Timeline 006: Hildegard Of Bingen And Her ‘Play Of Virtues’

Jun 1, 2015

Hildegard of Bingen was a writer, composer, philosopher, mystic, abbess, polymath and a literal visionary of the 12th Century.

She was born in 1098 to a noble family in the Rhine land.  As a child she was often sickly and bed ridden, and from the time she was very young she experienced compelling visions that often frightened her. Perhaps due to these visions, her parents offered her to the church at the age of 8. She became a nun and though her visions continued, she quickly learned to keep them to herself.

In 1136, she was elected by her fellow sisters to be the magistra, the head mother, of her Benedictine order.  Not long after, against the wishes of the abbot, she founded an independent convent in Bingen. However, the same illnesses and visions that she experienced as a child were haunting her even now as a grown woman.

The visions and illnesses became something entirely different in 1141, when Hildegard of Bingen was 43-years-old.

She says in her writing that she received a verbal call from God to write down everything she saw and heard. She then believed that her visions were messages from God and from that point on she wrote many theological treatises as well as musical compositions.

"The Play Of Virtues" is a dramatic musical work presented on a stage without sets or costumes, much like an early oratorio.
Credit US-PD / Wikipedia Creative Commons

Her most famous work is The Play of Virtues, a musical morality play in which intangible concepts like mercy, peace and love are personified. It’s a dramatic musical work presented on a stage without sets or costumes, much like an early oratorio. 

The Play of Virtues is unique in that it written for only female voices at a time when male voices dominated almost every aspect of the church. The one male role in the work is the part of the devil, who is not even allowed to sing due to his corrupt nature.  This play is believed to be an inspiration, a precursor, of what we now call opera.