Reflections on the Semester

As a whole, Music & Religion challenged me in many ways, which gave me a wealth of knowledge that I didn’t even realize I gained. I can name off a long list of things I hadn’t even thought about before this course, including homoeroticism in Hildegard’s compositions, Islamic approaches to music, and what Martin Luther might say about Christmas Fest. Although the course mainly focused on Christianity and music, I was glad to read and talk about other religions and music as well. Through sometimes intense readings and class discussion, this class fulfilled me in the exact way I hoped it would.

The thing that will stick with me the most is the research I did for my papers and podcasts. Regardless of the thesis, final grade, or amount of time spent editing my papers, I learned so much about specific topics that are profoundly interesting to me. For my papers, I chose topics that interested me and applied to my real-life experiences. I’ve already found myself saying things like “did you know A Mighty Fortress is Our God is actually a paraphrase from a psalm?” which is frighteningly geeky but I’m not sure I would’ve known stuff like that without being prompted to find out.

From class discussions over the semester, I’ve found many new ways to think about music. I think it’s easy to categorize tough topics in your mind as black or white, no grey area. Music, however, will probably never fit into just one category, which comes as a refreshing change to some of the ways I’ve learned music in the past. Yes, you CAN challenge the meaning of music and you might not be right about it. Drawing inferences from music with evidence that supports your idea is probably even better for your brain than crossword puzzles.

I do wish we would’ve gotten to spend more time on music of religions outside of Christianity. Since St. Olaf is a Lutheran school after all, I think sometimes we focus too much on where “our” (but obviously not everyone’s) traditions came from. At the same time, I don’t think it was extremely detrimental that we didn’t spend as much time talking about other religions since the content we did cover was full of so much information. Overall, I’m very glad I got the opportunity to take this class and am thankful for all of the hard work I put in to learn something new.

A Leap of Faith

Just today, in fact, I finally committed to doing my final paper and podcast on Bach’s Ich freue mich in dir BWV 133 in the spirit of the holiday season. I’m still just beginning the research process, which can be a bit daunting especially since I’m not familiar with the piece I’m writing about. With my past papers, I haven’t stepped too boldly out of my comfort zone in terms of topics, but this topic is going to force me to take a leap of faith and challenge myself to think critically about a piece I’ve never thought about before.

One of the main things that has jumped out to me about this cantata so far is the fact that the author of the poem Bach used, Caspar Ziegler, is apparently not very well-known. This is a bit hard to believe considering Bach made his poem quite famous with his cantata, but all of the sources I’ve seen so far make Ziegler out to be someone with very little experience in the arts. I think it would be interesting to research the meaning behind the text from the author’s point of view, which is something I hope to do.

I have really enjoyed reading about all of the imagery in this cantata as well. At this point, I’m struggling with which direction I should take my paper since I’d like my paper to focus on imagery within the piece. With this topic, I’m having a difficult time coming up with a thesis that isn’t too standard but also isn’t too complex. So far I’ve considered discussing imagery in terms of instruments and voices used, direct biblical connections and representation, or arguing the imagery used does not depict the biblical text accurately (which I’m not sure I agree with, but it could potentially be fun writing a paper this way). I know I have a lot of work to do, and I’m sure my topic will narrow itself down as I delve further into research

Mendelssohn or Psalms?

I will admit, I haven’t gotten very far in my research yet. I’m currently stuck between two topics that I find equally as interesting: why the Bay Psalm Book was a failure despite its heavy use, or why Mendelssohn’s Reformation Symphony demonstrates the ultimate sign of Lutheranism despite Mendelssohn’s Jewish ancestry.

Initially, I was set on writing about Mendelssohn, but after reading about the Bay Psalm Book, I found it somewhat comical enough to steal my heart. Most of the sources I’ve been reading from hype the book as if it’s the best thing that has happened to humanity, then immediately acknowledge it’s failure and describe how badly it was written. The fact that this poorly written psalm book was fought over so badly makes me wonder what would’ve happened if a well-written book had taken its place. Would it have died out as rapidly as it did? The only issue with this topic is, I’m unsure what stance I would take or what argument I could make about it. Much like my previous paper on Ein feste Burg, most of the information is a bit too straight-forward to twist into an opinion of my own.

My other topic, Mendelssohn’s Reformation Symphony, falls a bit into the same boat. I feel it would be inaccurate to argue that Mendelssohn underwent a musical revolution by converting to Lutheranism especially since it was his family, not him, that decided to make the switch. I also don’t believe this was done under very happy terms, and my research has indicated he and his siblings weren’t necessarily pleased with it. I think there are a lot of great details in the Reformation Symphony I could reference in a paper, but I don’t have a firm grasp on a broader thesis.

I’ve found that, when I’m researching, I get too caught up in the facts and theories to remember what I’m actually trying to say. While both of these topics interest me, I know I’ll need to make them more substantial and focused before committing.

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.

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 Desire for Music and its Importance in Religion

Music has the ability to deepen the meaning of words that accompany it, both in a religious context or even on your local pop radio station you listen to on the way to work. As described by St. Augustine in Weiss and Taruskin’s Music of the Western World, St. Augustine reflects on his baptism, “The tears flowed from me when I heard your hymns and canticles, for the sweet singing of your church moved me deeply…The music surged in my ears, truth seeped into my heart, and my feelings of devotion overflowed…” (24). St. Augustine’s account makes it clear that the hymns and canticles sung at his baptism amplified his personal religious experience all the way back in the 4th century. At the same time, music wasn’t always considered an appropriate mode of worship, so why has music become such a universal part of worship today?

In the early Christian tradition, as with many other religions, one had to be careful with their use of music. According to Weiss and Taruskin’s Music of the Western World, using music for unholy purposes such as pleasure was sinful because pleasure gets in the way of the Lord. If early Christians considered music a pleasure capable of distracting them from their relationship with God, then the impact music had on people of this time must have been significant. Luckily, many religions agreed the sin of music is taken away when it is used for worship. Putting religious text to music allows for a more involved worship experience, incorporating song performance skills that give the performer and the listener a heightened sense of praise. In this way, music can be used as a tool for praise that is appealing to the worshiper.

Music has a way of filling in the gaps in thought, feeling, and emotion that words cannot do justice, which can be incredibly powerful when accompanied by a spiritual belief. Using music for religious reasons also gave early humans the ability to experience and explore the tantalizing effects of music without committing a sin. In the present day, music is used much more widely and for purposes other than worship, which has allowed religious music to grow and expand into many types of praise that have a wider impact many people. Music is a nearly universal part of religion because it appeals to and heightens human senses in a pleasurable way which, in turn, allows humans to praise through a medium that makes worship more enjoyable.