I had reasonable suspicion this class would emphasize Bach and Luther’s musical ideology. Once completed, I will have made three podcasts that all relate to Bach’s own music either directly or indirectly.
Within the organ community, we tend to worship Johann Sebastian Bach as some theologians worship Martin Luther. Of course, this is only because we’re fascinated by by his skills as a composer and church musician. In this course, I was excited to be able to take time in a course to study Bach’s work in a more intensive context. In my own personal study for my papers, I was challenged by the research process.The podcast medium has been frustrating when things have gone wrong, but rewarding and exciting when things have gone right. The biggest challenge this week will be refining my third paper topic since I’ve been talking about Bach related works this entire semester.
I enjoyed the in-class discussions we had, especially the one concerning the election. I wasn’t expecting this course to end up feeling like an open forum, and that was really fun to observe and be a part of.
I think it would have been fascinating to spend a few more days focusing on other religions’ relationships with music. I understand that this class looked forward to the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, but once we got into a rhythm, it seemed to mature into a class where we mainly focused on music we already felt comfortable with. Of course, this is not to detract from the meaningful topics we did cover. There’s only so much one could fit in a semester.
All in all, I really appreciated the open research possibilities this class gave. This class has been incredibly challenging, and being able to choose my own topics that interested me made the challenge that much more meaningful. I’m a 19 year old organ performance major, so I’ll be there first to say that I’m not a profound musicologist; however, this class gave me practice time to creatively dive into the research process and explore the topics that I care about.
With all that’s happened in this class, I feel more comfortable in the research process now. My first paper was easier to research since the thesis and topic dived right into sources about a well researched area of Bach’s works. My second paper gave me more trouble, as its thesis was Bach related, but the topic at hand had almost no scholarship. This next paper should be easier to tackle in the research arena. Given that our topic category is provided, I decided to choose to look at the St. Matthew Passion. I’m not sure what my thesis will be though. After going through some preliminary research, I could take a thematic approach and look into the spirituality of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. I could go the analytical route and see how Bach ties in spirituality into the form of the work. Personally, I’m just intrigued by the many settings of the chorales. Or perhaps I could look into the history in which the piece was performed, considering it’s likely the piece isn’t really a double chorus oratorio in the same way we think in modern times.
My concern lies in trying to find an arguable thesis that’s not obvious in all of this. (“Look, Bach did a cool thing” is not a thesis – David below me.)
Having performed the piece as a soprano in the children’s miniature chorus, I know that this piece is a rich work of art. I just need to do more research to find out what’s worth talking about. I hope to look more into the settings of the chorales within their own contexts as a starting point. If that turns out to be a dead end, I will focus on the relationship between the two choruses and see where that leads me.
I originally wanted to talk about the influence of jazz in church music: what aspects does it change, and what stay the same; however, I felt this may be too broad, so my wish is to focus on analysis of one piece specifically: What A Friend We Have in Jesus, a gospel prelude by William Bolcom, and how this piece serves as an equally powerful reflection on its text just as any Bach chorale prelude would. This piece is one that I’ve become more and more familiar with over the past 5 years because the organist that I’d like to work with in graduate school, Dr. David Higgs, has the definitive opinion on this work. He and William Bolcom have worked together closely on the technique and nuance of this piece, with Bolcom revising different aspects of the piece per Higgs’ suggestions. I’ve heard Higgs play it in several concerts, I’ve had a lesson with him where we focused on this work, and I’m playing it in a student recital tomorrow.
My goal in this paper/podcast is to uncover how it serves the texts with a strong analysis. As far as researching goes, because there isn’t any written research available that I could find specifically of the piece, I need to find sources that explain Bolcom’s background as a composer, and what influenced his compositional style to see if his jazz writing is authentic to jazz heritage, or if it is jazz music run through a “classical” filter. I’ve reserved some books about the history of jazz music in the church, and jazz’s impact on religion to see if there is a connection there; if there is, I may want to modify my thesis to include this as an intermediate evolutionary step between Bach and Bolcom.
On the St. Olaf College website, the St. Olaf Christmas Festival is described as “one of the oldest musical celebrations of Christmas in the United States.” It’s important to remember this self-definition when questioning this event’s identity: is it a concert, or is it a service?
