Christmas Fest: Worship or Performance

First off, a quick apology for the tardiness of this post. Orchestra tour has kept me busy!

But now on to the fun topic of talking about Christmas Fest. Some of my most powerful musical experiences have come from being a part of Christmas Festival at St. Olaf. No matter how stressful it always is to memorize those hymn verses at the last minute or preparing all the rep we have to do memorized, in the end I’m always satisfied musically and spiritually through this process. But our discussion last Thursday brought up a very important and interesting question that I’ve thought about often: Is Christmas Fest a worship service or a performance? More importantly for the purposes of this blog post, what would Luther think of Christmas Fest?

First off, I would argue that just because something is a performance doesn’t mean that it can’t be worship. For me (and I believe also for Luther), what really counts is the motive behind what you are doing, in other words, are you doing this Festival for God or for man? With this festival admittently this isn’t an easy question to answer. Christmas Festival is a huge money maker for the college and one of the main events that has put St. Olaf in the national radar. Every day is sold out and packed with very wealthy alumni, who all have expectations of what happens during Christmas Fest (like Beautiful Saviour at the end of every night, there would be literal riots if we didn’t sing that song). So in that sense, we are undoubtedly putting on a performance based on consumer expectations and tradition.

But at the same time, is there anything wrong with that? Can’t we still worship even if part of the motive is commercial? This is a dichotomy that I talk about extensively in my paper about CCM, but I’ll summarize my point by saying that inward motive is more important then outside factors. While I can’t judge the motivations of every participant, for me I am actively worshiping as I participate in Christmas Fest. I’m aware of it being a performance, but that’s not at the forefront of my mind when I sing and play. When I perform, I am doing it for Jesus and His glory. Now as I’ve mentioned before, I have a very conservative evangelical outlook on life, where everything I am is based on Him who gave me life. I am always very aware of being too much a performance and not worship (much of my concern with CCM is this), but I don’t think Christmas Fest is struggling with this in nearly the same way. As Luther said “Why should the devil have all the good music”, and in general I would agree. Thus, Christmas Fest can be worship and performance in my mind, because preparing performance well only contributes to worshipping God in my mind.

Christmas Fest: Why do we DO it?

St. Olaf College’s Christmas festival has happened for more than 100 years. It’s one of the college’s claims to fame and every Scandinavian in Minnesota has made the pilgrimage to Christmas Fest. But what’s the point? When F. Melius Christiansen started the festival, the goal was probably to create a meaningful Lutheran worship experience. Of course, this is probably still a large part of the reason we do it today. But that’s hard to say when the college’s entire marketing year revolves around the commercialization of a “sacred” festival.

Christmas Festival is a week of profits for the college. Of course, there are expenses–the set, the overtime for ensemble leaders, the huge amounts of Norwegian food in the cafeteria, extra energy and water used on campus. But in return, the college gets recruitment, donors, prestige, profits from ticket sales and meal prices, and a supposed affirmation of the Lutheran tradition at St. Olaf. Isn’t this exactly what Luther tried to end for the church? Of course, indulgences and a profitable festival aren’t exactly the same thing. But both are taking advantage of theology to make a profit for an institution, whether it’s the church or it’s a college connected to the church.

Maybe Luther would have appreciated the use of vernacular in Christmas Fest, though. Much of the music is in English (or Norwegian) and the selections are pretty standard; the musical similarity is like the use of a familiar language. The community that attends the festival usually knows what to expect. However, maybe this stagnancy isn’t what a reformer like Luther would have wanted. Christmas Fest could change and grow with the times and the different goals it might be fulfilling now. Even though it’s built on a Christian tradition (Christmas) and still contains some artifacts of this, like the scripture readings, I would argue that a majority of the people who attend Fest do so just to enjoy the music and community and holiday season. Much of the religious interpretation of the festival has to come from the way individuals approach their thinking about it. But again, maybe Luther would like this! After all, maybe the sacred nature of Christmas Fest is something that can only be achieved by “faith alone.”

The Community of Thousands of Opinions in One Gym

Change, tradition, religion, and expectations. Each person has their own ideas about what should exist and morph in each of these categories, and never are two peoples’ ideas the same about such things. Christmas Fest at St. Olaf College is a prime example of such a conflict coming into the spotlight (if you will). Luther says that for a church service to accurately be considered a worship service the Gospel must be shared. Additionally, he is a big fan of music and says that actions which connect participants closer to God are sacred and good and should be included in the service. Christmas Fest costs money to produce, and St. Olaf charges the audiences money to attend. People who donate money to the college get rewarded for their financial success by better ticket buying options. A few years ago Christmas Fest was rebranded from a worship service to what we know it to be today: a profit-pumping concert with good intentions and carefully manicured shadow vowels across the massed choir. If Luther came to a Christmas Fest rehearsal right after Thanksgiving break what would he see and think? If Luther came to a Christmas Fest performance what would he think? Would he be disgusted that the college is putting a cost on the chance to worship and celebrate the Christmas story as he was disgusted with the practice of indulgences? Or would he look at the large rehearsals as opportunities to work at strengthening one’s personal connection and relationship with God? In a time of reform it is so easy for patterns to be made and conclusions to be drawn. However, each and every person who participates in planning, performing, or attending Christmas Fest has a different idea of what it needs to be. It is impossible for everyone to be pleased, and if St. Olaf can raise enough money from Christmas Fest to further spread joy and love (as the Lutheran tradition would interpret Jesus’ mission to be) it is worth going against the grain of the handful of people who think pursuing quasi-maniac rehearsal perfection is not a noble way to work toward a deeper relationship with God.

Christmas Fest

What is it exactly that the machine of Christmas Fest stands for? Does Christmas Fest stand primarily as a worship service, glorifying God through a musical celebration of Christmas? Or perhaps the two hour long ordeal stands primarily as a concert? Certainly it would seem that Christmas Fest got its humble beginnings with the former. In this sense, St. Olaf’s Christmas Festival was created with the intention of creating, if not a worship service exactly, a worship-like environment for members of the community at hand and far away could come together in celebration of their common Lutheran heritage and Christmas.

Like many long-standing traditions though, Christmas Festival has morphed, emerged, evolved. Over time, the religious messages have remained, the gospel of Christ’s birth still told to its audience every performance. Yet there are what seem like countless numbers of aspects of the Festival that fly in the face of anything to do with an actual worship service. With high ticket prices, a message that seems to get buried within a Christiansen chorale here and a Vaughan Williams showstopper there, and an audience and community more wrapped up in the shallow traditions of Christmas Fest, it would begin to seem that any notions of a primarily religious Christmas Festival have long been lost.

Here I think, among many things which have already been discussed in great lengths in their blogs posts, Luther would take great issue with the domination of tradition in the planning of Christmas Fest’s yearly conception. On one hand, Christmas Fest’s play to the audience’s desire for tradition serves as a vehicle of sorts to allow the audience of Fest to approach the monstrous behemoth that is Fest and try and make sense of it, musically, academically, religiously. The audiences that come to Christmas Fest know exactly what to expect each and every year. In this sense Christmas Fest’s structure helps audiences understand ti more easily, which Luther would have supported. Yet still this blind traditionalism also belies the fact that it also permits a sense of complacency that I believe Luther would have abhorred. For we are in dangerous territory if we continue to ascribe to systems of theological/religious meaning that we leave unexamined to determine its relation to the message that’s intended to be conveyed.

In other words, if we want to best save Fest’s original purpose, and hold on to the event’s religious value, maybe it’s time that Fest no longer be done for the sake of keeping traditions strong, and we evaluate how those traditions can help it serve its purpose.

Christmas Fest: A Meaningful Academic Event

Professor Bobb described Christmas Fest as an academic event done in a meaningful, authentic way. The choirs are college choirs, not church choirs. Even looking at Christmas Fest as an academic experience, however, several theological problems arise. Nevertheless, I think Luther would have had a few positive things to say about it.

Certain elements of Luther’s theology do seem to indicate a problem with Christmas Fest. One line from Psalm 9:1 particularly draws my attention. It says, “Some people confess with their lips only. They are the ones who say one thing in the heart and another with the mouth, like the sinner who has evil intentions and sings to God nevertheless.”1
This seems to imply that people should only sing what they believe. If people are required to sing prescribed religious songs as part of their academic experience, how can they avoid sometimes singing text with which they disagree? Furthermore, how can students of different branches of Christianity avoid singing text counter to their own beliefs (and consequently sinning)?

Another dilemma arises when one considers that Fest is one of St. Olaf’s biggest moneymakers. Luther warns against the misuse or prostitution of music.2
The need for tickets at Fest makes one wonder if religious music is being used for financial gain, arguably a misuse.

On the other hand, some aspects of Fest seem to agree with Reformation theology (even when we consider the event through an academic lens). According to Luther, “music reigns in times of peace.”3 For example, in 1541, Luther called people to sing prayer in response to the threat of the Ottoman Empire. Christmas Fest themes often promote peace, and Luther likely would have approved of this decision.

Likewise, Luther believed that the expression of real faith required music. While he may have objected to parts of Christmas Fest, Luther probably would have liked the general idea of a well-meaning event centered on music. He also would have valued the individual connection to God that many people gain from the Fest experience.

As an academic event, Christmas Fest presents some theological issues. Despite these objections, however, Luther likely would have found admirable qualities in Fest concerts.

1 Robin A. Leaver, “Luther on music,” Lutheran Quarterly 20/2 (2006): 127. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed July 28, 2016).

2 Martin Luther. Preface to Symphoniae jucundae, trans. Ulrich S. Leupold, in Luther’s Works, LIII (Philadelphia: The Fortress Press, 1965), 324.

3 Leaver, 136.

Christmas Fest is both Sinner and Saint.

As Lutherans assert that humans are simul justus et peccator (simultaneously sinner and saint), so I will assert that Fest is too. To put it in the vernacular, Fest is… complicated. It is quite consistent with Lutheran theology that things like Fest happen at schools like St. Olaf. Most fundamentally, Fest could be understood as a service of the Word, in the sense that the songs are meant to entice the listeners and singers to reflect on the gospel (when I say gospel I mean “Good News”) message of the birth of Jesus. In this sense, Fest is a perfect example of evangelism. It also makes sense from a Lutheran point of view of vocation that we spend so much time and energy on it. Having been justified by Christ’s death and resurrection, we can spend time working for the good of our neighbor by learning lots of songs  that elucidate the gospels, and singing at them.

The thought that music has the ability to bring greater understanding of the Good News is consistent with Lutheranism too. We’ve been using music as an instrument of edification since the Reformation. My personal research has also shown that proto-reformers whose ideas greatly influenced Luther, namely Hus and Wycliffe, held similar views on music as Luther. Thus, at its best, Christmas Fest is St. Olaf staff, faculty, and students, working together to share the Good News with the community at large.

