Reflections on a Challenging Semester

Oh boy. What to think about this semester.

I’ll be the first to admit that this class was not my number one priority: I was planning a senior recital, juggling a few jobs, and switching majors (as a SENIOR yikes). I was absolutely ecstatic for this course coming into it, however, as I am (now) a Church Music major and want to pursue a career in sacred music. I loved learning about the earliest readings we did – Suya, Hildegard, Music and Religion in Islam, etc. As we continued, however, things started feeling very similar. While I do appreciate the focus on the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, I wish it was a bit more spread out throughout the semester. As many others have mentioned, it also would have been great to focus on non-Lutheran or even non-Christian religions. It’s tricky though, with a topic name like Music and Religion, to narrow it down to something that will fit the time allotted.

Which brings me to what I’ve learned. I’ve learned that research is incredibly hard and I really don’t think I’m very good at it. Starting too broad and narrowing it down was very challenging, so I often started too narrow and then couldn’t expand enough to find what I needed. What’s more, I quickly turned topics that I was interested in and ruined them for myself because I associated them with stress. I actually ruined Beautiful Savior for myself this year at Christmas Fest. I doubt this struggle with research was due to the class or the research itself; it’s been a pretty tough semester. But it did help me realize what little exposure I’ve had to research at St. Olaf and helped me improve (a little? I think?).

I’ve read a few others say that they were affirmed in their Lutheranism during this class. I was affirmed in my Catholicism. It was very helpful to learn about what I’m not to further justify what I am. I will definitely take that mindset into my future life. I also greatly appreciated the discussions we had about healthy discourse and the election. Those were some of the greatest conversations I’ve had while at St. Olaf, and it was so amazing to come to a common ground of respect for one another. One thing I would recommend going forward is to encourage more conversations that don’t specifically surround a piece of music or one composer – some highlights were: appropriateness in worship, sacred vs secular intent in a worship service, thinking about pop music as sacred, and the two I mentioned earlier. This way, there’s room to talk about a specific piece if wanted, but everyone feels just a little bit more safe to participate. I also think one less podcast and more emphasis on in-class reading and discussion would have helped the atmosphere of the class a little better. It was really hard sometimes to justify going when it didn’t seem like anything we discussed in class would be graded.

All in all, I really enjoyed this class, though it was not what I expected. I learned a lot about research and myself, while learning and appreciating a lot more about Bach. I hope that the feedback given helps the course get better so it can be taught many more times – it’s a perfect topic for St. Olaf.


On Motivation and the Senior Slide

Over the Christmas Festival Weekend, I had an idea to look into BWV 80 Ein Feste Burg for my final paper/podcast combo. I started researching. I listened to it. I immediately got bored. I’m not quite sure why I felt so unmotivated by this topic, but I decided to try to follow something I was more passionate about.

I really want to look into the Magnificat (D Major, BWV 243) and specifically the 3rd and 4th movements – Quia Respexit into Omnes Generationes. The third movement has such an incredibly different sound than anything else in the Magnificat; the chromaticism, the descending lines, and the starkness of oboe and basso continuo aren’t seen anywhere else in the Magnificat. Right now, I have a lot of ideas about this piece and am not fully sure where to take them. These movement focus on the section of the Magnificat dealing with humility: “He hath regarded the lowliness of His servant, for behold from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed.” It’s clear that Bach intended to apply an entire mood to this movement, but I find the incredibly quick change into Omnes Gereationes startling and interesting. I feel like there’s something there.

Right now, I’m doubling back on the Rathey and Heller articles we read earlier. I really want to avoid just regurgitating information that we already discussed, and I’m hoping that by focusing on the two movements will allow me the freedom to discuss many things about those movements. One interesting thing that I want to pursue more is when one author (and I honestly thought it was Rathey, but now I can’t find it) called Mvmt. 4 a turba chorus. Of course, I have no idea where this thread will go, but right now I’m digging to see if there’s anything important there.

One last idea that I think would be interesting is analyzing how these two movements are inherently Lutheran Marian theology as opposed to Catholic Marian theology. This would require a comparison of the religious side of things and an application directly into the text. This is super intriguing to me but I’m scared to dive in because of the difficult research and sort of abstract method of coming to a thesis.

All in all, I’m glad that I’m at least excited about my topic now. It will possibly be more difficult, as I really have to make sure I’m not copying the articles we read already, but at least the motivation is there. Fight the senior slide. It’s only fall semester.

Beautiful Savior would be much more beautiful if people would write about it

I’m finding myself in this horrible trend where I think of a super cool topic that has very little research to back it up. Right now, I’m synthesizing the sources that I have to see if there’s actually enough to continue with this topic… to be determined.

