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Hildegarde of Bingen, also known as St. Hildegard and the Sybil of the Rhine, was an enormously influential abbess, visionary, writer and composer. She is known for her literary, musical and scientific works, and for her religious and diplomatic activities. Her oeuvre includes recorded visions, medical and scientific works, hagiography and letters; also lyrical and dramatic poetry, which has survived with monophonic music. She was a mystic writer, who completed three books of her visions. During a time when members of the Catholic Church accorded women little respect, Hildegarde was consulted by bishops and consorted with the Pope, exerting influence over them.

From the age of five Hildegard experienced visions, and in 1141 her abbot gave her permission to record what she saw, with the aid of Volmar. The result, Scivias, which contains 14 lyric texts that later appeared with music, took ten years to write and comprised 26 revelations. Two works on natural science and medicine followed: Physica and Causa et cure (written between 1150 and 1160). Then came the Liber vite meritorum (1158–63) and the Liber divinorum operum (1163–73). The three visionary tomes have been described as a trilogy of apocalyptic, prophetic and symbolic writings. 

Much of the knowledge about Hildegarde is based on a biography written by two contemporary monks, Godefrid and Theodoric. The tenth child to a noble family, Hildegarde was placed under the care of a Catholic anchoress named Jutta, at the age of eight. Jutta was a recluse who set up a Benedictine community just outside of Bingen. Benedictine nuns lived hermetic lives and spent most of their time alone in meditation. Influenced by Jutta’s devotional lifestyle, Hildegarde dedicated herself to the church. Although she claimed to have had supernatural visions as an infant, she hid her prophetic ability, revealing it only to Jutta, who died when Hildegarde was 38.

Along with sleep and wake, Hildegard viewed music as the key to opening a third state of consciousness, a trance-like state.

Hildegarde may be best known as a composer. Stemming from the traditional incantations of Church music, Hildegarde’s compositions took the form of a single chant-like, melodic line. These compositions are called antiphons and are a single line of music sung before and after a psalm. Hildegarde combined all of her music into a cycle called Symphonia Armonie Celestium Revelationum, circa 1151, or The Symphony of the Harmony of the Heavenly Revelations, which reflects her belief that music was the highest praise to God. Her works, including In Evangelium and O Viridissima Virga, are still released today, and her ethereal style continues to influence New Age music. Hildegarde of Bingen stands out as an extraordinary figure in women’s history, not only as a talented musician but also as an unapologetically prodigious woman who found remarkable success by expressing her unique voice. 

The music is not drawn from plainchant and is in some respects highly individual. Hymns and sequences are nearly syllabic, while prolix responds are extravagantly complex, with elaborate melismas extending up to 75 notes; antiphons occupy a stylistic middle ground, alternating syllabic and melismatic styles. The responds are supplied with verse and repetenda, and occasionally also Gloria Patri using melodic material from the verse; some antiphons have ‘EVOVAE’ and the hymns ‘Amen’. The sequences use poetic and melodic parallelism, but far from strictly.

Highly decorative, the text and music of Hildegard's songs are intimately related and inseparable, as parallel syntaxes mirroring (and at times contradicting) one another, while unfolding within an idiosyncratic system of modes. On another level, the songs are meditations upon visionary texts, that in turn represent poetically condensed exegesis of complex theological issues, expressed at greater length in the prose trilogy of visions. Like all the writings received ‘in visio’ by the presence of the Living Light, ultimately the music's raison d'être lies in fostering ruminatio (‘chewing over’), a method of penetrating the deeper spiritual meaning behind both words and music. As such, the songs are a special Hildegardian facet of contemplative medieval practice.

Hildegard also created a morality play, Ordo virtutum, in dramatic verse. This contains 82 melodies, many more nearly syllabic in setting than the liturgical songs. The earliest morality play by more than a century, it presents the battle for the human soul, Anima, between 16 personified Virtues and the Devil.

