that human beings would be enticed to praise God”56 – she could as accurately have been speaking of her own composition of the Symphonia armonie celestium revelationum.


  1. The main biographical source is the Vita Sanctae Hildegardis by the monks Gottfried of St Disibod and Dieter of Echternach in J.-P. Migne, ed. Patrologiae cursus completus: series latina, 221 vols. (Paris, 1841-1864) 197:91-130. More accessible are the accounts by Sabina Flanagan, Hildegard of Bingen: A Visionary Life (London, 1990); Barbara Newman, Sister of Wisdom (Berkeley, 1987); Kent Kraft, “The German Visionary, Hildegard of Bingen” in K. Wilson ed. Medieval Women Writers (Manchester, 1984) 109-30.
  2. Barbara Newman St Hildegard of Bingen: Symphonia (New York, 1988). Contains the texts and literal and free verse translations of each of the songs, with a comprehensive introduction and commentary. I have followed Newman’s literal translations of the songs in my analysis and give her numbering of the songs, followed by the appropriate page number in square brackets in the text for reference.
  3. Hildegard’s songs are variously described by her commentators as songs, poetry and liturgical compositions and I use these terms interchangeably in this essay. The context of the composition of the songs and their original usage was clearly liturgical.
  4. Peter Dronke Poetic Individuality in the Middle Ages (Oxford, 1970) 151.
  5. Christopher Page Ed. Abbess Hildegard of Bingen: Sequences and Hymns (Devon, 1983).
  6. Vita Sanctae Hildegardis bk 1; PL 197:93.
  7. Letter of Odo of Soissons to Hildegard; PL 197:352A. Odo was present at the Synod of Trier in 1147-8 where her work was read.
  8. In J.-B. Pitra, ed. Analecta sacra 8 (Monte Cassino, 1882) 7-8;
  9. See Flanagan, Hildegard of Bingen 28.
  10. Andrew Hughes states that the purpose of the Office is the recitation of the psalms. Medieval Manuscripts for Mass and Office: A Guide to their Organization and Terminology (Toronto, 1982).
  11. Vita S. Hildegardis in PL 197: 104A. Translated in Newman Symphonia 17.
  12. Barbara Grant “Five Liturgical Songs by Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179)” Signs 5 (1980) 557-67.
  13. Katharina M. Wilson Medieval Women Writers xvii.
  14. Ep. 16, Pitra 385-6, translated in Newman Symphonia 12.
  15. Scivias III:13. Translated in Newman Symphonia 8.
  16. The theological importance of music to Hildegard is expounded in two letters written in the last year of her life in response to the interdict imposed on the Rupertsberg community by the clergy of Mainz. Hildegard expresses both her theology of music and her condemnation of the interdict as part of the content of a vision she had received and which she felt compelled to relate. Translated in Matthew Fox Ed. Hildegard of Bingen’s Book of Divine Works (Santa Fe, 1987) 354-62.
  17. Dronke The Medieval Lyric (London, 1968) 38-9n.
  18. Newman, Symphonia 14, suggests that fourteen of Hildegard’s forty-three antiphons are votive antiphons, their manuscripts lacking the cadence that would introduce the psalm tone. “O tu illustrata” [23,136], a Marian votive antiphon, provides an example of Hildegard’s development of this genre. As many of Hildegard’s antiphons begin with an invocation, they may be modelled on the great O-antiphons of advent. Flanagan, Hildegard of Bingen 109. It is perhaps worth noting that a number of Hildegard’s songs, irrespective of genre, begin in this manner also.
  19. Notker of St Gall (d.912) was responsible for the introduction of the sequence to Germany, and for its development. Butler’s Lives of the Saints IV, ed. H. Thurston S.J. and D. Attwater (London, 1956) 42-3.
  20. Dronke “The Composition of Hildegard of Bingen’s SymphoniaSacris Erudiri 19 (1969-70) 381.
  21. ibid. 382.
  22. Newman Symphonia 8. cf. Dronke “Composition” 381-2.
  23. Dronke, “Composition” 389, suggests that the exclusion of this material was Hildegard’s, a suggestion Newman finds unlikely on the grounds that [R] was copied after Hildegard’s death. Symphonia 11. However, one might speculate that the antiphons were dropped from use in Hildegard’s lifetime and consequently were not copied by her redactors.
  24. Ibid. 385.
  25. Newman Symphonia 9.
  26. Newman Symphonia 7.
  27. Ibid. 9-10.
  28. Letter of Odo of Soissons, 1148 PL 197: 352A.
  29. Letter from the monks at Villers, Ep. 20, Pitra 394. Cited in Newman Symphonia 13n.
  30. Dronke suggests a date of c1150 for these pieces, although he states that it is impossible to know whether the manuscripts Hildegard provided included neumes. “Composition” 386.
  31. These, and the songs to the Trier saints, Dronke attributes to Hildegard’s later period of writing due to their absence from [D]. Ibid. 390.
  32. Grant “Songs” 559.
  33. Newman Symphonia 307; Dronke Poetic Individuality in the Middle Ages (Oxford, 1979) 160-1.
  34. Dronke ibid. 161.
  35. Dronke believes this to be unlikely and suggests that Hildegard may also have known Geoffrey of Monmouth’s version of the legend. Ibid. Newman however points out that Hildegard did accept the new revelation concerning the martyrs’ male companions. Symphonia 308. Certainly the two women were in close correspondence (Elisabeth in 1157 became magistra of the nuns at the double monastery of Schonau in Trier) and the dating of both the revelations and the Symphonia renders such an influence chronologically possible.
  36. Ibid. 75.
  37. Dronke Poetic Individuality 157.
  38. Ibid. 158.
  39. Dronke Poetic Individuality 160.
  40. For a discussion of Hildegard’s treatment of the figure of Ecclesia see Newman Sister of Wisdom: St. Hildegard’s Theology of the Feminine (Berkeley, 1987) 196f.
  41. Newman Symphonia 277. Hildegard uses this image unusually of God in “O tu suavissima virga” [21:132] while Maximin in “Columba aspexit” [54:212] longs for an eagle’s wings.
  42. A number of autobiographical passages are preserved in the Vita: For the text of this extract see Dronke Women Writers of the Middle Ages (Cambridge, 1984) 235, and for the translation 160.
  43. Ibid. 168.
  44. Ibid. 153.
  45. Although of these four “Mathias sanctus” [50:198] is actually a sequence in musical form. Newman Symphonia 15.
  46. Newman Symphonia 310.
  47. Ibid.
  48. Translated in Dronke Women Writers 151.
  49. Newman, Symphonia 310.
  50. Dronke Poetic individuality 153.
  51. Ibid. 154.
  52. Plate 12 in Caroline Walker Bynum, Holy Feast and Holy Fast (California/London, 1987).
  53. Newman Symphonia 33,45.
  54. Matthew Fox comments that Hildegard’s music is so physiologically demanding that it induces a “quasi-hyperventilation” in its performers. Divine Works xvii.
  55. Dronke Poetic Individuality 179.
  56. Translated in Fox Divine Works 357.


