Liberal Arts: Learning How to Question My Perspective

I remember the excitement I felt when I registered for this class. The topic was familiar to me, since we discussed it at length in our regular music history class, and the intersection of music and religion is a prevalent topic at St. Olaf in general. However, before I encourage anyone to take this course, I would have to stress that it is only as rewarding as the amount of work the student is willing to put into it. This semester has been difficult. The readings are long and can be dense and dry, and the papers and podcasts require time and care.

This course challenged me, in both the great amount of work we all put in to succeed, and in the differences of perspectives from the authors we read and from our peers. The Sorce Keller article, with which we began the class, set a precedent for the class, as it asked me to question my own tastes, and why I consider some genres of music good or bad. I especially loved the Holsinger reading on Hildegard for a few reasons, the first being that Hildegard’s music is stunning, the second being that someone could potentially make the argument that a Catholic nun in the twelfth century was a proto-feminist. Although the argument is not foolproof, I still can assert that Hildegard was a bad-ass woman for her time.

The podcasts, though difficult and time consuming, are some of the more rewarding papers I have written. Because I was free to choose any subject relating to the course, I was able to choose topics in which I was interested. I found some great books while researching that I would like to add to my own personal collection. Why Catholics Can’t Sing by Thomas Day would be a great Christmas present for my mother.

Like I stated in the first paragraph, this class forced me to question my own perspectives, which is a lesson that I will use in many different aspects of my life, especially as a teacher. I wish that we had more time to focus on more non-Western traditions, and more modern music. The intersection between music and religion spans much more than what could be covered in one semester.

*Insert Unoriginal, Obvious Thesis Here*

When beginning research on Bach, one must first realize the sheer amount of scholarly resources that exist. There are so many resources because Bach wrote an incredible amount of music in his lifetime. I decided to research Bach’s cantata, Christus, der ist mein Leben, BWV 95. An overview of its Wikipedia article informed me that it draws on multiple chorales from other composers, and a Spotify searched informed me that it is technically gorgeous. A search on Catalyst brought up few specific results. There are books of analyses of Bach cantatas, yet not many on this specific one. The best resources I have found are the resources listed on the Wikipedia, most of which came from a website titled Also included is an essay from John Eliot Gardiner, in which he discusses specific musical motives within the cantata, which will definitely be useful as I try to work out a thesis.

Christus, der ist mein Leben translates as “Christ, you are my life,” and the texts of the cantata contemplate death in a joyful manner, where the choir and the soloists view death as an end to all suffering. Bach adapted four different funeral hymns, fitting for the subject matter.

The difficulty in writing about Bach is not the lack of specific resources, but rather deciding on a thesis, as my peers have stated below. Because Bach was so intentional about his compositions and where he drew melodies and themes from, it seems silly to argue that he was intentional, because to any trained musician, obviously he was. As I delve more into the particular usage of each of these funeral hymns, hopefully I will find inspiration for an arguable thesis about this cantata.

Rachmaninoff’s All-Night Vigil, but What Context?

I write this knowing that I still do not completely have a topic picked out. I know that I want to research Rachmaninoff’s All-Night Vigil, but, due to my lack of knowledge of Orthodoxy and Russian history, I was not sure what I would find. A quick Google search led me to ask more questions that required more research. How religious was Rachmaninoff himself? How were the growing tensions between the church and state reflected in this music? The All-Night Vigil was written in two weeks, and two years later, was banned from its home country, due to its religious nature. However, Rachmaninoff wrote this without specifying whether the vespers were meant to be performed in a sacred setting or a concert hall.

A search in Catalyst proved a bit challenging, only due to the sheer amount of recordings of the All-Night Vigil that exist. Many articles are reviews of recordings or concerts. I found a dissertation by Alice Generalow, which provides context within the Russian Orthodox Church, and within the history of Russia, and also within Rachmaninoff’s own life.

As I continue to hone in on a topic, I will decide what sort of lense through which I want to look at this piece of music. If I place within a much larger context, like the post-World War I state of the USSR, I may be getting too far away from study of the piece itself. If I place it within the context of Rachmaninoff’s life, I may not find enough information to fill a five minute podcast.

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.

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.

Music as Emotional Expression and Practical Teaching

When I state that music has the ability to profoundly affect its listener, I am not profoundly affecting my reader. This idea of music’s emotional impact is as old as music itself (at least as we know it). Aristotle describes an “enthusiasm,” which music provides to some listeners, and even for some, he likens it to a “curative and purifying treatment.”1 It is no question, then, that human beings, being so emotionally affected, should use music in worship to whatever God or gods in which they believe.

Perhaps music is the only form in which some can truly express their faith. Hildegard von Bingen found a medium through which she was able to express her devotion and adoration to the Virgin Mary. The sensuality of Hildegard’s music, and its effect on the body could not have been expressed properly in words alone.2 Augustine states that “by indulging the ears, weaker spirits may be inspired with feelings of devotion.” 3For some, complex and heavy theology is not accessible and weighs too heavy on the mind, but music is a way to ease the teachings of some religions to draw in those with “weaker spirits.”

While keeping in mind the emotional impact of music, perhaps music in worship developed out of necessity and practicality. Before humans were able to write, the oral tradition is how stories were passed down to later generations. As we all learned in elementary school, often lessons are better remembered if they are attached to a melody (I still sing through my ABC’s if I have to place words in alphabetical order). St. Augustine points out that the meaning of the sacred texts is more moving to him if “sung in a clear voice to the most appropriate tune.”3 Of course, if something is moving to us, we are bound to remember it.

Because of music’s strange impact on the human brain, its use in worship seems fitting. Why not take two things we do not understand, and use each to help explain and make sense of the other?

  1. Piero Weiss and Richard Taruskin. Music in the Western World: A History in Documents. (New York: Schirmer Books, 1984), 10.
  2. Bruce Holsinger, “The Flesh of the Voice: Embodiment and the Homoerotics of Devotion in the Music of Hildegard von Bingen,” Signs 19/1 (Autumn 1993), 92-125.
  3. Piero Weiss and Richard Taruskin. Music in the Western World: A History in Documents. (New York: Schirmer Books, 1984), 27.