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Instrument Biography: The Recorder

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The recorder is an evolved form of flute, a woodwind from the family of fipple or internal duct flutes. Although many of the fingering principles are the same, it’s distinguished from the transverse flute by being end-blown. Although some forms of fippled flutes are older, the recorder as we know it may have originated in Italy in the 14th century. It soon became important as a consort instrument during the Renaissance. Like the viol, the recorder comes in a family of sizes—as many as eight, according to Michael Praetorius.

The recorder was popular from Medieval times through the Baroque, and declined in popularity in the 18th century in favor of orchestral woodwind instruments, such as the traverse flute, oboe, and clarinet. It was often associated with pastoral scenes, miraculous events, funerals, marriages, and amorous scenes. Images reflecting those sensibilities can be found in both literature and artwork.

The recorder was far more popular than its loud double-reeded cousin the shawm and its noisy cousin the bagpipe, and volume was probably a contributing factor. Sometimes players bound two recorders together, one to be played with the right hand and the other with the left. This seems an imitation of the ancient Greek aulos rather than an innovation, though.

The modern revival of interest in the instrument began at the turn of 20th century primarily due to resurgence of interest in early music (as defined by “music before 1750”). Arnold Dolmetsch in the UK and various scholars in Germany, including the Brussels Conservatory where Dolmetsch trained and the performance group Bogenhauser Künstlerkapelle, were largely responsible for this revival of interest, but even so, there were common misperceptions about it, including by such notables as Igor Stravinsky, who thought it was some sort of clarinet.

Recorder History

There are other end-blown flutes, such as panpipes, but the recorder is made distinctive by the contraption in the throat of it that controls the flow of air. This contraption is called a duct or a fipple, and its use is better described in the Structure portion of this article. It’s an ancient idea, and an Iron Age (1200-550 BCE) recorder made of sheep bone has been discovered.

Although common lore claims the recorder as a 14th century invention, Medieval paintings of whistles argue for an earlier inception. The difference between a whistle (like those used in Irish folk tunes), with six or fewer holes, is that a recorder has seven holes in the front and one in the back. The original design of the traverse flute, and the fingering that goes with it, was based on the six-holed whistle, not the recorder. Yup, I was surprised to learn this too.

A 14th century recorder was discovered in a castle moat in the Netherlands. It was largely intact, but no longer playable. They found another from the same period buried in a latrine (we can only wonder how THAT came to be) in Northern Germany. There are a few more from the same period elsewhere in Germany, and in Estonia and Poland. There’s a piece of a bone recorder from the 14th or 15th century that was dug up in Greece and a complete recorder from the 15th century was found in Poland.

The earliest recorders were designed to be played with the right hand below the left or vice versa, depending on the preferences of the player. The holes were all in a straight line, except the lowest hole, for the lower hand’s little finger. This was a double hole so that the player could fill the unused hole with clay, depending upon which hand they preferred to play with uppermost. This second hole is why the French called the instrument flute à neuf trous. Later, the right-hand lower style was declared standard and the second hole disappeared.

The recorder was very popular in the 16th and 17th century, probably because music was no longer strictly the purview of nobility and clergy. The invention of the printing press made music available to anyone with the money to pay for it. The recorder was also brought into royal courts, including that of Henry VIII. When he died in 1547, they found 76 recorders among his possessions.

During the Renaissance, recorders were used for dance music and as accompaniment for singers. Both William Shakespeare and John Milton also mention recorders. There are many vocal works with un-texted lines that were probably meant for instruments, such as vielles and recorders and lots of vocal music was easily playable (within the right range) by these instruments. Increasingly, composers wrote music solely for instruments, and they often didn’t specify which. This meant that a consort (a group containing a bunch of instruments from the same family, like various sizes of cornettos or recorders) could be played by whatever musicians and instruments were handy. This period of innovation and invention proved that if an instrument was good in one size, it would be even better in several sizes and with several ranges.

In the 15th century, recorders were increasingly used in polyphony along with voices, organs, shawms, trombones, trumpets, and cornetti. Polyphony was the style of the day during the Renaissance, but composers were just beginning to write chordal pieces. (For more on this, check out Chords versus Polyphony.) The Medieval tradition of juxtaposing two or three melodies on top of one another co-existed with imitation, where one part has the melody and then another does, each taking a turn. The late Renaissance also ushered in an interest in complex improvisation and ornamentation, something that was so very distinctive during the Baroque period.

There are many existing examples of recorders from the 16th century, all still playable. Like the Medieval recorders but unlike the later Baroque recorders, Renaissance recorders have a wide and nearly cylindrical bore (Baroque recorders tend to be conical). They have great low notes (better than the Baroque instruments, in fact) because of that wider bore. This bore shape meant that the player had to blow harder, but it also made the instrument more lithe and responsive.

The recorder’s relative, the flageolet, is thought to have been invented by someone called Juvigny in Paris at the close of the 16th century. It had unusual finger holes—four in the front and two in the back—and it had a particularly high-pitched sound.

In the 17th century, changes to the design of the recorder made it more suitable to the Baroque era, including improvements to the tone, which made it quieter and reduced its range. Praetorius mentions eight sizes of recorder in his 1618 treatise, but only three were still in use a century later: the descant, alto, and bass. Its gentle and subdued tone couldn’t keep up with the growing demand of the 18th century for dynamic and tonal contrasts, and it was slowly ousted by the traverse flute. In the 18th century, people called the recorder the flute because it was so wide-spread, and they called the traverse flute the traverse to distinguish it.

After the 18th century, there wasn’t much call for recorders. It’s possible that the versatility of the traverse flute made it more appealing to composers. Because of the fixed relationship of the wind-way to the fipple, the dynamics and expression of the recorder were limited, making it ill suited to the dramatic style of the period. Also, music as a pastime for aristocratic amateurs was changing to music for a society of professionals, and composers of the time began to write solely for professionals.

By the Romantic era, the recorder had been nearly completely replaced by the traverse flute and the clarinet. A keyed version of the recorder (called a czakan or Stockflöte) survived into 19th century concert halls. But still, its popularity waned. The recorder was basically ignored during the Romantic period. But in 1912, Arnold Dolmetsch, who was instrumental (ha ha) in reviving quite a few ancient instruments, made them popular again, especially in England and Germany. Now, recorders in various sizes, and mostly without keys, are made for the Early Music Movement, for music education in the schools, and for performances of folk music.

Fortunately for us, playing the recorder never completely died, and there are still makers all over Europe. There was a huge recorder revival in the 20th century as part of the historically informed performance (HIP) movement of early music, but also because it’s simple and ideally adapted to teaching music to amateurs. Lots of children played recorders as a “gateway” instrument, but there are many professional players who can show us the instrument’s full range.

The recorder is enjoyed by amateur groups large and small, which usually contain multiple sizes of instruments to compensate for limited note ranges in individual instruments. Four-part arrangements (soprano, alto, tenor, bass, just like vocal parts) are most common, although there are more complex arrangements (just like vocal parts). Recorder orchestras are a late-20th century invention, with 60 or more players, and up to nine sizes of the instrument. You can find such groups in Germany, the Netherlands, Japan, the US, Canada, the UK, and several other countries.

Recorder Structure

The recorder is a wind instrument with a beak mouthpiece, seven finger holes at the front, and a thumb hole at the back. It was well-known in the Middle Ages and had developed several sizes by the 14th century, when the name, meaning “keepsake” was first used. The recorder achieved its real pre-eminence during the Renaissance when it was the only wind instrument with its own tutorial. This instruction manual was written by Sylvestro Ganassi in 1535 and showed that great technical brilliance was possible over a range of nearly three octaves.

