This class was really, really hard. I expected this, though. I expected to work hard, learn a lot, and be challenged. This fulfilled my expectations. However, there were many ways where the course surprised me. First of all, I expected (as I think many did) that there would be more on non-western music. I think what we covered in a semester was appropriate, but that maybe the name “Music and Religion” wasn’t quite accurate. I felt that the structure and material of the course was very scattered at the beginning (in a good way) but then was so focused that I got a little lost towards the end. I also found most of the readings really hard to get through and usually did not understand more than about 25% of them (at least until getting to class). However, class discussions based on these readings were always fascinating for me, despite how useless I tend to feel in discussion-based classes. I usually would finally understand the article or chapter I had attempted to read and felt pushed to consider such a wide range of perspectives that I never would have thought of. I almost always left class saying “That was such an interesting class!!!!!” So, I think the most positive memory from Music and Religion will definitely be the in-class discussions.
Research. This was something I really struggled with this semester. I found it difficult to do largely self-guided (or one-on-one) research that was not inherently related to the class topics. I definitely appreciated the possibility for us to research whatever we were interested in, but I think it would have been less of a chore (and I think there is still room for it to be equally rewarding) if there was a more narrow focus/place to start. Also, while I don’t feel like the workload was unreasonable, I think I would have had more successful podcasts/finished products if they had been more spaced out. The first one had SO much time, and the last two seemed to be completed within a much smaller time frame. I just felt more stressed and less rewarded the further we got in the course.
All that being said, this has been one of the most exciting and challenging courses I’ve taken at St. Olaf. I think there are a lot of ways the course could be improved for the future, but I think it is absolutely one to keep around. (If we all make it through this week alive.)
So, to be perfectly honest, I chose this motet because the idea of working with a piece I already know was a lot less daunting than trying to get to know a whole cantata or motet in a short time (and I just really needed something new to think about.) However, I adore the Bach motets, so it’s still an exciting topic. One thing that intrigues me is the purpose of this composition. Several sources have suggested that its main function could have been pedagogical. When considering the text of the first and third movements, this makes a lot of sense to me.
Sing to the Lord a new song!
The congregation of the saints shall praise Him,
Israel rejoices in Him, who has created it.
Let the children of Zion be joyful in their King.
Let them praise His name in dances,
with drums and harps let them play to Him.
Praise the Lord in His works,
praise Him in his great glory.
Everything that has breath, praise the Lord,
What makes me wonder about this theory most is the second movement. I think it’s likely that Bach was thinking pedagogically in terms of texts/faith/theology as much as he was musically, but the text of this middle section is such a drastically different mood. The chorale juxtaposed with commentary feels deep and personal, and the dialogue between the choirs particularly piques my interest. The text makes me wonder if this WAS, in fact, written for a funeral, or with death in mind. Maybe not, but I think it’s worth investigating. So, my plans for continuing research and developing thesis ideas are to look into putting this motet into the context of Bach’s life – especially personal, not just professional, the context of these texts (when would they have been used and what would people associate them with?), what evidence we have of this motet being performed, and to analyze the counterpoint of the motet (perhaps comparing with other works from a similar time but written for other purposes or occasions.)
This week has been overwhelming. I picked a direction for my paper (studying Bach’s Nun Komm der Heiden Heiland) and expected starting research to be so much easier with a more focused, specific topic. WRONG! In the past, I have picked a direction for a paper, begun research, and then changed that direction and formed a thesis based on my findings. This time, however, I am struggling to do successful preliminary research without coming up with a thesis first. There is not a huge amount of scholarship on specific Bach cantatas, and so I have been wondering which elements I should focus on. I could look at the cantata as a genre through Nun Komm, I could focus on Bach and his relationship with this text/motivation for setting it/theological implications through the setting, or I could connect it more to Luther and his adaptation of the Latin Veni redemptor gentium. I have no idea at this point what will be most fruitful, interesting, and relatable to the class. I also wonder if there is some really really really cool lens with which to study the piece that I am just way too tired to think of.
I plan on doing a small amount of research in each of these directions to see what is least overwhelming and most possible/interesting. However, based on my findings about the specific piece, it looks as though most of my argument using Bach’s setting of Nun Komm itself will be my own analysis informed by more contextual and general research.
****EDIT: I can’t believe I didn’t think of this before, but another option is comparing/contrasting Bach’s two settings of Nun Komm der Heiden Heiland and looking at how they evolved differently from Luther’s chorale/the original chant. So I’m going that direction for awhile. Yay.
…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.
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.
While music is now largely seen as a universal––and sometimes even fundamental––part of worship, this positive affiliation has not always been the widely accepted view. Writing and performing music has long been a source of debate regarding whether it is beneficial or corruptive to the mind.
In his writing about music, Plato makes strong claims about the importance of music in strengthening one’s mind; however, they only apply to the educated. He asserts that only people who know and appreciate good music should take part in it, because they are able to separate their desire for pleasure from their altruistic inclination toward learning and self-improvement. Aristotle writes with a more liberal view, accepting two separate approaches to music: one that is critiquing and using music for bettering the mind by the educated and one that accepts music as a pleasing and indulgent activity. These two great thinkers’ ideas about music both leave room for argument that music can be an asset in worship––if worship is considered a time to improve the mind.
Much later, St. Basil and St. John Chrysostom speak more specifically about the role of music in worship, addressing the immorality of instrumental music and attempting to justify related imagery in the psalms. These scholars describe a metaphorical understanding of music in relation to worship. However, Augustine feels much more conflicted about these ideas, as he finds music in worship to strongly enhance the experience. Weiss and Taruskin write that “the jubilus was the most mystically meaningful part of the chant for Augustine” (25). It is clear that early Christian thought had moved away from being so concerned with the mind, and was more interested in issues of morality and dedication to God. Therefore, music was viewed often as a distraction from the most important part of oneself: spiritual devotion––an evolution of Plato’s thinking. Augustine struggled to accept this because for him, music had a spiritual power that enabled him to actually feel closer to God.
Today, most religious people identify more with Augustine’s thoughts, which is why music is considered a universal part of worship. However, it is important to recognize that this debate is, in fact, still ongoing. There are many types of worship and worship services that do not use music, or even do not condone it. For example, in Quakerism, music has been traditionally viewed as trivial and inappropriate in worship, and while some may have a more modern and progressive ideas, the majority of Quakers still do not use music as a part of their worship. Thus, one might argue that although this debate has evolved and become much less important over time, music as “a universal part” of worship is still too broad to describe its presence and role in all traditions and religions.