As I’m looking back on this course, what stands out to me most is not really the general course itself; I don’t believe I am any more of an authority on music and religion than I was at the beginning of the class. I do think I am a more well-rounded music history student after being exposed to so many different, interdisciplinary topics in the class, and I know that I am a better researcher.

I was going to say that some of my favorite readings and discussions weren’t about my core interests as a liberal arts student, but that’s actually not true. I loved the reading about Suya songs and I enjoyed our discussion about how to properly study music from “other” cultures without making them The Other. At first glance, this article could be unrelated to my interests but the deeper conversation had a lot to do with struggles I have in any field of study.  I found Dr. Rodland’s lecture-recital about Bach, and especially the information about numerology, to be fascinating, but while I don’t really know anything about organ music, Bach is a major musical interest of mine. And of course, I really appreciated that we got to read about Hildegard (I was especially a fan of Holsinger’s work, although apparently that’s an unpopular opinion). I was also really interested in the discussion of how anti-Semitism can manifest itself in music. Unfortunately for me, Bach had been one of the very few composers/historical figures that I had managed to keep unproblematic before this class–I have a Bach tattoo and my senior recital is Bach themed. But problematizing and complicating things isn’t actually negative; it just means that we’ve actually devoted the time and thought to really considering what is going on in history, in music, in religion, and in the composer’s mind.

The biggest challenge for me in this course was class discussion. I actually did carefully read (or at least attempt to find something comprehensible) for class almost every single day. This issue is admittedly a personal problem in discussion classes, but it’s not always so difficult. I felt that even after reading the articles and thinking through discussion questions ahead of time, nothing I could come up with was really worth adding to the discussion. Often, my peers’ comments just went way over my head. I’m not sure if this is because of rhetoric that was used or my lack of background knowledge about the Bible or some other inadequacy, but try as I might, I really only came up with worthwhile contributions when we were discussing things that I felt like a resident expert on (read: gender–and sometimes not even that). I’m not one to talk just to hear my own voice. Maybe that means I don’t belong in this particular academic setting, but at least I found the experience of listening to others valuable. I’m not sure that there’s an easy solution to this, and I’m also not meaning to make an excuse for myself. But I do believe that I did the appropriate work outside of class and I hope I didn’t ever come off as indifferent.

Finally, if I could take a similar course again, I would love to learn more about non-Christian religions, especially religions that are being practiced today. It could be difficult to find scholarship on recent musical religious topics, but I would have enjoyed hearing more contemporary views, rules, regulations, and purposes about/for religious music.

Gender and Sexuality in Bach’s Christmas Oratorio

As usual, I am having trouble locating the niche in musicology where the scholarship I want can be found. At this time, I have tried everything I can think of to find writing on what I KNOW must be an issue, but have barely found anything. I found a book by Markus Rathey, Johann Sebastian Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, that sounds like it could have what I’m looking for. I found an excerpt of the book on google books, but otherwise, it’s not in the library, nor does it appear to be available via Interlibrary Loan. I thought the book would be especially useful for locating other sources, but from the footnotes I can see in the preview, lots of Rathey’s sources are quite heavy-sounding and/or in German.

In searches on Catalyst and journal databases (I’ve tried Academic Search Premier, Gender Watch, and Music Periodicals Database), I have been using different combinations and Boolean arrangements of the following search terms:

Christmas Oratorio
BWV 248

All of these searches have come up with either unrelated articles or exactly nothing.

So I’m not really sure where to go from here. I will try going to the music library and just flipping through the table of contents pages of as many Bach books as I can. This strategy has worked with some of my other music history research when I couldn’t find the right search terms.

I’m planning to research either the first or the fourth cantata from the Christmas Oratorio.

In Part I, I would focus on the “Christ as Bridegroom” trope. It is everywhere in the text, and so are some very interesting phrases like “Supreme Ruler” and “Lord/King,” which have their own gendered, even colonialist implications. The lack of interest in Mary in this text and the simultaneous focus on unborn/newborn Jesus’s pleasure would also be interesting ideas to pursue. The sections that refer to the bridegroom are both sung by an alto soloist (the first in recitative, and the second in aria form).

