Music and Religion: Learning a New Language

“What language are we using in our discussions?” was the question raised in the very first class session of Music and Religion. Now that it comes to the last day of class, my semester long experience with this course has been indeed a learning process of a new language that connects me with a subject that I had never explored before.

Having little religious background, except for two semesters of required religion courses that I had very limited memory of, I have always been resistant to talk about religion because I don’t consider myself a qualified and appropriate member to enter such conversation. This class, however, fairly pushed me to engage in such public discussions by driving me to reconsider my position and approach in verbal and written communications specifically about music and religion. How to initiate a safe environment of discussion? What are the proper tactics to deliver an argument? How to construct a common ground for efficient dialogues when the audience is of different religious background and/or having different religious principles?

One thing that I found effective dealing with these challenging issues was to build the religious aspect of the conversation upon the musical language that becomes the foundation of our communication. Always relating theological statements back to their musical counterparts – the motives, the melodic contour, the harmonic progression, the rhythmic quality, the instrumentation, the voicing, the text setting, etc. – helps me to overcome the potential gaps that I have with the audience and encourage me to involve in rational, objective and academic dialogues about the subject.

I should admit that this class was not the most pleasing and self-assuring class that I have taken, for I had plenty of discouraged and depressed moments through the semester. However, after coping with all kinds of barriers to find myself a proper seat in the discussion about music and religion, I can say I have attained the language that enables me to no longer absent myself from a significant field of musicology.

Exploring the Religious Significance of Brandenburg Concerto No.5

Fascinated by the other-worldly keyboard capriccio of Bach’s Fifth Brandenburg Concerto, I devoted my last paper to exploring the religious symbolism of the piece. In this paper, I will continue studying this subject and examine questions reminaed unresolved from the previous essay.

Drawing on Michael Marissen’s writings in The Social and Religious Designs of J.S. Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos, I have evidenced the religious symbolism embedded in the Fifth Brandenburg Concerto with relevant passges from Lutheran theological documents. In the next draft, I would like to bring in broader Lutheran theology on music-makings, especially to demonstrate Luther’s own writings about music, discussed in Robin Leaver’s article ” Luther on music” (Lutheran Quarterly 20/2, 2006: 125-145). An efficient use of this resource will better justify my interpretations of sacred messages from Bach’s “secular” composition.

In addtion, I will also expand the music analysis provided in the current draft. For the moment, I have overviewed the formal structures of each movment and specifically broken down the keyboard cappricio in the first movement in terms of its musical gestures and designs. To further strengthen my argument, I will be drwaing attentions to overall harmonic progressions and musical details in other movements as musical evidences of Bach’s perception and depiction of heaven and earth. Importantly, more comprehensive musical analysis potentially enables a new aspect of my argument. Currently, my thesis centralized on examining how Bach delivered religious messages in the music. However, with closer musical analysis of the piece, I have noticed a recognizable cyclic musical depictions in all movements of Fifth Bradenburg Concerto which starts from the earth, progressing to the heaven, and eventually returned to the earth. Therefore, building on my current argument on the religious metaphors that Bach adapted in his composition, I hope to also prove the religiously transformative listening and performing experience generated from the music.


Brandenburg Concerto No.5 and Bach’s Understanding of Social Hierarchy

For a long time I was not a fan of Bach. My distorted impression and negative emotion toward Bach came from bad childhood memory when I had to strenuously memorize Bach’s inventions and fugues for piano grade exams. Therefore, it was almost a cultural shock to me when I entered college where almost everyone loves Bach. Perhaps since then my attitude toward Bach began to change, as I had a chance to gain a more comprehensive view of Bach’s music. This semester I studied the Brandenburg Concertos in Tonal Analysis class and it was an absolutely thrilling moment listening to the harpsichord cadenza in the first movement of the fifth concerto. Alongside musical analysis, the class discussions also touched on probable religious interpretations of the piece but didn’t go further. Therefore, I decided to do some research on this topic.

