HILDEGARD von BINGEN (1098-1179)

O ignis spiritus paracliti

From the age of five, Hildegard von Bingen saw gloriously vivid visions, but it wasn’t until the age of forty-three that she began documenting them, and then channeling their ecstatic energy into music. By that time, Hildegard was abbess at the Benedictine monastery Disibodenberg, which had been her physical and spiritual home from the tender age of eight, when her family dedicated her to the service of the church.

The monastic life builds the rhythm of a day around the Divine Offices; daily services taking place at designated hours. Sequences (from the Latin, sequentia, “following”) were elaborations of spiritual texts sung between the Alleluia and Gospel. Originally, the last syllable of “Alleluia” was simply melodically prolonged, like a wordless ribbon extending, twisting, and trailing, in order to give more time for processions occurring during services. Eventually poetic text pertaining to the service was added with specific accompanying melodies, and sequences proliferated into the thousands (the Church subsequently trimmed things down into a handful of approved sequences, one of which, the Dies Irae, is well-known to many classical concert goers as the sequence occurring in the Requiem mass).

What is striking about this sequence, and indeed all of Hildegard’s music, is how elaborate it is in relation to most of the Gregorian chant being sung during her time—an early example of sheer artistic expression marrying form and function. Her music is often noted for the soaring lines, the intervallic leaps, and the melodic movement that is more angular than stepwise. The visions, which she experienced her whole life, were often centered around earthly elements of fire, water, and wind, and the texts to her compositions are preoccupied with expressing the spiritual with nature imagery—particularly the blazing light of flames, which is associated with the Holy Spirit.

O ignis spiritus paracliti, written to honor the Holy Spirit, begins with the following text:

O spirit of fire, bringer of comfort,
Life of the life of every creature,
You are holy, giving life to forms.

You are holy,
anointing those perilously broken;
you are holy,
cleansing foul wounds.

O breath of holiness,
O fire of love,
O sweet savor in our breasts,
infusing hearts with the scent of virtue.