Final Blog Post: Course Reflection

I knew this course was going to be challenging, a lot of work, and that it would be a wonderful combination of my two majors here at St. Olaf. I think it did turn out to be all of those things but in a different way than I imagined. Reflecting back on this course I definitely will remember and appreciate one of the early articles we read about the Suyá people as well as all of our conversations about Bach. I always wonder about appreciating art without understanding the full intent of the artist (that would be nearly impossible), and this course and our Bach discussions have further complicated those questions in my mind. I also will always remember that the distinction between “sacred” and “secular” music is not a strict dichotomy and I should use those words and categories sparingly and with qualifying explanations.

One of my biggest challenges with music history is finding how it translates to life beyond St. Olaf. However, because the entire semester we looked at music overlapping other parts of life I think I practiced looking beyond one topic or subject for how it influences and is influenced by other parts of the world (such as politics, power, geographical location, etc.). Additionally, as with any course in college, the dynamic and pace of the classroom participants and the schedule present a new set of challenges. I think I will remember this class fondly for how it pushed me to create different kinds of work on a timeline in a group of people (and young scholars) who were all coming from different religious backgrounds and points of view. When I go into my life after St. Olaf, I will look back at this class as one of my most homogenous experiences since we all have a strong bond of all being St. Olaf students who had taken a year of the music history survey and there’s a lot of shared common knowledge there. This semester was a unique one for me, just as every semester is unique. Since courses do not exist in a vacuum I wonder how being in a different life stage would have changed my perception of this class.  

I appreciated that we were preparing for the 500th anniversary of the reformation and we had the theme of Luther running throughout the course, but I think I would have enjoyed spending more time exploring other religions and their musical traditions. I’m sure that would end up needing to be its own course, though.

Reflections on Research and Formality in Writing (it’s not a dichotomy)

I am likely not going to be a higher level academic musicologist than I am right now as I wrap up this 300 level music history class. I took the introductory music history classes as a sophomore and learned about musical terms such as ‘organum,’ ‘antiphonal,’ ‘motet,’ ‘cantata,’ ‘l’homme arme,’ and ‘opera.’ Some of things blurred together or have become filed away somewhere in my brain that needs a bit of coaxing to remember. I lost faith that I would ever actually know with certainty what each of these terms meant in all of their nuance. Then I realized I’ll never know it all, but I might as well start and know a little bit more today than I knew yesterday. I chose to research BWV 140 because the famous Sleeper’s Wake melody is one of my Mom’s favorite melodies and was one of the pieces she had in her wedding. A little personal connection never hurts as a catalyst for podcast-creating-motivation.

Though this topic is definitely of manageable scope (thanks, Prof. Epstein) I still began with the noble Google search: “What is a Bach Cantata.” I know myself and that I always need an accessible point of entry to the topic (read: not incredibly academically/scholarly inclined). So, after reading the wikipedia entries and a few weird websites, I felt confident to jump in…to a Grove search. I read that, “about two-fifths of Bach’s sacred cantatas must be considered lost; of the secular cantatas, more are lost than survive.” There are a lot, so it is surprising that so many have been lost! I learned that Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme, is a church chorale intended for the 27th Sunday after Trinity and has text by Philipp Nicolai. (Grove)

I do not plan to write any more music history papers for school in my life (I’m not ruling it out, but signs point to no). However, the hard work required in this process and the gems of knowledge that result in researching and understanding many voices of a topic are rewarding in and of themselves, especially when I have even a slight connection to this cantata. I’m trying to enjoy the research process as I immerse myself in the final music history paper, but I am also really looking forward to the finished podcast product.

Giving Meaning to Research: So What?

As I embark on the early stages of this next paper-writing journey I am struggling with bridging my personality to the realm of academic musicological writing. I need to find a purpose to motivate me to want to learn about and do a good job. I started finding this purpose by asking myself: why do I want to explore antisemitism in Bach’s St. John’s Passion? Throughout the research and writing process, I’m starting to find my answer. The Bible was written a long time ago and Bach wrote the passion a long time ago. Everyone involved in the original creation of these primary sources is dead, so there is no chance of changing what has already been written. If there are antisemetic tones we should call them out. Should we stop performing St. John’s Passion? I think not. Is an informed performance necessary? Absolutely.

There are a few points of intervention to consider. First, the point of view from whomever(s) wrote the Gospel of John. Next, the point between the Gospel of John and Bach, and the point between Bach’s composition and the performers executing a performance of the passion itself.

I’m going to make a case for at which of these points we need to intervene as scholars dedicated to lifting up equal human rights and respect without ignoring creations from the past.

I have found a few great sources so far including a compilation of articles titled Pondering the Passion that includes an essay called “The Passion in Music: Bach’s Settings of the Matthew and John Passions.” This will be a good entry point into the discussion as well as other articles in this book which look at the passion narrative from numerous points of view. Another book I checked out from the library is called Who Killed Jesus: Exposing the Roots of Anti-Semitism in the Gospel Story of the Death of Jesus by John Dominic Crosssan.

There is a lot of literature about this topic and there is no way I’ll be able to read it all. I am nervous to write this paper because I do not have the depth of background knowledge that I would like, but I will need to do my best given the time constraints to say something helpful, original, and accurate.

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.

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….

Worship Music: The Universal Power Adaptor

Worship is about seeking a connection. It can be about seeking a connection with others in the physical worship space, a connection with the meditations of one’s own heart, and a connection with a greater purpose, power, or understanding. To come to a greater level of connection and understanding with something one does not fully understand (for example: God), it seems unlikely that the connection and answers will be found in something that which one fully understands. Therefore, music is the necessary bridge between the known and the unknown and is the connector in worship that so many people cling to for a glimpse into whatever it is they are looking for.

This fall in our music history course at St. Olaf College we have been discussing where music comes from. There is something unique and captivating about music that is unlike mere speech. The sounds and traits of music and song can express so much more than the words of a song alone. This extra quality music carries has been attributed throughout the world by many cultures to different things including sounds from nature such as the Suyá tradition of attributing music as coming from nature through people’s spirits living with the birds.1

In addition to providing a mystery in worship of where it comes from, music also carries with it a mysterious bridge between Earth and Heaven. Often in denying oneself of worldly needs or pleasures (for example fasting or choosing to “give something up” during the Christian season of Lent before Easter), worship and religious practices aim to remind people of the impermanence of their bodies and life on earth. According to an article by Bruce Holsinger, in medieval theology it is understood that the less one gives into one’s senses and worldly desires, the closer that person may be to God.2 For example, St. Augustine wrote in his confessions of his pleasure for sound that he was aware of the “danger that lies in gratifying the senses.” Music in worship has the unique ability to both gratify our worldy senses and desires while still connecting our temporary lives on earth to the greater and larger hope of Heaven or life after death.

It is difficult to imagine worship without music. Music is a strong connector between Earth and Heaven, impermanence and permanence, humanity and God. The mysterious qualities that give music power appeal to both the innate human desires and the quest for understanding of a higher power. Universally music has been that bridge and connector in hopes of getting a tiny bit closer to understanding something greater than life on Earth.