Renewed appreciation for Lutheranism

I had anticipated that I would spend most of this semester learning about world religions in Music and Religion and in my other classes, but I spent most of my time reflecting on Lutheranism.  While I hope to concentrate on other traditions in future semesters, I am thankful to have semester to think about the tradition in which my parents raised me.  Lutheranism never fails to offer new fodder for thought despite my familiarity with it.

I was especially intrigued this semester by the interrelatedness of and inconsistencies in Bach’s conception of music and theology.  Prior to this semester I held Bach in my mind as a deeply faithful composer, but not as a composer who sought to communicate a Lutheran theology with his music.  I learned about Bach’s ability to express ambivalence of being simultaneously sinner and saved and of feeling simultaneously guilty and relieved.  While many of the pieces we studied remind me that Bach’s music was homiletic commentary on Lutheran doctrines, John Butt’s article “Bach’s metaphysics of music” suggests to me that Bach’s conception of music itself was not wholly consistent with the Church.  Butt argues that for Bach music was a “medium through which God becomes immanent”, an idea that did not sit well with Pietist or Orthodox Lutherans.  I’m not sure if it is fair to suggest Bach’s conception of music and theology are in tension with each other, but I think it’s interesting to note Bach’s reverence for music itself despite the theological implications.

As I finish my final paper about Bach and as I reflect on our class, I am most struck by the complexity of Bach’s faith, especially when compared with Lutheran faith today.  I am impressed by Bach’s ability to conceive of God mystically because I think Christians today are horribly uncomfortable with relating God and sex.  I am impressed by Bach’s ability to musically capture the ambivalent burden and relief embodied in the crucifixion because I think Christians today fixate on one or the other.  I think a careful analysis of Bach’s music furnishes Lutherans with an opportunity to contemplate the intricacies of faith.  I hope our study of Bach’s music discourages me from characterizing God as understandable, but instead encourages me to revel in Christian theology’s mysteries.

Bach, Elferen and Coakly

I am writing about mysticism in a Bach cantata.  While researching for my last paper I came across Isabella van Elferen’s book Mystical Love in the German Baroque: Theology, Poetry, Music where she categorizes mystic experiences and descriptions.  I think Elferen’s discussion of passion mysticism, communion mysticism, and mystical desire for death are especially interesting and I would like to incorporate her ideas into my next paper.

While an analysis of Elferen’s idea’s in Bach’s cantatas could suffice, I started thinking about Baroque mysticism in relation to modern theologies of sexuality.  More specifically, I have been thinking about the possible relationship between Bach’s mysticism and Sarah Coakly’s theology of sexuality.  I recently read Coakly’s article “Living into the Mystery of the Holy Trinity: Trinity, Prayer, and Sexuality” where I encountered the idea that human desire for God is necessarily related to human sexual desire.  I suspect that Coakly’s explanation of sexuality and faith might shed light on Baroque (and Bach’s) mysticism for modern readers/listeners who are uncomfortable with relating God and sex.

Elferen and Coakly’s ideas intrigue me and I would like to provide a modern theological explanation for mysticism, but I am not sure if this a wise choice.  I might disproportionately focus on theological analysis instead of musical analysis and I would need to quickly familiarize myself with Coakly’s essay “God, Sexuality, and the Self” which I have not been able to find on Catalyst.

Struggle in the Early Phases of Research

At this point in my research, I have found several materials and skimmed most of them, but I have not thoroughly read any of them.  Finding sources has been challenging, however, as I am struggling to find scholarship specifically related to my topic.  I am studying Bach’s “Wie schon leuchtet der Morgenstern” cantata and while there is an enormous amount of work on Bach and his cantatas, few people have written on this specific cantata.  Most of books and articles I have found give a brief summary of the cantata, it’s text and performance forces, but few of my sources interpret the piece.  I have accumulated several books with general information about Bach’s cantatas or his theology, but I am apprehensive about justly applying concepts from one cantata or account of Bach’s theology to the cantata I am studying.

