With no formal musical training, this Doctor of the Church shaped the sounds of sacred music.
Just one verse each day.
Today, on the feast day of St. Hildegard von Bingen, we remember the remarkable life and works of possibly the most accomplished saint of the Middle Ages. A true Renaissance woman, this German Benedictine abbess far exceeded the scope of her religious duties to make contributions in a vast array of fields, including literature, philosophy, medicine, and perhaps most famously, music.
A prolific songwriter, especially for an untrained composer with no patron, St. Hildegard von Bingen is credited with 77 musical compositions, including one of the oldest extant musical plays, Ordo Virtutum (Play of the Virtues). She probably could have reached triple digits had she started composing sooner, but she only began writing songs after she was named an abbess, when she was nearly 40 years old.
Hildegard wrote hymns for her religious community to use in their worship, and this was largely where they stayed. According to Classic FM, interest in her songbook only began to grow after the 800th anniversary of her death in 1979. It was then that Philip Pickett and his New London Consort gave the first English performance of four of the saint’s songs.
The concert was an immediate success, and soon demand was high for St. Hildegard’s music. Today thousands of recordings can be enjoyed with a simple search of her name. No lengthy searches are needed, however, because Aleteia has put together a playlist of some of the finest recordings of St. Hildegard’s hymns out there (featured below).
St. Hildegard’s music is largely based on Gregorian Chant, a liturgical song style that began the tradition of musical notation. St. Hildegard’s style, however, pushed the boundaries of the genre by using modes to convey expressions and emotions.
To understand modes, think of an 8-note scale, but it begins on the second note and ascends to the first. Modal scales sound unorthodox if you’re not used to them, but St. Hildegard’s polyphonic style uses them to create wonderful musical textures that sound utterly unique. Modes can be confusing even to trained musicians, which makes St. Hildegard all the more impressive when considering her limited musical education.
Little is known of the process behind St. Hildegard’s compositions — whether the text was written first, or if a melody emerged and inspired the lyrics. It is also possible that her melodies were revealed in visions, as she was a known mystic. However they came to be, it’s hard to argue with the final results, which stand as some of the most beautiful pieces in Christendom.
In celebration of St. Hildegard von Bingen’s feast day, we have assembled a playlist of some of her loveliest songs. Some of these have been arranged by modern composers to bring a little more flair to the plainchant, but each of them contains the breathtaking melodies of this prodigious Catholic composer.