Hildegard of Bingen's Musical Style  

Posted by Joe Rawls

Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179), Benedictine abbess, polymath, theologian, musician, and several other things, is probably most accessible to contemporary people through her numerous musical compositions.  On today's feast day we look at an article on her musical style by Nancy Fierro, professor of music at Mt St Mary's College in Los Angeles.  I've also included a representative video of her music. 


Hildegard was a very expressive person.  She loved beautiful clothing, exquisite sounds, fragrant scents, and bright-colored gems.  As a composer, she expressed herself intensely both in the sound and in the words of her music.  The following are some musical features we can find in her compositions.  The style characteristics listed stem from my own observations and from the thoughtful analysis of musicologist Marianne Pfau.

In contrast to the narrow scope of most chants in her day, Hildegard's music has a very wide range.  She uses extremes of register as if to bring heaven and earth together.  According to Pfau, by adding and omitting pitches and pitch groups in repetitions of melodic phrases, Hildegard stretches and contracts melodic phrases to create the "soaring arches" that we are familiar with in her music.

Plainchant usually never employed intervals larger than a second or third.  Hildegard's music vaults upward and downward with wide intervals of fifths and fourths.  She traverses up and down the octave scale with as much ease as she moved between the mystical world and the world of mundane affairs.

Unlike the Romanesque curves of most plainchant melodies, Hildegard's melodies are more angular.  Often we hear rapid ascents in melodies with a slow falling decline.  The heights of her songs are like the spires of Gothic cathedrals shooting upwards in the sky.

Dramatic Flourishes
Hildegard's chants contrast neumatic and melismatic passages.  Neumatic passages are organized with two or three notes per syllable.  Melismatic passages use three or more notes per syllable...Combined with an ascending passage at the end of the piece, Hildegard uses melismas to anticipate the joy we will experience in arriving at our final celestial destiny.

This entry was posted on Tuesday, September 17, 2013 at Tuesday, September 17, 2013 . You can follow any responses to this entry through the comments feed .


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