Final Course Reflection: I’m not a musicologist but it might be useful

Throughout this class I have not so much learned a lot as I have had the chance to explore topics of my choice and grown in how I listen to and participate in conversations about religion and how it relates to music. I grew the most from our class discussions, and the points that we teased out from the readings and identified as the most important to use as basis or a spark for further ideas. Our discussions allowed me to see into the perspective of others, especially those that don’t share my beliefs, religious or otherwise. It was also helpful to have such a group to discuss the results of the election with and connect what we had been learning to current events.

I think that what we learned and discussed in this class can be applied to how I think about my future profession as a musician and how the music that I may be singing fits within the theological and historical context of Christianity. Such insights will help me be more in touch with my own personal belief and whatever belief is baked into whatever that music might be. Otherwise, I don’t really know how what I learned can be useful, as I do not plan to become a musicologist (perhaps in grad school if I have to take more courses in history).

I understand that this class occurred partly because of the Reformation, but I wish that we had spent some more time on non-Western music (beyond the course introduction), as well as on contemporary music (which we only mentioned in discussion and did not read about explicitly in readings). I also found myself becoming a bit bored doing only Bach for so long towards the end of the semester.

Overall, this course had great opportunities for applying what we discussed to our own areas of interest, and I feel like I will walk away from this with improved ability to examine these topics effectively.

“Look, Bach did a cool thing” is not a thesis

For this paper, I didn’t originally plan to do a Bach cantata, but since it is strongly suggested I will do so. I had the idea of examining the music of Charles Ives, but upon finding Cantata 66 (Erfreut euch, ihr Herzen, or “Rejoice, ye hearts”) I see that many of the techniques of exegesis are the same for both ideas, just using different music.

While Ives’ music is very accessible to me, as it is written in English and utilizes familiar ideas, Bach’s music was also composed to be very accessible to its audience, rife with musical expression and text painting that highlight the scripture. Though preliminary research, I have found that this cantata has a unique structure that does just this. Written for the second day of Easter, it is largely joyful and upbeat, the majority of the text rejoicing in Jesus’ resurrection and the salvation it brings for humanity. However, it does contain a section in which some of the text is darker. Following the opening joyful chorus and thankfully reassured bass aria comes a section that is a dialogue between two voices at odds with each other. One voice asserts proudly in the second duet that “I do not fear the darkness of the grave” while the other says exactly the opposite. This dialogue of hope and fear shows both sides of the story, but in the end the voice of praise and confidence wins and finishes with assurance in the power of God that leads to the final chorale which glorifies God and pleads for further mercy and consolation.

In terms of the paper and podcast, I see what I could do for the podcast itself, focusing on these ideas and demonstrating how Bach illustrated them with his music. But for the paper, I am still a bit lost when it comes to finding a thesis, since “Look, Bach did this cool thing”, while 100% true, is not very arguable. So far I have not done much research but I am already intrigued by this unique format which seems to convey its point through dialogue and inclusion of dissent that is eventually consoled. I look forward to delving deeper into the music and finding how the meaning within impacted its audiences.

새찬송가전집: A New Hymnal for an Evolving Tradition

When I was in Korea visiting my best friend from high school in June of 2015, I purchased a hymnal from a small kiosk in a street market near the Dongdaemun Gate in Seoul, one of many that sold Christian books (bibles, hymnals, and others). The vendor was an older Korean man who jumped up when we walked in and showed genuine surprise when I (with my friend as translator) inquired about purchasing a hymnal. He produced a small green book with gold letters on the front that read “한영 새찬송가전집 / New Korean-English Hymnal”. I flipped through and actually recognized some of the tunes, albeit with unfamiliar words and somewhat different harmonizations. The vendor cut me a deal for ₩20,000 (about $18) and I left.

