The question that continued to present itself to me in this course was “do you buy it?”. I’m still working out my feelings in regards to certain kinds of musicology, but this semester was really useful for examining arguments about symbolism in musical texts. It’s helped me to clarify what I am interested in both as a casual listener and a student of musicology. The course has allowed me to compare methods of interpretation in music and scripture. I’ve thought a lot about the ways in which communities use texts to define themselves, whether it’s Christians and the Bible, or musicologists and the cannon of Western art music and musicological texts. I’ve mused a bit about thinking of musicology as a religion in its own right. It possesses holy texts, normative prescriptions for behavior (see: “authentic performance practice” pre-Taruskin), and even metaphysical systems! Aesthetics is the theology of musicology, and it often delves into just as much metaphysical speculation. The sort of commentary that takes place on musical texts is almost Talmudic in nature. Decades and sometimes century of commentary on various musical texts begins to form objects that are awe-worthy in their own right.

I suppose all of this is to say that I’ve realized that it doesn’t matter if I “buy it”. It matters if other people do. It matters what making the argument means in the first place, regardless of how well the argument holds up to scrutiny. I’ve realized that, like in my study of religion, my study in music is not a neat and tidy quest for truth. Rather, it’s an exercise in empathy and critical thinking. What I’ve realized I’m most interested in is why and how people listen to music, and what I can learn from that. The reading that’s stuck with me the most has been the Sorce Keller reading from the beginning of the semester. Remembering that I necessarily misinterpret just about everything is important for my ability to take certain kinds of arguments seriously. I have become more comfortable knowing that there is no “absolute truth”, only useful misunderstandings. I’m just thankful those misunderstandings are interesting.

Researching the Absolute

I’m working on expanding my first paper that I wrote about absolute music. I argued initially that absolute music is no more or less valid an idea than any religious cosmology of music. I am sticking with that argument, but have been delighted to discover the strange affinity between religious thought and atheistic Idealism like Schopenhauer’s. Both the theologians I’m researching (particularly Augustine) and the advocates of absolute music (Schopenhauer, E.T.A. Hoffman, Hanslick) were all extremely influenced by Pythagorean thought.

I’ve found some really interesting books further deepening my interest in aesthetics, particularly a book called Theology as Performance by a Professor Emeritus Philip Stoltzfus, right here at St. Olaf. I’ve also found that some musicologists have a very reductive approach to theology, like David Whitwell in his “Aesthetics of Music in the Middle Ages”. He basically asserts that Thomas Aquinas contributed nothing to Philosophy but a confusion of Aristotle and inane ramblings about angels. Certainly the usefulness of Aquinas is up for debate, but Whitwell’s treatment of him hearkens back to Bertrand Russel’s assertion that medieval philosophy isn’t worth considering. Whitwell’s philosophical understanding is rather dated, which is a common problem I am finding in musicology.

That said, I am very much enjoying my research. I feel very good about my argument. Christian theology provides an interesting point of comparison for absolute music, and its discussion can tease out aesthetic implications that are often forgotten or left unconsidered.


Messiaen, Bach, and Wordless Theology

My initial research goal has been to find affinities between Messiaen and Bach in their instrumental music. Both advance theological messages in purely instrumental music, but I’m finding it more difficult to connect the two than I’d like. In part, because I don’t have the sort of Bach scholarship I’m looking for (detailed theological analysis of his instrumental works. I know there’s theological symbolism in a lot of it, I just need some scholarly sources to lean on). I intend to continue looking, but if I don’t find anything soon I may scale back and just make an argument about Messiaen’s theology.

Messiaen’s compositional techniques are absolutely fascinating. I plan to draw on Messiaen’s Interpretations of Holiness and Trinity by Siglind Bruhn. She explains that in Méditations sur le Mystère de la Sainte Trinité Messiaen develops a system for expressing written language musically. He assigns letters to pitches and grammatical cases to certain melodic figures, and uses this system to quote Thomas Aquinas in several of the Méditations. God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit all have their own musical figures as well. Messiaen manipulates these figures to advance theological ideas about the trinity. Bruhn refers to the Méditations as a “palindrome”, but I think it might be more appropriate to say they have a chiastic structure. That is to say, it follows a sort of ABCDED1C1B1A1 structure. The 1st meditation and the last are similar in form, structure and message, as for the 2nd and 8th, 3rd and 7th, and 4th and 6th, with the middle Meditation being the longest and most elaborate. Interestingly, chiastic structures are incredibly common in Biblical writings. They are rhetorically powerful. Messiaen’s use of this structure serves to more strongly link his Méditations to the written/spoken word.

I’ve also continued to find scholars who really irk me. For instance, Wilfrid Mellers writes a chapter in the Messiaen Companion titled “Mysticism and Theology”. He makes some rather odd suggestions about Messiaen’s work.  For instance, he suggests that the numerous add 6 chords in the last movement of Quatour pour la fin du temps “may hint at how eroticism may, at several levels, be a gateway to paradise!” because of their resemblance to “cocktail jazz”. What? In his discussion of the Turangalila-symphonie he refers to influences of the “primitivism of jazz”. Perhaps I’m too sensitive to the word “primitivism”, but this strikes me as revealing an unwillingness to recognize all of Messiaen’s non-western influences as legitimate. Mellers goes on to accuse Messiaen of pantheism which is a lazy mischaracterization. “Panentheism is likely the term he’s looking for. “Pantheism” is the rough category of beliefs that God and the universe are the same. “Panentheism” merely emphasizes God’s presence in the world, while maintaining the possibility of immaterial aspects of God and non-divine aspects of nature. Messiaen clearly makes these distinctions.