However, we must also address the sinner side of Fest. To begin with, it seems problematic that people have to pay to see it. From a Lutheran standpoint, money should not influence how much one is able to participate in the church. It is a particular fault of our society to conflate the acquisition of wealth with God’s favor. The belief that one being rich indicates that one is favored by God is a stumbling block over which the Puritans fell, and over which the political right in America often falls today. I grant that Christmas Fest is not cheap to produce. It requires the time of many professionals whose services cost money, and those services  should be highly valued and adequately compensated. However, upon considering that Jesus was poor and disadvantaged enough in his society to be born in a barn, it seems awfully ironic that St. Olaf would prohibit the demographic to which Jesus belonged in participating fully in the celebration of his birth. If it is true that one cannot serve both God and mammon (Matt. 6: 24), then it seems like we should be perfectly willing to perform this artistic unpacking of the gospels free of charge, for any who care to listen.


I also worry about the pageantry. The pomp and circumstance around Christmas Fest can seem all consuming. To a degree, we feel like we’ve worked hard, and our hard work should be rewarded by the admiration of middle aged people in Norwegian sweaters who coughed all throughout the performance and clapped for a long time when we finished. To understand this situation through a Lutheran lens, one must consider the two kingdoms doctrine. Basically this doctrine asserts that the worldly kingdom is broken, slightly tragic, and temporary; whereas the heavenly kingdom is right relationship with God, the holy, and eternal. This is really a gross simplification but I’ve probably written too much already. In terms of the heavenly kingdom, Lutherans take the apostle Paul at his word when he says “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift through the redemption that is in Jesus Christ,” (Rom. 3: 23-24). Basically the thought is that by our own power we do only bad things, and that it is by God’s action alone that we aren’t sentenced to eternal awfulness. However, in the worldly kingdom, relative levels of blame or praise may be assigned based on how well one loves one’s neighbor (a thought which of course needs more nuance than may be provided here). The takeaway is that when Lutheran’s are at their best, they’ll do what they believe to be a loving action regardless of whether or not they receive a tangible benefit from their efforts. I understand that in order to maintain its existence, St. Olaf needs money. However, it is necessary to point out that compromising one’s beliefs in order to prolong one’s existence is not, in any way shape or form, a Lutheran value.

I also have qualms with singing in dialect. It seems really pointless to me. In most cases I don’t believe that singing in a particular dialect helps an audience understand the words being sung. This matters a lot when one is trying to convey the gospels. It also strikes me as odd that in general we only sing in dialects when we sing music that we perceive as having an origin foreign to a white, anglo-saxon tradition. We never sing early  American tunes in the style of shape note singers. We never sing Luther chorales as they would have been sung by his parishioners. We recognize that these styles of singing are unappealing to the modern listener. Why then do we insist on changing the way we sing in English a song which originated out of a non-white community or tradition? Similar questions may be raised about why we sing in foreign languages in contexts where only the vernacular will be understood by a majority of the listeners.

Christmas Fest is important to me. In some dramatic ways, it can draw St. Olaf musicians into an even closer bond with each other.. All of us recognize that Fest can be (or rather, is) a nightmare, but we get to experience this nightmare together. And for some of us extra silly folks, Fest is an opportunity to express our joy at a particular event, which we assert happened in 1st century Palestine, in a place not designed for childbirth.

Finally I would like to exclaim that it is just fine that Fest happens in Skogatorium. Lutherans should not necessarily be interested in owning the most glamorous, the most expensive, or the most beautiful. During Christmas Fest Lutherans ought to  remind themselves that that the person called Jesus of Nazareth was born in a stable; the lowliest of living establishments. We are quite fortunate to have such a place as Skogitorium. It is warm and dry, and as safe as we can reasonably hope. Performing Christmas Fest is taxing on most performers, but I have to think it’s worthwhile.

Christmas Festival: A Musical Commentary for Spiritual Fulfillment

In many ways, the St. Olaf Christmas Festival resembles kind of worship service. It contains many elements of a modern Lutheran service, including a processional, several congregational hymns, prayers, a Gospel reading (always a recounting of the nativity or a related story), more (a lot more) than one anthem, and a recessional. Most if not all of the music at Christmas Fest is “sacred”, using texts derived from scripture or other religious sources. It even has a theological message every year, albeit one that is a broad attempt at connecting pieces together and often drawn directly from a text (for example, “The World Renewed With Love Divine” coming from a very similarly named hymn that made an appearance). However, while all of this is true, attendance comes with an admission fee and the cultural pressure to wear a Norwegian sweater and visit the Caf for over-priced lutefisk and lefse. And while it takes the form of a worship service, nobody but perhaps the planning committee would call it such, as every other aspect points more to a concert as part of a larger cultural celebration.

When Leonard Bernstein wrote his Mass, he too stuck loosely to an existing liturgical form: the Roman Catholic mass. He hit all of the Mass Ordinary (in the right order) and many elements of the Mass Proper (although not really in the right order) and inserted his commentary, in a manner consistent with what was traditional and catered his content to the newly minted Sacrosanctum Concilium (a result of the Second Vatican Council’s move towards ecumenism and accessibility, or, more simply, an attempt to become more like protestants). And, like Christmas Fest, while Mass sticks roughly to a liturgical form, it is very non-liturgical and would never be used as liturgy. It is first a foremost a “concert mass”, or a mass intended for performance and consumption for the enjoyment of its listeners but not for worship.

Both Christmas Fest and Bernstein’s Mass clearly function more as concerts and performances than worship services, but that does not, however, negate their theological and spiritual significance. As Bernstein inserted his commentary on Religion and the American spiritual zeitgeist of the 1960s and 70s, the planning committee of Christmas Fest molds together a theme and selects music that best expresses that idea, creating a new commentary on the Gospel and the story of Christmas that we all know well. While it may seem very formulaic, it still is something that Luther would have valued as it presents the spiritual in a more thought-provoking and accessible setting, even if it tends to seem somewhat commercial and kitschy at times. And this formula works: while certainly not every participant or attendee of Christmas Fest has a “religious” or “spiritual” experience while singing or listening, many will say that they come out of the experience having found spiritual or religious value, and enough that many people make a yearly pilgrimage to campus to see it (my parents included, who came for the first time last year after being devoted members of the radio and TV audiences for years and don’t own any Norwegian sweaters and certainly don’t come for the lutefisk).

While Christmas Fest, like Bernstein’s Mass, would not be labeled by most as a worship service, it is nonetheless a valuable spiritual experience for many and with a theological commentary rooted in the traditions of the Reformation.

Christmas Celebration

On the St. Olaf College website, the St. Olaf Christmas Festival is described as “one of the oldest musical celebrations of Christmas in the United States.” It’s important to remember this self-definition when questioning this event’s identity: is it a concert, or is it a service?

It’s kind of both. It has elements of theology that align quite well with Luther’s ideas in the reformation. Christmas Fest presents a theme every year that is reflected through most of (if not all) the repertoire selected. This year’s is “Light Dawns, Hope Blooms”. In my own research regarding my first paper, I discovered that Luther believed musicians’ job in worship is to present musical sermons with a compelling theological message that’s accessible to the congregation. I’ve never been an audience member of Christmas Fest, but I believe it would be difficult to not catch a glimpse of each yearly message since the theme is clearly pasted above the roughly 500 choir members in a catchy font.

Christmas Festival has another important factor pointing itself towards being more of a service: congregational hymns. There is a processional hymn for all to sing when the choirs enter, two hymns in the middle of event, and a recessional hymn when the choirs exit into the round. Luther was an avid advocate for accessible chorale tunes so all present at a service could sing together.

Unfortunately, Christmas Festival loses its validity as a service in politics. Entry to the event costs $30 per person, plus a $7 “transaction fee” when purchasing. This makes the festival an exclusive event rather than inclusive. If St. Olaf wanted it to be closely aligned with service practices without overbooking each night, tickets could be reserved for free with a free-will donation optional. Along with the clapping that follows the final notes of Beautiful Savior at the end, it’s really not possible to argue that it is a service any longer. Because the actual contents of the concert mainly have the intentions of a service, I don’t think it’s entirely fair to call it simply a concert either. It’s a celebration of Christmas; the website is not wrong.

Is Christmas Fest a Concert or a Worship Service?

Concerts with sacred repertoire are nothing new to any musician. Especially in my Catholic high school, every concert we sung had a few sacred pieces on the program. Every February we would put together a “Sacred Concert,” with all choirs (there were seven choirs and three extracurricular groups), where we asked audience members not to applaud until the end, similar to Christmas Fest. These sacred concerts were often during Lent, yet had nothing to do with the Lenten season, similar to Fest’s place within the Advent season, yet treated more as a Christmas celebration than an Advent service. Although music in the Catholic tradition has a different purpose, I came to St. Olaf without being bothered by Christmas Fest. I understood the idea of a sacred concert, but when it was explained to me that Fest was a worship service, I was confused. Why would the audience pay upwards of thirty dollars for a worship service, which should be free and open to the public?

The consumerism aspect of Fest is the part with which many participants struggle. The music fits into the idea of a service, but how do Swedish meatballs, lutefisk, and Norwegian sweaters relate to a prayer service? The students are not only bothered by the incredible amount of people crowding their campus, but also the sheer amount of hours they must dedicate to this event. Mass choir rehearsals begin in a week, and students sacrifice days out of their Thanksgiving break each year to return and prepare and exhaust themselves with four long concerts and a dress rehearsal, immediately before finals. These long hours do not help the participants to feel spiritually renewed.

While there are contentions as to what Christmas Fest actually is, some aspects of Fest align with Lutheran music theology. Each year, audience members (or congregation) are asked to sing four hymns at different points in the concert. Pastors Matt and Katie both read scripture that pertains to the theme selected by the directors. Christmas Fest uplifts the spirits of some audience members. I like to believe that Christmas Fest is popular not only because the music is beautiful, but because the music is beautiful AND spiritually uplifting, which is the music that Luther praised so highly.

How do I know what a dead man thinks about a modern tradition? I don’t.

Apparently, people have a problem with Christmas Fest.

I can’t say I’ve ever thought of a problem with Fest. I’ve always loved the hullabaloo, the excitement, and the chance to worship God. Also, the repertoire is fun to sing. Even though it’s long, it’s like when a runner does a marathon. Tiring, but still, glad to have done it.

In Luther’s day, he borrowed from secular traditions like in his chorales and other musical works, and he encouraged worship in vernacular. Fest accomplishes this, but we also include more pieces from foreign traditions (“Chinese” tunes, “Gospel” songs, and songs sung in dialects). The issue of appropriation aside, I can see how these songs may be deemed as a bit too modern or different for us to include in a very Lutheran, lutefisk-filled weekend of Christian worship.