Fast forward to last week. When I was brainstorming topics for this paper, the idea of examining Korean church music came up, as Christianity (Catholicism and Protestantism combined) represent the largest religious group in Korea (“non-religious” excluded). A quick search on Catalyst ([Korea* AND church music]) led me to an article discussing the newest version of the Korean hymnbook, called the New Korean Hymnal. Unlike hymnals in the US, it is used across many of the protestant denominations in Korea. Its release in 2006 was part of an emerging effort to “Koreanize” the music of the church in Korea, as up to that point, the great majority of the music had been western in origin. From there, I found more articles about how imperialism and colonialism over the last 100 years or so impacted the development of religion in Korea and how, in the last two decades, Korean Christian organizations have made conscious efforts to incorporate traditional music into their worship, adding many hymns based on traditional or newly-composed Korean tunes. After reading this, I discovered that the hymnal I had purchased was indeed a Korean-English bilingual version of this new book. I then decided that I want to explore this return to tradition and how it correlates with reformation ideas of the use of vernacular, traditional and popular/secular tunes, and other forms of adaptation to create more unique and culturally valuable worship.

I am finding that locating print sources that are not too general is difficult, as so far I have only found ones that relate to my topic tangentially. However, I have found several articles and dissertations from which I will likely be able to pull material and find more sources.

Christmas Festival: A Musical Commentary for Spiritual Fulfillment

In many ways, the St. Olaf Christmas Festival resembles kind of worship service. It contains many elements of a modern Lutheran service, including a processional, several congregational hymns, prayers, a Gospel reading (always a recounting of the nativity or a related story), more (a lot more) than one anthem, and a recessional. Most if not all of the music at Christmas Fest is “sacred”, using texts derived from scripture or other religious sources. It even has a theological message every year, albeit one that is a broad attempt at connecting pieces together and often drawn directly from a text (for example, “The World Renewed With Love Divine” coming from a very similarly named hymn that made an appearance). However, while all of this is true, attendance comes with an admission fee and the cultural pressure to wear a Norwegian sweater and visit the Caf for over-priced lutefisk and lefse. And while it takes the form of a worship service, nobody but perhaps the planning committee would call it such, as every other aspect points more to a concert as part of a larger cultural celebration.

When Leonard Bernstein wrote his Mass, he too stuck loosely to an existing liturgical form: the Roman Catholic mass. He hit all of the Mass Ordinary (in the right order) and many elements of the Mass Proper (although not really in the right order) and inserted his commentary, in a manner consistent with what was traditional and catered his content to the newly minted Sacrosanctum Concilium (a result of the Second Vatican Council’s move towards ecumenism and accessibility, or, more simply, an attempt to become more like protestants). And, like Christmas Fest, while Mass sticks roughly to a liturgical form, it is very non-liturgical and would never be used as liturgy. It is first a foremost a “concert mass”, or a mass intended for performance and consumption for the enjoyment of its listeners but not for worship.

Both Christmas Fest and Bernstein’s Mass clearly function more as concerts and performances than worship services, but that does not, however, negate their theological and spiritual significance. As Bernstein inserted his commentary on Religion and the American spiritual zeitgeist of the 1960s and 70s, the planning committee of Christmas Fest molds together a theme and selects music that best expresses that idea, creating a new commentary on the Gospel and the story of Christmas that we all know well. While it may seem very formulaic, it still is something that Luther would have valued as it presents the spiritual in a more thought-provoking and accessible setting, even if it tends to seem somewhat commercial and kitschy at times. And this formula works: while certainly not every participant or attendee of Christmas Fest has a “religious” or “spiritual” experience while singing or listening, many will say that they come out of the experience having found spiritual or religious value, and enough that many people make a yearly pilgrimage to campus to see it (my parents included, who came for the first time last year after being devoted members of the radio and TV audiences for years and don’t own any Norwegian sweaters and certainly don’t come for the lutefisk).

While Christmas Fest, like Bernstein’s Mass, would not be labeled by most as a worship service, it is nonetheless a valuable spiritual experience for many and with a theological commentary rooted in the traditions of the Reformation.

Born 25 Years Too Late: The Advantages and Disadvantages of a Modern Topic

Ever since I first listened to Bernstein’s MASS, it stood out to me as a unique and powerful work. I have always wanted to explore the work more, and learning about the mass and its traditional forms (and how composers extended that) gave me a greater appreciation for the work through a greater understanding of its construction.