The recorder is held outward from the player’s lips, rather than to the side, like a traverse flute. The breath is compressed into a linear stream by a channel cut into the block (also called a fipple) in the mouthpiece of the instrument, and travels along the duct, called the windway. As it exits the windway, the air hits the hard edge of the body of the head, called the labium or the ramp, which causes the column of air to resonate within the tube. The recorder uses fingering (open holes, half-holes, and forking) to change notes.

Blowing harder on a recorder affects its pitch, so the dynamic range (loudness) of recorders is limited to subtleties. It’s renowned for its clear and lithe articulation, and a skilled player can take advantage of that to suggest dynamic changes. Some effects can be made by controlling the pitch with partially covered holes or alternative fingerings to accommodate harder breath pressure.

The sound of the instrument is clear and sweet, partially because it doesn’t have upper harmonics.

At its upper end, early recorders had a beak-like formation, which was blocked except for a narrow channel in the fipple. Today, some recorders have this beak-like shape, and others are blown into a slot cut into the fipple block itself.

The slit of the mouthpiece directs the stream of air against the sharp edge of the fipple block, which sets up vibrations. The block in the mouthpiece leaves a narrow channel for the air to pass through. The block is called a block in most countries, and in England, it’s called a fipple.

Sound in a recorder is produced in much the same way as in the flue pipes of an organ. Air is passed through a long vented tube that is a specific length to achieve the notes in the desired range. Finger holes provide the ability to change notes (unlike an organ’s pipes).

The recorder has a lightly tapered bore, widest at the mouthpiece and narrowed toward the foot on Baroque recorders, or flared at the bottom on Renaissance instruments.

Recently, organ-pipe-shaped recorders have been built with square cross-sections. These are cheaper than the traditional size, but aren’t as attractive. They have greater ranges and stronger low notes, making these newer instruments more audible when playing concertos. Some of these newer instruments can play three octaves in tune. The tenor is particularly popular because its range matches that of the traverse flute.

When overblown, a recorder sounds the next octave, so there is no way to produce a louder sound.

Internal duct flutes are not all recorders; only recorders have eight finger holes, seven on the front and one on the back for the upper hand’s thumb. Players could choose which hand was above the other; the lowest hole was often doubled and the player could stop up the unused one with clay.

There’s some debate about whether the thumb hole at the back of the instrument was a 16th century development. Pictorial references only show the front of the instrument, so there’s no way to know. No instruments have survived to prove or disprove this theory.

By the middle of the 17th century, the double lowest hole was considered impractical, and they invented a movable hole, putting the last hole on its own section so that it could be rotated to suit the player. It was at this point that four new keys were added to the bass and contrabass forms. Two of these keys were operated by foot pedals.

Double recorders weren’t common in the 16th century, but they did happen. The two pipes lay side-by-side and were carved from a single block of wood. There are two forms of this instrument, one where the holes are pierced in staggered positions and the other where the holes are side-by-side. The side-by-side version survived because adjacent holes could be stopped by fingers on the other hand—it was a more limber instrument to play, but it also required a certain agility from the player.

Double recorders during the Baroque were bored out of the same piece of wood with the finger holes close together so that each pair could be closed with a single finger. The width of the holes, the bore of the tubes, and the position of the flutes in the block was different for each of the two instruments, and it was possible to obtain an interval of a third between each pair of parallel finger holes. The instrument was popular in England and Switzerland. A fellow called Christian Schlegel of Basel was one of the best double recorder makers in the 18th century.

French innovations were brought to London by Frenchman Pierre Bressan (1663-17310). Thomas Stanesby (c1668-1734) was an instrument maker, mostly of oboes, in London—he and his son were the other important recorder-makers of the 18th century, along with Bressan.

In the early 20th century, Peter Harlan (a German) developed a (single) recorder that allowed simpler fingering, called the German fingering. Such instruments have a slightly smaller fifth hole, whereas Baroque and neo-Baroque instruments have the fourth hole smaller. This causes a difference in fingering for F and B-flat. Sadly, it also causes other notes to be out of tune. German fingering was popular in Europe, especially in Germany in the 1930s but was obsolete by the 1950s as musicians got more serious about the recorder and the limitations of German fingering became more of an annoyance.

In half-hole or forking fingering, air leaks out through part of the hole making the pitch higher than expected. Some Baroque instruments have divided holes to facilitate playing these notes accurately. Half-covering or not covering a hole and fully covering lower holes is called “forking” and has a different tonal character than those notes in the scale that peel up from the bottom.

Pinching is when the thumbhole in the back is only partially covered, and the higher notes that are achieved by this method call upon the harmonics of the instrument. Again, there is some degradation of the tone.

Recorders can be made of wood, plastic, or ivory. When they’re made of wood, they’re maple, pear, rosewood, granadilla, or boxwood with a block of red cedar. Plastic recorders are mass-produced and are cheaper to maintain than wood, and the good quality ones are equal to or better than the lower-end wooden recorders. Most beginners’ or children’s instruments are plastic.

Modern instruments are based on Baroque style, although some makers reproduce Renaissance-styled instruments. Those (Renaissance-style) have a wider, less tapered bore and usually have a less reedy and more blending tone, well-suited to consorts.

Until 1650 or so, the instrument was a smooth shaft that suited the taste of the Renaissance. But the Baroque style was much more complicated and the recorder was reshaped accordingly. The tube left the lathe with expansions at either end, so that the form curved gracefully.

The change in shape from the Renaissance to the Baroque was largely attributed to the Hotteterre family (see more on them in Instrument Biography: The Flute). They developed the tapered bore, which brought the lower hand’s fingers closer together, allowing a greater range and making it possible to build the instrument in several jointed sections. Separating the instrument into sections allowed more accurate shaping of each individual section, and it offered minor tuning adjustments by lengthening and shortening the length of the instrument with a change to the position of the sections.

In the mid-20th century, recorders were made of Bakelite and plastics, so they were cheap and easy to produce. This made them popular in schools, as they could be bought in bulk for a good price. They are pre-tuned and easy to play in tune, even at the most basic level of skill. Mastery, however, isn’t so easy. The success in schools has led to the misunderstanding of the recorder as a children’s instrument.

At the beginning of the 16th century, the recorder was being made in four sizes—a hundred years later, Praetorius describes eight sizes. The larger instruments have double-winged keys instead of the duplicate lower holes, and were blown through a brass S-shaped tube (like the bassoon) for greater ease in performance.

The treble recorder (called the alto in the US) is most commonly used as a solo instrument. If no size is specified, it’s this one that is meant. The descant (called the soprano in the USA) also has an important repertoire of solo music. There is some tenor and bass solo music, but not much compared to alto and soprano.

The largest recorder, the contrabass, even larger than the bass recorder, is seldom used due to its cost and size. It stands about 6.5 feet tall, and is in the key of F.

An experimental piccolino has been produced, which plays about 12 notes above the range of the soprano. The fingering for this instrument requires very small hands, and the holes tend to be side-by side rather than lined up down the length of the instrument (like an ocarina), so it’s pretty darned hard to play.

In ensembles, soprano, alto, tenor, and bass are most common, and many players play all the instruments and switch, as the needs of the music demand. Great basses and contrabasses are less common. The sopranino doesn’t blend well and is usually reserved for recorder orchestras and for playing concertos (solo pieces with orchestral backup). Larger recorders require larger hands, and instruments larger than the tenor have keys to enable the reach and provide a better tonal response (through consistently complete hole coverage). Some altos also have keys to aid in completely covering the holes.

The largest recorders are so long that the player can’t reach the finger holes and still reach the mouthpiece with the lips. Instruments larger than the bass (and some basses, too) use a bocal or a crook, which is a thin metal tube like that of the bassoon, to conduct the player’s breath to the windway, or they may be constructed in sections that fold the recorder into a shape that brings the windway back into reach.