As I think about developing an argument, I worry that I will not have more than a few scholar’s arguments to work with, or that I will have several iterations of the same brief history.  While I realize there is certainly enough scholarship available to write a brief paper on a Bach cantata, I fear that I will need to rely more on my own interpretive judgement than I did in my last paper.  I feel confident I can make a claim about this cantata, but I would hate to misconstrue Bach out of my ignorance.  The antidote to my fears is to read, however, I suspect that in my research process I will spend less time evaluating scholars positions, and more time analyzing the piece itself.

Christmas Fest’s Dissent from Lutheran Ideals of Worship Music

In studying Reformation theology and traditions, it is important to evaluate the ways in which St. Olaf’s Lutheranism adheres to and differs from Luther’s thinking.  Christmas Festival, in particular, bears witness to the complicated interconnectedness of Church and college at St. Olaf.  Although Christmas Fest identifies neither as a worship service nor a concert, but an ambiguous mélange of the two, it’s use of liturgical music as art music necessarily suggests a sacred dimension.  A comparison with Luther’s worship service reveals that Christmas Fest is in tension with Luther’s communitarian and antihierarchical ideals.  While Christmas Fest encourages a Lutheran delight in music, it asserts a hierarchy between instrumentalists and singers and a choir versus audience professionalism Luther would have opposed.

St. Olaf’s insistence on professionalism in Christmas Fest conflicts with Luther’s most important values of accessibility and community in worship.  In his rewritten liturgy, Luther and other Reformers made worship music more accessible by setting texts in the vernacular to folk tunes.  Lutheran worship also replaced professional choirs with congregational singing to encourage active participation among congregants and community in Christian faith.  While Christmas Fest includes congregational singing, the choirs’ performances greatly overshadow the few instances where the audience joins.  Likewise, the performers are clearly distinguished from the audience in their attire and position in the “auditorium”, analogous to a professional choir.  Luther would also criticize the choirs’ overly-professional behavior in performance.  For instance, pressure to perform perfectly and flawless coordination in processing, standing up, and sitting down foster a sense of stiffness and detachment between audience and performers.  Christmas Fest combines aspects of a worship service and a performance, and so it differs in practice from a service intended purely for worship.  Nevertheless, Christmas Fest deviates from the Lutheran tradition of church music.

In addition to his condemnation of music out of touch with ordinary life, Luther sought to remove hierarchy in his reformed liturgy.  His use of chorales and congregational singing suggest Luther valued equality among those participating in music.  The hierarchy of singers and instrumentalists in Christmas Fest contradicts Luther’s desires for equality and community in worship.  Christmas Fest privileges singers with jewel-toned robes, lighting, and elevated position on the stage, and performance of the vast majority of music on the program.  By contrast, the orchestra musicians disguise themselves in black, sit below the choirs, and function primarily as accompaniment.  In asserting a preference for choral music above instrumental music, Christmas Fest divides the priesthood of all believers Luther hoped to create with equality in music.

The Challenges of Researching in a Tight-Knit Body of Work

After my first exposure to the music of Thomas Tallis in Music 241 last year, I started listening to more Renaissance music and especially 16th century choral music.  I found Tallis’s 40-part motet Spem in alium during a YouTube search and was immediately transfixed by its beauty and complexity.  Since learning of its use in modern media, for instance E.L. James’ reference to the motet in Fifty Shades of Grey, I have been interested it the way modern listeners conceive of a 16th century motet.  In my first draft, I sought to explain why listeners have wrongly valued Spem in alium’s contrapuntal complexity above its sacred intent.

