Reflections on a Semester

This course has been quite the experience for me this semester. Going into the class I did not have a lot of expectations about what it would be like, but I certainly was not anticipating being as overcome as I was by the sheer vastness of the subject. This class has been the first time that I’ve felt completely overwhelmed by a subject matter and felt completely lost within it. I had never really considered just how intertwined religion and music truly are. The history of religion is so integral to the history, development, and meaning of music in profound ways that had never overtly occurred to me and that is probably one of the biggest takeaways I have from this course, on a broad level.

I will always appreciate having started the class with the Marci Sorce Keller reading about how we understand and examine music. It put into words and a coherent argument something that had been on my mind on the issue of musicology for a long time now, and I felt that it was a very important way to start off this course, because it was even more applicable here, where we looked more closely at musical works and tried to place our understanding of them in more specific and detailed contexts.

I think this course has taught me most how to narrow my focus of study above all. On a larger scale, the broad scope of this course has shown me how important it is to have a clear direction with my studies in order to have a more focused outcome in what I have learned. On a more micro level, my work in my projects has shown me how to keep my scope narrow and concise, because sometimes you can only say so much about a certain subject in the context of certain assignments. This will be an invaluable lesson for me moving forward, as I have always had difficulty reigning myself in, and the podcast projects have greatly aided me in getting better at this.

Mathis der Maler Part 2

Now that I have spent a month since I first started researching Hindemith’s Mathis der Maler for my second podcast, I am now moving on to my final project and am continuing my work for the final paper. I have come across a number of problems with this paper that I have not always had in the past. I have mostly struggled with trying to clear my argument from other authors that have written about Hindemith’s opera, and also trying to distinguish my argument that the religious implications of the work are separate from the political ones that have so often been talked about in terms of the work. I have found that it is easy to find myself writing and working in such a way that I think I am making a point about the religious implications, but it ends up sounding like an argument in favor of the opposing thesis almost as much. This is probably why so many authors have for so long talked solely about the political context and implications of the work.

I am trying not to let this discourage me too much however. Now that I have more space with which to work within the paper I am going to aim to add more religious background which is actually going to be redirect me back away from the musical side of the paper for a bit before returning to it. When I wrote my second draft of the shorter paper on this subject I was able to, I think more successfully, add to the musical and dramatic evidence for my argument and situate the argument in the context of the opera itself. But now I need to re-situate the work in the broader religious context of both Reformation and 1930s Germany. I am a bit worried about the latter because I think it may be difficult to successfully provide an appropriate background to the religious context for a work like this. It seems it may be a bit difficult to prove or directly link the opera to the religious background of the time with any certainty. Hopefully though, if I am able to achieve this, I will be able to successfully build a more coherent argument that fully supports the possibility that there is religious importance and meaning to the work that is completely separate from the political implications.

Mathis der Maler

Paul Hindemith’s Opera and Symphony, “Mathis der Maler” is set in the 1520s and focuses on the character of Mathis Grünewald, a Reformation-era painter. In an opera concerning an artist during the Protestant Reformation, the religious background of the plot and meaning of the characters in the work are of great importance. One would think then, that scholarship on this work would take into, at the very least, some consideration of the religious meaning and importance that undergirds the work.

I am learning quickly that this is not necessarily the case. Much scholarship has been done on Hindemith’s work in terms of its placement within Nazi Germany, and the parallels drawn between Mathis’ life and Hindemith’s efforts to exist within the regime of the Third Reich. Less emphasis has consequently been put on directly analyzing the religious aspects of the work. Certainly at the least there is a great dearth of analysis as I have searched on this subject in the English literature on Hindemith’s composition. It is possible, that this is a consideration taken into account in the German scholarship; however, I cannot read German, so the extensive body of literature that one can find on this topic, as outlined in the very helpful and exhaustive annotated list of literature compiled by Luttman. This leaves me with both a daunting and exciting possibility of being able to combine the political analysis of the work with its religious elements. This could be very rewarding, however it leaves a large task for me to take on. The other bigger issue is that it is a basis for what could be a large undertaking and a difficult and vague area for me to develop a thesis. Either way, it is an exciting possibility, and I look forward to (and dread just a little) the upcoming project.

Christmas Fest

What is it exactly that the machine of Christmas Fest stands for? Does Christmas Fest stand primarily as a worship service, glorifying God through a musical celebration of Christmas? Or perhaps the two hour long ordeal stands primarily as a concert? Certainly it would seem that Christmas Fest got its humble beginnings with the former. In this sense, St. Olaf’s Christmas Festival was created with the intention of creating, if not a worship service exactly, a worship-like environment for members of the community at hand and far away could come together in celebration of their common Lutheran heritage and Christmas.

Like many long-standing traditions though, Christmas Festival has morphed, emerged, evolved. Over time, the religious messages have remained, the gospel of Christ’s birth still told to its audience every performance. Yet there are what seem like countless numbers of aspects of the Festival that fly in the face of anything to do with an actual worship service. With high ticket prices, a message that seems to get buried within a Christiansen chorale here and a Vaughan Williams showstopper there, and an audience and community more wrapped up in the shallow traditions of Christmas Fest, it would begin to seem that any notions of a primarily religious Christmas Festival have long been lost.