Of the eighteen known manuscript copies of Hildegard of Bingen’s visionary trilogy, two stand out in particular because of their distinctive illustrations, so often reproduced in countless books, journals, and magazines, as well as in many and diverse online sites. With their arresting images and gleaming fields of silver and gold, the illustrations found in the Rupertsberg copies of Hildegard’s Scivias (Know the Ways) produced during her lifetime and Liber divinorum operum (Book of Divine Works) produced some forty years after her death are among the more popular elements of the visionary’s work today. 

Yet the power of the Scivias illustrations is not so much mystical as communicative. Hildegard designed them as part of a larger apparatus to make the ideas in her visions more accessible. They are neither literal records of her original visionary experiences (though some visual elements may correspond to those experiences) nor designed for the cultivation of visionary or contemplative experiences. Instead, their purpose is primarily didactic. They are carefully crafted to combine specific details of Hildegard’s visions with other visual vocabularies of twelfth-century Christian Europe familiar to readers of the manuscript. In this way, the images serve to orient before one plunges into the often bewildering world of Hildegard’s visions.

Unfortunately, the original Rupertsberg Scivias manuscript has been lost since 1945, after evacuation to Dresden for “safekeeping” during the war – though the other major Wiesbaden Hildegard manuscript, the Riesencodex, had been kept in the same bank vault and was later smuggled out of East Germany in 1948, so hope springs eternal that the Scivias will someday turn up, too. Fortunately, black-and-white photographs of the original were made in the 1920s, concurrently with a facsimile hand-painted by the nuns of the Abbey of St. Hildegard in Eibingen.

On a few occasions, however, she experienced something much deeper and more delightful – the Living Light itself. Though it likely corresponds to Augustine’s intellectual vision, Hildegard speaks of it with sensuality: its warmth consumed her heart and brain in 1141 to commission the Scivias; and it distilled “drops of sweet rain into [her] soul’s knowing” in the 1160s to spark the Liber divinorum operum.

Hildegarde herself created a drawing, or illumination, in her manuscript Scivias (Know the Ways), circa 1140–50, of her defining vision, in which the great span of the universe revealed itself to her in a trance as “round and shadowy…pointed at the top, like an egg…its outermost layer of a bright fire.” 

On illustrating a contemporary edition of Hildegarde’s Scivias, Mother Placid Dempsey writes: “There has existed for centuries a body of illustrations of the Visions that are traditionally ascribed to St. Hildegard's 'direct supervision.' Despite their obvious differences in style, which suggest not merely different artists but entirely different historical periods, they have enjoyed a long history of commentaries by various spiritual writers and important scholars, including, in our time, Dr. Carl Jung. Recognizing their unique value in terms of tradition and their own intrinsic aesthetic beauty, I chose to represent them here in all their clarity and forthrightness. In so doing, I came to appreciate that, in a very real sense, they do proceed from her 'direct supervision.' Secondly, I came to understand directness and supervision as the marks of St. Hildegard, who looked upon the mystery of nature and mankind with the radical and comprehensive 'eye' of Faith, that is, through supernatural 'seeing' or, as one may say, through 'Super-Vision,' and this is what I have tried to express on the cover. Thirdly, I realized that her 'Super-Vision' includes the hidden bringing together of many persons to share and creatively carry out that Vision.”

The first time I came across the name of the twelfth-century visionary and composer Hildegard of Bingen, I assumed that she was a twentieth-century composer writing in the style of medieval chant. It was an easy mistake to make. It was 1991. I had read her name on the back of a cassette tape, and space was so limited on the liner that little information was included. It would be another six months before I realized my error, and on further investigation I was astonished by how much had already been written about this composer I had just “discovered.” Most of the English-language literature on Hildegard, however, appeared in either New Age publications or in collections devoted to women’s history in some way.

While seemingly rather unrelated, New Age writers and feminist scholars from the 1970s and 1980s did have something in common: they both sought to overthrow the ruling order, the hierarchy of organized religion and the constraints of monotheism for New Agers, and a patriarchic and evolutionary view of the world for feminist scholars. Both groups also looked to the past, seeking historical precedents for their current causes. Hildegard, who, as both groups emphasized, criticized the religious and political leaders of her day, and who was a prolific writer at a time when women generally were not, suited their purposes well.