It’s kind of both. It has elements of theology that align quite well with Luther’s ideas in the reformation. Christmas Fest presents a theme every year that is reflected through most of (if not all) the repertoire selected. This year’s is “Light Dawns, Hope Blooms”. In my own research regarding my first paper, I discovered that Luther believed musicians’ job in worship is to present musical sermons with a compelling theological message that’s accessible to the congregation. I’ve never been an audience member of Christmas Fest, but I believe it would be difficult to not catch a glimpse of each yearly message since the theme is clearly pasted above the roughly 500 choir members in a catchy font.
Christmas Festival has another important factor pointing itself towards being more of a service: congregational hymns. There is a processional hymn for all to sing when the choirs enter, two hymns in the middle of event, and a recessional hymn when the choirs exit into the round. Luther was an avid advocate for accessible chorale tunes so all present at a service could sing together.
Unfortunately, Christmas Festival loses its validity as a service in politics. Entry to the event costs $30 per person, plus a $7 “transaction fee” when purchasing. This makes the festival an exclusive event rather than inclusive. If St. Olaf wanted it to be closely aligned with service practices without overbooking each night, tickets could be reserved for free with a free-will donation optional. Along with the clapping that follows the final notes of Beautiful Savior at the end, it’s really not possible to argue that it is a service any longer. Because the actual contents of the concert mainly have the intentions of a service, I don’t think it’s entirely fair to call it simply a concert either. It’s a celebration of Christmas; the website is not wrong.
In my first blog post, I remarked on the unique relationship between music and religion with the analogy of the heart and brain. Religion is the truth, or brain, that many people place at the foundation of their lives; however, music has the ability to strengthen that foundation with emotion, depending on how the text is set.
When I started researching into my topic, I began with the focus that J. S. Bach created his Orgelbüchlein as a way to embellish the choral tunes that were created from. I knew that Bach was a master arranger and knew his chorale preludes were convincing pieces of music. When I discovered Benitez’s paper on Musical-rhetorical Figures in the Orgelbüchlein of J. S. Bach, I was enthralled. It contains so much powerful information and quotations from Bach’s peers, students, and other professionals of the time to present a convincing presentation of background for Bach’s awareness and education of rhetoric.
This information pointed directly back to my original blog post. Aristotle’s methods of rhetoric were designed to present the truth (or perhaps not the truth) in a specific way that would be convincing. Music, when assisting religion, has the same ability.
This helped me mold my thesis to be more focused; however, it has since caused myself some concern. While I do quote other sources, I’m not sure if my thesis is too closely aligned with Benitez’s paper overall. The issue is I’ve struggled to find any more evidence supporting the idea that Bach used rhetorical devices specifically in the Orgelbüchlein besides Benitez’s paper. I have found an 85 page dissertation studying two organ chorale preludes (listed as one of the sources in my first draft) that I would like to dive into and see if I can find more information to support my thesis from there. Perhaps my next step should be to try to branch out and widen my search for Bach’s rhetorical usage in other works. If I need more convincing evidence, I may look into Bach’s cantatas, as many movements from the cantatas share similar forms to Bach’s Orgelbüchlein chorale preludes.
Music, religious or not, has been an important part of cultures for thousands of years. Aristotle believed that music can help people relax, provide psychological relief, and entertain as an intellectual pastime.
Music, as a form of art, has so much more emotional power than simply relaxation. It can serve as a channel to convey ideas in incredibly emotional ways. Societies have had struggles and debates throughout history about whether or not music is safe to engage with. Islam struggled with finding the roll of music within its religion. Christianity did as well. These debates exist or existed because music does have such a unique ability to sway human emotion in different ways. Music can be very pleasurable. If approached with a sinful mentality, it can be sinful; if it is applied humbly in worship, it has the power to convey text in worship in an incredibly meaningful way. This is why music is a perfect conduit for presenting religious text.
Peder Jothen’s analogy of the desires of the brain and heart help explain and support this idea. The brain strives for truth, wisdom, ideas, and reasoning, and the heart seeks pleasure. The brain and the heart in this analogy represent the spiritual needs and the physical needs of our whole selves. Worship music is and has been a useful and desirable tool for religion because it has the power to support the truth with an emotional experience that may transport the listener in meditation or simply make the text more meaningful.