I’m interested in looking at Beautiful Savior. I had never heard this hymn before coming to St. Olaf, and obviously it’s inescapable here. I have a lot of questions that I could answer: does it align with Luther’s beliefs about congregational singing? How do the militaristic connotations of the text and melody relate to early beliefs about Christ as a warrior, and does that influence the popularity of the hymn? Does it appear in other faith traditions? (And does that have any significance?)

I think my best shot will be the first question, though I can’t stop thinking about the militaristic connotations. I am hoping that by performing my own analysis of the text and the chorale tune, I can compare and relate to what Luther says in his Preface to Symphoniae iucundae, what we read on the Lutheran chorale, and draw from new sources. For instance, there are SO many dissertations out there on the function of music in worship. The challenging thing for me right now is that most scholarship on the tune itself is part of a narrative about St. Olaf, and that feels like too narrow of a topic. I feel that the lack of other sources proves that the hymn is not super prevalent, answering a previous question.

My next step is to try to dig deeper into the tune and text themselves. I have some preliminary background knowledge from and the minimal background information in the “History of the St. Olaf Choir” books that the library has (side note: why have so many people written books about that? At least there are some killer photos of Dr. Armstrong).

I’m going to take a look at the companion commentaries to the ELW next: we looked at those frequently with JBobb in his interim course, and they typically provided a good background bio and often some places to look next. I welcome any other sources about specific hymns that I might not have thought of yet. I’m really hoping that there’s enough this time that I don’t have to change my thesis again, so any direction and feedback is VERY welcome.

I think Luther would like Christmas Fest.

Where do I even begin with talking about Christmas Fest? I guess I’ll start by saying that it is my second favorite experience of the year, in between #1: all of Holy Week and #3: Christmas Eve itself. The more I keep thinking about Fest, the more I compare it to how Luther sees the world.

For me, Christmas Fest is a religious experience. The texts we sing combined with the crazy amount of talent in the room is definite proof to me that God exists and knows how to have a great time. Of course, this is colored by my personal beliefs that God is everywhere and that everything is a spiritual experience as long as it is done with the right intent. But even those who don’t necessarily have the “God is everywhere” mentality – I think of my roommate who doesn’t really practice any faith anymore – can still feel as though they have been religiously, or at least spiritually, restored by the festival.

So how does this connect to Luther and the Reformation? I keep thinking of what Pastor Matt said to us before fall break, that God has given believers a free gift. We can accept the gift or not, but we can not ever pay back the gift. So we find ways to celebrate, glorify, and recognize this gift in the hopes that one day it will be enough. This gift is Christmas Fest (except WHOA it is definitely not a free gift… $$). Dr. Armstrong always talks about a serving spirit, and how this festival isn’t for us to just show off, but make others feel. Feel more whole, more loved, more inspired. It is Luther’s mentality about faith and grace. The audience can attend Christmas Fest and choose whether or not to accept the gift we are giving. We, as choristers and orchestra members, can choose whether or not to accept the texts the planning committee has given us. The gift of the experience of Fest is, to me, priceless. I know I can never “pay back” the conductors, the pastors, the audiences, the logistics team, etc. for this marvelous experience. But I know that I can pay it forward through my singing and attitude, turning grace into works.

Universal Music or Music for Everyone?

On the first day of class, we talked about if there was music that was inappropriate for worship. As we brainstormed and shared ideas, no one could quite pin down an answer for this question. We struggled with deciding what is good or bad, if the purpose of the music has anything to do with the act of using it to worship, and if any of it really matters anyways. I think all these struggles are the reason music is “universal;” that is, there is some form of music that exists for every kind of worship.

Much of the early church wasn’t concerned with universality, and this continued until chant was codified by the 9th century. Early believers weren’t concerned with singing the same chant (a lot of them were more concerned with staying alive). Routley explains why there isn’t a lot of early history recorded. “Music was to them so natural an activity as to be hardly susceptible at that stage of moral criticism: moral criticism of the music, as we shall see, is in the Old Testament always criticism of the musician.”1 There wasn’t such a thing as bad music, as anything that could give glory to God was acceptable.

Much of the Old Testament is, as always, confusing. Music is both allowed and refuted, sometimes within the same book. Some early church leaders have very clear opinions about music, though, as pointed out by Weiss and Taruskin. Augustine is quoted to define a hymn as a “song with praise of God. If you praise God and do not sing, you do not utter a hymn.”2 I think this mindset is what calls people to believe that music for worship is universal. The texts have now been codified throughout the Church, and many of them cross between different branches of religion as well. But the music is constantly changing. I really think the only thing that matters for music in worship is that there is some sort of text that requires some sort of prayer. In this, music is not universal, but it does exist for everyone.