How can music be real if our ears aren’t real?

As we bid farewell to the last few fleeting days of not-finals, I can think of only one reflection that accurately describes what I’ve gotten from this course. Although I did manage to learn quite a bit about Luther, the Reformation, and music (& religion) in general, my most valuable takeaway was that of renewed respect for the complete subjectivity and ambiguity of music.

Like, what can we really know, you know? It might sound like a cop-out, but it seems that, as a musicologist, it’s a true struggle for concrete knowledge about music other than times and dates and other indisputable (sometimes) facts. Our journey through this class has shown me the difficulties of conducting thorough research into the more meaningful aspects of music. There is so much scholarship on the topic of music and religion that it’s challenging to make original, non-obvious claims.

I appreciated the opportunity we were given for a wide range of research topics, but I think that the course could have benefited from a narrower focus overall. The range of material at some points felt overwhelming, and I feel that the breadth of the scope somewhat prevented me from gaining a deep understanding of anything we talked about. On the other hand, there is still a lot about the relationship between music and religion that we didn’t cover (obviously). What I mean by that is that as westerners, we really have such an inadequate understanding of the music of other parts of the world. I get it, that’s what World Music is for, but if we’re going to focus on the Reformation, then let’s focus in further.

The podcast projects are my favorite part of the class. I really enjoyed being able to focus on topics that interest me, and the prospect of releasing these snippets of knowledge to the world brings a more concrete sense of relevance to the abstractness of the study of music. To me, listening to a finished podcast is much more satisfying than reading a finished paper. It’s more of a work of art than an essay is. It’s also a good way to include modern technology into the course.

I’d say the class was a success. Despite my critiques of it, I found it very fulfilling, and I think that it would be a good class to keep on the books.

Fürchte dich nicht

Pretty much all I know about this motet is that the St. Olaf Choir performed it in 2015 and that, like most of his motets, Bach composed this for double choir and string consort. The most interesting thing that I have been able to dig up without actually having gone through the score is that there is a lot of controversy over the time and location of its composition—either in Leipzig in 1726 (as a majority of scholars suspect), or earlier in his Weimar period (suggested by newer research and stylistic analysis).

I may talk about its function as a funeral piece, trying to reconcile its seemingly “jubilant” attitude with the sentiment that Bach intended for it and that listeners in his time would have probably recognized. Its reassuring and comforting demeanor situate it well as a funeral piece, even though it may seem inappropriately upbeat to those who don’t know the meaning of the text.

Another source of research could be other settings of similar text, such as Philip Stopford’s Do Not Be Afraid. There are several verses in Isaiah that begin with this source text, “Fear thee not…” but all of the pieces written from them can be said to share a common thread.

Like I said, musical analysis is going to have to play a large part in this project, so I will likely delve into the significance of the two choirs’ interactions with each other, the role of the strings, and the overall deftness of Bach’s setting. Score analysis is everything in a paper like this. Like David said, it’ll be a struggle to turn “Bach is cool” into a legitimate thesis.

Carmina Burana: The Reformation in the 11th Century

The full title of the Carmina Burana is Carmina Burana: Cantiones profanæ cantoribus et choris cantandæ comitanibus instrumentis atque imaginibus magicis, which means “Songs of Beuern, Secular songs for singers and choruses to be sung together with instruments and magic images.” By just reading the title, you might not guess that its poetry was written by 11th-century monks and clergymen. The subject matter is almost appalling when you think of the context in which it was written. It ranges from taking the Queen of England to bed, to being a goose in an oven, slowly burning and dying. To write this paper, I’m looking for evidence of two things: That the spirit in which the text was written mirrors that of the Reformation 400 years later (rebellious sentiments against hypocrisy and contradiction in the Catholic church), and that Carl Orff attempts to reconcile its secularity by setting the text to music in a manner that manages to allow the work to be seen in a religious light once again.

The convenient thing about this subject is that most of my “research” will be analysis on my part—of the text and of Orff’s setting. I’ve yet to find a reputable source of scholarly writing on this subject either online or in the music library, and I’m not really sure what kind of information is out there on this subject. I bet I’ll find writing on the different languages used in the work; the poems are in Medieval Latin, Germanic Latin, Middle-High German, Old French, Provençal, and some of the pieces are even “macaronic” (made of macaroni)(jk), meaning they are a jumble of different languages. To me, the use of the vernacular in these poems is a dead-ringer for what happened during the Reformation.

I think that my best course of action with regard to analyzing the music will be to use the infrequent religious references in the text as guide points to focus on. The most well known reference is in the penultimate piece of the work, Blanziflor et Helena. The “chorus” has convinced the female main character (soprano soloist) to fall in love, and this piece is a glorious congratulation. Blanziflor comes from the French Blanchefleur, a word meaning “white flower” and also being a common representation of the Virgin Mary. The chorus compares the soprano’s beauty to Mary and Helen of Troy, hailing her with the explosive first line: Ave formosissima! (Behold the most lovely).