In Part IV, the text focuses on Jesus’ circumcision, which seems like a strange thing to be singing about at length. There is also another long section about being Christ’s beloved, including the representation of him as bridegroom. Some of the language in this cantata borders on literal sensual desire for Jesus (“I look to you longingly”/”I shall call you enchanting, since breast and heart are enflamed with love for you”). Finally, this cantata uses a soprano in duet with an echo soprano and a bass (at separate times) during some of the aforementioned sections. I would like to investigate what the choice of the female voice (or at least female-sounding, even if a woman wouldn’t have been the performer) does for the cantata and why Bach made that choice.

It’s also possible there are gendered connections to Bach’s previous works that he used to write the oratorio, but I have not seen anything about this.

Research is Hard

Unfortunately, as I begin to research a new topic, I am still having some of the same issues as I did with my last topic. Much of what I’ve had trouble with is simply not knowing what to search to read about what I want to learn. When I was writing about Hildegard, this was unfortunate but not surprising; I basically had to make my own connections because the connection between Hildegard’s music and music of the Black church hasn’t been made before. I assumed that this new topic–gender and theology in gospel music–would be a road better traveled. However, because I haven’t extensively studied theology, theologies of music, or gospel music/singers, I’m having a lot of trouble just figuring out what searches will bring up relevant sources. So far, I’ve tried combinations of gender/wom*/fem*/gospel/religi*/names of gospel singers. I’ve found a lot of articles that look interesting, but I’m not quite sure how I’ll make an argument out of them.

Based on what I’ve read so far, here are some concepts I’d like to try to connect or find out more about:

Black women as “musical missionaries” (Jerma A. Jackson)–looking at Rosetta Tharpe as an example

Judith Butler’s thoughts on sound/music–more about popular music, but could apply the concepts

Article titled “On Exoticism, Western Art Music, and the Words We Use” by Ralph P. Locke–haven’t read the whole thing yet, but has a lot of important perspectives that I’d like to incorporate, esp. because I don’t want this paper to turn into a study of the “exotic other.”

Useful article by Tammy L. Kernodle that gives an overview of African-American women’s contributions to gospel’s evolution–I will use this to find more search terms/research specific people

Idea that African American men in gospel quartets served as role models for the community–so were women singing gospel also role models or is that transgressive?

Another article by Kernodle exploring Black women’s relationships with each other in musical groups–disproving the myth that they can’t work together because they’re too competitive/focused on men–and how they can validate each other and work together (female friendships are the happiest side of women’s and gender studies so hopefully this fits somehow so I get to talk about this!!)

Possibly how freedom songs/activism grew out of the gospel movement–music as a catalyst for change–this might be pushing it too far out of the topic.

Identity and sound and embodiment of music/theology in a certain type of body

So, these ideas are a little scattered right now but I see promising prospects. I hope to find some kind of common thread that will help me focus the topic, but also find enough to talk about.

Christmas Fest: Why do we DO it?

St. Olaf College’s Christmas festival has happened for more than 100 years. It’s one of the college’s claims to fame and every Scandinavian in Minnesota has made the pilgrimage to Christmas Fest. But what’s the point? When F. Melius Christiansen started the festival, the goal was probably to create a meaningful Lutheran worship experience. Of course, this is probably still a large part of the reason we do it today. But that’s hard to say when the college’s entire marketing year revolves around the commercialization of a “sacred” festival.

Christmas Festival is a week of profits for the college. Of course, there are expenses–the set, the overtime for ensemble leaders, the huge amounts of Norwegian food in the cafeteria, extra energy and water used on campus. But in return, the college gets recruitment, donors, prestige, profits from ticket sales and meal prices, and a supposed affirmation of the Lutheran tradition at St. Olaf. Isn’t this exactly what Luther tried to end for the church? Of course, indulgences and a profitable festival aren’t exactly the same thing. But both are taking advantage of theology to make a profit for an institution, whether it’s the church or it’s a college connected to the church.

Maybe Luther would have appreciated the use of vernacular in Christmas Fest, though. Much of the music is in English (or Norwegian) and the selections are pretty standard; the musical similarity is like the use of a familiar language. The community that attends the festival usually knows what to expect. However, maybe this stagnancy isn’t what a reformer like Luther would have wanted. Christmas Fest could change and grow with the times and the different goals it might be fulfilling now. Even though it’s built on a Christian tradition (Christmas) and still contains some artifacts of this, like the scripture readings, I would argue that a majority of the people who attend Fest do so just to enjoy the music and community and holiday season. Much of the religious interpretation of the festival has to come from the way individuals approach their thinking about it. But again, maybe Luther would like this! After all, maybe the sacred nature of Christmas Fest is something that can only be achieved by “faith alone.”

