Research and Reflections

Looking back on this course, I think I will remember and appreciate the research and writing process. I really enjoyed learning to evaluate sources and investigating topics about which I had little background. In the past, I have sometimes had trouble coming up with an arguable thesis, and the writing I’ve done in this class has helped me feel more confident in this respect. I also had never had to change papers into podcasts, and I found the podcast part of the class to be an educational experience. While I secretly hope I won’t have to make too many more podcasts in the future, I feel happy to know that I can if asked.

I think another specific take-away from this class for me will be the research I am doing on my last paper. I am currently writing this paper about a Bach cantata, and I wish I had written this paper earlier in the semester. It is forcing me to think critically about the Bach and Luther articles we read for class. Since my first two research topics involved non-Lutheran, non-Bach traditions, I felt like class discussions didn’t have a lot in common with my research. Now that I’m researching a Bach cantata, I am finding so many connections! I am excited for this paper to help solidify in my mind some of the topics we have covered in class conversations.

Nevertheless, getting to choose my own topics motivated me to want to do extensive research, and reading articles from a variety of traditions inspired me to seek out music I previously didn’t even know existed. I highly valued the time I spent researching the shofar and Sacred Harp singing, and I loved reading articles such as those about the Suyá and Sufi traditions. For this reason, I wish we had spent a little more time exploring non-Christian, non-Western traditions (although I do realize that “Music and Religion” is a huge topic, so it would be impossible to include everything).

I’m Writing About More Non-Beautiful Music

I decided to write about one of the Bach cantatas from the list of suggestions, and I thought it would be interesting to pick the first one available on the list – just to see what I could find. That turned out to be a lot more difficult than I had anticipated. After spending a while trying to find something intriguing about “Meine Seufzer, meine Tranen,” I expanded my options and looked at “Nimm von uns, Herr, du treuer Gott.” After listening to the opening chorale, I decided that this piece had a lot to offer. It has historical references, intense dissonance, strangely harsh text, and potential ties to Calvinism. My only concern is that I’ll get tired of listening to it before I turn in my podcast next week.

The dissonance and orchestration of the cantata seem like they will be interesting to research and analyze. The opening chorale has such jarring dissonance that I find it unpleasant to listen to (continuing my pattern of picking non-beautiful music for podcasts). In contrast to the dissonant chorale, the first aria is accompanied by a busy, seemingly-happy flute part. This felt like a strange background to the text (in which the singer pleas to God for forgiveness from sin).

The texts of the cantata movements also interested me. The first aria says, “…so that, through sinful acts, we might not be destroyed like Jerusalem.” The instrumental chorale is called “Why are you so angry?” These texts seemed particularly harsh and also seemed to possibly refer to a particular time of difficulty. It turns out that the text of this cantata came from a poem by Martin Moller (1584). Moller apparently had Calvinist leanings, which might explain why the text of this cantata is so dire. On the other hand, I was surprised that Bach would choose a text with Calvinist undertones! Bach composed this cantata in 1724, the year after he left a Calvinist patron (for whom he wrote mostly “secular” music, since Calvinists weren’t looking for chorales, etc.). I wonder if this influenced his choice of text. On the other hand, maybe I’m reading too much into the meaning of the text.

As I continue my research, I plan to further investigate the points I’ve mentioned so far. I’ve found a few good academic sources specifically talking about this piece, but I predict that I will have to read more general sources about Bach’s life and times; I’ll probably also have to do most of my own analysis. So far, I think my thesis will probably center on Bach’s ideas about beautiful music, Bach’s connections to Calvinism, or a creative analysis of the combination of text and orchestration (which I haven’t developed yet).

Early America: Shaker and Sacred Harp Singing

For my second paper, I’m focusing on early American folksong. I began by researching Shaker music, which I enjoyed listening to and which surprised me with its similarities to Sufi music. Ultimately, though, I am not sure if there is enough literature on Shaker music to allow me to make a well-researched argument. My back-up option is the Sacred Harp (shape-note) tradition, which I have also begun to research.