While Luther did condone slowly incorporating new things into the church, I don’t know how he would feel about us singing these more modern-inspired songs. On one hand, I think that they reach people in ways that hymns sometimes do not. Everyone worships differently and feels closer to God through different kinds of music. Personally, I don’t feel anything at all while singing hymns, and even though Fest is more of a pageant/performance, I feel very connected to God when listening to the more contemporary pieces at Fest. Some people may have different experiences and think that the “O come, All Ye Faithful” that we sing basically every year is just the most awe-inspiring thing they’ve ever sung as worship. I think that it’s important that Fest include these varying genres in hopes of having at least one or two things that every member of the audience can love and feel more connected to God. Since Luther encouraged music that brings incredible amounts of joy and happiness because it’s a gift from God, I think that this is very important.

Also, I suppose there is the issue of Fest being more of a performance than a worship service – it’s a strange hybrid of the two, which I think is fine! There’s nothing wrong with this fairly unique spectacle. As to Luther’s opinion, I think he would have approved, especially considering his opinions on vocation – this isn’t nearly as controversial as say, if you were playing covers of screamo music for a living. I have no qualms categorizing this as a Luther-approved way to spend our free time (since, you know, we don’t have to spend all of our time doing good works to get to heaven, according to his doctrine of justification).

However, I am not a Luther scholar, and I cannot possibly know what Luther would have thought. He’s been dead for 470 years. I can have my opinion, but he could surprise me. As I understand it, surprising people was kinda part of what he did (“surprise, here’s 95 theses,” “surprise, I actually don’t support the peasant revolt,” “surprise, I’m kinda racist,” etc).

Lutefisk Madness!

…was the endearing alternative title I concocted when discussing The St. Olaf Christmas Festival™ with my saxophone student’s mom last week. Personally, I think my title is an apt one for the sweater-rampant, tradition-steeped, yet also spiritually invigorating “machine” we have churned out for more than a century here on the Hill. Christmas Fest has become one of the most significant traditions on this campus (which is saying something, given St. Olaf’s overt though largely harmless cult vibe). It’s been described on blogs and news articles as a sort of “choral Mecca,” where music lovers in the upper Midwest to come out of hibernation for a few days to joyfully bask in the overwhelming warmth of Fest. There’s songs to warm the heart, Norwegian sweaters to warm the body, and of course the lye-scented glory of lutefisk to warm the soul. However, there’s some definitely un-Lutheran (or at least un-Reformation) aspects of Fest too. Before I open this can of worms too far, allow me to state that I have sung in this Yuletide institution every year. Every year, I have strongly mixed feelings about it, and yet I definitely look forward to Fest more this year than ever before.

All this to say: I’m not convinced that Luther would be sold on Christmas Fest. (To be honest, I certainly wasn’t sold my first year.) The fact that Fest has one foot solidly planted in the concert realm and one foot definitely rooted in worship presents conflicts with Reformation theology immediately. It’s difficult to imagine Luther wholeheartedly endorsing Fest because of the theological inconsistencies that tend to happen when we have a two-hour-and-then-some choir concert and sprinkle in a few congregational hymns and occasional scripture readings. Fest is, after all, mostly a performance (with five enormous choirs, a 93-member orchestra, and – the conductors might disagree with me on this – an abundance of rehearsal). It is a performance of stunning sacred music usually interpreted from a contemporary Christian perspective that enriches the faith and/or touches the hearts of many both in the audience and on stage each year – but ultimately, it is a Christmas concert. (This, to me, is most clear when we recognize that Fest is a money spinner – worship services don’t usually $30 to attend.)

Generally, when comparing Reformation theology and Christmas Fest, I see a pretty even mix of consistency and conflict between the two. For example, most of us have a good idea of how hard all the musicians involved work, spending numerous hours perfecting their pieces together. On the one hand, this sounds a lot like Reformation vocational ideals – the concept that people should use and refine their considerable talents throughout life to serve others. It’s also reminiscent of the ars perfecta which Luther was so fond of listening to (but considered inappropriate in worship settings). Another example of this dichotomy is the use of scripture and congregational singing. The sights and sounds of a vast audience and multiple choirs and instrumentalists making hymns together would certainly appeal to Luther in his day, but the undeniable fact that those hymns (and, in some ways, the Scripture readings) are overshadowed by the music would most likely not sit as well with him.

Ultimately, I feel that considering Reformation theology when planning or performing in Fest would be wise – to an extent. By no means do I think we should revamp Christmas Fest to be more Reformation-friendly purely for the sake of consistency with Lutheran theology. However, I think we can learn something from Reformation ideals to better bring those intentions to Christmas Fest: the importance of participation, the power of human connection to the divine/spiritual through music, and gratitude for the many gifts we have been given.

Holy Music

Does anyone go to the St. Olaf Christmas Festival to hear the gospel read? For some reason, I doubt it. If you hear people speaking about Fest in referential, religious tones, it will probably have little explicit connection to the birth of Christ. You’re more likely to hear the audience praising the St. Olaf Choir than praising God. Martin Luther said “music is second only to theology”. Yet for at least the duration of Christmas Festival, music is second to none.

The first order of business in assessing Christmas Festival by the standards of the reformation is figuring out what precisely Christmas Festival is. Is it a concert? If so, then why the gospel readings? Is it a religious service? Then why are people paying for tickets? In truth, it is neither here nor there. For the purposes of this short blog I will consider Fest as a religious service.

Considered as worship, Fest is in line with Lutheran musical standards. It uses music to convey theological messages and to enhance spiritual experiences. It draws heavily on vernacular music. This use of vernacular music is where Fest most obviously goes into muddy waters. We must ask whose vernacular music Fest uses. There are often performances of spirituals or songs in African or Latin styles. All from the mouths of  overwhelmingly white choirs. For Luther, the point of the text and music being in the vernacular is to make them more accessible to the laypeople. Put familiar language to a familiar tune, and suddenly theological messages are much more accessible than Latin texts set with complex counterpoint. Why then, the spirituals? Why the African choral pieces? Why the Chinese Christmas carols?

These cultural excursions reveal that, at least in part, the music is not about accessibility. It is not about sharing valuable theological messages. It is about music, for the sake of music. One might argue that the plurality of styles and cultures present at Christmas Festival do suggest a theological message. A message of happy, cooperative, global Christianity. This is naive. That message may be there, but it is sullied by willful ignorance of history. Watching nearly all white Ole Choir performs spirituals about black oppression is cringe-worthy. Though perhaps this is a Lutheran thing to do. It bears a passing resemblance to Christian triumphalism and supersessionism.

Though Martin Luther would be baffled by contemporary identity politics, I suspect he’d be horrified by how easily theology is relegated to the sidelines at Christmas Festival. For many of the attendees, music is elevated above all else. The music itself becomes the object of worship. Beautiful Savior is worshiped as opposed to the beautiful savior Himself.

F. Melius Christmasfest

If you can judge the “Lutheran-ness” of an event based on the ratio of sweaters to humans, then when Luther died, he surely ascended into Skoglund Auditorium. Christmas Fest is one of the most effective examples in the world of music being utilized as a form of worship, as years upon years of St. Olaf students and choir members have been told. In my view, the fact that Pastor Matt narrates throughout the event and reads the Gospel with Pastor Katie makes Christmas Fest a time of worship. It really is as simple as that. There is a conscious effort on the part of the artistic committee to make it possible for people to worship at Fest. Without those key things, it would be so much easier to call it a “concert” of Christmas music. In its current state, with each year’s theme so profoundly integrated into the narration and performance, and taking into account the deep-rooted tradition with which we St. Olaf students resurrect this exquisite exhibition of Christmas spirit each year, I think the only ones who wouldn’t call it worship are the ones who haven’t really thought about it.

The concept of music being accessible to any congregation was so important to Luther that he composed his own chorales with the intent of spreading the efficiency with which music could transmit ideas and doctrines. Having the time to compose chorales instead of  doing ‘works’ is definitely a benefit of guaranteed salvation through faith. While perhaps he would disapprove of certain pieces we perform that are too inaccessible for our congregation of twelve thousand, the spirit of the Reformation is intensely alive each year  in Christmas Fest.

Would Luther jam to Fest? Probably…

…but would he consider it worship? Maybe. Maybe not. Although Luther was an advocate for music in worship, it was also very important to him that worship be accessible AND that the congregation be fully involved and engaged, when appropriate. It could be argued that Fest does, in fact cover these bases – the audience joins in singing hymns, the choirs sing a huge variety of music, and even the Gospel is read by real pastors in vestments! However, Luther was still a proponent of liturgical services, and while there is a flow and an art to Christmas Fest, there most certainly is not a liturgy. On the other hand, worship in Luther’s day and place was still very similar to Catholicism in terms of structure. Therefore, the idea that Fest can be considered some sort of “creative worship” would have been completely foreign to Luther. I do not think it would have been a worship experience for him. He may even have disapproved of having an event with an ambiguous mission – is it worship or is it performance? However, I will not go so far as to suggest that he would have viewed the whole event as sacrilegious. After all, Luther believed in his calling to spread and preach the Gospel. It is difficult to consider his thoughts on a modern day concept, but it is important to wonder about, because it keeps us actively thinking about decisions in our current worship and theology. Since Luther wanted all people to feel connected to God through worship, I find myself thinking that he would be open to the idea that in 2016, Christmas Fest is a form of worship for many, even if not for himself, and that worshipping God in any wholesome capacity is the most important thing we can do to appreciate and accept God’s gift of faith.

Christmas Fest as Elitist Music Making

I believe it is safe to say that, when each of us experienced Christmas Fest for the first time, we were not expecting a worship service; we were expecting a concert. To say that Fest is just a concert discredits the fact that many people find it to be a worshipful experience (this is not the same as a worship service – there are plenty of people who will not find a liturgical service to be a worshipful experience, and vice versa). Though we have been mainly discussing the Reformation as it relates to theology and the mass, I believe there are ways in which we can compare the ideologies of the Reformation to Christmas Fest as a sacred music experience.

When Martin Luther discusses music, he describes it as being next to theology, one of the highest art forms given by God. And when music is done exceptionally well, then, he says, “at last it is possible to taste with wonder…God’s absolute and perfect wisdom in his wondrous work of music.” With the amount of care, planning, and preparation given to Fest, it ends up becoming a musical spectacle where singers and players are performing at a really high quality. In Luther’s eyes, Christmas Fest is the ideal celebration of God’s gift of music! Choirs, orchestra, and audience members are all a part of the experience that is good music making.