German instrument-maker Sebastian Virdung (born c.1465-   ) used alto, tenor, and bass sizes in his “Musica getuscht” of 1511 but Michael Praetorius (1571-1621) lists eight, from the great bass to sopranino. Praetorius recommends a consort of the larger sizes as sounding best because the lower ones had a soft and expressive tone suitable for all sorts of music.

Each different size of recorder comes with its own register. They are usually tuned in C or F, meaning that their lowest note is a C or an F. There are instruments in D, B-flat, G, and E-flat, but those are more common historically than today. The treble (alto) recorder is in G, and is commonly used in Renaissance ensembles. The tenor recorder is in D, and is also called a voice-flute because it was much like a human voice in its range.

Most recorders are pitched at “concert pitch” (A=440 Hz), but other pitches are available. For Baroque instruments, A=415 Hz is standard, and Renaissance instruments are at A=466. These alternative tunings are a compromise between historical accuracy and what is practical for playing in groups. There’s an alto pitched at A=403, and there are makers who offer two middle sections, each at a different pitch, so the instrument can be immediately adaptable. (A 415-pitch is an exact half-step lower than 440, so many other instruments, such as vielles, viola da gamba, and harpsichords, can be adapted relatively quickly.)

Music isn’t usually transposed for the recorder, but is written in the same key as it’s played. Some family members must transpose for the octave (soprano and above, and bass and great bass). Recorders are referred to as D-fingered, C-fingered, G-fingered, F-fingered, etc. based on their lowest notes (with all the finger holes closed). Players must know at least C- and F-fingering or spend some time transposing at sight.

Sizes from garklein down through tenor are notated in treble clef and bass and lower are notated in the bass clef. The six-inch-long garklein sounds two octaves above the written pitch, even higher than the sopranino and soprano, which both sound one octave above the written pitch. The alto and tenor sizes sound as written, and the bass and great bass sound one octave above the written bass (in bass clef). These transpositions are written by adding a small “8” above or below the treble or bass clef for those instruments that don’t sound as written, although it’s not always written in, and the transpositions must be assumed from context. Contrabass and sub-contrabass sound as written, and the octocontrabass sounds an octave below written pitch.

Recorders sound an octave above the human voice after which they’re named (soprano, alto, tenor, bass). They don’t sound like they’re an octave higher though, because of the harmonics involved in making the notes.

Michael Praetorius describes a narrower range than modern instruments have. This is partially from improvements in construction since his time and partially from the general skills of today’s players. Reproductions of period instruments often have a range of as little as an octave and a half, and modern instruments usually have a little more than two octaves.

Some reproductions use Sylvestro Ganassi’s fingerings and offer the larger range of modern instruments—music publishers mean that the range is of two octaves or more when they refer to Ganassi recorder.

Most recorder pieces encompass two octaves, except in virtuoso pieces. Higher notes are more difficult to play, and fingerings vary from instrument to instrument. It’s possible to hit some additional notes by covering the end of the instrument. Usually, this is accomplished with the player’s thigh. Some makers add a key to help with this note, and a longer bore can help reach these notes as well. Although common in 20th century music and later, this maneuver is seldom used in pre-20th century music.

Most modern recorders are based on the designs by Bressan, Stanesby, and Denner. The Denner family in Nuremberg were continental recorder makers from the 18th century.

Popular music in the 20th century required inventing new noises, rhythms, and effects, such as flutter tonguing and overblowing to produce multiphonics.

The Name

Called the recorder since the 14th century, the earliest known use of the term was in the household of the Earl of Derby (who later became King Henry IV) in 1388—he called it the fistula nomine Recordour which comes from ricordare especiale, which essentially means “remember” in Italian.

The recorder was called the flauto in Italian until the 18th century. Italian is the language (still) used in writing music. The instrument called the flute today was then known as the traverse. This name anomaly led to some music being performed on possibly the wrong instrument. Today, the recorder is known as the flauto dolce in Italian (sweet flute), with equivalents in other Latin languages, such as the flauta doce in Portuguese and flaute dulce in Spanish. In Portuguese and Spanish, the term “flauta” is ambiguous, as it can mean a traverse flute, a recorder, or even some other kind of wind instrument, like the pan flute, and some Central and South American instruments.

In French, the word flûte is similarly ambiguous—the French recorder is usually called the flûte a bec, or beaked flute. The Spanish picked up on this descriptive term and also called it the flauta de pico. The Old French name was flute à neuf trous for the recorder that had two holes in the lowest position depending on the handedness of the player.

From the “block” (fipple plug) in German, the recorder is known as a Blockflöte and the modern flute is known as the Querflöte (the traverse flute), the Grossflöte (great flute) or simply the Flöte. There’s also the Schnabelflöte, the mouth (or beak) flute for the recorder. Dutch follows the same convention as German, with blokfluit being the recorder and dwarsfluit the traverse flute.

An illustration of a recorder appears in England during the 12th century, but the name doesn’t occur until the 14th century. The name means “keepsake.” The English also call it the fipple-flute.

Bach called for two flauti d’echo in his 4th Brandenburg Concerto in G major. This instrument was the double recorder, two recorders (both in F) connected together by leather flanges. One was rigged to play softly and the other loudly, causing the echo effect and the name.

Recorder Composers

The numbers are too many to list, but I’ll tell you a few of my favorites: Guillaume Dufay, Johannes Ockeghem, Josquin Des Prez, Heinrich Isaac (c1450-1517), Orlando di Lasso (c1532-1594), William Byrd (c1540-1543), and John Dowland (1563-1626). All of these gentlemen composed music for singers that could also be played by recorder consorts.

George Frideric Handel (1685-1759) used the flageolet in Rinaldo and in Acis and Galatea. Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) used the flageolet in Sacred Cantatas ## 96 and 103. Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741) wrote three concertos for the flautino and used it in the orchestra for his opera. Initially thought to mean a piccolo, later studies have determined that he called for a sopranino recorder.

Christoph Willibald Gluck (1714-1787) was probably one of the last to specify that a recorder rather than a flute be used in his Orfeo and Euridice.

Henry Purcell (c1659-1695), J.S. Bach (1685-1750), Georg Philipp Telemann (1681-1767), and Vivaldi (1678-1741) all used the recorder to suggest shepherds and to imitate birds in their music, a theme that continued through the 20th century.

More modern composers for the recorder include Edgard Varèse (1883-1965), Malcolm Arnold (1921-2006), Richard Harvey (1953-   ), Paul Hindemith (1895-1963), Josef Tal (1910-2008), John Tavener (1944-   ), Benjamin Britten (1913-1976), Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990), and Malcolm Arnold (1921-2006).

Carl Orff (1895-1982) was largely responsible for the popularity of recorders for use in schools, and is most famous for his Carmina Burana. He wrote “Music for Children” with many pieces for recorders, plus other instruments.

Recorder Players

There are lots of them. I’ll list just a few. Frans Brüggen (1934-    ), Hans-Martin Linde (1930-   ), Bernard Krainis (1924-2000), David Munrow (1942-1976), Kees Otten (1924-  ), Michala Petri (1958-   ), Piers Adams (1963-   ), and Charlotte Barbour-Condini (1997-   ). Leticia Berlin and Frances Blaker, and their group Tibia Recorder Duo are my two local favorites. I’m not mentioning the years they were born because I don’t want them to bop me on the noggin with a recorder.

Carl Dolmetsch (1911-1997) was the son of Arnold, the big recorder designer and builder. Carl commissioned works from the leading composers of his day.

Famous groups include Sour Cream (led by Frans Brüggen), Flautando Köln, Flanders Recorder Quartet, Amsterdam Loeki Stardust Quartet, Quartet New Generation have all combined mixtures of historical and contemporary repertoire.