I started off my research by reading chapters from The social and religious designs of J.S. Bach’s Brandenburg concertos by Michael Marissen. As Marissen demonstrated in his book, baroque writers frequently took orchestra as a metaphor of social hierarchy, while one significant Lutheran viewpoint was that in the heavenly world the earthly hierarchies would no longer be necessary. Therefore, it is arguable that Bach, a devotional Lutheran, metaphorically demolished the idea of social hierarchy by composing iconoclastic orchestral parts in the Brandenburg Concertos, including the thrilling harpsichord cadenza. At the same time, Marissen reiterated the point that the unconventional orchestral arrangements did not symbolize earthly rebellion toward the social hierarchy which Bach in fact relied on for a living, although had many troubles with. Instead, the Brandenburg Concertos are religiously significant because they musically depict the next world where social hierarchy disappears.

Based upon Marissen’s viewpoint, in my own research paper I am going to provide a specific musical analysis on the Brandenburg Concerto No.5, in terms of its form, orchestration, and other musical details, and connect these musical features with further religious interpretations. Through series of musical evidence on the score, I will try to argue that Brandenburg Concerto No.5 reflected Bach’s understanding of the Lutheran theology that visioned the absence of social hierarchy in the next world.

Christmas Fest: Conflict or Confluent?

A beloved tradition of a college of the Lutheran church, the annual St. Olaf Christmas Festival echoes the Reformation musical theology and embodies Martin Luther’s perception of music and religion in many ways. First and foremost, Luther constructed his cosmology of music upon this core statement that music is next to the Word of God. According to Luther, music is a divine gift uniquely assigned to humans as a medium to praise and thank God for His forgiveness and love. As a result, music has long been an essential part of Lutheran worship tradition. Correspondingly, serving the traditional Christian holiday, Christmas Fest centralizes on religious repertoire while incorporates essential worship rituals such as gospel readings in between music performances. We can argue that Christmas Fest is necessarily Lutheran because in this event, music is valued as effective and significant as text readings in terms of fulfilling the demand of Christian holiday celebration.

Beyond the fundamental appreciation to music itself, distinctive from many other Christian beliefs, Lutherans tolerate and value diverse mediums of making music, embracing both vocal and instrumental music, as well as virtuosity in musical performances. Christmas Fest inherits the Lutheran acknowledgement to the variety approaches of music making by including both choral repertoire and instrumental piece into the event, although vocal music always dominates the program. In addition, Christmas Fest features fairly virtuosic performing groups, such as the St. Olaf Choir and  the St. Olaf Orchestra, and the choices of repertoire are particularly demanding as well.

Despite of these connections with Luther’s statements about on music and its effectiveness in worship, Christmas Fest does face several fundamental problems in regard to the Reformation musical theology. One essential premise for the Reformation Theology to function is the existence of faith in Christ. However, Christmas Fest inevitably involves individuals who are of other or without religious belief in both the participants and the audience, due to the college setting of this event. This problem of lack of religious devotion is augmented when the college advertises the event as a school concert and sales tickets for it, which conflicts with Lutheran’s idea that making music is justified primly and essentially because of the religious motivation.

Therefore, through this brief discussion about the consistency and discordance between the Reformation musical theology and Christmas Fest, it is fairly clear that Christmas Fest does not carry one single function but is rather a multi-functional event that serves different groups of people for both sacred and secular meanings. Instead of arguing that the sacred and secular aspects of the event conflict with each other, I would rather say Christmas Fest is a confluence of diverse needs existed in a college campus, since eventually the event functions as a great opportunity to gather the community together with joyful spirits no matter what is the rationale behind.

A reflection on research process: We should misunderstand

Talking about religion has in general been challenging for me. Although I am aware of the significance of religion upon people’s life, and the crucial impact of religion upon historical and social development, having limited religious background, I feel like I do not have much to say about this topic. Partially because I am severely concerned that my sparse knowledge has little to contribute and would necessarily reach its limit as I am going deeper to the subject, consequently leading to far-fetched misunderstanding.

