Since almost every bit of sacred music from before 1300 is anonymous, those few works that survive with attributions draw our special notice. We ask not only “who?” but also how and why these works came to be identified with a creator. Even as J.S. Bach signed all his works with “Soli Deo Gloria,” the prevailing attitude among medieval church musicians was that it would constitute pride (if not the “deadly sin” variety then at least the simple human failing) to own music created to adorn the sacred liturgy. And even if not a matter of humility, pieces that were composed for local use did not need an attribution, since it was generally known who had written them.
But here we have a major repertoire – 76 pieces of liturgical plainchant and the music-drama Ordo Virtutum – attributed not only to an actual composer, but to a woman neither trained nor working as a musician. How could this be?
Hildegard of Bingen was born into a prominent Rhineland family in 1098. Her parents dedicated her to the church at the age of eight as a “tithe” – she was child number ten – and entrusted her to Jutta, a noblewoman who was seeking a life of holy reclusion. Jutta took Hildegard with her to the Benedictine monastery of Disibodenberg as a prospective nun and, unlike many children who were “assigned” for family reasons to a monastic life, young Hildegard took up the veil and never looked back.
Although she kept them almost entirely to herself, Hildegard had been experiencing prophetic or mysterious lightfilled visions from the age of five. Not until she was 43, nine years after she had succeeded Jutta as abbess at Disibodenberg, did she submit to an increasing inner urge to put these visions into writing, along with her own theological interpretations of them. Like Joan of Arc, Hildegard heard “voices” – indeed she insisted that her musical works were received whole from God – but her mystical experiences were over-whelmingly visual: she describes active, complex, colorful scenes of fantastic elements and beings in marvelous settings.