One part of Fest that I do find troubling is its lack of accessibility. Luther created the Deutsche Messe in order for the Gospel to be accessible to everyone. Of course this meant translating the mass from Latin/Greek to German, but I feel there was something bigger that Luther was trying to do. He took what was previously thought to be elite, only for the literate and theologically well versed, and brought it to the common folk. This is what St. Olaf is missing in its production of Christmas Fest. If you are not connected to the St. Olaf community, then you will be hard-pressed to find a ticket, and even if you can, tickets still cost a fair amount of money. If we really want the message of Fest to be taken to the world, we cannot keep ourselves in a little bubble and hide behind the excuse that we broadcast one of the Fest dates on MPR. Let’s convert Christmas Fest from an elitist music experience to a message of Love and Hope that people can truly grasp.

Christmas Fest: Conflict or Confluent?

A beloved tradition of a college of the Lutheran church, the annual St. Olaf Christmas Festival echoes the Reformation musical theology and embodies Martin Luther’s perception of music and religion in many ways. First and foremost, Luther constructed his cosmology of music upon this core statement that music is next to the Word of God. According to Luther, music is a divine gift uniquely assigned to humans as a medium to praise and thank God for His forgiveness and love. As a result, music has long been an essential part of Lutheran worship tradition. Correspondingly, serving the traditional Christian holiday, Christmas Fest centralizes on religious repertoire while incorporates essential worship rituals such as gospel readings in between music performances. We can argue that Christmas Fest is necessarily Lutheran because in this event, music is valued as effective and significant as text readings in terms of fulfilling the demand of Christian holiday celebration.

Beyond the fundamental appreciation to music itself, distinctive from many other Christian beliefs, Lutherans tolerate and value diverse mediums of making music, embracing both vocal and instrumental music, as well as virtuosity in musical performances. Christmas Fest inherits the Lutheran acknowledgement to the variety approaches of music making by including both choral repertoire and instrumental piece into the event, although vocal music always dominates the program. In addition, Christmas Fest features fairly virtuosic performing groups, such as the St. Olaf Choir and  the St. Olaf Orchestra, and the choices of repertoire are particularly demanding as well.

Despite of these connections with Luther’s statements about on music and its effectiveness in worship, Christmas Fest does face several fundamental problems in regard to the Reformation musical theology. One essential premise for the Reformation Theology to function is the existence of faith in Christ. However, Christmas Fest inevitably involves individuals who are of other or without religious belief in both the participants and the audience, due to the college setting of this event. This problem of lack of religious devotion is augmented when the college advertises the event as a school concert and sales tickets for it, which conflicts with Lutheran’s idea that making music is justified primly and essentially because of the religious motivation.

Therefore, through this brief discussion about the consistency and discordance between the Reformation musical theology and Christmas Fest, it is fairly clear that Christmas Fest does not carry one single function but is rather a multi-functional event that serves different groups of people for both sacred and secular meanings. Instead of arguing that the sacred and secular aspects of the event conflict with each other, I would rather say Christmas Fest is a confluence of diverse needs existed in a college campus, since eventually the event functions as a great opportunity to gather the community together with joyful spirits no matter what is the rationale behind.

Christmas Fest’s Dissent from Lutheran Ideals of Worship Music

In studying Reformation theology and traditions, it is important to evaluate the ways in which St. Olaf’s Lutheranism adheres to and differs from Luther’s thinking.  Christmas Festival, in particular, bears witness to the complicated interconnectedness of Church and college at St. Olaf.  Although Christmas Fest identifies neither as a worship service nor a concert, but an ambiguous mélange of the two, it’s use of liturgical music as art music necessarily suggests a sacred dimension.  A comparison with Luther’s worship service reveals that Christmas Fest is in tension with Luther’s communitarian and antihierarchical ideals.  While Christmas Fest encourages a Lutheran delight in music, it asserts a hierarchy between instrumentalists and singers and a choir versus audience professionalism Luther would have opposed.

St. Olaf’s insistence on professionalism in Christmas Fest conflicts with Luther’s most important values of accessibility and community in worship.  In his rewritten liturgy, Luther and other Reformers made worship music more accessible by setting texts in the vernacular to folk tunes.  Lutheran worship also replaced professional choirs with congregational singing to encourage active participation among congregants and community in Christian faith.  While Christmas Fest includes congregational singing, the choirs’ performances greatly overshadow the few instances where the audience joins.  Likewise, the performers are clearly distinguished from the audience in their attire and position in the “auditorium”, analogous to a professional choir.  Luther would also criticize the choirs’ overly-professional behavior in performance.  For instance, pressure to perform perfectly and flawless coordination in processing, standing up, and sitting down foster a sense of stiffness and detachment between audience and performers.  Christmas Fest combines aspects of a worship service and a performance, and so it differs in practice from a service intended purely for worship.  Nevertheless, Christmas Fest deviates from the Lutheran tradition of church music.

In addition to his condemnation of music out of touch with ordinary life, Luther sought to remove hierarchy in his reformed liturgy.  His use of chorales and congregational singing suggest Luther valued equality among those participating in music.  The hierarchy of singers and instrumentalists in Christmas Fest contradicts Luther’s desires for equality and community in worship.  Christmas Fest privileges singers with jewel-toned robes, lighting, and elevated position on the stage, and performance of the vast majority of music on the program.  By contrast, the orchestra musicians disguise themselves in black, sit below the choirs, and function primarily as accompaniment.  In asserting a preference for choral music above instrumental music, Christmas Fest divides the priesthood of all believers Luther hoped to create with equality in music.

Music is a Gift from God

The most problematic aspect of Christmas Fest for me is the pageantry. I will shy away from using the word authentic, but it becomes a replicated experience when it is done four nights in a row. It is very well put together and cohesive as held together by the year’s theme and I think this is consistent with St. Olaf’s reputation, but I don’t think we can call it worship. Most of the people are there because they love to sing and are in choir at one of the best schools for choir in the nation, not because they want to bring a gift of worship to the global community. It comes down to intent for me and I know that not everything that is offered is as wholly genuine as it could be.

I also think that Luther’s ideas on music can be congruent with the institution of Fest. Because music is a gift from God, it should be cherished and celebrated, and this action can take many forms. We do sing secular pieces, but it is the music that can also be appreciated and that in and of itself is something that St. Olaf obviously believes in, regardless of the intent of Christmas Fest. Luther believes that music drives away evil, and in the two Fest’s that I’ve been a part of, the theme has been something inspiring world peace. We may not be celebrating God outright in an overly ecclesial context, but the sentiment still stands that we are celebrating the musical gifts we are given (vocation) and contributing to a global effort to create community and stop evil.

To many people, it is confusing why the festival has verses from the Bible, but I think it should be understood that the purpose of Christmas Fest is to share the gift of music with the world, to spread hope in dark times, and in doing so we are praising God and serving him.


The Bear that is Christmas Fest

Christmas Fest has been a significant part of St. Olaf’s musical tradition for over a hundred years, but as many students know, it has a reputation for being both an incredible and painful experience. Strangely, Christmas Fest is somewhat of an enigma as it goes against a lot of what the Reformation set out to change, despite coming from a Lutheran tradition. Fest is, of course, meant to be showy, but is also meant to hold religious depth, sort of like a less cute adult version of a Christmas pageant. So, what is Christmas Fest and is it something Martin Luther would’ve wanted?

In rehearsals leading up to the performance, it is clear Christmas Fest’s music is intended to be perfected, which sounds a lot like the ars perfecta tradition. Through my research, I’ve learned that Luther loved the ars perfecta tradition but knew it wasn’t suited for the common person. Frankly, the average Fest attendee would likely not be able to sound like the choirs. Attendees do get a chance to sing hymns as a large group, but a majority of the music is sung by the choirs only, mimicking pre-Reformation ideals that only church officials get to perform. Aside from that, you run into many problems if you view Christmas Fest as a worship service, especially since you have to pay to attend. Things become less problematic when you view the event as just a performance, but it is difficult to remove the religious element when pastors come in to recite verses from the Bible.

I think it’s beneficial for us to discuss Christmas Fest in terms of what we know from the Reformation, but we should also keep in mind that Fest is its own entity that doesn’t necessarily have to connect back to Reformation ideals. Having been both a performer and a Fest attendee, I’ve been able to see both sides of the experience. As a listener, you buy a ticket with the expectation that you will hear great choirs sing great music, and you’re less concerned about making the event into a church service. From my personal experience, it’s been hard to find audience members that have had a problem with the festival in this way. As a performer, I think your experience depends on what you put into it. I worked hard and was exhausted by the end, but I still enjoyed it and got a small amount of religious satisfaction from it. On the other hand, I absolutely see why Fest can be controversial as it often feels like Christianity is being shoved down the performer’s throat as they’re forced to preach about it whether or not they agree with it themselves. I wonder, though, exactly how much damage would be done by taking the religious element out of Fest; perhaps it would go over well, they’d just need a new name.

Everyone involved in Christmas Fest should be reflecting on what the event means to them and what it might mean to others, but it is especially important for the planning committee to analyze how Fest affects the St. Olaf community. In the end, Christmas Fest is a much bigger deal than just a performance, it’s also something the community cares a whole lot about. Therefore, it’s just as important to keep the big picture in mind as it is to analyze details that will help us better the experience in years to come.

Christmas Fest: A Worshipful Performance

The Reformation was a time in which church practices were questioned, and theological turmoil developed radical new ways of thinking about the Christian religion and its relationship with worshippers. This conflict sparked theologians like Calvin, Zwingli, and Luther to create a wide breadth of theological writings. As a school affiliated with the Lutheran tradition we can use these writings to gauge our success in using the theological tools that the reformers created to shape out effects on the world both within campus and off campus. It should be noted that Luther would likely argue that no theology, even his own, should take precedence over the words of the Gospel. It is then with great care that we apply the sentiments of the reformation to faith and worship in our own time to the Christmas Festival at St. Olaf.


It is difficult to know with 100% certainty, but most performers and hopefully all conductors would agree that Christmas Fest is either spiritually or emotionally moving, and the intentions of directors and organizers is to share that experience with the audience. Luther’s main argument for music is that it enhances the text and theological ideas that it is intending to convey, and Fest certainly does this by focusing the message of its repertoire on the birth of Christ. It also enforces the ability for all to understand the text being sung through printed books that contain text and translations. Creating a meaningful spiritual experience for all involved though a mass display of St. Olaf’s talent and coordination is Christmas Fest’s purpose and it succeeds in upholding Luther’s views on music.


Problems only arise when discussing whether one should call Christmas Fest worship or performance. The most obvious allusion to the reformation would be the comparison of the admission price of Fest to the selling of indulgences. Certainly, St. Olaf is not peddling that one must attend Fest in order to be saved by Christ, but it does create a boundary between people and the words of the Gospel which is contrary to Luther’s hope that all can be given access. Calvin and Zwingli would certainly dislike the practice of Christmas Fest and its use of instruments and lack of congregational song which distort their views of song as a motivator for zealous prayer. It is subjective whether the musical selections for Christmas Fest are chosen more for their musical value and “delight of the ear” or for their theological value, but it should be considered when deciding whether Fest is either worship or performance.