Up until the last two days, my only exposure to the Shaker tradition was “Simple Gifts,” a Shaker song referenced in Copland’s Appalachian Spring. As I began my research, almost every facet of the Shaker lifestyle and religious musical tradition came as a surprise to me. Only one small Shaker community remains today, so my research focused on Shakers in the 1800s. Shakers lived in celibate communities in which all children were adopted (and given the choice to leave at age 21). They believed in the equality of men and women and opposed slavery. In terms of music, they composed hundreds of unison songs, hymns, and anthems that all members of the community sang. Shaker composers notated their work with letter names and marks indicating melodic direction (up or down).

The most distinctive part of the Shaker tradition is the way believers performed music. The word Shaker comes from the name “Shaking Quaker.” In fact, Shakers worshipped with music and ecstatic dance; in many cases, specific motions went along with specific songs.1 This troubled a lot of other Protestant communities, who believed dance had no place in religious practices. The use of dance to reach a state of ecstasy reminded me of the Sufi dances we read about in Shiloah’s “Music and Religion in Islam.” Just as non-Sufi Muslims condemned Sufi dancing, non-Shaker Protestants condemned Shaker dancing.

Although I’m learning a lot about Shaker music from the books available in the library, I haven’t been able to find many scholarly opinions on it. In one sense, the Shaker tradition is very well-documented because its songs were written down.2 On the other hand, I have only found three books and a handful of articles about it.

After spending a long time trying to justify how I could keep researching the Shaker tradition, I decided to look at the Sacred Harp tradition instead. I haven’t gotten very far on this research, but so far I am particularly interested in the ways Sacred Harp singing was made accessible to people not trained in music (for example, singers sometimes used a solfege system to make singing more participatory).3

At this point in my research, I don’t feel like I have enough information to be able to clearly articulate a thesis. I have a general idea of the traditions I’ve read about, but I think I’ll need to do a lot more reading before I’m able to narrow in on a topic.

1 Daniel W. Patterson, The Shaker Spiritual, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1979), 28.

2 Patterson, 35.

3 Buell E. Cobb, Jr., The Sacred Harp: A Tradition and Its Music, (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1978), 59.

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.

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.

Music’s Spiritual and Political Instruments

Historically, many religious communities have used music to approach the divine. For some traditions, texted singing was most appropriate, while for others, a full instrumental ensemble could be used to help listeners reach a state of ecstasy. While debates about the appropriateness of various types of music continue today, the even more basic question remains unanswered: why is music such a common part of worship? Two possible answers are music’s inherent ability to inspire listeners and its usefulness as a tool for political ends.

Theologians from various traditions have written about their belief that music, when used appropriately, has the inherent power to heighten worship. Given this quality, it is no surprise that so many religious congregations incorporate music. St. Augustine discusses how listening to sung text inspires him spiritually, enhancing the truth that the text conveys. 1 Likewise, Mevlevi authors argue that music and dance impact the soul,2 allowing people to reach a state of religious ecstasy. According to the Syrian mystic theologian al-Nabalusi, “If the true believer employs [instruments] with good intention and for beneficial purposes, they cannot be harmful in any way”.2 Many religious traditions seem to find music beneficial as long as it is used moderately and intentionally, and this partly explains why worship music is so widespread.

On the other hand, political power dynamics might be partly responsible for the prevalence of worship music. For example, the Carolingian rulers of the eighth century used worship music as a method of solidifying their centralized power. By standardizing chant, they gained stronger control of their territories and changed the path of Christian worship music.3 The music of the Suyá people of Brazil also reflected the influence of power dynamics. According to Seeger, “Knowledge is an important form of power in most South American Indian groups, and the Suyá were no exception”.4 By incorporating songs from animals, enemy tribes, and foreigners into their religious practices, the Suyá displayed their knowledge, and consequently, their power.

Music’s role in worship stems from people’s sense that, when used carefully, it enhances religious experiences. Conversely, however, music’s use has also grown out of its function as an instrument of political power.


1 Piero Weiss and Richard Taruskin, Music in the Western World (Belmont, CA: Schirmer, 1984) 24-27.

2 Amnon Shiloah, “Music and Religion in Islam,” Acta Musicologica 69/2 (July-December, 1997), 143-155, (Accessed August 31, 2016).

3 Richard Taruskin, “Chapter 1: The Curtain Goes Up” in The Oxford History of Western Music, Volume 1, Music from the Earliest Notations in the Sixteenth Century.

4 Anthony Seeger, “The Origin of Songs,” in Why Suyá Sing: A musical anthropology of an Amazonian People (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), 58.