Composers Anecdotes
The Supernatural in Music
II. Medieval Occultism: Defeating the Devil

Hildegard receiving music from heavenOne of the famous stories of demonic possession cured by music was David playing his harp to sooth King Saul (I Samuel).

Although this is taken in modern times as the first instance of music therapy for the treatment of madness, we look at it as representing the power of music. And, in the medieval period, music had the power to cure, to calm, and to give hope of heaven.

The medieval nun, Hildegard of Bingen, was given to the church at age 8 and served the church for the next 80 years. She not only wrote poetry and music but also created art of her visions. One of her most important creations was a liturgical play called the Ordo Virtutum (Order of the Virtues). She wrote this in the mid-12th century and it’s the earliest morality play before the big upsurge in the 14th century. Ordo Virtutum is a musical drama about the struggle between the Virtues and the Devil for a human Soul.

Erasmus Quellinus: Saul listening to David playing the harp

Erasmus Quellinus: Saul listening to David playing the harp

At the beginning of the piece, the Soul is tempted and leaves the Virtues. The Devil thinks he’s triumphant until, at the very end, he has a terrible surprise and loses his conquest.

In the final section, the Devil is defeated by the Soul with the help of the Virtues. What’s of interest in this portrayal of the Devil is that he, unlike the Soul and the Virtues, is unable to sing – he can only grunt or yell (as below) when he appears. The Soul, with the help of Victory, Humility, Chastity, and the other Virtues, is triumphant.

Ordo virtutum: Quae es, aut unde venis?

Ordo Virtutum (last part, excerpt)

Diabolus: Que es, aut unde venis? Tu amplexata es me, et ego foras eduxi te. Sed nunc in reversione tua confundis me – ego autem pugna mea deiciam te!

Penitens Anima: Ego omnes vias meas malas esse cognovi, et ideo fugi a te. Modo autem, o illusor, pugno contra te. Inde tu, O regina Humilitas, tuo medicamine adiuva me!

Humilitas ad Victoriam: O Victoria, que istum in cela superasti, curre cum militibus tuis et omnes ligate Diabolum hunc!

Victoria ad Virtutes: O fortissimi et gloriosissimi milites, venite, et adiuvate me istum fallacem vincere.

Virtutes: O dulcissima bellatrix, in torrente fonte qui absorbuit lupum rapacem – o gloriosa coronata, nos libenter militamus tecum contra illusorem hunc.

Humilitas: Ligate ergo istum, o Virtutes preclare!

Virtutes: O regina nostra, tibi parebimus, et precepta tua in omnibus adimplebimus.

Victoria: Gaudete, a socii, quia antiquus serpens ligatus est!

Virtutes: Laus tibi, Christe, rex angelorum!

Castitas: In mente altissimi o Satana, Caput tuum conculcavi, et in virginea forma dulce miraculum colui, ubi filius dei venit in mundum; unde deiectus es in omnibus spoliis tuis, et nunc gaudeant omnes qui habitant in celis, quia venter tuus confusus est.
Devil: Who are you? Where are you coming from? You were in my embrace, I led you out. But now you are going back, defying me. I shall fight you and bring you down!

Soul, penitent: I recognized that all my ways were wicked, so I fled from you. But now, you deceiver, I will fight you face to face. Queen Humility, come with your medicine and give me aid!

Humility (to Victory): Victory, you who once conquered this creature in the heavens, run now, with all your soldiery, and all of you bind this fiend!

Victory (to The Virtues): Bravest and most glorious warriors, come, help me to vanquish this deceitful one!

Virtues: Oh sweetest warrior, in the scorching fountain that swallowed up the voracious wolf glorious, crowned one, how gladly we’ll fight against that deceiver, at your side!


Humility: Bind him then, you shining Virtues!


Virtues: Our Queen, we obey and carry out your orders to the full.


Victory: Comrades, rejoice: the ancient serpent snake is bound!

Virtues: Praise be to you, Christ, King of the angels!

Chastity: In the mind of the Highest, Satan, I trod on your head, and in a virgin form I nurtured a sweet miracle when the Son of God came into the world; therefore you are laid low, with all your blunder, and now let all who dwell in heaven rejoice, because your belly has been confounded.

For this new kind of play showing the defeat of the Devil, Hildegard was able to show that the Soul alone could be tempted, but with the help of the many Virtues (or Virtuous people) of the world, the Soul could triumph over temptation and so defeat the Devil. It’s interesting that her vision of the devil made him musically mute – yelling and grunting don’t really qualify as ‘music’ and it’s the music of the Virtues that help the Soul return to goodness.

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