I think Luther would like Christmas Fest.

Where do I even begin with talking about Christmas Fest? I guess I’ll start by saying that it is my second favorite experience of the year, in between #1: all of Holy Week and #3: Christmas Eve itself. The more I keep thinking about Fest, the more I compare it to how Luther sees the world.

For me, Christmas Fest is a religious experience. The texts we sing combined with the crazy amount of talent in the room is definite proof to me that God exists and knows how to have a great time. Of course, this is colored by my personal beliefs that God is everywhere and that everything is a spiritual experience as long as it is done with the right intent. But even those who don’t necessarily have the “God is everywhere” mentality – I think of my roommate who doesn’t really practice any faith anymore – can still feel as though they have been religiously, or at least spiritually, restored by the festival.

So how does this connect to Luther and the Reformation? I keep thinking of what Pastor Matt said to us before fall break, that God has given believers a free gift. We can accept the gift or not, but we can not ever pay back the gift. So we find ways to celebrate, glorify, and recognize this gift in the hopes that one day it will be enough. This gift is Christmas Fest (except WHOA it is definitely not a free gift… $$). Dr. Armstrong always talks about a serving spirit, and how this festival isn’t for us to just show off, but make others feel. Feel more whole, more loved, more inspired. It is Luther’s mentality about faith and grace. The audience can attend Christmas Fest and choose whether or not to accept the gift we are giving. We, as choristers and orchestra members, can choose whether or not to accept the texts the planning committee has given us. The gift of the experience of Fest is, to me, priceless. I know I can never “pay back” the conductors, the pastors, the audiences, the logistics team, etc. for this marvelous experience. But I know that I can pay it forward through my singing and attitude, turning grace into works.

A reflection on research process: We should misunderstand

Talking about religion has in general been challenging for me. Although I am aware of the significance of religion upon people’s life, and the crucial impact of religion upon historical and social development, having limited religious background, I feel like I do not have much to say about this topic. Partially because I am severely concerned that my sparse knowledge has little to contribute and would necessarily reach its limit as I am going deeper to the subject, consequently leading to far-fetched misunderstanding.

But anyhow, I need to write this research paper about music and religion. Therefore, I concentrated on the readings we have done so far in class, confirming myself that at least I could come up with some argument based on what I learned in class. The readings that I focused on are Bloxam and Robertson’s articles about the tradition of “chanson mass,” or “parody mass.” In their essays, Bloxam and Robertson argued for credible allegorical readings on the original secular text of the chanson, and justified the religious motivation of borrowing secular material to compose sacred music. Following their approach, I decided to try out similar religious reading on Missa Fors seulement, a sacred mass of J. Ockeghem borrowing secular elements from his own chanson Fors seulement.

As my research processes, I realized that discrepancies if not conflicts are so common between different sources and scholarships, and each of them has some “misunderstanding.” First of all, I looked up several editions of Fors seulement, which disagree with each other on the arrangement of the two upper voice parts because of their similar voice range. Even Bloxam and Robertson, the two main scholars that I refer to, offered distinctive approaches to allegorical readings on secular text. Bloxam focused on Mariological interpretation of the court lady, the dedicatee of the secular chanson, yet Robertson emphasized the Christological approach in which the narrator of the love song was a metaphor of Christ. In other words, all of these scholarships try to revive the past, but potentially they “misunderstand,” since what truly happened during the Medieval remains unknown. However, like what Sorce Keller said in his essay “Why we misunderstand,” “one does justice to a musical work by ‘misunderstanding’ it, by discovering with our intelligence and creativity what kind of sense it can still have in our time.” Therefore, by following what the previous scholars had been doing, I may justify my own misunderstanding on this topic, that is to offer myself, at least, an opportunity to retrospect to the past and scrutinize the idea of the intertwined relationship between the secular and the sacred.

Schubert’s “Gott ist mein Hirt” – apparently “Hirt” people’s feelings.

Thus far, I’ve done some research on Schubert’s setting of Psalm 23.

Firstly, I will start by saying that this SSAA piece shows off Schubert’s talents well, but does not audibly fascinate me all that much. Maybe, I need to find a better recording than the Kings College Choir of Cambridge on NAXOS, but I doubt I’d find anything better. A lot of reviews of this piece have been written along with a lot of scholarship about the text, so it’s not a difficult piece to research. The ease of accessibility regarding the research materials makes it a good topic to delve into, however, I don’t find myself particularly opinionated about the piece in the first place – do I even like it? Should I argue for the other side instead?

In my paper, I’ve written that I think it is an appropriate setting of the piece, despite previous scholarship that implies it is not – am I only arguing this to play devil’s advocate against people who say it’s an inappropriate setting? I don’t like it when people try to dictate what religious texts can be set to specific kinds of music (a topic heard about in contemporary music, but less scholarship has been done on Christian rock, for example), and so I think I’m just arguing this point in order to fight against people trying to restrict “appropriate” church music to their opinions. Even if I don’t have a strong love of this piece, out of principle, I feel the need to argue for it’s validity as a sacred piece.

The more I look into the piece, the more I see how I can appreciate it and enjoy it – though I may not go out of my way to listen to it because I’m really feeling the need to listen to some small schoolboys sing a little higher than their ranges allow. I can’t say that’s a desire I’ve ever felt. However, I love the text and the message of Schubert’s setting (which I’m only beginning to understand now, after I’ve researched its’ form and the chiastic nature of the text).

In regard to more specific aspects of my research, I’ve been having trouble locating the paper called The Musical Transcript from 1854 – it has a review of the piece I’d like to be able to correctly reference, but at the moment I’m unable to locate it properly. This was a review of someone who really did not like the piece and apparently felt personally victimized by Franz Schubert for this setting of the piece.

My research has not been as difficult in finding sources (except that 150 year old paper), but has been more difficult in regards to my opinions. Am I playing devil’s advocate? Also, how do I make people care about this highly specific topic?

Patriarchy, Publications, and Perspectives: Or, Why My Thesis Completely Changed Two Days Before the Due Date

A transcription of thoughts before the first draft due date:

Two weeks left: Wow! So, I’ve picked an exhilarating topic, I can’t wait to rip the patriarchy a new one with this paper, and I have so much to talk about with this composer – Judaism, Christianity, gender roles…this is going to be so awesome. Now I just need to find academic writing that ties together feminism, religion, and music in 19th century Germany – no problem.

One week left: Okay, I’ve found some great feminist writing about her, and I’m having trouble getting scores to her music, but I know I can nail down theses better than Martin Luther.

Four days left: So…it turns out parts of many sources I had planned to use are biased and exaggerated or even made up. So…that’s a thing. Apparently I had been under the false impression that academically written biographies need to have entirely correct information. Thank you, scholars and fellow feminists. I don’t feel betrayed even a little bit.

Three days left: …I should have picked something easier to major in.

Two days left: OF COURSE! There’s not a huge wealth of information on this topic because of our society’s religiously and sexually biased history, and some of the new feminist writing is over-correcting the situation by publishing sometimes unreliable information, and now that I’ve explored her story and her compositions from different perspectives, I understand that Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel and her music deserve so much better. THAT’S what I need to write about. [Cue “I can see clearly now, the rain is gone…”]

Thus was born my first Music and Religion research paper – “Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel: A New Feminist Perspective.” As the transcription above indicates, it was both fascinating and frustrating to research this composer. Fanny Hensel, a Romantic era composer and pianist, wrote over 400 pieces that clearly demonstrate virtuosic performance skills, intelligent use of musical texture, and a thorough understanding of analysis and structure. Yet today, in spite of her impressive accomplishments and beautiful music, Fanny is mostly known as the sister of renowned composer Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy – not as an influential and significant musician in her own right.

The more I read, the more I found myself absorbed by Fanny’s unique story – and simultaneously foiled time and time again by either the sheer lack of material or the lack of objectively written, detailed information. For example, I was perfectly happy reading Francoise Tillard’s feminist biography Fanny Mendelssohn until I encountered an article called “The ‘Suppression’ of Fanny Mendelssohn: Rethinking Feminist Biography” by Marian Wilson Kimber. It did indeed force me to rethink feminist biography. Although I didn’t agree with everything the article had to offer, Kimber presented a completely different (and generally more accurate) perspective on Fanny’s life and music that completely reshaped my ideas for my writing. All in all, it was illuminating research because I saw how musicians and musicologists have treated female composers over the last few decades (sometimes insightfully, sometimes not) and how we might balance our modern perspectives with historically accurate contexts to best understand music history.

African Hymnody and the Yoruba

African hymnody is a relatively new development in the musical world, and its distant relationship to western music means that it attracts relatively little scholarship. The scholarship that does exist is recent, and in the scope of the total scholarship primary sources make up a large percentage. I have been particularly impressed by the work of Bode Omojola an ethnomusicologist who spent several years researching Yoruba (a tribal cultural group) music in Nigeria, produced several field recordings, and published his work in 2012. He visited several churches of varying traditions, both describing and analyzing their musical practices.
Omojola’s work one example of recent scholarship, and it is exciting because of the detail and accuracy that modern ethnomusicology brings to research, and the possibilities that it allows for the topic of African hymnody. African Christian music has a heavy western influence and thus it is difficult to find an objective account of the actual practices within sources that are even 10-15 years old. Choosing a topic was also difficult, because the scholarship was not only limited, but there are many cultural groups reflected within the scope of African hymnody that is seen in western hymnals. I knew I wanted to look at a hymn in a modern American hymnal, and analyze it within its original cultural context so my topic was necessarily chosen by looking at the hymns available and comparing it to the cultural group with the best scholarship available.
My necessarily narrow topic proves to be exciting because of its small body of thorough and extensive research. Many of the articles and books I found on Yoruba music took several approaches to analyzing the cultural influences on Christian music within their communities, and they sought to explain African rationale to a western audience. The modernity of the topic also allows for access to recordings, and translations of texts to help convey the musical ideas and textures that explanation cannot fully encompass. The ability to hear the music has been able to inform my comparisons to our western conceptions of African hymnody in a way that is not filtered through a third party who is describing the music.