Making New Connections: Hildegard and..??

I decided a long time ago that I wanted to explore Hildegard of Bingen’s life and work with my research in this class. I thought this would be a pretty straightforward task that would follow my usual path of research: make a great Boolean search statement, find some articles, and put them in conversation with each other. My expectations were significantly wrong.

The first challenge I came across was that I actually am not sure how to talk about Hildegard’s music. I can write about her philosophies of music and discuss her use of female voices, but I actually do not have the tools to otherwise analyze her music in a way that’s useful to making a point. Because of this, I did not include any specific musical examples or even names of pieces in my first draft.

I also had quite a bit of difficulty just deciding on a topic. I hadn’t really considered how I would write about Hildegard; I just wanted to learn about her and I didn’t have a plan for how I would make it matter and connect that knowledge to other important topics. Thanks to the Holsinger reading on the syllabus, I decided to follow the idea of bodily experiences with music. I initially wanted to compare dance music to Hildegard’s thoughts on physicality of music, but I found virtually no connections that were sufficient for writing a paper.

Because I was having trouble finding a specific topic, it was very difficult to search for articles and books with which to do my research. I eventually found a section of thought and research that theologians were calling “body theology” and followed that concept. I remembered talking about spirituals and gospel music in World Music a few weeks ago and decided (without having seen any connecting research at this point) to connect the idea of a musical trance/being taken over by the spirit to Hildegard’s experience with music.

I don’t think I got very far with this approach in my first draft, but going forward, I’d like to find more information both about Hildegard’s thoughts on the musical body and about experiences and explanations of the trance. I’d also like to look more at the claim that women experience more bodily reactions to music (and to life in general) and relate that to the musical experiences I’m discussing.

Fear, Love, and Music

Music has been a part of religious tradition for an almost incomprehensible amount of time. Throughout history, however, perception and understanding of music has fluctuated greatly. Some might argue that music has remained present in worship because of tradition; it’s always been there, so we keep using it. That may be true, but that’s too easy. What does music do for us as humans, and why do we associate it so strongly with our spirituality?

The usefulness of music rarely comes into question. Aristotle saw it as educational, cathartic, entertaining, and relaxing; most modern music consumers would agree with these purposes. While others, like Plato and some Christian and Muslim fundamentalists, say that music is merely a distraction or an evil pleasure, this does not mean they believe music is useless (Routley/Shiloah). What critics must decide is how to harness this negative purpose (pleasure, diversion, beauty) for the good of their god.

While music cannot be called truly universal when the world’s music is so diverse, the experience of singing and the experience of music as an audience member can be generalized. So, music is something widely experienced, its existence and purpose are heavily debated, and it must affect humans in some of the same ways. Here, medieval experiences of music are enlightening. Medieval writers claim that music is an intensely physical, somatic experience, whether the physicality is in the listening or in the voicing of song. Hildegard von Bingen is one medieval composer who emphasized the physical element of music in her composition and her focus on the female voice (Fassler/Holsinger).

For some, the somatic experience of music feels like a gift from above; but to others, the physical element might feel shameful, animalistic, or too pleasureful. It’s in this dilemma that fear comes into play. As human beings, we all experience fear. We deal with this emotion in different ways, but many people turn to religion. Organized religion often promises a safe place where redemption and forgiveness will happen; this is a place where all the bad things and all the bad people go away, but to get there, one is supposed to act in the appropriate manner. Humans are supposedly dangerous beings who need to be vigilant and do the right things. Because music is such a dangerous entity, capable of enticing listeners into pleasure or distraction, it makes people fearful. Rather than avoiding it altogether, religious communities may try to co-opt music for their own purposes. Music, when used for the glorification of a god or the purification of a person, can redeem itself and become less scary and dangerous. Music used for worship is innocent, so music is used in worship in order to take away music’s dangerous power.

We can’t deny that we also simply love music, even when we fear its power. When religious communities use music in worship, they are acknowledging this and embracing it; including an art form that people love is only more encouragement to participate in a religious community.