Lutherans, Library Books, and Late Nights: Things I’ve Learned About and Loved in Music & Religion

As much as I’ll always cherish the memories of learning how to use scary-sounding voice distorters in the DiSCO, being part of an impromptu music major flash mob at the music library printer every morning that a paper was due, and of course getting our professor’s infant to smile at me eleven times in one eighty-minute class period, I think what I’ll appreciate most looking back on this semester (other than the baby smiling thing, because that really was a true highlight) is the research. That surprises me, because it wasn’t the aspect of class I was most looking forward to, never having tackled such a formidable volume of writing or self-directed research before, and although I love writing I’ve never found it as fulfilling or meaningful to write research papers as to engage in discussion with other people.

So, this discovery – that research can be exciting and meaningful and rewarding, even when I’m up way too late trying to compile the stacks and stacks of thoughts in my brain into one coherent argument – was very unexpected, and a great learning opportunity for me. I feel like I’ve learned a lot about how to read sources with a critical eye, make arguments using reliable support, and consider academic topics from many multi-layered perspectives. I will strive to carry that simultaneous critical mindset and well-rounded flexibility forward as I embark on all my journeys of music education, including student teaching next fall. As someone who wants to use a wide range of multicultural music respectfully in the classroom and work with a diverse array of students, I believe that duality will be vital in selecting really good repertoire from authentic sources and teaching it in sensitive, eye-opening ways.

Although I wish we could have spent more time on non-European music (for example, doing the extensive research for my second research project all about “Wade in the Water” was fascinating), I also get that “Music and Religion” really is a huge topic, and we can only cover so much in three and a half months. So, here’s to the illuminating, intriguing, and highly eclectic podcasts, readings, and class discussions of Music 345A: Music and Religion. I leave you with this thought-provoking quote from Martin Luther: “Peace if possible, truth at all costs.”

Hello from the outside…

The first paper was challenging for me in a lot of ways, many of which were (for me) unexpected. I discussed how aspects of feminism, religion, and music come together in the fascinating biography and music of Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel. a nineteenth century German composer. It was surprisingly hard to find plenty of reliable, relevant sources; and the further I delved into research, the stronger my thesis got…but the more it deviated from the focus of the class. But one thing that did make it easy and enjoyable for me was personal investment in my broader topic (specifically feminism and music). I didn’t think too much about this detail at the time, but I now realize that because I identify as a female, I already had some first-person grasp of the importance of feminism. I subconsciously felt like I had authority: the innate knowledge of which sources were “good” or “bad,” and which perspectives were “informed” or “biased.” Which is a pretty foolish assumption to begin research with as a musicologist, to be honest.

But now, I will be researching elements of the sacred and secular in African-American spirituals. And so there’s one detail about my sequel paper which makes it trickier for me as a musicologist: I am an undisputed outsider. No matter how much musical analysis or historical research I do, and no matter how open-minded or empathetic I am, I know that as a white person, I will never fully understand African-American spirituals from a social or cultural perspective. In an attempt to work with this issue as someone on the “outside,” I’ve been reading sources from black scholars wherever possible, and I found an extremely well-reputed bibliography with hundreds of recommended readings sorted into various aspects of spirituals research and performance (e.g. slave religion and culture; use of spirituals in art music; women’s theological perspectives; etc.).

One pleasant surprise for me was the number of (hopefully) reliable sources on this topic. I am fed up enough with institutionalized patriarchy and racism (including that of musical study) that I assumed there wouldn’t be very much to work with when I first ventured to the search bar – especially not by black authors. However, I’ve already found a few books and articles that I think will work well, and I think my thesis will be well on its way much quicker than last time. And if not…as another singing diva might say, “at least I can say that I’ve tried.”

Lutefisk Madness!

…was the endearing alternative title I concocted when discussing The St. Olaf Christmas Festival™ with my saxophone student’s mom last week. Personally, I think my title is an apt one for the sweater-rampant, tradition-steeped, yet also spiritually invigorating “machine” we have churned out for more than a century here on the Hill. Christmas Fest has become one of the most significant traditions on this campus (which is saying something, given St. Olaf’s overt though largely harmless cult vibe). It’s been described on blogs and news articles as a sort of “choral Mecca,” where music lovers in the upper Midwest to come out of hibernation for a few days to joyfully bask in the overwhelming warmth of Fest. There’s songs to warm the heart, Norwegian sweaters to warm the body, and of course the lye-scented glory of lutefisk to warm the soul. However, there’s some definitely un-Lutheran (or at least un-Reformation) aspects of Fest too. Before I open this can of worms too far, allow me to state that I have sung in this Yuletide institution every year. Every year, I have strongly mixed feelings about it, and yet I definitely look forward to Fest more this year than ever before.

All this to say: I’m not convinced that Luther would be sold on Christmas Fest. (To be honest, I certainly wasn’t sold my first year.) The fact that Fest has one foot solidly planted in the concert realm and one foot definitely rooted in worship presents conflicts with Reformation theology immediately. It’s difficult to imagine Luther wholeheartedly endorsing Fest because of the theological inconsistencies that tend to happen when we have a two-hour-and-then-some choir concert and sprinkle in a few congregational hymns and occasional scripture readings. Fest is, after all, mostly a performance (with five enormous choirs, a 93-member orchestra, and – the conductors might disagree with me on this – an abundance of rehearsal). It is a performance of stunning sacred music usually interpreted from a contemporary Christian perspective that enriches the faith and/or touches the hearts of many both in the audience and on stage each year – but ultimately, it is a Christmas concert. (This, to me, is most clear when we recognize that Fest is a money spinner – worship services don’t usually $30 to attend.)