This association of Hildegard with New Ageism and with feminism, however, gave rise to a certain skepticism surrounding Hildegard scholarship, manifested in print in Richard Witts’ scathing (and problematic) Early Music article, “How to Make a Saint.” The disgruntled Witts claimed that the scholarly groundwork needed to establish even Hildegard’s very authorship had not been done, and complained that the Hildegard revival was more about hype than substance. I have heard similar reactions to Hildegard and her revival expressed anecdotally and in subtler terms. In the late 1990s, for example, when I presented a paper about recordings of Hildegard’s music, the session chair admitted that her organization “always gets nervous when we receive Hildegard proposals.” A few years later, a chant scholar told me that he “stays away from Hildegard,” and one of my colleagues in a medi- eval and early modern reading group announced that she “of course had no interest in reading the Hildegard chapter” in the collection of essays we had read for that week. More recently, a member of a program committee confided that “When the program committee read through the abstracts I remember some of us groaning about yet another Hildegard paper.” It is as though Hildegard has become too big for her breeches, and the more her popularity has increased, the more distasteful she has become to many scholars. Because Hildegard studies have become so ideologically charged, there is a suspicion of fandom, and its effect on a scholar’s ability to be objective.

The variety in approach to the performance of Hildegard’s music is astonishing in its breadth. Recordings range from several different styles of New Age music (from synthesizers to clarinet solos to Tibetan singing bowl accompaniment), to Celtic, to World Music renderings by a folk-rock group, to early music recordings with and without instruments, to groups of monks and groups of nuns, to classically trained soloists, and to choral arrangements. Some singers place the music in the upper registers, and some do not. Some use plodding rhythms; and others interpret the music in a metric way; or in fluid, animated, and rapid rhythmic runs. The style of musical presentation itself, as I will elucidate, can shape the image of who Hildegard was for anyone listening.

O virga ac diadema – historiography of a song - Jennifer Bain

For Hildegard, life was an embodiment of energy and creativity. There should be a single English word that describes these two qualities, something like ‘creanergy.’ As it happens Hildegard did have a word that expressed them: the Latin word viriditas, which means ‘greenness,’ but also the quality of being fruitful, abundant, fresh, vital, dynamic, and life-giving. 

For Hildegard, viriditas encapsulated the divine force of nature, the depth and breadth of which is reflected in the various translations. These words within the word are laden with meaning; with lively, powerful connotations that capture the essence Hildegard had conceptualized so long ago.

The origin of Viriditas,” Viridity” may be the union of two Latin words: Green and Truth. (Latin viridis (source of Spanish, Italian verde), related to virere “be green, and Old English triewð (West Saxon), treowð (Mercian) “faith, faithfulness, fidelity, loyalty; veracity, quality of being true; pledge, covenant,” from Germanic abstract noun *treuwitho, from Proto-Germanic treuwaz “having or characterized by good faith,” from PIE *drew-o-, a suffixed form of the root *deru- “be firm, solid, steadfast.also *dreu-, Proto-Indo-European root meaning “be firm, solid, steadfast.” But like most Latin words, Viriditas does not easily translate into convenient, straightforward English. While being difficult to translate may be frustrating to some, there is beauty in this complexity.

The Basic Definition and Origin: The definition is both literal, as in “green”, “greenness”, and “growth”, yet also metaphorical, as in “vigor”, “verdure”, “freshness” and “vitality.” For Hildegard, the spiritual aspects were just as essential as the physical meaning. In much of her work, viriditas was “the greening power of God.” It was in everything, including humans.

This “greenness” was an expression of heaven, the creative power of life, which can be witnessed in the gardens, forests, and farmland all around us. And like those lands, she saw viriditas as something to be cultivated in both our bodies and our souls.

This greening power mysteriously is inherent in animals and fishes and birds, in all plants and flowers and trees, in all the beautiful things of this world.

Human flesh is green, she says, and our blood possesses this special greening power. The “life force of the body” (the soul) was green. Whenever sex was involved—she said there was a particular brightness in  the green. 

Hildegard’s awakening did not occur until she embraced her own viriditas. From then on Hildegard was  constantly creating. As she described it in an autobiographical passage included in her Vita, sometime in about 1163, she received “an extraordinary mystical vision” in which the “inspiration of god was sprinkling drops of sweet rain into my soul’s knowing.” 