Popular Music:

Loads of rock and rollers have used the recorder, including The Beatles, The Rolling Stones (Ruby Tuesday), Yes (I’ve seen all Good People), Jefferson Airplane, Led Zeppelin (Stairway to Heaven), Jimi Hendrix, Fairport Convention, and Mannheim Steamroller.


“Musical Instruments; Their History in Western Culture from the Stone Age to the Present Day,” by Karl Geiringer, translated by Bernard Miall. George Allen & Unwin, Ltd., London, 1949.

“A Dictionary of Early Music; From the Troubadours to Monteverdi,” by Jerome and Elizabeth Roche. Oxford University Press, New York, 1981.

“A History of Western Music,” by J. Peter Burkholder, Donald Jay Grout, and Claude V. Palisca. W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 2010.

“Music in the Middle Ages,” by Gustave Reese. W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 1940.

“Companion to Medieval & Renaissance Music,” edited by Tess Knighton and David Fallows. University of California Press, Berkeley, 1992.


Instrument Biography: The Lyre

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The lyre was ubiquitous from ancient times until the Middle Ages. It was present in ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, endured in Asia, prospered in Africa, and wandered all over Europe and Great Britain. Even so, it has been nearly completely absent from musical experience for the last 600 years. But that doesn’t make it irrelevant. Without it, the harp, zither, lute, guitar, violin, vielle, and countless other instruments would never have been invented.

Back in ancient Egypt, the instruments in an “orchestra” (this term meant something different back then) were very quiet, like the lyre, harp, and flute. Middle Eastern groups of musicians came to resemble noisier Asian orchestras around 3000 BCE with the influx of newly conquered peoples and their instruments. By 1700-1500-BCE, this change affected the social standing of musicians—where once music had been a hobby for the elite, under the New Empire, music became the purview of professionals, often of ill repute. Upper-class conservatives preserved the old music in temples and schools, leaving noisier music to the general population—just like today!

The instruments adopted or developed by Egyptians during this period of transition were lyres (during the Hellenistic period), kitharas (a posh version of the lyre), lutes, harps, flutes, reed instruments (similar to oboes and clarinets), castanets, cymbals, bells, drums, and rattles. There are examples of failed attempts to make trumpets from this time as well.

It’s probable that the development of all these other instruments began because even the largest lyre couldn’t play more than two octaves. In fact, most could only play one octave or less because they had only three, five, or six strings. It’s also probable that this had long been an acceptable range because singers would have been all male, rendering a broader range unnecessary. (Because women often sing in both head and chest voice, even an untrained woman usually has nearly double the range of most men. It’s not a judgement fellahs, it’s the great estrogen/testosterone divide.)

Some musicologists think of the lyre as part of the zither family (which also includes lutes, guitars, kantele, and psalteries). Other musicologists insist that they’re not in the same family because zithers (and lutes, guitars, kanteles, and psalteries) have strings that cross the soundboard for their entire length or nearly the entire length, whereas a lyre’s strings cover the soundboard for half or less of their length.

The poetic recitations of the ancient Greeks were accompanied by lyres. Apparently, the Greek god Apollo played one, and for a while, the instrument became a cult favorite in ancient Greece during the rise of his cult. An account by Homer credits the invention of the lyre to the Greek god Hermes, but a Thracian account claims that they had used the lyre long before the Greeks.

In truth, this ancient stringed instrument was, with the kithara, the most important stringed instrument of both ancient Greece and ancient Rome, not to mention Asia, Africa, an d Egypt. Although its popularity waned a bit by the Middle Ages, its association with King David brought a small resurgence in popularity in Europe, and a lyre often appeared in illustrations of musicians and angels from the late 7th century onward.

The Judeo-Christian Bible mentions the lyre in 42 places. The Septuagent translates the word for lyre 20 times as kithara (in Psalms, Job, and Isaiah), 17 times as kinnyra (in Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles), and several other times in Greek forms. The Vulgate translates 37 of the 42 times as cithara, once as cithara pro octava, in two places as psalterium, once as organum, and twice as lyra. The Aquila, Symmachos, and Theodotion (versions of the Bible) use either kithara or psalterion.

“Lyric music” originally meant “music sung to the lyre.” Betcha didn’t know that!

Oh, and just so we’re all playing in the same band, the difference between a harp and a lyre is that the lyre has a soundboard with two arms sticking out of it, roughly parallel like a U-shape, and with a crossbar connecting the two arms. The strings of a lyre run from the soundboard to the crossbar, parallel to the arms and across the face of the soundboard. The harp is a triangle and the strings are perpendicular to the soundboard, sticking out of it rather than running across it.

Lyre History

There isn’t much evidence of lyres in Mesopotamia before the Greeks came, but if flourished after that. Curt Sachs, one of the world’s greatest musicologists, said that there is no evidence of lyres anywhere until about the 15th century BCE, about 1200 or 1300 years after harps appeared. However, archaeological evidence disputes this. For instance, 20th century archaeologists exploring royal tombs at Ur, a Sumerian city on the Euphrates, found several lyres and harps, as well as paintings of them being played, from around 2500 BCE.

From the times of the pharaohs, around 1900 BCE, there are lyres in paintings (frescos), as played by Semitic or possibly Hebrew nomads, who came to ask for royal permission to settle in Egypt. A painting from c1650 BCE of the Hyksos depicts a Bedouin coming to visit the governor while playing a lyre of the same type as was brought to Mesopotamia by Semitic people.

During Akhenaton’s time (the 1330s BCE), Syrian girls played lyres with fingers or a plectrum according to tomb paintings. And, from about 1200 BCE, there’s a piece of ivory carved with a Canaanite king surrounded by luxury and lions (!) with a musician playing a lyre for his entertainment.

In the time of Ramses III (around the 1160s BCE) at Thebes, the usually 7-stringed lyre took a new form as the two gracefully curved arms were made in different lengths so that the crossbar was not quite parallel to the top of the soundbox. The arms had carved animal heads at their ends.

A vase from Megiddo depicts a lyre from around 1025 BCE, thought to be in the style that King David would have played. It was either brought to Egypt by the Israelites or the Canaanites and was discovered by the Hebrews in their new homeland. There are surviving instruments from the end of the first millennium BCE in the Cairo Museum and one in the Metropolitan Museum in New York.

In Greece, a form of lyre was called a phorminx and like other lyres, was chiefly used as an accompanying instrument. Learning to play the lyre was considered a core element of education in Athens. Both men and women played the lyre, and it was used to accompany dancing, singing,, and recitation of epic poetry, such as Homer’s “Iliad” and “Odyssey.” The lyre was also used in ceremonies such as weddings and sometimes they used it just for fun.

The Greek form of lyre called the kithara would have been played by a professional who performed at public ceremonies. A lyre, on the other hand, would have been played by amateurs—free-born men who didn’t earn their livings by playing and performing.

The Egyptians adopted Asian instruments during the Hellenistic period (between 323 BCE and the first century CE), including lutes, kitharas, lyres, flutes, clarinet-types, and oboe-types, castanets, cymbals, bells, drums, and rattles, including sistrums. On the Isle of Skye in Scotland, a lyre from 300 BCE has been found.

In India, there were paintings made of dancing girls playing lyres (and harps and drums), until, in the 1st century CE in the Indo-Scythic courts, images of men appeared with lutes, lyres, and double oboes. The lyres and oboes disappeared fairly fast, as the Greek influence on Indian music was minimal.