Generally, when comparing Reformation theology and Christmas Fest, I see a pretty even mix of consistency and conflict between the two. For example, most of us have a good idea of how hard all the musicians involved work, spending numerous hours perfecting their pieces together. On the one hand, this sounds a lot like Reformation vocational ideals – the concept that people should use and refine their considerable talents throughout life to serve others. It’s also reminiscent of the ars perfecta which Luther was so fond of listening to (but considered inappropriate in worship settings). Another example of this dichotomy is the use of scripture and congregational singing. The sights and sounds of a vast audience and multiple choirs and instrumentalists making hymns together would certainly appeal to Luther in his day, but the undeniable fact that those hymns (and, in some ways, the Scripture readings) are overshadowed by the music would most likely not sit as well with him.

Ultimately, I feel that considering Reformation theology when planning or performing in Fest would be wise – to an extent. By no means do I think we should revamp Christmas Fest to be more Reformation-friendly purely for the sake of consistency with Lutheran theology. However, I think we can learn something from Reformation ideals to better bring those intentions to Christmas Fest: the importance of participation, the power of human connection to the divine/spiritual through music, and gratitude for the many gifts we have been given.

Patriarchy, Publications, and Perspectives: Or, Why My Thesis Completely Changed Two Days Before the Due Date

A transcription of thoughts before the first draft due date:

Two weeks left: Wow! So, I’ve picked an exhilarating topic, I can’t wait to rip the patriarchy a new one with this paper, and I have so much to talk about with this composer – Judaism, Christianity, gender roles…this is going to be so awesome. Now I just need to find academic writing that ties together feminism, religion, and music in 19th century Germany – no problem.

One week left: Okay, I’ve found some great feminist writing about her, and I’m having trouble getting scores to her music, but I know I can nail down theses better than Martin Luther.

Four days left: So…it turns out parts of many sources I had planned to use are biased and exaggerated or even made up. So…that’s a thing. Apparently I had been under the false impression that academically written biographies need to have entirely correct information. Thank you, scholars and fellow feminists. I don’t feel betrayed even a little bit.

Three days left: …I should have picked something easier to major in.

Two days left: OF COURSE! There’s not a huge wealth of information on this topic because of our society’s religiously and sexually biased history, and some of the new feminist writing is over-correcting the situation by publishing sometimes unreliable information, and now that I’ve explored her story and her compositions from different perspectives, I understand that Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel and her music deserve so much better. THAT’S what I need to write about. [Cue “I can see clearly now, the rain is gone…”]

Thus was born my first Music and Religion research paper – “Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel: A New Feminist Perspective.” As the transcription above indicates, it was both fascinating and frustrating to research this composer. Fanny Hensel, a Romantic era composer and pianist, wrote over 400 pieces that clearly demonstrate virtuosic performance skills, intelligent use of musical texture, and a thorough understanding of analysis and structure. Yet today, in spite of her impressive accomplishments and beautiful music, Fanny is mostly known as the sister of renowned composer Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy – not as an influential and significant musician in her own right.

The more I read, the more I found myself absorbed by Fanny’s unique story – and simultaneously foiled time and time again by either the sheer lack of material or the lack of objectively written, detailed information. For example, I was perfectly happy reading Francoise Tillard’s feminist biography Fanny Mendelssohn until I encountered an article called “The ‘Suppression’ of Fanny Mendelssohn: Rethinking Feminist Biography” by Marian Wilson Kimber. It did indeed force me to rethink feminist biography. Although I didn’t agree with everything the article had to offer, Kimber presented a completely different (and generally more accurate) perspective on Fanny’s life and music that completely reshaped my ideas for my writing. All in all, it was illuminating research because I saw how musicians and musicologists have treated female composers over the last few decades (sometimes insightfully, sometimes not) and how we might balance our modern perspectives with historically accurate contexts to best understand music history.

Music: Mediator Between the Spiritual and Sensual

Ludwig van Beethoven once wrote that “music is indeed the mediator between the spiritual and the sensual life.” This view of music as an intermediary for humans and the divine beautifully encapsulates why music is an integral part of religious events and sacred traditions all over the world.

Music is one of the most deeply and widely established ways for people to transcend their daily lives. Indeed, music (particularly sacred) and its captivating aesthetic and expressive qualities have been an essential means for religious people to find spiritual fulfillment. For many, singing or playing music is one of the most direct ways (with the exception of prayer) to find catharsis, piety, or simply closeness with their God or religion. Aristotle asserted that “music ought to be used not as conferring one benefit only but many; for example, for education and cathartic purposes, as an intellectual pastime, as relaxation, and for relief after tension.” Additionally, in a wide range of religious traditions (including Christianity, Islam, and Judaism), music serves as a way for worshippers to express or meditate on sacred texts deliberately and meaningfully. Or, as St. Augustine put it: “It is not the singing that moves me, but the meaning of the words.”

However, it’s also important for us to step back and understand that although there is an apparent universality of sacred music, “music” does not have the same definition in all cultures or religions (or even denominations). For example, many – though not all – Westerners today consider music to be something innately human and linked inextricably with self-expression. Yet for many others both historically and from non-Western cultures (including the Suyá of the Amazon, who consider birdsong a form of music), music comes partly or entirely from external sources – usually nature or God. These and many other drastically differing theological perspectives, offered by numerous religious leaders and scholars for centuries, will help us gain an informed and broadened sense of music and religion’s multifaceted relationship throughout history.