Felix Mendelssohn-Bachtholdy

Mendelssohn’s revival of the St. Matthew Passion is a subject that attracts a large amount of scholarly writing, but most of that writing is so generic that it actually took a long time to sort through. Multiple books (both biographies and compilations) which I thought would be quite enlightening went no further than “…and then in 1829 he revived the St. Matthew Passion. In 1830…”

The two best sources I was able to find were actually secondary sources, despite the number of primary sources I had. They were Olga Termini’s article, “Bach Pupils and the Bach Tradition,” and a book written entirely on the subject of Mendelssohn’s 1829 accomplishment alone: Celia Applegate’s Bach in Berlin: Nation and Culture in Mendelssohn’s Revival of the St. Matthew Passion. Termini’s article focused on specifically how the performance was received, which is exactly what I was looking for, and Applegate’s book had so much pertinent information that I was surprised at how much of it I had to cut out for the sake of getting to the point. I hope to utilize her work more thoroughly in my final draft.

A surprising primary source was Elvers’ compilation of Mendelssohn’s various letters. I’m interested in what insights I would have been able to come across had Elvers decided to include important letters that Mendelssohn received as well as those he sent. The point of view of Zelter, Mendelssohn’s mentor, would have been invaluable, seeing as he initially opposed the Bach performance but changed his mind at the last minute.

It would be fantastic if I could find record of a review of that first performance, but there are two possible reasons for why I haven’t yet: 1 – I’m not looking hard enough, or 2 – they don’t exist. I can solve the first issue easily as we come closer to reaching the final draft, but the second one is more disappointing, if it’s true. Looking back from the vantage point of the 21st century, that event was such a momentous occasion that it would be sad if there weren’t any existing reviews of it. My goal is to determine the cultural impact of the revival and to place its importance into the category of either “religious event” or “secular renewal of a religious artifact.”

The Challenges of Researching in a Tight-Knit Body of Work

After my first exposure to the music of Thomas Tallis in Music 241 last year, I started listening to more Renaissance music and especially 16th century choral music.  I found Tallis’s 40-part motet Spem in alium during a YouTube search and was immediately transfixed by its beauty and complexity.  Since learning of its use in modern media, for instance E.L. James’ reference to the motet in Fifty Shades of Grey, I have been interested it the way modern listeners conceive of a 16th century motet.  In my first draft, I sought to explain why listeners have wrongly valued Spem in alium’s contrapuntal complexity above its sacred intent.

In researching Spem in alium, I have had relative ease finding research materials because the topic is narrow and there are several researchers interested in the piece.  I have struggled, however to formulate a thesis from the research I have done.  The articles and chapters I have read closely relate to one another.  The author of one article often references the work of another scholar, and so much of the information in each of my sources overlaps.   For instance, Suzanne Cole cites a host of Tallis scholars in her book Thomas Tallis and his music in Victorian England.  After reading the articles Cole cites, I found that every scholar analyses the same document on Spem in alium’s origins and gives a near identical account of the history of its manuscripts.  Though scholars have written many articles and books on Tallis and Spem in alium, these sources seem to use the same small body of research to derive new theories.  I am struggling to discern which theories are best founded and how I might use the research they offer to bolster my ideas.   

Like Professor Epstein’s forest metaphor, I am having difficulty finding sources that directly relate to my thesis.  I am studying Spem in alium’s value and intent as a sacred work, however I have not found many sources relating to this aspect of the piece.  The articles and chapters I have read primarily concern themselves with the motet’s ambiguous history, and less with Tallis’ hope for the piece.  I have adopted H.B. Collins’ speculation that Spem in alium is responsive to the Reformation’s mistreatment of Catholics, but I have only found one musical analysis of the piece to back this claim.  Although there are scholars whose work supports my thesis, I am having difficulty finding specific evidence to legitimize my claims.

Despite the challenges of researching, my appreciation for Spem in alium has grown tremendously.  Listening to the piece with a historical context in mind makes my experience of it much richer.  I am thankful to Tallis for his mastery of counterpoint, but even more for his thoughtful setting of a text.  I now have the pleasure of associating a beautiful piece with notions of forgiveness and unity.

Making New Connections: Hildegard and..??

I decided a long time ago that I wanted to explore Hildegard of Bingen’s life and work with my research in this class. I thought this would be a pretty straightforward task that would follow my usual path of research: make a great Boolean search statement, find some articles, and put them in conversation with each other. My expectations were significantly wrong.

The first challenge I came across was that I actually am not sure how to talk about Hildegard’s music. I can write about her philosophies of music and discuss her use of female voices, but I actually do not have the tools to otherwise analyze her music in a way that’s useful to making a point. Because of this, I did not include any specific musical examples or even names of pieces in my first draft.

I also had quite a bit of difficulty just deciding on a topic. I hadn’t really considered how I would write about Hildegard; I just wanted to learn about her and I didn’t have a plan for how I would make it matter and connect that knowledge to other important topics. Thanks to the Holsinger reading on the syllabus, I decided to follow the idea of bodily experiences with music. I initially wanted to compare dance music to Hildegard’s thoughts on physicality of music, but I found virtually no connections that were sufficient for writing a paper.

Because I was having trouble finding a specific topic, it was very difficult to search for articles and books with which to do my research. I eventually found a section of thought and research that theologians were calling “body theology” and followed that concept. I remembered talking about spirituals and gospel music in World Music a few weeks ago and decided (without having seen any connecting research at this point) to connect the idea of a musical trance/being taken over by the spirit to Hildegard’s experience with music.

I don’t think I got very far with this approach in my first draft, but going forward, I’d like to find more information both about Hildegard’s thoughts on the musical body and about experiences and explanations of the trance. I’d also like to look more at the claim that women experience more bodily reactions to music (and to life in general) and relate that to the musical experiences I’m discussing.

Born 25 Years Too Late: The Advantages and Disadvantages of a Modern Topic

Ever since I first listened to Bernstein’s MASS, it stood out to me as a unique and powerful work. I have always wanted to explore the work more, and learning about the mass and its traditional forms (and how composers extended that) gave me a greater appreciation for the work through a greater understanding of its construction.

I was first given the opportunity to write about MASS at the end of Music 242 (Music History 2) when we were tasked with creating an annotated bibliography and writing a topic proposal for a paper we were not actually going to write in order to practice the art of research. Now, we are blessed with the opportunity to write about whatever we want (so long as it contains a whisper of the Reformation) and I finally get to write it. In that proposal, I set the goal of comparing three of Bernstein’s works (MASS, Chichester Psalms, and Kaddish), something which now seems much more daunting and unfeasible for a 5-minute podcast. I ultimately decided to only focus on MASS, and to tie in the reformation by discussing how Bernstein altered and expanded the Catholic mass tradition.

Because I had done the annotated bibliography previously, I had a good starting place. When I first opened Catalyst (R.I.P. Bridge Squared) for the first time and turned to EBSCO, I discovered two things. First, when you write about a topic that is fairly recent (in comparison to many of my classmates’ topics 1971 is not long ago) the kinds of sources you find are either very general (biographies of Bernstein with mentions of MASS, collections of sources, etc.) or very specific (dissertations that analyze specific parts of the work, comparisons of musical style between works). Second, I learned that because of its newness people are still actively evaluating its merits discussing its intentions, most evident in the wide variety of reviews of the work that have been written and are continuing to be written as modern performances continue to reinterpret the work.

It is from these two categories that I found two sources from which I ended up drawing a lot of my material: the first a dissertation on how the Second Vatican Council (Vatican II) influenced the “concert mass” which uses MASS as one of three examples, and a more recent (2008) article from Opera News in which a recent Juilliard grad praises the work for its ingenuity and raw emotional power. I would not have even found the first of these had I not talked about the project with my friend and classmate Natalie who is examining how Vatican II impacted congregational singing in the Catholic church since as a born-and-raised protestant I had never heard of Vatican II or its implications.

I have found myself wishing I could have been born 25 years earlier so I could have perhaps talked with Bernstein himself before his death to discover what he really meant. But while finding research on such a recent topic has proven to be a challenge, it has also proven to be rewarding and illuminating through talking with my peers and finding connections to their topics, accessing a wealth of primary sources from the time of MASS’s debut, and engaging actively with the current scholarly output.

Creative Title About My Research Struggles

When I set out to research for this paper a week ago, I had planned what I thought was a relatively simple, arguable topic: proving that an English composer during the Reformation (such as William Byrd or Thomas Morley) was a secret Catholic through their music. While there is plenty of research on this subject, I just wasn’t finding much of a personal connection or desire to write about it, even though I certainly found it interesting. However, my historically interested brain wanted to make life harder by changing my topic at the last minute. I ended up shifting my focus to the evolution of sung psalmody in England during the Reformation. That was problem number one.

After switching to this topic, I honestly wasn’t sure where I would take it or if I would even be able to find enough information on it. I just knew that it was interesting and important and I wanted to learn about it. However, I ended up finding quite a bit of material that was useful, and here ran into my second problem: I am too interested in my topic. I ended up not being able to do broad research incorporating several different perspectives because I couldn’t bring myself to skim and skip over parts of the reading, especially in one of the most authoritative books on the topic. This was frustrating, because I have pages of notes (half of which I can’t use when it actually comes to writing the paper) and no time to continue researching, but there are four awesome looking books sitting in front of me that I have barely been able to crack open. Therefore, I feel that my first draft lacks perspective. Additionally, I don’t really think it is successfully arguing my thesis, because I still haven’t figured out how to argue it. This research has potentially bogged me down with (really cool and awesome and interesting) history that has much less of a place in my final paper than it currently does in my rough draft. I am hoping that continuing the research process will allow me to strengthen my thesis and my argument so I can filter through what is relevant and necessary contextual information and what is just unnecessary, unarguable history.

The Universal and the Absolute

My essay in its current form is a critique of the idea of “absolute music”. I had no idea just how complicated the whole discussion of absolute music was until I started writing for my paper. I started my research on the subject with the entry in New Grove, and was relieved to find out that the article generally matched my conception of absolute music. However, problems started to emerge when I searched for journal articles. One of the first I found was “Defining the Term ‘Absolute Music’ Historically” by Sanna Pederson. She is intensely critical of the bulk of the academic conversation about absolute music. She lambastes the article in New Grove, referring to it as “intensely misleading”.

Naturally this discovery was terrifying for me, as I had based quite a lot of my paper off of the article in New Grove and the sources it led me to. I was concerned for a bit that I may have to throw the whole paper out. Thankfully a conversation with my professor cleared up a lot of the concerns I was having. Sanna Pederson is certainly correct about much of what she writes in her essay, but perhaps goes to far with her criticisms like the one about the New Grove entry. The entire episode of panic was still useful, however. I realized that I needed to be very clear about what definition of absolute music I was working with, and from where I was getting it.

I also rediscovered how great a breadth exists in musicological scholarship. In researching absolute music I found essays like Sanna Pederson’s which were rigorously historically grounded, straightforwardly written, and polemical. I was also rather surprised to find scholarship like Daniel Chua’s book Absolute Music and the Construction of Meaning. The book is more philosophical than historical, and contains more poetry than polemics.  Discovering this breadth is useful, it’s a reminder that I have more leeway than I think I do in the style of my writing, and in the sorts of arguments I make.