In researching Spem in alium, I have had relative ease finding research materials because the topic is narrow and there are several researchers interested in the piece.  I have struggled, however to formulate a thesis from the research I have done.  The articles and chapters I have read closely relate to one another.  The author of one article often references the work of another scholar, and so much of the information in each of my sources overlaps.   For instance, Suzanne Cole cites a host of Tallis scholars in her book Thomas Tallis and his music in Victorian England.  After reading the articles Cole cites, I found that every scholar analyses the same document on Spem in alium’s origins and gives a near identical account of the history of its manuscripts.  Though scholars have written many articles and books on Tallis and Spem in alium, these sources seem to use the same small body of research to derive new theories.  I am struggling to discern which theories are best founded and how I might use the research they offer to bolster my ideas.   

Like Professor Epstein’s forest metaphor, I am having difficulty finding sources that directly relate to my thesis.  I am studying Spem in alium’s value and intent as a sacred work, however I have not found many sources relating to this aspect of the piece.  The articles and chapters I have read primarily concern themselves with the motet’s ambiguous history, and less with Tallis’ hope for the piece.  I have adopted H.B. Collins’ speculation that Spem in alium is responsive to the Reformation’s mistreatment of Catholics, but I have only found one musical analysis of the piece to back this claim.  Although there are scholars whose work supports my thesis, I am having difficulty finding specific evidence to legitimize my claims.

Despite the challenges of researching, my appreciation for Spem in alium has grown tremendously.  Listening to the piece with a historical context in mind makes my experience of it much richer.  I am thankful to Tallis for his mastery of counterpoint, but even more for his thoughtful setting of a text.  I now have the pleasure of associating a beautiful piece with notions of forgiveness and unity.

Music as a Means of Communicating Meaning

Worshipers from countless religions rely on music to deepen their experience of God to the same, if not greater extent, they rely on sacred text.  If we define the purpose of worship as growing in intimacy with God, then we can think about music as a means of gaining knowledge of God.  Sacred music conveys meaning to worshipers in two ways: first, music communicates meaning without text, or meaning inexpressible by words, second, music interprets the text it sets.

Music’s communicative qualities can, in some cases, surpass language.  In learning more about God and divinity, music’s ability to transcend and overwhelm listeners is particularly helpful.  St. Augustine’s account of account of his experiences with music epitomizes what Weiss and Taruskin refer to as a human susceptibility to music.  In recalling his baptism, St. Augustine describes, “The tears flowed from me when I heard your hymns and canticles, for the sweet singing of your Church moved me deeply.  The music surged in my ears, truth seeped into my heart, and my feelings of devotion overflowed” (24).  Without mentioning the texts from the “hymns and canticles”, St. Augustine explains how his experience of music brought him into greater connection with God.  St. Augustine’s account suggests that sacred music, regardless of its text, can evoke deep emotion and intimacy with God.  St. Augustine additionally remarks on music’s greater ability to emote than language when he defines the jubilus as, “a certain sound of joy without words, the expression of a mind poured for in joy.  A man rejoicing in his own exultation, after certain words which cannot be understood bursteth for into sounds of exultation without words . . . he cannot express in words the subject of that joy” (25).  Countless times throughout the passage St. Augustine observes language’s inability to express how the music affects him.  St. Augustine bears witness to music’s capacity to communicate meaning beyond its text, making it crucial as a worship tool.

Although worshipers think of music as an enhancement of the text it sets, music also serves as an interpretation of that text.  Where translations of sacred texts are not accessible, music allows worshiper’s to glean an understanding of the text’s meaning by the way it makes them feel.  The composer, in attaching a set of musically-espoused emotions to their music, contributes a reading of the text to the body of worshipers.  Consider the relationship between text and musical setting.  When composers set text with music, however appropriately or expectedly, they attach an interpretation of the text to their composition.  Luther’s use of folk songs and translated texts in his Deutsche Mass insinuate that worship should be accessible and God should be knowable to worshipers.  Musical settings make accessible the mysterious meanings of sacred texts by offering an emotional explanation.  They uniquely participate in a quest to best interpret sacred texts by capturing the way worshipers ought to feel while singing that text.