I was first given the opportunity to write about MASS at the end of Music 242 (Music History 2) when we were tasked with creating an annotated bibliography and writing a topic proposal for a paper we were not actually going to write in order to practice the art of research. Now, we are blessed with the opportunity to write about whatever we want (so long as it contains a whisper of the Reformation) and I finally get to write it. In that proposal, I set the goal of comparing three of Bernstein’s works (MASS, Chichester Psalms, and Kaddish), something which now seems much more daunting and unfeasible for a 5-minute podcast. I ultimately decided to only focus on MASS, and to tie in the reformation by discussing how Bernstein altered and expanded the Catholic mass tradition.

Because I had done the annotated bibliography previously, I had a good starting place. When I first opened Catalyst (R.I.P. Bridge Squared) for the first time and turned to EBSCO, I discovered two things. First, when you write about a topic that is fairly recent (in comparison to many of my classmates’ topics 1971 is not long ago) the kinds of sources you find are either very general (biographies of Bernstein with mentions of MASS, collections of sources, etc.) or very specific (dissertations that analyze specific parts of the work, comparisons of musical style between works). Second, I learned that because of its newness people are still actively evaluating its merits discussing its intentions, most evident in the wide variety of reviews of the work that have been written and are continuing to be written as modern performances continue to reinterpret the work.

It is from these two categories that I found two sources from which I ended up drawing a lot of my material: the first a dissertation on how the Second Vatican Council (Vatican II) influenced the “concert mass” which uses MASS as one of three examples, and a more recent (2008) article from Opera News in which a recent Juilliard grad praises the work for its ingenuity and raw emotional power. I would not have even found the first of these had I not talked about the project with my friend and classmate Natalie who is examining how Vatican II impacted congregational singing in the Catholic church since as a born-and-raised protestant I had never heard of Vatican II or its implications.

I have found myself wishing I could have been born 25 years earlier so I could have perhaps talked with Bernstein himself before his death to discover what he really meant. But while finding research on such a recent topic has proven to be a challenge, it has also proven to be rewarding and illuminating through talking with my peers and finding connections to their topics, accessing a wealth of primary sources from the time of MASS’s debut, and engaging actively with the current scholarly output.

Since Time Immemorial: Musical Tradition and the Uniquely Human

Insofar as we have examined the history of music and its relationship to religion and worship, a common thread emerges concerning the origin of music. We have seen that even when considering diverse cultures and civilizations, music’s origin is uncertain or shrouded in myth. The truth has been lost to time immemorial, pre-dating the invention of writing and the advent recorded history and belonging only to the remnants of an oral tradition that has since forgotten.

This loss of historical truth is perhaps most obvious in the Suyá culture of South America where, according to Anthony Seeger in Why Suyá Sing, the oldest songs are simply remembered as legends and myths, linking not to historical accounts of origin but to stories about “partly human, partly animal beings in the process of metamorphosis” (Seeger, 52). Nevertheless, this idea of metamorphosis and transformation forms one of the central tenets of their spirituality, and their music, both traditional and newly created, serves to accent and illustrate those ideas.

In Timaeus, Plato speaks of the musical idea of his culture, representing Ancient Greek philosophy. Like the Suya people and the traditions of Islam, Plato offers no connection to a historical account of the origin of music. However, he plainly states that music, like speech and hearing, “is adapted to the sound of the voice” and is “granted to us for the sake of harmony, which has notions akin to the revolutions of our souls”, pointing clearly to a belief that speech and music possess an intimate connection to the essence of humanity (Weiss/Taruskin, 8).

Whether we examine familiar western cultures like Ancient Greece or more unfamiliar ones like that of the Suyá peoples, we find musical and religious traditions so closely intertwined and so deeply rooted in history that nobody can remember them ever being separate. These examples and others we have examined in our readings lead me to believe that this is no coincidence, but rather an artifact of the universal and uniquely human capacities for spirituality and the understanding of speech and language. The ubiquity of music in worship is therefore explained by these transformative and powerfully emotional abilities of music to express our spirituality and illuminate texts, leading to a tradition that spans time and space from modern-day Minnesota to Ancient Greece and beyond.