Clement of Alexandria (c150-c200 CE) approved of the lyre and the kithara because they had been played by King David, but in general disapproved of instruments in Christian music. He feared that the pagan influence was too strong in those other instruments. He also admonished his fellow Christians to avoid the chromatic and theatrical melodies of the heathens (meaning the Greeks), and advised them to return to the spiritual songs , the traditional psalm singing of David. He cites one example in an ancient Greek drinking song:

Among the Ancient Greeks, in their banquets over brimming cups, a song was called skolion, after the manner of the Hebrew psalms, all together raising the paean with the voice, and sometimes taking turns in the song while they drank to everyone’s health, while those that were more musical than the rest sang to the lyre.

But the Christians weren’t alone in looking at music as worship. A passage in the Talmud encourages people to sing in celebration:

The song of thanksgiving was sung to the accompaniment of lutes, lyres, and cymbals at every corner and upon every great stone in Jerusalem.

Diodorus Siculus, in the 1st century BCE, used a lyre-like instrument to accompany Celtic songs. The Celtic version had an arched yoke to which the strings were attached rather than to a crossbar. The Celtic name was the crot or the cruit, which later evolved into the crwth in Welsh and the crowd in English. Crwths have six strings, four of which run across the fingerboard; the other two act as drones.

It seems that the Celtic north developed lyres independent of the Greek and Roman lyres. They were found in drawings from the 8th century CE, and looked surprisingly like Sumerian instruments. They were used by Anglo-Saxon minstrels and their continental contemporaries. Similar instruments were found all over the Europe.

In the 11th century CE, inventors combined the yoke of the lyre with the neck of fingerboard instruments, eventually evolving it into the stringed instrument we know today as the guitar.

The lyre-player’s function was to perform a free and florid version of the same melody that was sung—not harmony or accompaniment but heterophony, which anticipated ornamental variation but didn’t provide counterpoint. There was a lot going on in the early Middle Ages regarding music innovation. In particular, harmonies, rhythms, and chords resulted as part of the development of music notation. (For more on this, see The History of Music Notation.) By the late Middle Ages, the lyre had become less popular than other plucked or bowed instruments, because they had greater flexibility in tone, tuning, and playing multiple notes simultaneously. For instance. the fiedel or vielle, with its fingerboard and bow, appeared around then. Its descendents, like the gamba and the violin, are still popular. (There will be a blog on this someday.)

People still play lyres in North-Eastern Africa, but you’ll be hard-pressed to find them anywhere else.

Lyre Structure

The lyre has a soundbox, two arms, a crossbar that connects the two arms, and gut strings that are attached at the base of the soundbox, cross the length of the soundbox, and stretch across an open space to be attached at the crossbar. There is a second bar, parallel to the crossbar, that functions like a bridge o raise the strings above the surface of the soundbox. The strings stretch from the bridge to the crossbar, and are held there by strips of fatty ox hide. Twisting the fatty hide changes the pitch by tightening or loosening the strings.

The soundbox is hollow, often made of wood or tortoiseshell, and the arms can be made from the same piece of wood as the soundbox, added pieces of wood, or occasionally horns, antlers, or branches. Sometimes these arms have carvings at their ends. The crossbar can be made of wood, branches, metal, wire, or antler and can be parallel to the top edge of the soundbox, at an angle, or curved away from the soundbox.

Most lyres are small, from half a foot wide and a foot-and-a-quarter long, to about four feet long and a foot wide. They were meant to be played while seated or standing, and occasionally from horseback. The lyre was held in the left hand, resting on the left hip, perpendicular to the body.

A lyre has from five to seven strings, although there are instruments with fewer and some with more. The strings are all of equal width and length and a change in pitch is the result of varying the tension of the strings. If they are too thick or too loosely strung, they sound feeble, if too thin or too tightly strung, they break. In comparison, the harp’s strings are of different lengths, and a harp has more notes to offer; that’s probably why the harp’s popularity has endured and the lyre’s hasn’t.

Like the harp, the string with the deepest note on the lyre is furthest from the player’s body. The lyre is played by placing the fingers of the left hand on certain strings to stop them from sounding, and strumming or plucking the strings with a plectrum held in the right hand.

Mycenaean (Greek) examples include two ivory lyres, with their crossbars pierced for 8 strings. These pieces further the general belief that Greece got lyres from Egyptians and Phoenicians. Earlier forms, from the 8th century BCE, were small, with round bases and four strings. Slightly later, around the end of the 8th century, there’s a Hittite relief that shows a six-stringed lyre. By the end of the 7th century BCE, there are images  of 7-stringed instruments, played with a plectrum.

In ancient Greece, the tuning would have been E G A B D (five strings—or pentatonic tuning—in intervals of a third, three seconds and another third). I didn’t find any details on other tunings.

Tuning pegs developed in the early middle ages, but interest in the lyre was already fading, so this development didn’t catch on.

A tether (leather or cloth) attaches the bottom of the lyre to the left wrist, helping to balance the lyre on the left hip when the player stands. The wrist strap sometimes extends to be more of a sling, with decorative tassels and other ornaments.

Specific fingers on the left hand are used to pluck or damp specific strings. The right hand wields the plectrum, which looks like a small spoon and dangles from the instrument by a small cord in some instances. The right hand was used to pluck and strum the instrument with the plectrum and with bare fingertips.

The plectrum is made of animal horn. Playing close to the bridge (on the soundbox) produces a bright, loud sound, with harmonics and sympathetic strings sounding as a result of the strings vibrating. The plectrum is used for introductory passages—it produces too loud a sound to accompany the voice—and the strings are plucked with bare fingers during speaking or singing.

The lyre doubles the voice part or plays it at the octave rather than providing harmonies or accompaniment.

The lyra, which was a variation of the lyre, was a lyre-shaped instrument made of a tortoise shell with a tympanum (the top surface) of ox hide. A yoke was attached to the shell to form the arms; the older ones were made of antelope horns and later, they were made from curved pieces of wood. There were seven gut strings (or fewer) and, like the lyre, it was played with bare fingers or a plectrum. The difference is that the bare left hand plucked the melody and the right hand, with a plectrum fastened to it by a thong, swept across all of the strings rhythmically during the breaks between sung choruses.

Some musicologists assert that the lyra was brought by the Hellenes when they migrated into Greece from the north of the Balkan peninsular and Hungary. Similar instruments were played by Egyptians, Jews, Hittites, Elamites, and Assyrians, so Greece was sort of forced to join in the fun.

From the Sennacherib period (705-681 BCE) in Assyria, there are pictures of lyres with straight but unequal arms and others with gracefully curved arms, like the barbiton.

The barbiton is a lyre with long arms that angle slightly outward until they curve suddenly, at the very top, back toward one another. The arms are connected by a short crossbar. The barbiton has a very small soundbox and is played with the fingers of the left hand and a plectrum held in the right hand, just like the rest.

The kithara is a large lyre, used in processions and sacred ceremonies as well as in the Greek theater, and was always played with the musician standing. Kithara players who sang as they played were called kitharodes.

A Sumerian instrument from Ur, called a bull lyre, had religious significance. It looks kind of like a model of a ship, with a figurehead on the bow end that’s carved to look like a bull, and the horns of the bull forming the arms of the lyre, smoothly carved into cylinders and at a slight outward angle. The strings radiated from a single point in the center of the soundbox and attached to a smooth cylindrical crossbar. The number of strings would have varied, and they were knotted around sticks that that could be turned to change the tension/tuning at the crossbar. Replicas of this instrument are very pretty.

The early Medieval lyre in Europe was smallish and was made entirely from a single piece of wood. It had six or seven strings running from pegs on the crossbar and attached to a tailpiece on the soundboard. If you do a search for the Sutton Hoo lyre, this is the type that you’ll see.

Although eschewed by Archilochus (c680-645 BCE), the lyre was the preferred accompaniment of Sappho (c620-c570 BCE) and Alcaeus (c620-the 6th century BCE). Nothing remains of the melodies; only the lyrics remain.