The Symphonia                         Hildegard of Bingen, Symphonia armonie celestium revelationum.

[D]                                              Dendermonde codex.

[R]                                               Riesenkodex.

“Composition”                             Dronke, “The Composition of Hildegard of Bingen’s Symphonia“.

Divine Works                               Fox, Hildegard of Bingen’s Book of Divine Works.

Hildegard of Bingen                     Flanagan, Hildegard of Bingen: A Visionary Life.

Pitra                                             J.-B. Pitra, Analecta Sacra.

PL                                                 J.-P. Migne, Patrologiae cursus completus: series latina.

Poetic Individuality                        Dronke, Poetic Individuality in the Middle Ages.

“Songs”                                         Grant, “Five liturgical Songs by Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179)”.

Symphonia                                    Newman, Saint Hildegard of Bingen: Symphonia.

Women Writers                             Dronke, Women Writers of the Middle Ages.



Davies, G. ed.                   A New Dictionary of Liturgy and Worship (London, 1986).

Dronke, Peter.                  “The Composition of Hildegard of Bingen’s SymphoniaSacris Erudiri 19 (1969-70) 381-93.

The Medieval Lyric (London, 1968).

Poetic Individuality in the Middle Ages (Oxford, 1970).

Women Writers of the Middle Ages (Cambridge, 1984).

Flanagan, Sabina.             Hildegard of Bingen: A Visionary Life (London, 1990).

Fox, Matthew. ed.           Hildegard of Bingen’s Book of Divine Works (Santa Fe, 1987).

Grant, Barbara.  “Five Liturgical Songs by Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179)” Signs 5 (1980) 557-67.

Hughes, Andrew.             Medieval manuscripts for Mass and Office: A Guide to their Organisation and Terminology (Toronto, 1982).

Kraft, Kent.                        “The German Visionary, Hildegard of Bingen” in Medieval Women Writers ed. Katharina Wilson, 109-30 (Manchester, 1984).

Newman, Barbara.          Saint Hildegard of Bingen: Symphonia (New York, 1988)

Sister of Wisdom: St. Hildegard’s Theology of the Feminine (Berkeley, 1987).

Migne, J.-P., ed.               Patrologiae cursus completus: series latina 221 vols. (Paris, 1841-1864) 197:91-130.

Page, Christopher, ed.    Abbess Hildegard of Bingen: Sequences and Hymns (Devon, 1983).

Petroff, Elizabeth, ed.     Medieval Women’s Visionary Literature (Oxford, 1986).

Pitra, J.-B., ed.                  Analecta Sacra 8 (Monte Cassino, 1882).

Wilson, Katharina, ed.     Medieval Women Writers (Manchester,1984).

Thurston, H. and Attwater, D. eds.            Butler’s Lives of the Saints IV (London, 1956).