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Inspired by the Healing Music of Hildegard of Bingen

Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179)

In an era when women had little voice, 12th-century abbess Hildegard of Bingen founded her own women's monastery, authored volumes of sacred text, served as a physician to her community, wrote the oldest surviving musical morality play, and produced plainchants of great expression and beauty. She was canonized in 2012.

WRTI's Debra Lew Harder explores how the healing quality of her music inspired contemporary American composer Christopher Theofanidis to create his orchestral piece Rainbow Body (2000.) Theofanidis draws not only from the music of Hildegard, but also from the Tibetan Buddhist concept that when an enlightened being dies, the body is absorbed back into the universe, as energy and light.

Radio script:

RAINBOW BODY has become one of the most performed symphonic works of any living composer since its premiere in 2000.

MUSIC: "Ave Maria, O Autrix Vita," by Hildegard of Bingen

Debra Lew Harder: In Germany’s Rhineland a thousand years ago, Hildegard of Bingen was promised to the church by her parents when she was just a young girl. She grew up to become a powerful spiritual leader, visionary author, and composer. Her 77 Gregorian chants, set to her own liturgical poetry, praise God through the story of salvation.

Hildegard was also a physician, treating ailments in the community from headache to gout to reproductive illness. Her two medical texts open a window into the world of medieval medicine.

MUSIC: Rainbow Body, by Christopher Theofanidis, performed by the Philadelphia Orchestra, under Yannick Nezet-Seguin

Composer Christopher Theofanidis

DLH: Rainbow Body, the orchestral piece by American composer Christopher Theofanidis, quotes directly from Hildegard’s chant "Ave Maria, O Autrix Vita," or “Hail Mary, O Source of Life.” In her work, he heard something wonderful that inspired him:

Christopher Theofanidis: This one in particular that Rainbow Body is based on has a kind of healing quality and I love that."

DLH: Rainbow Body has become one of the most performed symphonic works of any living composer since its premiere in 2000. What makes it resonate so strongly with us? Perhaps because we sense an extraordinary woman composer and physician, offering to us across a thousand years that spirit of healing.

Debra's last day on the air at WRTI was September 21st, 2021. She's now the radio host for The Metropolitan Opera. Read more here.