The research has been slow so far, but the more I do, the more I become convinced that my thesis actually has some ground to stand on, which isn’t something I can say for every paper I’ve written.

F. Melius Christmasfest

If you can judge the “Lutheran-ness” of an event based on the ratio of sweaters to humans, then when Luther died, he surely ascended into Skoglund Auditorium. Christmas Fest is one of the most effective examples in the world of music being utilized as a form of worship, as years upon years of St. Olaf students and choir members have been told. In my view, the fact that Pastor Matt narrates throughout the event and reads the Gospel with Pastor Katie makes Christmas Fest a time of worship. It really is as simple as that. There is a conscious effort on the part of the artistic committee to make it possible for people to worship at Fest. Without those key things, it would be so much easier to call it a “concert” of Christmas music. In its current state, with each year’s theme so profoundly integrated into the narration and performance, and taking into account the deep-rooted tradition with which we St. Olaf students resurrect this exquisite exhibition of Christmas spirit each year, I think the only ones who wouldn’t call it worship are the ones who haven’t really thought about it.

The concept of music being accessible to any congregation was so important to Luther that he composed his own chorales with the intent of spreading the efficiency with which music could transmit ideas and doctrines. Having the time to compose chorales instead of  doing ‘works’ is definitely a benefit of guaranteed salvation through faith. While perhaps he would disapprove of certain pieces we perform that are too inaccessible for our congregation of twelve thousand, the spirit of the Reformation is intensely alive each year  in Christmas Fest.

Felix Mendelssohn-Bachtholdy

Mendelssohn’s revival of the St. Matthew Passion is a subject that attracts a large amount of scholarly writing, but most of that writing is so generic that it actually took a long time to sort through. Multiple books (both biographies and compilations) which I thought would be quite enlightening went no further than “…and then in 1829 he revived the St. Matthew Passion. In 1830…”

The two best sources I was able to find were actually secondary sources, despite the number of primary sources I had. They were Olga Termini’s article, “Bach Pupils and the Bach Tradition,” and a book written entirely on the subject of Mendelssohn’s 1829 accomplishment alone: Celia Applegate’s Bach in Berlin: Nation and Culture in Mendelssohn’s Revival of the St. Matthew Passion. Termini’s article focused on specifically how the performance was received, which is exactly what I was looking for, and Applegate’s book had so much pertinent information that I was surprised at how much of it I had to cut out for the sake of getting to the point. I hope to utilize her work more thoroughly in my final draft.

A surprising primary source was Elvers’ compilation of Mendelssohn’s various letters. I’m interested in what insights I would have been able to come across had Elvers decided to include important letters that Mendelssohn received as well as those he sent. The point of view of Zelter, Mendelssohn’s mentor, would have been invaluable, seeing as he initially opposed the Bach performance but changed his mind at the last minute.

It would be fantastic if I could find record of a review of that first performance, but there are two possible reasons for why I haven’t yet: 1 – I’m not looking hard enough, or 2 – they don’t exist. I can solve the first issue easily as we come closer to reaching the final draft, but the second one is more disappointing, if it’s true. Looking back from the vantage point of the 21st century, that event was such a momentous occasion that it would be sad if there weren’t any existing reviews of it. My goal is to determine the cultural impact of the revival and to place its importance into the category of either “religious event” or “secular renewal of a religious artifact.”

Music: a Means and an End

Music and worship are two pillars of human society that have existed for so long that it is difficult to judge which preceded the other. As St. Basil suggests in Weiss and Taruskin’s Music in the Western World, music during worship may have been a useful method of helping followers to comprehend the ideology and doctrine of the religion, similar to putting honey in a medicine that is difficult to swallow (21). In order to facilitate such an approach, a fairly utilitarian view of music is needed—one that is quite different from those of Plato and Aristotle.

Plato’s opinion with regard to music is that it should be used to enhance the intellect, and that to enjoy it capriciously is reprehensible: “[Plato] looked down on the use of music for mere pleasure” (5). Music and gymnastics are the two halves of the path to human perfection, and thus should be treated with scholarly respect. The fundamentals of Aristotle’s view are much the same, but with different judgment. The categories of intellectual and pleasurable music remain, but neither has a good or bad connotation; they must simply be kept separate (8-9). The way in which Plato and Aristotle concur is that music can be an ideal form of art. Its purity can be achieved through study, and the system of self-improvement that it is a part of is of the utmost importance.

These are the two ways of thinking about music presented in certain chapters of Weiss and Taruskin’s book. Music can be utilitarian—like honey on the rim of a cup—or ideal, almost becoming a form of worship in itself. Fortunately, both methods of thought mentioned here seem to encourage the use of music in worship, which perhaps points to the reason why it has been so universally accepted there. Music is both a tool for worship and an ideal to be worshipped, and because of that, its place in religion is well cemented.