All in all, research is going well, but I foresee absolute music to continue to be a thorny topic to write about.

Singing the Divine Liturgy: Researching an Eastern Topic in a Western Context

There have been many interesting and exciting things about researching the traditions of the Orthodox Church; it is a tradition that has been absolutely foreign to me as a Protestant. As I continue to do research, however, I am beginning to realize how much I already know. Indeed, Orthodox and Lutheran theologies are by no means the same thing, but we do share our early history. Before the East-West Schism (and with all of the extra fights and inconsistencies that existed before the schism), we were the same church existing in different parts of the world. Prior to beginning the study of singing in the Divine Liturgy, I would have said that the two are vastly different. In many ways, they are, but it is quite divisive to highlight only the differences. Finding the similarities may have been the most exciting thing about research so far.

In my paper, I cite an article by Vassa Larin, a sister of the Orthodox Church who writes on “active participation” in the liturgy. Such participation could involve being a part of the choir, aiding in liturgical set-up and tear down, cleaning the worship space, or simply immersing yourself in the whole liturgy so that it might boost your faith. This article was particularly intriguing to me because, as an outsider to the Orthodox Church, I do not see that the Church is looking to increase the participation of the laity. Such a movement is being pushed among the Protestant denominations as well, and to understand that reaching out to the lay people for help is not a phenomenon reserved for one specific sect of Christianity is to understand that everyone is involved in the struggle to keep the faith community alive.

On the topic of keeping faith and theology relevant, I have found a sect in modern Orthodoxy that turned out to be a nice addition in discussing the marriage of music and the church. The Free Monks (as they are referred to in Lina Molokotos-Liederman’s article “Sacred Words, Profane Music?”) are a group of Greek Orthodox monks who write, perform, and sell contemporary Orthodox rock music. When I discovered this group, I was made even more aware of the strange similarities that exist between the Orthodox Church and everyone else; there is still a fascination with taking contemporary music and setting religious text to it.

Such similarities are exciting! It’s important for humanity to see that, even in our differences, there are common threads. This becomes difficult, however, when you are looking to study one part of the Christian tradition, especially one as obscure as Orthodoxy. I find that most scholarly articles will write about the Catholic and Protestant liturgies until the cows come home, and Orthodoxy is left by the wayside. It would be easy to blame this misfortune on the West’s historically monumental disinterest in the East, but for now, I will keep digging until I find all the materials I need to help contribute to the understanding of singing the Divine Liturgy.

In my first blog post, I remarked on the unique relationship between music and religion with the analogy of the heart and brain. Religion is the truth, or brain, that many people place at the foundation of their lives; however, music has the ability to strengthen that foundation with emotion, depending on how the text is set.

When I started researching into my topic, I began with the focus that J. S. Bach created his Orgelbüchlein as a way to embellish the choral tunes that were created from. I knew that Bach was a master arranger and knew his chorale preludes were convincing pieces of music. When I discovered Benitez’s paper on Musical-rhetorical Figures in the Orgelbüchlein of J. S. Bach, I was enthralled. It contains so much powerful information and quotations from Bach’s peers, students, and other professionals of the time to present a convincing presentation of background for Bach’s awareness and education of rhetoric.

This information pointed directly back to my original blog post. Aristotle’s methods of rhetoric were designed to present the truth (or perhaps not the truth) in a specific way that would be convincing. Music, when assisting religion, has the same ability.

This helped me mold my thesis to be more focused; however, it has since caused myself some concern. While I do quote other sources, I’m not sure if my thesis is too closely aligned with Benitez’s paper overall. The issue is I’ve struggled to find any more evidence supporting the idea that Bach used rhetorical devices specifically in the Orgelbüchlein besides Benitez’s paper. I have found an 85 page dissertation studying two organ chorale preludes (listed as one of the sources in my first draft) that I would like to dive into and see if I can find more information to support my thesis from there. Perhaps my next step should be to try to branch out and widen my search for Bach’s rhetorical usage in other works. If I need more convincing evidence, I may look into Bach’s cantatas, as many movements from the cantatas share similar forms to Bach’s Orgelbüchlein chorale preludes.

“Walking Through the Forest” of Research

For my paper, I am exploring the history of Martin Luther’s hymn Christ lag in Todesbanden, which was based on the Victimae Paschali Laudes sequence from the middle ages. Since my topic incorporates two pieces of music and one very well-known theologian, general background information has not been difficult to find. However, this breadth of potential material makes it difficult to sort through sources for specific, relevant details. For example, while a search in the RILM database for English-language journal articles about “Martin Luther” uncovers 96 results, a search with similar constraints for “Christ lag in Todesbanden” only yields three, all of which are about later settings of Luther’s text, rather than Luther’s hymn in its own right. (Unfortunately, I can’t read German- that would make a few more results useful.)

The first truly solid source that I found was the second volume of  Paine and Jeffers’ Translations and Annotations of Choral Repertoire, which focused on works with German texts. The book, which is housed in the Music Library’s reference section, has the full German text of the Christ lag hymn with both word-for-word and sense translations into English, as well as a couple of pages of textual analysis and background information on the hymn. One of the most useful sections was a side-by-side text comparison between Christ lag in Todesbanden, Victimae Paschali Laudes, and the related 12th-century leise Christ ist erstanden. I was able to use this comparison as a jumping-off point for my own analysis of the hymn.

After that reference source, the book that has proved most useful to me thus far is Robin A. Leaver’s Luther’s Liturgical Music. Not only does it provide solid background information about Luther, it also quotes extensively from his writings and other primary source material, and it has an entire section devoted to Luther’s reaction to and treatment of Roman Catholic sequences like Victimae Paschali Laudes. For my second draft, I’d like to look more closely at other sections of the book, and to spend some time tracking down sources referenced in its bibliography.

On a related note, it might be interesting to try and draw more from available primary sources, as Luther’s writings on music are pretty easy to find. I also would like to incorporate some more recent journal articles-I’ll probably have to start with ones about Luther’s hymnody in general, since I had trouble finding any about Christ lag in Todesbanden in particular. 

The Wonders of Academic Research

I will honestly say that I have not done quite enough research yet to justify my topic fully. There’s still more that I can do for sure to have the fullest sense of my topic, but with the limited resources I have, I think I have a fair sense of where my paper could go (I actually now need to read the sources and figure out for sure).

I’m hoping to make the nuanced argument that the CCM movement was overall a positive development in the history of Christian music, but that there are numerous theological and praxial (this word meaning how people live their lives/perform CCM music) problems that are troubling for someone who cares deeply about the mission of spreading the Christian Gospel. The sources I have I think will help me make this argument, but I don’t know exactly yet how the argument will be shaped out. I may very well need to do more research to solidify things.

Firstly, I found a couple solid articles examining the theological content of CCM music, which I’m positive will be very helpful as I aim to talk about the theology of CCM (not comparing it to Luther yet, that will hopefully be my final paper). I also found an excellent paper talking about the conservative anti-rock discourse and its connection to culture wars that I hope will help me talk about the very interesting dichotomy between on one hand condemning rock and on the other hand appropriating much of secular music into the CCM movement. There’s also great sources about the history of the CCM movement and how it’s been seen as entertainment and worship, another dichotomy I would explore.

Again, I don’t know yet exactly how this paper will take shape, and the difficulty with this topic in particular for me will be maintaining my scholarly objectivity. I’ve grown up listening to and loving CCM music and never really having a problem with it (except recently for reasons I’d outline in the paper), so it would be difficult for me to fully understand other Christian traditions who don’t have that as part of their experience. I hope that I can take the evidence where it leads and write an objective paper (which is why I specifically propose a nuanced view of the movement instead of an overly positive one). I have a lot of work to do yet on this paper (I’m behind the A-ball for sure), but I’m excited to do the work and see where it leads because this topic (and class) means so much to me personally and academically.

From Personal Experience to Podcast

While researching for the first podcast,  I was comforted to discover that my own observations of my experiences in different churches were not a unique experience. The congregational singing within Catholic churches is lacking when compared to Lutheran churches. I always wondered why this was. Growing up, I had been encouraged to sing and raise my voice in prayer, but would receive confused looks from strangers if I sang during the liturgy. However, during my initial research, I struggled to find sources that discussed the lack of singing within churches. Mostly they discussed what the Catholic church teaches about singing during Mass, which is starkly different from what I observed in the services I would attend.

After a bit more digging, I found an article titled “After Vatican II: Are We All Protestants Now? Or Are We All Catholics Now?” This article by Anthony Ruff encapsulated what I had observed in Mass. He explained why there was this disconnect between what the Church taught, and what the congregation gave. This article provided me with more keywords to use when searching for sources. Eventually I discovered the book Why Catholics Can’t Sing: The Culture of Catholicism and the Triumph of Bad Taste by Thomas Day, which is not only a detailed and in-depth look at the issue of congregational singing, but also is a generally humorous and light read. This is one of those books that I would send to my (very Catholic) parents, because I think they would enjoy it. It is rare that I am researching something so close to my heart, and it is highly rewarding to discover books that I enjoy and that I would not have found otherwise.

I have learned, while doing this research, that often my opinion will not be the popular opinion. Instead of trying to find sources to fit what I already plan on saying, I should be searching for sources that challenge and inform my argument, and that may end up changing my argument altogether. Using personal experience is a good way to begin to form an argument, but it is not the most reliable source, as personal experience is influenced by so many things, and it differs from everyone else’s experience.

Moving In

Starting a research paper sort of feels like moving into a dorm room. First, you don’t even know where you’re going to live. Once you know what building and room you’re going to be in, it is similar to knowing a very very broad idea of a topic. Then, you begin to encounter lots of stuff (boxes/sources) and you have to decide where everything goes. Sometimes organizing a room or research paper is so exciting and filled with possibilities! And sometimes it is an incredibly daunting task that seems to only be getting messier and more challenging. What I’ve found to be helpful in both of these instances is to move from big pieces to small pieces. Every source (or box to continue with this analogy) gets put in a pile with other things like it. Then, I tackle one pile at a time.

Suddenly, it begins to take shape and look like a habitable room, or a passable research paper. However, I need to take a trip to Target to pick up a few more items I forgot, or to help organize. This is similar to another trip (or five) to the library and a visit to the writing help desk.

Lastly, decorations go up on the wall. I don’t want the space to feel cluttered, but I want it to feel like mine, like home, and something I’m proud of. The final edits to my paper will create a cohesive whole that has consistent style and proper grammar, transitions, and organization.