Philo of Alexandria (c20 BCE-50 CE), who was an early Jewish philosopher, saw the seven strings of the lyre as representing the seven planets.

The Name

This instrument has had many names:

  • Arabian peninsula: tanbūra
  • Bangladesh: ektara
  • Egypt: kissar, tanbūra, simsimiyya, k-nn-r
  • English: rote
  • Old English: crowd
  • Old Irish: cruit or crot
  • Estonia: talharpa
  • Ethiopia: begena, dita, krar
  • Finland: jouhikko
  • German: cythara teutonica
  • Greece: barbiton, kithara, lyra, phorminx, kinnyra
  • India: ektara
  • Iraq: sammu, tanbūra, zami, zinar
  • Israel: kinnor
  • Kenya: kibugander, litungu, nyatiti, obokano
  • Nepal: sarangi
  • Norway: giga
  • Pakistan: barbat, ektara, tanbūra
  • Persian: kunnar
  • Scottish: gue
  • Semitic: kenanawr around 1200 BCE
  • Siberia: nares-jux
  • Sudan: kissar, tanbūra
  • Syrian: kenara
  • Tanzania: litungu
  • Uganda: endongo, ntongoli
  • Welsh: crwth
  • Yemen: tanbūra, simsimiyya

In the third chapter of the Book of Daniel of the Judeo-Christian Bible, King James translators named the instrument the quyteros, which translates to a kithara or lyre. The Book of Daniel was written in the 2nd century BCE.

Homer (who lived sometime between the 9th and the 12th century BCE) called a four- or six-stringed lyre the phorminx. That’s what Apollo is playing at the end of the First Book of the “Iliad.” When Odysseus and his companions visit Achilles in his tent, they find him singing and accompanying himself on a phorminx that has a silver crossbar. Phemius in the First Book of the “Odyssey” and blind Demodocus in the Eighth Book sing as they accompany themselves on the phorminx.

Both the Syrian kenara and the Arabic-Persian kunar are thought by some experts to be the root etymology of the term kinnor, but other experts disagree and say that the origin is unclear. The Phoenicians played a kinnor too, and it’s possible that they got the name from the Greeks, who had a kinnyra, from which the word kinnyrai (to lament) was derived. As an unusual linguistic peculiarity, kinnor has two plural forms, one masculine—kinnorim—and one feminine—kinnorot. It’s unexplainable, and not found in the names of any other instruments.

Famous Composers

Because music notation was just taking off when interest in the lyre was waning, there isn’t much evidence of compositions specifically for the lyre. I found only two citations.

  • A Syrian fellow called Bardesanes (154-233 CE) and his son Harmonios composed a complete gnostic psalter of 150 psalms to be sung to the lyre (ad lyra cantum), in the “Jewish” fashion.
  • Italian Baroque composer Jacopo Peri (1561-1633 CE) wrote the lyre into accompaniments where two choirs were doubled—the first was doubled by lyre, harp, large lute, and “sotto Basso di Viola” and the second choir was doubled by lyre, harp, chitarrone, and “Basso di Viola.”

Famous Players

I found only one famous lyre player, besides the one’s in Homer’s works: Italian philosopher Marsilio Ficino (1433-1499), who regarded the lyre as therapeutic.

Oh, and while I have your attention, when I was reading all this varied material, I came across this caution for musicians in general:

“Whoever drinks (especially wine) to the accompaniment of four musical instruments brings five punishments to the world. Woe unto them that rise up early in the morning, that they may follow strong drink, that tarry late into the night, ‘til wine inflame them! And the harp, and the lute, the tabaret and the pipe, and wine, are in their feasts, but they regard not the work of the Lord.” From the Babylonian Talmud: Tractate Sotah, folio 48a, lines 43-44.


  • “Musical Instruments; Their History in Western Culture from the Stone Age to the Present Day,” by Karl Geiringer, translated by Bernard Miall. George Allen & Unwin LTD, London, 1949.
  • “Companion to Medieval & Renaissance Music,” edited by Tess Knighton and David Fallows. University of California Press, Berkeley, 1997.
  • “Music in the Middle Ages,” by Gustave Reese. W.W. Norton and Company, New York, 1940.
  • “The Concise Oxford History of Music,” by Gerald Abraham. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1979.
  • “A History of Western Music,” J. Peter Berkholder, Donald Jay Grout, Claude V. Palisca. W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 2010.
  • “A Dictionary of Early Music,” by Jerome and Elizabeth Roche. Oxford University Press, New York, 1981.
  • “Music in Ancient Israel,” by Alfred Sendrey. Philosophical Library, New York, 1969.
  • “The Music of the Jews in the Diaspora,” by Alfred Sendrey. Thomas Yoselof, New York, 1970.
  • “The Rise of Music in the Ancient World: East and West,” Curt Sachs. Dover Publications, Inc., Mineola, 1971.
  • “Music in Ancient Greece and Rome,” by John G. Landers. Routledge, London, 1999.
  • “Women in Music,” edited by Carol Neuls-Bates. Northeastern University Press, Boston, 1996.
  • “Music, Body, and Desire in Medieval Culture; Hildegard of Bingen to Chaucer,” by Bruce W. Holsinger. Stanford University Press, Stanford, 2001.

Composer Biography: Hildegard von Bingen (1098-1179)

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Hildegard has a reputation as a composer and a visionary, but in truth, she was way more than that. Yes, she’s the first named composer in western music, and yes, she had visions, but she was also an herbal healer, a preacher, a moralist, a frequent correspondent with kings and popes, and a societal reformer. It’s no wonder that feminists have taken her as an icon, although she would have been more than a little horrified by that. She firmly believed that women had their place in the church and society, and that it was not as leaders. But times were changing in the 12th century and Hildegard was part of it all.

As the choir (a trained group of musicians) took over singing during religious services from the priests (not trained as musicians) in the 4th and 5th centuries, women began to participate in the services, most notably in monasteries. Life in a monastery revolved around the eight daily Divine Offices and regular Masses, but in between, the women worked, learned to read Latin, and learned to make music.

Women were forbidden to instruct or supervise men, and all communication outside the monastery would have been through abbots and bishops or male family members. But Hildegard didn’t need intercession. She claimed to have direct communication with God in the form of visions and prophecies, and it didn’t take long for her voice to be heard outside the convent.

Even as a small child, Hildegard’s health was poor and she suffered serious headaches, probably a type of migraine that causes visual hallucinations. Because of the nature and frequency of both her illnesses and her visions, Hildegard wanted to become a nun. She was also a tenth child, traditionally the child sent to a monastery as a tithe, so her family was thrilled that Hildegard was as eager to go to the monastery as they were to send her there.

She was the daughter of Hildebert and Mechtild (people didn’t have last names back then), a noble family in Bermersheim bei Alzey in the Rhein region of Germany. Several of her siblings would also enter the church. Some of them would help her later in life, but most are not documented—even some of their names are not known.

At age six or eight (there’s some disagreement on this) she left home to be boarded into an anchorage (a type of hermit life) with her-slightly older (and hyper-fanatical) cousin Jutta, and by age 14, she had taken vows herself. She spent the next 30 years boarded in with her cousin at Disibodenberg Abbey, a double monastery (both men and women). When her cousin died after 30 years of incarceration, Hildegard was unboarded from the anchorage and was soon elected to be the magistra, the leader of the women.

Not long after her release, Hildegard had a vision that she should write her visions down, and as a result, she developed a correspondence with the already-famous Bernard of Clairvaux. He thought fondly of her and was supportive of her writing, and brought her visions before the pope, who declared her a prophet and encouraged her work.