Orbital’s Belfast and the Green Album 
Her mysticism, her isolation as a well-documented female composer of the twelfth century, and her melodic style led to Hildegard’s association with ‘ecstasy’ – both in the meanings found to be inherent to her music, and with the interpretation of her works in performance and re-composition. 

Notions of female ecstasy informed the use of Hildegard’s music in ambient house and New Age tracks that sampled the song “O Euchari”, most notably The Beloved’s “The Sun Rising” (1989), Orbital’s “Belfast” (1991), and Richard Souther’s “Vision (O Euchari in Leta Via)” (1994) with soprano Emily van Evera.

Eight minutes long in its commercial release, Orbital’s track “Belfast” places the chosen sample of Hildegard / van Evera in two main sections. There are only a handful of main elements to the piece: a high-pitched, oscillating melodic motif; a high-pitched percussive element that provides a surface rhythm; a mid-range harmonic wash evoking vocal timbres; low-pitched material that serves as a harmonic underpinning; and the sample itself. In the middle of the track, a version of the high-pitched, oscillating material is developed as a continuous keyboard melody, before a break and re-building of the track, accompanied by a more active bass riff and the re-entry of the sample within the full texture at a slightly reduced tempo. 

A theme of being outside conventional time is common to several Orbital releases, and this is sometimes emphasized through the handling of sampled material. The opening track of the group’s first album (untitled, but known as The Green Album), “The Moebius”, drew sampled speech from Star Trek: The Next Generation: “There is the theory of the Moebius: a twist in the fabric of space where time becomes a loop, from which there is no escape [...] When we reach that point, whatever happened will happen again.”

In both sections featuring Hildegard’s music, the medieval song is very low in the mix, giving a sense of historical distance – we hear echoes of her voice as if across time. The sample is heard at the same pitch as in Gothic Voices’ original release, but the tempo of the sample is gradually adjusted to match speed changes that take place from the midpoint. The pitch of the sample is slightly dissonant with the harmonic setting established in the track, but there are moments of resolution at the ends of the sample phrases. “Belfast” is informed by an overarching medievalism, achieved not only through the introduction of Hildegard’s sequence, but also through further stylistic features. The track opens with material redolent of medieval drones through the use of pitch and timbre, and by open, perfect intervals; this material provides a contrast with the high pitch of other material, including synthesized sound and van Evera’s own voice. 

The story of how the track came to such a quintessential part of the Hartnoll brothers’ catalogue is the stuff of legend – having been booked to play Belfast Art College in May 1990, David Holmes and Alan Simms ‘discovered’ the track on a discarded demo tape left behind by the band.  

“I’ve been trying to remember exactly when I recorded it [Belfast],” Paul wrote on his blog. “It comes from the era between my first ever release on the House Sound of London, under the name ‘DS Building Contractors’ and buying our first Orbital DAT after getting a proper record deal with Pete Tong at FFRR.

“I know it was recorded after Chime because the track on the tape before it is a more typical house track that has elements of Chime and Belfast in it.”

As he surmises, some time during the winter of 1989/90, having “finished an early shift at Pizza Piazza” in his native Sevenoaks, Paul sat down to write what would become Belfast.

“I decided to make an ambient song,” he explained. “It was a rainy melancholy mid-week kind of afternoon. I got the chords first and just went from there. Got it all in place as a drumless ambient piece, but I just couldn’t resist the call of the 909 drum machine. So in went the drums. Much better! So ,what you hear here is the jam I did on a rainy afternoon, after work and before catching up with my friends for the evening. At the time I remember thinking it was ok, but I wasn’t over impressed.”

This is when the story gets interesting…

“Months later, after the success of Chime in March 1990, I got a call from David Holmes, DJ, club runner and hair dresser from Belfast. Would Orbital like to play at the Art College in Belfast? Yes!

“So, after the gig, in Davids Mum’s house’s spare bedroom, David asked if we had any demos. Two weeks later, David rings up and tells me that him and his friends all love the second track on the tape. We called it Belfast after the brilliant time we had there. The track was named after, and dedicated to David and all his friends.”