Here I think, among many things which have already been discussed in great lengths in their blogs posts, Luther would take great issue with the domination of tradition in the planning of Christmas Fest’s yearly conception. On one hand, Christmas Fest’s play to the audience’s desire for tradition serves as a vehicle of sorts to allow the audience of Fest to approach the monstrous behemoth that is Fest and try and make sense of it, musically, academically, religiously. The audiences that come to Christmas Fest know exactly what to expect each and every year. In this sense Christmas Fest’s structure helps audiences understand ti more easily, which Luther would have supported. Yet still this blind traditionalism also belies the fact that it also permits a sense of complacency that I believe Luther would have abhorred. For we are in dangerous territory if we continue to ascribe to systems of theological/religious meaning that we leave unexamined to determine its relation to the message that’s intended to be conveyed.

In other words, if we want to best save Fest’s original purpose, and hold on to the event’s religious value, maybe it’s time that Fest no longer be done for the sake of keeping traditions strong, and we evaluate how those traditions can help it serve its purpose.

The Challenges and Rewards of Research

When I decided that I wanted to write about the L’homme armé tradition, I knew that I would need to narrow my focus significantly in order to come up with a definite and concise thesis topic. So as I surveyed the range of potential things to focus in on, Palestrina’s two L’homme armé masses, written in the second half of the 16th century peaked my interest immediately. The fact that Palestrina composed two masses based on the tune is remarkable considering how much later he was composing them. It was nearly 80 years prior that the L’homme armé tradition was at its peak. And not many masses like those had been composed in the intervening time.

This proved an interesting, if not exciting possibility. Why would Palestrina have composed masses based on a tune that at that point was nearly outdated? Surely, I thought, this would have also peaked the interests of other scholars as well. Much to my chagrin, this proved not to be quite the case and it became an arduous journey to try and find much, if any, mention of Palestrina’s two L’homme armé masses. Perhaps due to the fact he was writing with a tune almost anachronistically, much of recent musicological research on the L’homme armé tune seems to have forgotten about his contributions to the tradition.

This proved to be a disappointing find, and certainly posed a significant challenge to the research process. It taught me however, to be as persistent as possible in the research process. I learned to just keep searching and following bibliographic citations until you’ve gathered enough to start to piece together a picture of your research topic. And finally, after struggling to put together enough to start formulating possible ideas, I was able to stumble upon a few articles discussing Palestrina’s masses.

Of particular interest was an article by James Haar directly addressing Palestrina’s involvement in the L’homme armé tradition as an act of historicism. Such a notion was a promising and interesting act of historical speculation upon the part of Haar. And it led me to another realization about researching a topic such as this one. When it comes to trying to determine the background and conception of pieces five centuries in the past, it is nearly impossible to say with any certainty what might have motivated someone to compose an individual piece.

This was both a troubling and liberating realization. While it made my task seem a little more futile, because there was little I could do to come up with any definitive answers to my research question, it also freed me to approach the task from a broader point of view by synthesizing what historical analyses have been done on Palestrina’s historical situation at the time of the conception of these masses and the work done on analyzing what the L’homme armé tradition might have meant during its time in works such as the Kirkman reading for class. This synthesis was what finally led to my breakthrough in my direction for my own work, and gave me the reward of being able to not just add to a limited and narrow academic discussion of Palestrina, but also to the ongoing discussion of the tradition of the L’homme armé tradition as a whole.

The Communal and Individual Power of Music

Music has an incredible power to excite both the human mind and body like few other things. This effect that music has on humanity has been well documented by theologians, philosophers, and scholars throughout the ages. It is not much of a wonder that such a force has been so strongly connected not simply to religion, but to worship. Music’s inherent compatibility with worship stems from its power not simply to elate individuals but to also drive the religious community’s experience as a whole.

St. Augustine speaks directly to the intoxicating effect that music can have on the individual’s soul in his “Expositions on the Psalms” (on the Jubilus), when he says, “It is a certain sound of joy without words, the expression of a mind poured forth in joy.” It is this palpable, yet indescribable joy that caused tears to flow down his face and “truth seeped into his heart.” To anyone who had never been exposed to music before, it is remarkable to think that a wordless sound could reveal some greater truth to an individual.

What really brings music to its full importance in worship is the power that it has to move individuals within a community. The legend of St. Augustine’s baptism makes specific note of the collective singing of the Te Deum after the conclusion of the baptism. This collective tradition of music in worship is not simply limited to Christianity however. Anthony Seeger discusses the collective tradition of music in the Suyá culture of Brazil. The musical tradition in the Suyá culture not only relates very specifically to the souls (or lack thereof) of individuals, but also to the collective nature of their practicing/performing of various music that they gathered and developed over time.

Such a potent combination of both individual and communal empowerment was almost bound to become wrapped up in something as fundamental as religion and spiritual beliefs for religion shares some of these same qualities of structure. Like music, religion, and in particular worship, is both an individual and communal act. For this reason music serves as a natural complement to worship. Both music and worship are simultaneously an intensely intimate, personal action/experience, but also an act that intimately causes you to experience something with others and develop a mutual understanding of the bond shared between you.