Soon, Hildegard found life at Disibodenberg restrictive and she made plans to build her own monastery further north, on a pleasant kink in the Rhein River, near the village of Bingen and about half way between Köln and Frankfurt. But the abbot and monks didn’t want her to leave (at least in part because of the dowries and benefactor-income that Hildegard and the nuns brought to the monastery), and in order to encourage them to change their minds, God struck her down with a wasting illness. She lay in her bed like a block of stone, according to her biographers. Even the abbot was unable to lift her head and began to question whether he dealt with human suffering or divine punishment.

Finally, against the wishes of the abbot and at least one of the priests at Disibodenberg, in 1148, she and most of the nuns went to Bingen and built a monastery there. The first attempt, at Rochusberg, burnt to the ground when nearly finished, and Hildegard moved to a more auspicious location where the Rhein met the Nahe River at Rupertsberg (across the Nahe from Bingen. Both structures were within a few minutes’ walk from the village of Bingen).

Controversy regarding the nuns’ dowries raged for many years—when Hildegard left Disibodenberg, she argued that the wealth of the nuns belonged with them and would provide independence for the Bingen monastery. The abbot at Disibodenberg profited from the nuns’ dowries and continued association with Hildegard, and he refused to relinquish the funds for more than a decade. Hildegard’s abbeys (there were two, in the end) were never to be free of the “parentage” of Disibodenberg in Hildegard’s lifetime, and even once the dowries were released, they still owed the presence of a priest and many other benefits to Disibodenberg.

Hildegard was so famous and popular (largely as a result of publishing her visions), that she formed a second monastery across the Rhein, in Eibingen. Breaking with tradition, this house was meant for merchant-class women rather than nobility, and these women had to earn their keep. To do this, they made pottery, grew medicinal herbs, gleaned honey from their own honey farms, and made small silver jewelry. (These activities continue to this day, in a refined form, in the Eibingen monastery. Both Bingen and Disibodenberg monasteries are ruins now.)

In addition to the visions, Hildegard also became notorious for the music she composed. She claimed that her music was divinely inspired, and it resembled no other music at the time. There’s a kind of ecstatic quality to the chant, and she wrote her own poetry rather than using Bible verses, like other religious music. People who came to Bingen for medicinal help or to hear Hildegard speak about her visions made copies of Hildegard’s music, which is why it survives today—the originals were destroyed or lost in countless wars and battles.

A nun called Richardis, who was a sister to the Archbishop Hartwig of Bermen, came to Disibodenberg around 1148 and they formed a very close relationship. There are some rumors of a lesbian affair, based on rather explicit descriptions of female orgasm in Hildegard’s writing, but the nature of the relationship was never established one way or the other. In 1151, Richardis’ mother arranged for her to become abbess (and out from the shadow of Hildegard) at Bassum, near her brother in Bremen. Hildegard objected strenuously and many letters were written beseeching officials not to separate her from her friend. But Richardis went off, and within a few months, Richardis died, leaving Hildegard tormented by grief. She had lost the one friend she’d ever had.

After a lengthy grieving period, Hildegard poured herself into her work again, and began writing books, music, and sermons like no one ever before. She came to the attention of the pope, clergy, church hierarchy, and the general public, including rulers and magistrates. She became so popular and powerful that she took to giving people unsolicited advice, an activity that could have cost her head on several occasions.

In 1164, she wrote a letter to Frederick Barbarossa, a notoriously violent emperor, condemning his lax attitude toward the Cathars (a nomadic fundamentalist group) and for his role in the appointment of the anti-pope Paschal III. Barbarossa had already written a letter of protection for Hildegard and the Bingen monastery in 1163, and despite his tendency to ruthlessly slaughter folks who disagreed with him, he continued his protection of Hildegard and her monasteries until and beyond her death.

She was renowned outside the monastery and the Catholic church as a visionary in her own time and in ours. Her writings and music were edited and published in the 19th century, starting a resurgence of interest in her. By the late 20th century, she had become almost a cult figure among philosophers, feminists, musicians, and naturopaths. She was canonized and made Doctor of the Church in 2012 (after many delays). She’s one of the most recorded and best-known composers of sacred monophony (chant), and one of very few known to have written both the music and the words. (Most chant from the period uses biblical passages.)

Although she claimed to be ignorant and uneducated, she wrote in Latin, and was clearly familiar with the writings of two musical theorists, Boethius (c480-524) and Guido D’Arezzo (c991-after 1033, who invented Do-Re-Me, and about whom you can read here). She probably denied her education (she had private tutoring when she was boarded into the anchorage) as part of her efforts to make people accept that she was divinely inspired, and partly because of gender politics.

She was a prolific writer. Between 1143 and 1171, she wrote Scivias (chronicling 26 visions), Physica and Causae et Curae (medical advice), Vita Meritorium (on virtuous living), Liber Divinorem Operum (on the works of the devine), Vita Sanct Disibod (biography of Saint Disibod, the hermit who founded her childhood home), and other books, which amounted to several thousand pages. She supervised a large number of illustrations for her visions, corresponded heavily with nobility and royalty throughout Europe, advised and sometimes chastised public figures—including church leaders—for what she thought was bad behavior, and spoke publically for church reform (mostly against the Cathars, an extremist and fundamentalist group).

Traditional (and almost reflexive) pressure to remain humble through humility and self-abnegation caused Hildegard, like most other composers of the time, to insist that her work came through external forces. She declared that she was merely a vessel for divine revelations. Men also made these claims, but it was particularly important for a woman to decry any ability to compete with the men who composed or documented music. But because others wanted copies of her music, we are fortunate both that they have survived and that we know who wrote them.

Hildegard set her own religious poems to music starting in the 1140s. There are 77 pieces in all, plus the morality play Ordo Virtutum, that includes another 82 antiphons. There are more surviving chants from Hildegard than any other composer in the entire Middle Ages.

Many of her works were written to honor a particular saint, with Disibod, Rochus, Rupert, and Ursula featured among them. The Ursulan antiphons are a cohesive group of eight songs that form a narrative, and tell the story of Ursula, a 6th or 7th century British saint who traveled with 11,000 virgins and was murdered by the Visigoths in Köln. This collection was a particular favorite of Hildegard’s and happens to be my favorite of her compositions as well. If you ask me to sing Hildegard, that’s probably what you’ll hear.

Most of Hildegard’s songs were antiphons and responsories for the Office and sequences for the Masses, some dedicated to local saints (Disibod, Rupert, Barbara, Ursula), or praising the Virgin Mary or the Trinity. They were preserved in two books, the Dendermonde manuscript, which was copied under Hildegard’s supervision, and the Reisencodex, which was copied after her death and contained slightly more of the music, including Ordo Virtutum.

The existence of the Dendermonde and the Reisen codices provide implied evidence that Hildegard’s music was performed beyond her own monastery and heard by others, who wanted to bring it home to their own monasteries. The originals were destroyed, but copies allow us to see the music in the hand of the priest Volmar, her steady tutor and friend until his own death in 1173.

Ordo Virtutum, written in 1151 or so, was a liturgical drama, yet not attached to liturgy. It’s a drama in verse with 82 separate songs that form a morality play with allegorical characters. In it, the Virtues lead the Soul back to the community of the faithful and out of the clutches of the Devil. All of the characters sing except the Devil, whose spoken part symbolizes his separation from God. This marvelous piece of musical theater is credited with being the earliest known liturgical morality play. The next one wasn’t written for two hundred years.

Hildegard’s music varies from highly syllabic to dramatic melismas (swirling melodies on a single open syllable). Her music is quite distinctive and easily recognizable, with unusual elements for the time, including exceeding an octave by a fourth or fifth, and large and frequent leaps. Her repertory of rhythmic and melodic tricks was small, making the music quite distinctive—like she had a theme she kept working on. Where Gregorian chant uses the words as a foundation, Hildegard writes to lengthen and emphasize the syllables of particular words using a concept of stable and unstable notes—in modern terms, that’s kind of like unmoving and moving notes in terms of gesture. She chose this over traditional Gregorian chant as a method for increasing contemplation on the words, making them a kind of sung prayer.

