Music 345A and St. Olaf College

As I mentioned in my last blog post, this class humbled me greatly. I have read articles that opened my eyes to brilliant new topics, discussed issues that challenged and expanded my understanding of music and theology, and have had my Lutheran background questioned and affirmed. Though I usually found myself listening more often than speaking, it was almost impossible to not be engaged during class discussions.

Looking back to the topics we discussed in class, one thing that will stick with me is our analysis of Homoerotics in the music of Hildegard von Bingen. It’s nice to see my gender represented in the humanities every once in a while; even though there are few records of female theologians before the 20th century (and I recognize this makes it difficult to study female theologians prior to this), I enjoy reading about their contributions to society during their lifetime.

Moving forward, this class has boosted my excited for the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, even though I was already excited about this, given my Lutheran heritage. Martin Luther’s radicalism has shaped much of what I believe today; I was confirmed in the Lutheran church, I know the Lutheran Catechism, and I’ve read the Lutheran Handbook cover to cover multiple times (the latter is not a historical document by any stretch of the imagination, but it is an amusing read – 10/10 would recommend). In learning more about Luther’s theology and thoughts on music, I was able to see myself in the context of the class. Luther is part of my culture and heritage. The Doctrine of Justification not only makes sense to me, but it’s part of what I was raised to believe.

Even at St. Olaf, the most Lutheran of Lutheran institutions, we rarely discuss the theological basis on which our school was founded. This course is important for St. Olaf because this class represents our school’s roots. Even more so, this class represents St. Olaf as a whole because this class was not just about Luther; we explored other cultures and religions and musical practices. Similarly, St. Olaf is not just for Lutheranism; it’s for a whole bunch of different people with different cultures and music. St. Olaf is the epitome of Music 345A.

Research: Finding a Needle in a Haystack

This class has humbled me in so many ways. I have found the research process difficult, frustrating, and irrelevant at times. My theses have been reworked over and over again, simply so that they fit with my research findings. This paper topic has been no different. I have flip-flopped between researching two different Bach pieces, both of which have little scholarship, and one of them is even rumored to not have been written by Bach. Needless to say, I need to get started on this paper, so the time has come for me to make a decision on what I want to do.

I am looking into a specific aria of the St. John Passion, “Ich folge dir gleichfalls,” the first soprano aria that describes Peter as a faithful follower of Jesus. Peter declares his love and faithfulness, yet denies knowing Jesus in a scene directly afterwards. There is an interesting parallel between Luther’s teachings of vocation and sin and Bach’s musical setting, and I hope to explore this more in a podcast. The aria is roughly 4 minutes in length, yet still carries enough theological and musical implications that a thorough exegesis could be done. I still fear, however, that searching for research to help me build my argument will be more difficult than I expect. My goal is to find solid religious research and pair it with appropriate musical analysis to show that Bach did know what he was doing in adding this seemingly useless commentary into the passion. There is more than meets the eye (or ear) to this aria, and the St. John Passion is enhanced because of it.

Master of Dank Memes and False Spirituality: Eric Whitacre

He’s the poster boy of modern choral music. He’s the master of music and social media. He appears in choir programs all over the world. He’s the lusciously long-haired creator of the Virtual Choir. He’s Eric Whitacre.

The man is everywhere, and I want to explore why this is the case. I argue that Eric Whitacre owes a majority of his success to the culture of the 21st century, the consistent rise in modern humanism. The disinterest in institutionalized religion combined with the desire for spirituality is resulting in a market for unabashedly beautiful music like Whitacre’s, but at what cost? I then argue that this a theologically unstable (from a Christian perspective) market to rely on, and therefore, regardless of fame and recognition, this music may not stand the test of time as, say, Bach’s music has.

I’m interested to see what scholarship I can find on the disinterest in institutionalized religion; I can make fair assumptions that a lot of these sentiments stem from centuries of oppression, and that should not be ignored. However, I need still need to find theological debates that back my argument saying shallow spirituality isn’t the key to solving this problem.

As far as challenges go, I’m arguing something so recent that there aren’t many publications on the subject. Eric Whitacre is so new that “fresh off the press” doesn’t even begin to describe how current the writings on him and his phenomenon are. My best bet would be doing more research on evolving dogmas in recent years and tying it to the arts.

My thinking has changed slightly in that I want to focus more on how music doesn’t have to be “beautiful” in order for it to be “spiritual.” Bach wrote plenty of pieces that captured the essence of the Lutheran theology, that may not be considered aesthetically beautiful, but that still remain relevant today. Eric Whitacre puzzles me because I feel that he is more than a social media wizard with long hair; there’s something about his music that may be more problematic than we know.

Christmas Fest as Elitist Music Making

I believe it is safe to say that, when each of us experienced Christmas Fest for the first time, we were not expecting a worship service; we were expecting a concert. To say that Fest is just a concert discredits the fact that many people find it to be a worshipful experience (this is not the same as a worship service – there are plenty of people who will not find a liturgical service to be a worshipful experience, and vice versa). Though we have been mainly discussing the Reformation as it relates to theology and the mass, I believe there are ways in which we can compare the ideologies of the Reformation to Christmas Fest as a sacred music experience.

When Martin Luther discusses music, he describes it as being next to theology, one of the highest art forms given by God. And when music is done exceptionally well, then, he says, “at last it is possible to taste with wonder…God’s absolute and perfect wisdom in his wondrous work of music.” With the amount of care, planning, and preparation given to Fest, it ends up becoming a musical spectacle where singers and players are performing at a really high quality. In Luther’s eyes, Christmas Fest is the ideal celebration of God’s gift of music! Choirs, orchestra, and audience members are all a part of the experience that is good music making.

