WIUM Tristates Public Radio

Commentary: The Story of a Soul

Jan 15, 2020

The beginning of a new year is often a time to look back and draw inspiration for the future. Today I would like to take this opportunity to look back – far, far back— to 2 exceptional women who lived in the early 1100s. Each fall, I play a piece for the students in my music history class, and ask them what this composition can tell us about people from the past.

The music was written in the first half of the twelfth century by a woman named Hildegard of Bingen. Born in 1198 to a German noble family, Hildegard joined a monastic community at age 8 and by 1136, at 38, she became the magistra or leader of a group of nuns who wanted to establish an independent religious community.

Her community was very important to her: one anecdote tells us that when the group’s initial request to start their convent was denied, Hildegard was struck with paralysis and confined to bed. She attributed her illness to God’s displeasure at the refusal and experienced a miraculous cure once the new convent was approved.

This particular piece was written, as were most of Hildegard’s works, for her fellow nuns. The Ordo virtutum, or Play of Virtues, was a morality play intended to instruct both performers and listeners using the story of a Soul, tempted away from the Virtues by the Devil. Hildegard highlights the contrast between the two sides by having the Virtues (performed by the nuns) sing their text, while the Devil (performed by one of the few men in the play) doesn't sing at all – he only shouts.

The type of music Hildegard wrote is called plainchant, the most common form of music in the early Christian church. Hildegard and her companions would have been used to singing it, spending four to six hours in song as part of their daily worship practices.

The main purpose of chant was to convey the word of God, and not to display the voices of the singers. However, in this example we hear Hildegard focusing on the voice, specifically the unexpected entry of the solo soprano about halfway through the excerpt. As with her choice of speaking for the devil, this moment is not random, for the Devil has just been defeated, and the soprano singer, playing the role of Victory, calls on everyone to rejoice.

Hildegard uses this dramatic change of register to emphasize the importance of this climatic point in the plot.

This soaring vocal line also introduces our second exceptional woman of the past, its singer. We know much less about her, not even her name, but she clearly had a remarkable voice and range.

Working together, these two artists, composer and singer, embodied the triumph of the Virtues and the message of Hildegard's play. To be successful, both women had to be confident in their ability to meet their challenges, and I hope you all are inspired to do the same this year. 

Dr. Anita Hardeman is an Associate Professor of Music History and Humanities at Western Illinois University.

The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of the university or Tri States Public Radio. Diverse viewpoints are welcomed and encouraged.