Because Hildegard wrote for women’s voices, there are many differences between her songs and traditional Gregorian chant. For one thing, women’s voices often have a greater range than men’s, so Hildegard’s songs can contain up to two octaves, where men’s chant seldom exceeds a single octave. Women’s voices are often more flexible, so quick little turns and flourishes are also a popular feature in Hildegard’s music that isn’t found in Gregorian chant.

It’s clear that she used music as a vehicle for her own mystical experience, and for those with a less audible connection, it was a way of making God seem palpable. It’s easy to imagine the songs being sung in a woodsy bower, little silvery songs of happiness floating up to the heavens.

Although she didn’t invent the concept, Hildegard loved to play with word-painting, where the shapes and sounds were often descriptive even without the text. For instance, “virga” was a favorite word: in music notation, it’s a 7-shaped squiggle that represents the most stable of notes,  in Latin, the word means a branch, like a branch of a tree (not the root but the result of growth), and it’s also the Latin term for virgin, a famous Christian theme. Another big theme for Hildegard was veriditas (greening), which was a way for heavenly integrity to overcome earthly dualisms. Many of Hildegard’s poems have to do with veriditas and how nature is a metaphor for a relationship with God.

Some theorists claim that Hildegard’s music and poetry is filtered within the female-centered religious experience that includes homo-erotic desire, while others claim it to be asexual, with metaphors of ecstasy and romance having more to do with the tradition of Christ as a bridegroom.

It was common for abbeys to have a special collection of chants written to celebrate whoever their local saints were, used on feast days and at other times during the year. But Hildegard went a little further. Many of her songs are about women: 16 to the Virgin Mary, 13 to St. Ursula, and four to various other groups of women. Sixteen of her songs are addressed to local or individual male saints, and the remaining 28 are dedicated to God and the Holy Spirit. Her imagery is predominantly woman-centered, but she was a nun, after all.

She corresponded with Bernard of Clairvaux  (1090-1153, prime builder of the Cistercian order of monasteries and probably the father of the movement that led to the Spanish Inquisition) and Frederick Barbarossa (1122-1190, prime motivator for the separation of church and state in Germany and a brutal enemy in war) and largely through the intercession of the former, she became a public figure, attracting people to her music and her advice (medical and societal). She wrote over 400 letters that have survived; she was clearly a prolific correspondent throughout her long life.

The texts on medicine that she wrote (or had written), Physica and Causae et Curae, were still consulted by physicians into the 15th century. They didn’t discover mistakes when they stopped consulting them, it’s just that they had learned a few things in 300 years.

There were three manuscripts illustrating the visions. It’s doubtful that these were done by Hildegard herself, but they were surely done under her watchful eye. Possible artists include the priest Volmar, her great friend Richardis, and any number of gifted and wealthy nuns or patrons. Sadly, one such manuscript was sent to Dresden for safekeeping during WWII, and like the rest of Dresden, was destroyed (or went missing). Luckily for posterity, there are black and white photocopies that survived, along with a full-color facsimile produced by the nuns at Eibingen in 1928. Without them, the text to Scivias might be missing or rather hard to reassemble from the remaining illustrations.

Hildegard had a biography of her own life written, although much of her early life is skipped over—30 years locked away with her cousin, and she barely comments on it! The work, which took several years to complete, was begun by her friend, the tutor and priest Volmar. After his death, it was continued by two monks from Trier, her cousin Wezelin, a monk named Gottfried, and finally, it was finished by Theodoric just after her death.

In her later years, Hildegard conducted preaching tours by boat and on foot, speaking to clergy and laymen, mostly against the Cathars, and urging reform from church officials. Women are STILL seldom invited to preach, so you can imagine how many feathers Hildegard’s invitations ruffled. It’s clear that she was invited, although her early sermons were probably offered at home in Bingen.

In what turned out to be the final year of her life, she suffered interdiction (which means that she was not allowed to take communion or sing) because she insisted that an excommunicated man had been reconciled to the church before death, and she refused to unbury him from consecrated grounds. The debate raged between religious leaders in Köln, Mainz, and the pope in Rome, and was finally resolved in her favor. It must have been a rough year, unable to make music, and all but excommunicated herself.

She died September 17, 1179 after a short illness. Witnesses insist that a ray of light emanated from her mouth as she breathed her last. Other stories say that two vast arcs illuminated the night and a red cross glowed beneath them, surrounded by cross-studded circles.

If reading non-fiction about Hildegard seems a bit much for you (some of it’s pretty heavy, I’ll admit), there are a few works of fiction that might interest you. I hope to add my own to the list shortly.

  • “Illuminations,” by Mary Sharratt. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 2012 (ISBN: 978-0-547-56784-6). A lovely tale, focusing for the first half on the 30 years Hildegard spent in the anchorage—even Hildegard doesn’t write much about this—combining the darkness of the time with the gorgeous imagery that Hildegard both wrote and inspired. I also really enjoyed the development of the friendship with Richardis, another subject that biographers tiptoe around.
  • “The Seer and the Scribe,” by G.M. Dyrek. Luminis Books, 2011 (ISBN-13: 978-1-935462-39-2). A clearly self-published novel (my opinion is based on historical and typographical errors) that turns the friendship of Hildegard with her scribe into a romance. The author clearly ran out of steam about three-quarters of the way through, rendering the last 75 pages not worth reading (although I did).
  • “Scarlett Music: Hildegard of Bingen,” by Joan Ohanneson. Crossroad Publishing Company, 1997 (ISBN: 0-8245-1646-X). A quick view of Hildegard’s lifetime, rendering Hildegard lively and real, rather than the somewhat distant paragon that her list of accomplishments might otherwise make her seem. The imagery in this book is delightful.
  • “The Journal of Hildegard of Bingen,” by Barbara Lachman. Bell Tower and Crown Publishers, 1993 (ISBN: 0-517-59169-3). A fictional account of a year in Hildegard’s life, focusing on the first year at the Rupertsberg Abbey.


“A History of Western Music,” by J. Peter Burkholder, Donald Jay Grout, Claude V. Palisca, W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 2010

“Women & Music: A History,” by Karin Pendle, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 2001

“Women Making Music: The Western Art Tradition, 1150-1950,” edited by Jane Bowers and Judith Tick, University of Illinois Press, Urbana, 1987

“The Encyclopedia of the Middle Ages,” edited by Norman F. Cantor, Viking, 1999

“Medieval Women Writers,” edited by Katharina M. Wilson, University of Georgia Press, Athens, 1984, article by Kent Kraft,

“The German Visionary: Hildegard of Bingen” “Uppity Women of Medieval Times,” by Vicki Leon, Conari Press, Berkeley, 1997

“Women in Music,” edited by Carol Neuls-Bates, Northeastern University Press, Boston, 1996 “Hildegard of Bingen,” by Regine Pernoud, Marlow & Company, New York, English translation 1998

“Hildegard of Bingen; A Visionary Life,” by Sabina Flanagan, Routledge, London, 1989

“Sister of Wisdom; St. Hildegard’s Theology of the Feminine,” by Barbara Newman, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1987

“Jutta & Hildegard: The Biographical Sources,” translated and introduced by Anna Silvas, Pennsylvania State University Press, University Park, 1998

“Hildegard of Bingen: The Woman of Her Age,” by Fiona Maddocks, Doubleday, New York, 2001

“Hildegard of Bingen: Scivias,” translated by Mother Columba Hart and Jane Bishop, introduced by Barbara J. Newman, Paulist Press, New York, 1990


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