‘Arousing sluggish souls’: Hildegard of Bingen and the Ordo Virtutum

By CHE Associate Investigator, Julie Hotchin, Australian National University, Canberra.

The enduring appeal of Hildegard of Bingen’s (1098-1179) music was apparent in early May when a full house in Canberra was treated to an ethereal, poignant and at times playful performance of her liturgical drama the Ordo Virtutum (Play of the Virtues). Vocalists from the Song Company and the Young Artist Festival Fellows, directed by Dutch early music specialist Koen van Stade as part of the Canberra International Music Festival, movingly performed Hildegard’s elaborate, soaring melodies to accompaniment on the harmonium by Festival Artistic Director Roland Peelman. The Ordo is rarely performed, in part due to the technical demands Hildegard’s music makes on performers, and on this occasion the vocalists conveyed the subtlety and force of the music with dramatic impact. The concert was an opportunity to experience the play and reflect on how its interplay of feeling and song convey spiritual meaning.

Hildegard – a Benedictine nun, visionary, theologian and musician  ̶  is unique in the history of Western music. She composed over 60 songs for Mass and Divine Office known as the Symphony of the harmony of celestial revelations, as well as the songs that comprise the Ordo Virtutum. Most of her lyrics, with notated music, are preserved in her ‘collected works’, the so-called Riesencodex, which was compiled at Rupertsberg in the final years of her life.


Beginning of the Ordo VIrtutum, Wiesbaden, Hessische Landesbibliothek, Hs. 2, f. 478v.
Beginning of the Ordo VIrtutum, Wiesbaden, Hessische Landesbibliothek, Hs. 2, f. 478v.

(The Riesencodex is digitised here)

The Ordo Virtutum dates to the late 1140s and the early 1150s, the seer’s most fertile and productive period. Hildegard completed her first visionary treatise, Scivias, by 1151. The Ordo, like Hildegard’s other writings, was inspired by her visionary and auditory experience. In the final section of Scivias, Hildegard describes how she ‘saw the lucent sky, in which I heard different kinds of music (symphonia), marvelously embodying all the meanings I had heard before’ (Scivias, XIII; Hart, p. 525). Then follow lyrics for 14 songs and a shorter dialogue between the virtues, a soul and the devil that she later elaborated into the Ordo. If we understand Hildegard’s reference to ‘all the meanings I had heard before’ to be her work Scivias, her comment reveals how she conceived her treatise, music and drama as a unity to express her teaching about the path towards, and joy of, salvation. Although scholars differ on the specific occasion when the Ordo may have been performed  ̶  to celebrate the removal of Hildegard’s community from Disibodenberg to Rupertsberg in 1150, for a nun’s entrance into the community, or prior to receiving communion – it is evident that Hildegard designed it for her nuns to perform, creating a communal expression of confession and forgiveness.

In the Ordo, Hildegard creatively adapted traditional forms of liturgical drama and classical ideas about the battle between the virtues and vices to craft a story about the journey of ‘everysoul’. The central character in the play, Anima, is at once a particular and universal soul. She is the centre of a struggle between the Devil and the Virtues. Anima is first presented as happy, although she soon falls into discouragement and is lured into sin by the wiles of the Devil. With the aid of the Virtues Anima returns, weakened and bruised, and repents her ways. Humbled, she implores the virtues for assistance and with their aid the Devil is defeated and bound. The play concludes with a final melismatic chant by the Virtues and Anima representing the jubilation of the heavenly chorus.

Hildegard conceives of the Virtues as attributes of divinity that aid and strengthen the soul. The 17 Virtues in the play are drawn from the many Hildegard introduces and discusses in her visionary works. Each of these has special meaning for women living a monastic life – such as Humilitas, presented here as queen of the Virtues, Caritas, Obedientia and Discretio. We may imagine how a performance at Rupertsberg presented Hildegard’s nuns with role models for behaviour and instruction on the meaning and significance of particular virtues for the difficult path of spiritual life. It is intriguing to think about how the roles may have been assigned or selected by the nuns – were individuals chosen to perform a virtue that they already embodied, or one they needed to develop?

The musical structure of the Ordo reinforces the spiritual intent of the drama, distinguishing between sorrowing for sin and rejoicing in victory. The individual Virtues sing short elaborate songs in high modes, echoing their heavenly origins. Anima moves between happy and despairing, the shifts in tone and pace of her song from high to low, fast to slow, reflecting her differing emotional states. The only figure who does not sing is the Devil. Instead he angrily interjects, startles, and growls his challenge to the Virtues and his inducements to Anima. This juxtaposition of sound is intentional, for in Hildegard’s thought anger separated people from God. An angry person could not hear the heavenly symphony, and lacked a human voice. In presenting the Devil as uttering growling, bestial sounds, Hildegard portrays him as discordant and inharmonious, trapped in his fundamental disobedience to God.

To indicate the emotions the performers were to display, the rubrics in the Riesencodex text include emotion words as guides. When we first meet Anima she is described as felix (happy), later gravata (depressed), infelix (unhappy) and penitens (penitent). Similarly, the cleric who performed the role of the Devil is instructed to speak strepitus (noisily). Facial expression, gesture and movement all contribute to the emotional tenor of the drama. At his first appearance in Canberra, the Devil interrupted the rhythmic sound of the harmonium, interjecting a discordant and humorous note.

The Ordo reflects Hildegard’s idea that music can move the heart to change, to arouse the soul to repent. Towards the end of Scivias she wrote:

‘And as the power of God is everywhere and encompasses all things [. . .] so too the human intellect has great power to resound in living voices, and arouse sluggish souls to vigilance by the song’ (Scivias, III, xiii; Hart, p. 533).

In the tradition of Gregory the Great, Hildegard also stresses music’s ability to induce compunction of the heart: ‘For the song of rejoicing softens hard hearts, and draws forth from them the tears of compunction, and invokes the Holy Spirit’ (Scivias, III, xiv; Hart, p. 534).

We see here how Hildegard’s embodied conception of song, through which the breath moves through the body in a way that acts upon the soul, was thought to effect change within the person. Music could soften a hard heart and turn it towards heaven. She uses music to dramatise and evoke the emotional force of repentance, as Anima moves away from pride and grows in humility, before expressing contrition. Hildegard’s musical painting encapsulates the teaching contained in her lengthy visionary treatises and condenses it into a dramatic performance that engages ‘hearts and minds’. Here we see the consummate skill of the teacher keen to shape the lives of her community for the better. Hildegard’s music shows the breadth of her creative expression and how she lent a distinctively female voice to the celebration of the divine in the liturgy. The Ordo also prompts us to reflect on the relations between emotions and the qualities that we desire as virtues in our own lives and how we can bring them into being.

Further Reading:

For an edition and translation of the Ordo Virtutum see Peter Dronke, ‘Ordo VIrtutum, The Play of the Virtues, by Hildegard of Bingen’, in his Nine Medieval Latin Plays (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), pp. 147-184.

Hildegard of Bingen, Scivias, translated by Sister Columba Hart. Classics of Western Spirituality (New York: Paulist Press, 1990), esp. Book Three.

The Ordo Virtutum of Hildegard of Bingen: Critical Studies, ed. by Audrey Ekdahl Davidson (Kalamazoo: Western Michigan University, 1992).

Barbara Newman, Sister of Wisdom: St Hildegard’s Theology of the Feminine (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987).

Voice of the Living Light, ed. by Barbara Newman (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998).

Margot Fassler, ‘Composer and Dramatist’, in Voice of the Living Light, pp. 149-175.

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