There comes a point in the research process when I always wonder if my topic or sources are any good at all. Do I even have a point here? What am I trying to say? This is the worst moment of “it-gets-messy-before-it-gets-better” but almost always there is a light at the end of the tunnel. In my research so far I have already had many of these cycles. One of my greatest frustrations with the sources I’ve found is the focus on the Song of Songs and not so much on the Palestrina setting of the text. What I did find very helpful was the liner notes from a CD recording of the Palestrina motets, but I’m fairly sure that is not a credible resource to be using in my podcast.

Onward to more organizing and research….

Happy New Year! And why I’m struggling with 5777 years of research material.

I can hardly think of a more perfect thing to do today than to write about the shofar on this second day of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. The shofar, a ram’s horn, is blown on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur (and in some communities during the morning services of the month of Elul). While certain aspects of my research on the shofar have proved fairly straightforward, pinning down facts from Hellenistic times has posed a challenge.

In my research, I’ve been trying to discover why, out of all possible instruments, the shofar has survived as the sole instrument used in Jewish religious services. I have found several general sources explaining its symbolism and role in Jewish faith, both historical and current. Jewish Musical Traditions by Amnon Shiloah (author of “Music and Religion in Islam”), Passport to Jewish Music by Irene Heskes, and several other books that survey Jewish music have helped me justify the shofar’s importance in Jewish tradition. According to Shiloah, the shofar has historically been used to scare enemies, make announcements, and convey messages from God. In Joshua 6:6-20, the wall of Jericho comes down with the blast of the shofar. Furthermore, Jewish mystics historically imbued it with special powers, for example awakening the “celestial shofar.”1 Reading specific passages from Exodus, Leviticus, and other parts of the Bible have also helped me to develop my perspective.

One part of my research has presented a particular challenge, however: I didn’t anticipate having so much trouble nailing down when instruments were or weren’t played in Jewish religious services. A citation in an article by Ethan Tucker (“Musical Instruments on Shabbat and Yom Tov”) led me to read fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Even within this single primary source, no consensus emerges on how instruments were used in religious services in Second Temple Judaism. This source encompasses a variety of opinions, and I have struggled to decide which ones should get my focus.

Narrowing in on why (or if) the Jewish perspective on religious instrumental music changed has also received a lot of my attention. Several sources indicate that most forms of sacred instrumental music were banned at some point around the destruction of the Temple. None of the sources I’ve encountered, however, say who banned it. Many of them give convincing arguments for why instrumental music might be prohibited. For example, playing or fixing an instrument requires the use of tools (banned on Shabbat). Or music might make too much noise. Nevertheless, I am still looking for a good explanation of why these worries surfaced only after the destruction of the Temple (or if that’s what happened at all).

In order to understand these questions, I’m planning to read about how Jewish communities changed after the destruction of the Temple. I hope that reading about non-musical religious shifts will help me assess how and why Jewish instrumental music nearly disappeared from religious contexts.

What’s a theologians favorite lawn game? Duck, duck, Hus!

I should have known better, but finding useful sources was more difficult than I figured it would be.   Initial difficulties were experienced in the mere fact that there is disagreement on how to spell “Wycliffe”. As I mention in the paper, there are a number of variants, including but not limited to: Wyclife, Wyclif, Wyclyffe, Wyclyfe, and Wickliffe. Jan Hus’ name is often anglicised to John Huss, because of the close relationship of Hus’ and Wycliffe’s theologies. Some of the online sources St. Olaf is supposed to have access to through something at Carleton are unavailable. That was annoying. Another annoying thing was that all of the primary sources written by Wycliffe that Rolvaag owns were in dire disrepair, eg. pages falling out, and destroyed bindings. This included such gems as Tractatus de Universalibus.

Some sources I was able to use included Advocates of Reform, from Wyclif to Erasmus by Matthew Spinka. Spinka does a wonderful job of framing the reformer in question before including carefully selected writings from the reformer. However, while this source was good for getting a concise background of both Wycliffe’s and Hus’ theology, music is mentioned nowhere in the book. I was also pleased to find Writings of the Reverend and Learned John Wickliffe. Although it was published in 1831, this book contained documents of Wycliffe actually talking about music, as well as quoting the very same passage from Augustine that appears in Weiss/Taruskin. This short and sweet little passage showed not only Wycliffe’s admiration of Augustine, but that their similarities in theology led to the same concerns in music. Finally in my research on Hus, I was able to find his views on music in an article entitled “Jan Hus : Religious Reform and Social Revolution in Bohemia” by Thomas A. Fudge. In it, I found the same Augustinian fears once again, and was happily surprised by the slight quirkiness of Hus. This is not wholly surprising. Hus was an ardent follower of Wycliffe, so much so that he was burned at the stake 102 years before Luther posted the 95 Theses.

Although the sources I did find were good ones, I need to find a more diverse collection of sources if I am to get a more balanced understanding of these theologians and their thoughts on music. I was successful, however, successful in linking Augustine to Luther theologically via Wycliffe and Hus.

Doing a Good Job

The hardest part of research for me has always been finding the question to research. Partially, it’s because there are so many options and you can’t know how much has been written on a subject until you start researching. For my first paper I initially wanted to follow a text through the centuries and see how it has been used in different contexts. It was really hard to narrow down what text to use. I found an Anglican text that turned out to be written in the late 20th century, so that wasn’t very explorable. I ended up using a text that is from Job which is used in Handel’s Messiah. Using a text from the Bible opened up my scope a lot and I was able to find tons of writings on the text in musical as well as non-musical contexts.

One of the best resources I found for my application was The Catalogue of Choral Music Arranged in Biblical Order by James Laster. Once I decided on the passage from Job, I could go to the Job section of the Catalogue and look up choral pieces where it was used. It lists music that paraphrases the text as well so pieces that don’t use the text word for word can be found too. From that section I was able to search databases for the choral pieces to see if there are writings on them. This catalogue was a great jumping off point for narrowing down specific pieces to compare.

I’m glad that I have some experience using our library resources because there is a lot to sort through. I have felt successful narrowing down the results in the databases as well as finding physical resources in the Music Library. You mentioned in your office that you hoped that we go down to the library and find the books in person to see what is next to them and I found one of my best resources that way. I was looking for a book and I found one on the Messiah right next to it. This book broke down each passage and talked about it in specific. It was a great way to see what I have in front of me and how to use resources that might be partially related.

I am excited to keep researching and narrow down my topic more.

A Mighty Fortress of Outdated Information

For my research topic, I chose to write about Martin Luther’s Ein Feste Burg ist unser Gott and how it has played a crucial role in the Reformation and the future of music in general. I wanted to learn more about Martin Luther and his compositions because my hometown church’s music director always talks about him in conversation, which sparked my interest to learn more.

So far, my research process has been somewhat challenging. It’s been plenty easy for me to find information on Luther himself, but it’s been a bit harder to find specific information on his hymns and how they have influenced the future of music. It’s obvious to me that Luther changed the way modern day Protestants use music in the church, but it’s been harder to find sources that give quotable examples. I really enjoyed Robin A. Leaver’s Luther on Music that we were assigned to read for class, but although relevant, not a lot of topics discussed in the article can be used specifically for elaboration on Ein feste Burg. I also spent a lot of time going through the readings from the assigned chapters by Richard Taruskin in Oxford History of Western Music. Yet again, however, I continued having trouble finding background information on the hymn itself.

Luckily, I found what I thought would be the motherlode of Ein feste Burg information: a small, dusty, and ancient looking little book called Luther’s Battle Song by Bernhard Pick. This little book focuses on the creation and impact Ein feste Burg had on Protestant Germany, but on the downside, also happened to be 100 years old. The book talked about the time in which the hymn was written, the reasons it may have been written, and even included manuscripts and lyrical interpretations. While much of the information is valid, a lot of it is outdated. I felt I shouldn’t use some of the information on why the hymn was written or who actually wrote it because I found conflicting information on other websites while getting ideas of what to write about. After that, I continued finding more and more books that had a lot of information on Ein feste Burg, but they were also all written in 1917, likely as a celebration of the 400th anniversary of the Reformation. I’m hesitant to rely too much on these potentially outdated sources, but I haven’t had much luck yet finding solid information from newer sources either.

Overall, I’ve enjoyed my research on Ein feste Burg so far, but also know that I need a lot more “beefy” information in order to make my paper and podcast solid. While I’ve found a lot of facts, I’m still searching for articles that back up the cause and effect relationship Ein feste Burg (and Martin Luther’s hymns in general) have had on modern day Christian church music.

The Challenges and Rewards of Research

When I decided that I wanted to write about the L’homme armé tradition, I knew that I would need to narrow my focus significantly in order to come up with a definite and concise thesis topic. So as I surveyed the range of potential things to focus in on, Palestrina’s two L’homme armé masses, written in the second half of the 16th century peaked my interest immediately. The fact that Palestrina composed two masses based on the tune is remarkable considering how much later he was composing them. It was nearly 80 years prior that the L’homme armé tradition was at its peak. And not many masses like those had been composed in the intervening time.

This proved an interesting, if not exciting possibility. Why would Palestrina have composed masses based on a tune that at that point was nearly outdated? Surely, I thought, this would have also peaked the interests of other scholars as well. Much to my chagrin, this proved not to be quite the case and it became an arduous journey to try and find much, if any, mention of Palestrina’s two L’homme armé masses. Perhaps due to the fact he was writing with a tune almost anachronistically, much of recent musicological research on the L’homme armé tune seems to have forgotten about his contributions to the tradition.

This proved to be a disappointing find, and certainly posed a significant challenge to the research process. It taught me however, to be as persistent as possible in the research process. I learned to just keep searching and following bibliographic citations until you’ve gathered enough to start to piece together a picture of your research topic. And finally, after struggling to put together enough to start formulating possible ideas, I was able to stumble upon a few articles discussing Palestrina’s masses.

Of particular interest was an article by James Haar directly addressing Palestrina’s involvement in the L’homme armé tradition as an act of historicism. Such a notion was a promising and interesting act of historical speculation upon the part of Haar. And it led me to another realization about researching a topic such as this one. When it comes to trying to determine the background and conception of pieces five centuries in the past, it is nearly impossible to say with any certainty what might have motivated someone to compose an individual piece.

This was both a troubling and liberating realization. While it made my task seem a little more futile, because there was little I could do to come up with any definitive answers to my research question, it also freed me to approach the task from a broader point of view by synthesizing what historical analyses have been done on Palestrina’s historical situation at the time of the conception of these masses and the work done on analyzing what the L’homme armé tradition might have meant during its time in works such as the Kirkman reading for class. This synthesis was what finally led to my breakthrough in my direction for my own work, and gave me the reward of being able to not just add to a limited and narrow academic discussion of Palestrina, but also to the ongoing discussion of the tradition of the L’homme armé tradition as a whole.