I am still delineating an argument from the material I’ve picked up so far. I’m becoming tempted to argue that Messiaen’s language communicable (his way of transcribing words musically) is a surprisingly protestant idea, though this feels obvious.

My plan for the moment is to pick up more Bach scholarship and see if I can draw some parallels between the Trinitarian theology of the two composers. If at all possible, I’d like to keep my argument centered on the music itself, so I can actually provide examples from the score.

Holy Music

Does anyone go to the St. Olaf Christmas Festival to hear the gospel read? For some reason, I doubt it. If you hear people speaking about Fest in referential, religious tones, it will probably have little explicit connection to the birth of Christ. You’re more likely to hear the audience praising the St. Olaf Choir than praising God. Martin Luther said “music is second only to theology”. Yet for at least the duration of Christmas Festival, music is second to none.

The first order of business in assessing Christmas Festival by the standards of the reformation is figuring out what precisely Christmas Festival is. Is it a concert? If so, then why the gospel readings? Is it a religious service? Then why are people paying for tickets? In truth, it is neither here nor there. For the purposes of this short blog I will consider Fest as a religious service.

Considered as worship, Fest is in line with Lutheran musical standards. It uses music to convey theological messages and to enhance spiritual experiences. It draws heavily on vernacular music. This use of vernacular music is where Fest most obviously goes into muddy waters. We must ask whose vernacular music Fest uses. There are often performances of spirituals or songs in African or Latin styles. All from the mouths of  overwhelmingly white choirs. For Luther, the point of the text and music being in the vernacular is to make them more accessible to the laypeople. Put familiar language to a familiar tune, and suddenly theological messages are much more accessible than Latin texts set with complex counterpoint. Why then, the spirituals? Why the African choral pieces? Why the Chinese Christmas carols?

These cultural excursions reveal that, at least in part, the music is not about accessibility. It is not about sharing valuable theological messages. It is about music, for the sake of music. One might argue that the plurality of styles and cultures present at Christmas Festival do suggest a theological message. A message of happy, cooperative, global Christianity. This is naive. That message may be there, but it is sullied by willful ignorance of history. Watching nearly all white Ole Choir performs spirituals about black oppression is cringe-worthy. Though perhaps this is a Lutheran thing to do. It bears a passing resemblance to Christian triumphalism and supersessionism.

Though Martin Luther would be baffled by contemporary identity politics, I suspect he’d be horrified by how easily theology is relegated to the sidelines at Christmas Festival. For many of the attendees, music is elevated above all else. The music itself becomes the object of worship. Beautiful Savior is worshiped as opposed to the beautiful savior Himself.

The Universal and the Absolute

My essay in its current form is a critique of the idea of “absolute music”. I had no idea just how complicated the whole discussion of absolute music was until I started writing for my paper. I started my research on the subject with the entry in New Grove, and was relieved to find out that the article generally matched my conception of absolute music. However, problems started to emerge when I searched for journal articles. One of the first I found was “Defining the Term ‘Absolute Music’ Historically” by Sanna Pederson. She is intensely critical of the bulk of the academic conversation about absolute music. She lambastes the article in New Grove, referring to it as “intensely misleading”.

Naturally this discovery was terrifying for me, as I had based quite a lot of my paper off of the article in New Grove and the sources it led me to. I was concerned for a bit that I may have to throw the whole paper out. Thankfully a conversation with my professor cleared up a lot of the concerns I was having. Sanna Pederson is certainly correct about much of what she writes in her essay, but perhaps goes to far with her criticisms like the one about the New Grove entry. The entire episode of panic was still useful, however. I realized that I needed to be very clear about what definition of absolute music I was working with, and from where I was getting it.

I also rediscovered how great a breadth exists in musicological scholarship. In researching absolute music I found essays like Sanna Pederson’s which were rigorously historically grounded, straightforwardly written, and polemical. I was also rather surprised to find scholarship like Daniel Chua’s book Absolute Music and the Construction of Meaning. The book is more philosophical than historical, and contains more poetry than polemics.  Discovering this breadth is useful, it’s a reminder that I have more leeway than I think I do in the style of my writing, and in the sorts of arguments I make.

All in all, research is going well, but I foresee absolute music to continue to be a thorny topic to write about.

The Universal Power of Music

On a purely practical level, music is one of religion’s most potent tools. No spiritual convictions are required to see that music touches something deep within us. Take, for example, its mnemonic properties. From “Jesus Loves You” to “Amazing Grace”, music can give theological ideas a special durability and accessibility. This power can be seen outside of religion as well, with things like the alphabet song. Just as Plato and Aristotle noted, music is quite educationally useful. Music can educate spiritually as well as it can practically.

Music can reach people in ways that other forms of expression can’t. One of the most powerful examples of this is its effect on those suffering from dementia or Alzheimer’s. Patients who have lost all communicative faculties, even those who are essentially catatonic, often still have intense responses to music. Patients who never speak will sometimes still sing along with familiar music. Music’s therapeutic properties extend far beyond dementia and its ilk. Music heals the broken heart and the troubled mind. Music’s healing property is an empirical fact. There is a great deal of literature on the efficacy of music therapy.

Religion heals as well. People often find great solace in faith. It provides answers to moral, emotional, and existential questions. Studies of well-being typically show religious people to  be generally happier than the non-religious. Because of their healing roles, it’s natural that music and religion would have an affinity for each-other.

If we move beyond secular, naturalistic conceptions of the world, another reason emerges. Music is numinous. To borrow language from Rudolf Otto, music can put us in touch with something “wholly other”. It inspires great and terrible feelings within us. It connects us to the Divine. The goal of many religions it to become closer to the Divine. Whether it is the God of Christianity, or Nirvana in Buddhism, religion so often involves seeking something “other”, something divine. Music is one such connection, and as a result is indispensable to worship.