But anyhow, I need to write this research paper about music and religion. Therefore, I concentrated on the readings we have done so far in class, confirming myself that at least I could come up with some argument based on what I learned in class. The readings that I focused on are Bloxam and Robertson’s articles about the tradition of “chanson mass,” or “parody mass.” In their essays, Bloxam and Robertson argued for credible allegorical readings on the original secular text of the chanson, and justified the religious motivation of borrowing secular material to compose sacred music. Following their approach, I decided to try out similar religious reading on Missa Fors seulement, a sacred mass of J. Ockeghem borrowing secular elements from his own chanson Fors seulement.

As my research processes, I realized that discrepancies if not conflicts are so common between different sources and scholarships, and each of them has some “misunderstanding.” First of all, I looked up several editions of Fors seulement, which disagree with each other on the arrangement of the two upper voice parts because of their similar voice range. Even Bloxam and Robertson, the two main scholars that I refer to, offered distinctive approaches to allegorical readings on secular text. Bloxam focused on Mariological interpretation of the court lady, the dedicatee of the secular chanson, yet Robertson emphasized the Christological approach in which the narrator of the love song was a metaphor of Christ. In other words, all of these scholarships try to revive the past, but potentially they “misunderstand,” since what truly happened during the Medieval remains unknown. However, like what Sorce Keller said in his essay “Why we misunderstand,” “one does justice to a musical work by ‘misunderstanding’ it, by discovering with our intelligence and creativity what kind of sense it can still have in our time.” Therefore, by following what the previous scholars had been doing, I may justify my own misunderstanding on this topic, that is to offer myself, at least, an opportunity to retrospect to the past and scrutinize the idea of the intertwined relationship between the secular and the sacred.

The Universality of Music in Worships

Expressing the grandiose quality of God is an essential part of human worship tradition. For example, architectures of worship from diverse religious background, no matter Christian churches or Hindu temples, usually feature enormously spacial constructions that embody the highness of the deity. Similar to grand architectures, music is also an universal element of worship because of its power to symbolize the magnificence of God.

One of the most traditional and spontaneous ways of making music, singing is a fundamental musical practice in religious activities on account of its effective expression of texts. As St. Augustine demonstrated in his analysis of the tension between love of music and Christian conscience, he said:

 I realize that when they were sung, these sacred words stir my mind to greater religious fervor and kindle me in a more ardent flame of piety than they would if they were not sung.1

Universally, from Jewish psalms to Buddhist chants, religious music often integrates liturgical texts with melody, harmony, and rhythm, in order to empower the rhetorical effect of the words. The strength and uniqueness in the conveyance of texts make singing, alongside with other methods of communication, a common practice of worship.

In the same analysis written by St. Augustine, the Church Father also indicated another powerful aspect of music, that is the emotional appeal. He said:

I also know that there are particular modes in song and in the voice, corresponding to my various emotions and able to stimulate them because of some mysterious relationship between the two.2

The recognition of such connection between music and emotion was also reflected in other writings from different backgrounds. Aristotle recognized the “enthusiasm,” or the purely aesthetic pleasure, brought by musical practices; In Islamic tradition, “sama” implicates the irresistible emotional influence of music, despite which triggered debates around the morality of using music in religious activities.3

Referring to various religious traditions, we seldom notice that music is deemed as feeble. Quite the opposite, people realize the overwhelming impact of music, both on their perception and emotion, which in fact keeps music an indispensable part of worship regardless of all the debates around it.

1 Piero Weiss and Richard Taruskin. Music in the Western World: A History in Documents. (New York: Schirmer Books, 1984), 26.

2 Ibid., 27.

3 Amnon Shiloah, “Music and Religion in Islam,” Acta Musicologica 69/2 (July-December 1997), 149.