Primary Source Breakthrough! – Hildegard’s Letter to the Prelates of Mainz

Recently, I’ve been roaming through Hildegard’s letters in search of references to music, singing, rhythm, and the like.

Today, I hit the jackpot.

In 1178, Hildegard refused to exhume the body of a man who supposedly died an excommunicate.  The clergy of Mainz responded to this by placing an interdict on her Rupertsberg convent, preventing them from celebrating the Mass or singing at all.  This letter was sent to challenge that interdict, expanding upon the importance of communion in monastic life, preaching the extraordinary power of music, and generally stating that Mainz was withholding things it did not have the authority to withhold.

I won’t give you the whole letter, so you’ll have to trust that I’m not taking these passages out of context.  Most of them are consecutive, starting from about half-way through the letter.  The only major break occurs between the 3rd and 4th passages, in between which there is a paragraph about interference with the convent.

DISCLAIMER:  This is my English translation of a German translation of Hildegard’s original Latin.  I’ve done my best to make it readable, but there are some spots of awkward syntax.  Mistranslation is entirely possible.  Consider yourself warned.

The same spirit that had received them [the prophets] taught not only psalms and songs to sing, to inflame the devotion of the hearers, but also various musical instruments for sound-full [klangvollen] accompaniment. This happened with the intention that the hearer – both through the shape and nature of these instruments as well as through the meaning of the words presented with them – as already said, would be outwardly encouraged and stimulated about the subject they were taught.

This passage shows that Hildegard not only supports the use of instruments as accompaniment (!), but considers those instruments to be of the same divine inspiration as the music played upon them.  The ‘shape and nature’ of these instruments commonly served as a didactic metaphor in medieval times – Barbara Newman’s introduction to the Symphonia paraphrases Augustine’s explanation quite well: “the tambourine stands for asceticism, because the skin stretched over the wood must be taut and dry, like the body purified by fasting and continence.  The organ represents the community of saints united in charity… the trumpet recalls the voice of the prophets, and among stringed instruments, psaltery and lyre symbolize heaven and earth, because one is plucked from above and the other from below.”  Hildegard suggests here that the combination of visual and textual symbolism is a valuable one, and perhaps that the selection of accompaniment instruments should match the text.

In the imitation of those holy prophets, learned, wise, and skillful men invented several musical instruments themselves and could sing to their heart’s content.  They made the melody on the finger-joints of the hand, which bend like a bow, remembering that Adam received the Holy Spirit through God’s finger.  His [Adam’s] voice had a sweet sound before his error, full of harmony in all musical art.  If he had remained in his original condition, the weakness of his mortal body would not have been able to endure the power and sonority of his voice.

The Guidonian Hand

First of all, the picture you see here is the Guidonian Hand, a medieval mnemonic device for learning to read music.  Guido of Arezzo, responsible for recording this handy (heheh) tool, died approximately 30 years before Hildegard’s birth.  It seems that the Hand probably existed before his time, but good ol’ Guido is the first person is the first person to jot it down in a music theory treatise, and so it’s named after him.  It’s widely accepted that Hildegard would have been familiar with the Hand, and though I haven’t seen the material to prove it, I think it’s very likely – especially given her description in this letter.

I’d also like to bring attention to how incredibly powerful Hildegard says Adam’s pre-Fall voice was.  So powerful that his body wouldn’t be able to handle it.  I’m not sure if this means he would instantly combust or that over time he would disintegrate.  Either way, it shows both Hildegard’s belief in the sheer power of the voice and her belief that the voice is more than its physical production, i.e. the larynx.

But when his seducer, the Devil, heard that Man had begun to sing out of holy inspiration and through this was bypassing him and cultivating the lovely songs of the heavenly fatherland, he knew that his devious tricks wouldn’t work.  This terrified him – he was not just a little disquieted.  Since then, he has constantly concocted many inventions of his wickedness, not only into the hearts of men through evil flustering, impure thoughts, or distractions, but also into the mouth of the Church through quarreling, nuisances, unjust oppression, the banning of the beautiful, melodious praise of God and the spiritual chants, and incessant interference.  

Remember, Hildegard is writing this letter to protest the interdict banning her convent from celebrating the Mass and from singing.  In the second half of this passage, she’s basically telling Mainz that they’ve fallen prey to the Devil’s tricks – an incredibly courageous move.  Returning to the first half, she also asserts that the act of singing brings Man closer to the original paradise, and in doing so, terrifies the Devil.  He was not just a little disquieted, he was seriously scared.  Hildegard here places song as the antithesis of wickedness, a sort of champion against devilish works.

Consider how the body of Christ was conceived by the Holy Spirit in the untouched Virgin Mary.  So also is chant rooted in the church by the Holy Spirit as an echo of the heavenly harmony.  The body is the garment of the soul, which owns a loud voice – God comes through the body, the voice and the soul together, in singing.  Hence the prophetic spirit also knows to praise God with clanging and jubilant cymbals and the remaining musical instruments which the wise and learned have invented.  

Hildegard just linked singing to the birth of Christ, the bringer of salvation, both divine and human.

(takes deep breath)

That’s huge.  Really huge.  Cosmologically huge.  In doing so, she also links the act of singing to the perpetual act of creation.  The singer is the body which the spirit enlivens, and the resulting song – the song that’s both voice and soul – is an expression of divinity, possibly even divinity itself.  This parallel runs not only on the personal scale, but also on the larger community scale, with the church functioning essentially as one united body through which the song can be born.

(I don’t entirely follow her leap from singing to clanging cymbals, but I took this last sentence to reinforce the previous passage about the use of instruments.)

A person listening to a song often takes a deep breath and sighs because it reminds him of the original heavenly harmony.  The prophet therefore carefully ponders the nature and knowledge of the spirit, that the soul is full of harmony [symphonialis est anima], and encourages us to praise the Lord in psalm with zither and ten-stringed harp.  He [unsure whether this is the prophet or the Lord] likes the deep-sounding zither, akin to the body, with the bright-sounding harp, akin to the spirit, and with the ten-stringed harp points out the fruition of the Laws.  

The beginning of this passage suggests that we like music because of something innate within us, something that corresponds to something beyond ourselves.  I really want to read this in the original Latin because I get the sense that the German translation I’m working with is missing some of the subtleties and plays-on-words…. and it’s certainly missing the connections to her (Latin) song texts.  Nonetheless, her statement here that ‘the soul is full of harmony’ applies not only in musical terms, but to her philosophy on a larger scale.  I think this concept deserves a full post of its own, so I won’t go further into it here.

In the latter half of this passage, Hildegard returns to the instrumental metaphors.  I suspect that the Latin text indicates ‘lyre’ in place of this German translation’s bright-sounding ‘harp’, mostly because it would complete the heaven-and-earth metaphor more gracefully, but also because the harp, whose strings are plucked from either side (not above or below) would then function as an intercessor of sorts.  I think that the ‘ten-stringed’-ness of the harp is meant to correspond with the Ten Commandments, which would make this interpretation more plausible.


Thank you, Nora Beck, for getting me addicted to primary source material.  

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