One part of Fest that I do find troubling is its lack of accessibility. Luther created the Deutsche Messe in order for the Gospel to be accessible to everyone. Of course this meant translating the mass from Latin/Greek to German, but I feel there was something bigger that Luther was trying to do. He took what was previously thought to be elite, only for the literate and theologically well versed, and brought it to the common folk. This is what St. Olaf is missing in its production of Christmas Fest. If you are not connected to the St. Olaf community, then you will be hard-pressed to find a ticket, and even if you can, tickets still cost a fair amount of money. If we really want the message of Fest to be taken to the world, we cannot keep ourselves in a little bubble and hide behind the excuse that we broadcast one of the Fest dates on MPR. Let’s convert Christmas Fest from an elitist music experience to a message of Love and Hope that people can truly grasp.

Singing the Divine Liturgy: Researching an Eastern Topic in a Western Context

There have been many interesting and exciting things about researching the traditions of the Orthodox Church; it is a tradition that has been absolutely foreign to me as a Protestant. As I continue to do research, however, I am beginning to realize how much I already know. Indeed, Orthodox and Lutheran theologies are by no means the same thing, but we do share our early history. Before the East-West Schism (and with all of the extra fights and inconsistencies that existed before the schism), we were the same church existing in different parts of the world. Prior to beginning the study of singing in the Divine Liturgy, I would have said that the two are vastly different. In many ways, they are, but it is quite divisive to highlight only the differences. Finding the similarities may have been the most exciting thing about research so far.

In my paper, I cite an article by Vassa Larin, a sister of the Orthodox Church who writes on “active participation” in the liturgy. Such participation could involve being a part of the choir, aiding in liturgical set-up and tear down, cleaning the worship space, or simply immersing yourself in the whole liturgy so that it might boost your faith. This article was particularly intriguing to me because, as an outsider to the Orthodox Church, I do not see that the Church is looking to increase the participation of the laity. Such a movement is being pushed among the Protestant denominations as well, and to understand that reaching out to the lay people for help is not a phenomenon reserved for one specific sect of Christianity is to understand that everyone is involved in the struggle to keep the faith community alive.

On the topic of keeping faith and theology relevant, I have found a sect in modern Orthodoxy that turned out to be a nice addition in discussing the marriage of music and the church. The Free Monks (as they are referred to in Lina Molokotos-Liederman’s article “Sacred Words, Profane Music?”) are a group of Greek Orthodox monks who write, perform, and sell contemporary Orthodox rock music. When I discovered this group, I was made even more aware of the strange similarities that exist between the Orthodox Church and everyone else; there is still a fascination with taking contemporary music and setting religious text to it.

Such similarities are exciting! It’s important for humanity to see that, even in our differences, there are common threads. This becomes difficult, however, when you are looking to study one part of the Christian tradition, especially one as obscure as Orthodoxy. I find that most scholarly articles will write about the Catholic and Protestant liturgies until the cows come home, and Orthodoxy is left by the wayside. It would be easy to blame this misfortune on the West’s historically monumental disinterest in the East, but for now, I will keep digging until I find all the materials I need to help contribute to the understanding of singing the Divine Liturgy.

Music in Intellect and the Body

As worshippers enter a worship space, they are immediately immersed in a common experience. The course of time has changed the way masses worship, and cultural and social influences have affected how various worship styles come into play. Because of this, we have evidence that the attitude towards music (in general and in worship practices) has changed over millennia. With music becoming more accessible and widely accepted by the masses, it has become a universal part of worship.

Music’s role in worship has been debated for centuries, and along with that, it was debated whether or not music was an art in which “good men” participated. In regards to the thinking of Plato and Aristotle, music as entertainment was for the base; in his dialogue Protagoras (and found in Music in the Western World), Plato states that those who were “too uneducated to entertain themselves” would hire girls to play the harp while they drank, neglecting to facilitate their mind and make a contribution to society. However, Plato does recognize the hymns that were standard to worshipping the gods. Such hymns were not to be misused, are to do so would incur a hefty penalty.

Aristotle’s view on music is slightly more realistic, saying that music could suffice well as an education piece and as “an intellectual pastime, as relaxation, and for relief after tension.” He also mentions that music is appropriate insofar as the harmonies are used for educational purposes and improving character. With the writings of these two prolific philosophers, the course is set, at least for the western world, that music is not to be treated lightly.

Over a thousand years later, a very different, yet equally intuitive mind connects music to humanity and worship in new ways. Hildegard von Bingen, as described in Bruce Holsinger’s essay, “The Flesh of the Voice: Embodiment and the Homoerotics of Devotion in the Music of Hildegard of Bingen” takes on the corporeal reaction to divinely inspired music. It is out of Hildegard’s musical compositions that the connection of body to music and the divine is enriched and even fostered. The text of her composition refers to the Holy Spirit entering the Virgin Mother’s body in a strongly sensual and physical experience, which easily relates to the sensual and physical reaction that occurs in other conversion experiences. Hildegard’s synthesis of music and the body opens a new world in theology; perhaps music is not so bad after all. Even if we are not “good men” in the eyes of Plato, Hildegard helps us understand (again, in the western, Christian context) that a physiological and spiritual response to music need not be so taboo.