Brother Phil Hartnoll recently repeated the same story to the BBC, in an interview to coincide with the duo’s One Big Weekend gig in the Northern Irish capital.

“We left David with a tape, with a demo of Belfast, as it is now known,” he explained. “We had such a brilliant time, we completely loved it, and we thought ‘ok, because of the experience we had, it’s a beautiful track, we’ve got to call it Belfast.”

At this point the track had no vocals. 

The story goes on– “Where is the vocal?

Well, when we were making the orbital ep III , we decided to put a version of Belfast on it , while I was re-recording it with all the lovely new gear we had bought from the record deal Phil was making at birthing tape for the imminent arrival of his second child. So he was at my Dad’s hi fi with the head phones on , while I was at the computer and sampler playing through the track . He popped the head phones off and said listen to this, it sound brilliant. So he turned the speakers up and hey presto! Hildegard of Bingen ‘o euchari’ burst through,in tune, in time, Job done!” 

In some New Age releases, notably the music of Richard Souther, the original performances by soprano Emily van Evera are used more specifically to represent Hildegard’s personal spirituality. Indeed, Souther’s work presents Hildegard as co-author, aligning his creative product with the sorts of understandings of Hildegard’s religious life that formed part of her popular reception at that time. This is most fully realized in Vision: The Music of Hildegard von Bingen (1994) released on Angel Records.

Lingua Ignota
Although inventing a language might seem like a purely modern phenomenon, nearly a thousand years ago, the Benedictine Abbess, lecturer, composer, and visionary, Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179) created her own language, the Lingua Ignota.

The Lingua Ignota can be found about halfway through the Riesen Codex, also called the Giant or Chain Codex, a compilation of Hildegard’s theological writings that were collected near Hildegard’s death. The Lingua Ignota can also be found in the manuscript formerly known as the Codex Cheltenhamensis.

Apart from a sentence long introduction, the Lingua consists of a glossary of around 1000 words arranged hierarchically. Hildegard begins with the words for God and the angels, then proceeds to human beings, other animals, plants, and so on. For each word, the Latin gloss sits above Hildegard’s word. 

A sample of some of Hildegard’s words:

  • Aigonz – God
  • Aieganz – Angel
  • Inimois – Human
  • Korzinthio – Prophet
  • Peueriz – Father
  • Maiz – Mother
  • Sciniz – Stammerer
  • Kaueia – Wife
  • Ornalz – The hair of a woman
  • Milischa – the hair of a man
  • Pusinzia – Snot
  • Zizia – Mustache
  • Fluanz – Urine
  • Fuscal – Foot
  • Sancciuia – Crypt
  • Abiza – House
  • Amozia – Eucharist
  • Pereziliuz – Emperor
  • Bizioliz – Drunkard
  • Haischa – Turtle Dove

 There are elements of German (particularly the use of the “z”) and Latin in Hildegard’s vocabulary. There is also German influence in her use of compound words. For example, her word for grandfather is Phazur which is the root of Kulzphazur, ancestor. Likewise most of her words for trees end in –buz, probably “bush.” Sarah Higley also identifies grammatical gender in Hildegard’s words, which roughly corresponds to the gender of those same words in either Latin or German. Finally, her words are intended to be euphonic. When applicable, for example, the final two syllables of her words form a trochee. This gives her language a bouncy, sing-song feel.

Along with her own language,  Hildegard created an alphabet.

The alphabet shows some possible influence from Greek (or even Cyrillic) in the letter-forms for B, C, and M. The letter-forms for R ,U, X & Y have some resemblance to Roman Cursive. These letters also have some resemblance to the symbols of the zodiac.

So, why did Hildegard create this language? Although she never explicitly said why, it should not be understood outside of her theology, based in part on the limits of language. As Wittgenstein once said, “The limits of my language define the limits of my world”. If our language is limited, it will hinder our experience and appreciation of the divine. Hildegard’s Lingua Ignota thus may be an attempt to redeem our fallen language so that in the world it shapes, the natural holiness of all things (even urine and drunkards) will be manifest.