Music and Religion, thy cup runneth over

Music and Religion has been overflowing with new knowledge and information along with new ways of looking at knowledge that we already had. Between the readings and the papers that I wrote over the course of the semester my ability to look at music through a religious lens grew in leaps and bounds. Part of this was contextual, where I know have a larger base of theological and musicological content from which to analyze a new piece, say a Bach cantata, that is put in front of me.

With the 500th anniversary of the reformation upon us, the work we did in contextualizing Bach’s theology will stick with me from this class. I’ve taken courses that discuss the reformation in my time at St. Olaf, but the Lutheran theology of Bach’s time, though very similar, focuses on new aspects of the religion. Our focus on the influences of the Pietists versus the Orthodox views on music will influence how I view the roles of music within the Lutheran church moving forward. The methods which we approached Bach’s works will also prove valuable in my role as an organist. Being able to read into Bach’s compositions in a meaningful manner (it’s not just a numbers game) will inform not only my future choices in performing Bach’s works, but also a deeper understanding of the theology behind the music itself in works like the St. John passion.

I will also hold dear to my heart all of the information that I learned in the first research that I did on central African hymnody and its westernization within American hymnals. I do not deny the value that world music has within a worship setting, but I have always been uneasy about the motivations that are often behind its use. Inclusivity, and awareness of a worldwide christian population have always been justifying elements to the argument, yet through my research I found that African hymnody (likely other world music as well) is much more complicated than one might assume. The religion was mostly disseminated globally by European missionaries and so global hymnody ends up being full of western influence. This poses an ethical dilemma for those who wish to represent inclusivity within a western church, because a lot of global hymnody really expresses the influence of western christian music upon another culture and religion. I will continue to carry this beyond this course in my life as a church musician, and I will approach global hymnody with the intent to pick hymns that truly represent the culture and concerns of the christians who wrote them, and to use them to authentically represent their creators.

If we had more time in this class I would have loved to spend more time focusing on the music and religious context of non-western religions, especially that of Asian religions. I think that by understanding a large swath of religious beliefs and music together, the connections between music and theology that we made in areas familiar to us could be either questioned further, or affirmed. The value of expanding our reach to diverse areas would, not only be plain interesting, but it could be groundbreaking in the understanding that we have about the relationship between music and religion.

BWV 70 “Luther’s on muh mind” – J.S. Bach

BWV 70 Wachet! betet! betet! Wachet! is a Bach cantata with binary characters. The title itself expresses this dualism with its two contrasting moods. Watch! (Wachet!) and pray (betet!) lend themselves to Bach’s own musical characterization with hurried flourishes while watch is sung, and long held chords during pray. The text is apocalyptic and sets the pains and sinners of an earthly world against the judgement and ultimate forgiveness for those who believe in Jesus, and Bach continues the musical dualism between setting texts describing apocalypse, and texts that describe Jesus redemption for those who have faith.
Bach emphasis on creating a separation between earthly suffering and imminent judgment echoes many of Luther’s own sentiments toward the separation of earthly and heavenly kingdoms, and the true imminence of the apocalypse. Luther himself believed the apocalypse to be so near to his life time that he worked to quickly translate and publish the bible book by book, in order to reach and save as many people as possible. This coupled with Bach’s exegesis on how we should react to worldly suffering makes this cantata an extremely Lutheran work.
In continuing my research I hope to corroborate Luther’s specific principles about apocalypse and the two kingdoms within Bach’s treatment of the text, and the emphasis he places on specific statements. I anticipate most of my sources to be primary source texts by Luther in order to form opinions about the musical setting of Bach, and I hope to only use secondary texts written about this cantata to gain a better understanding of currently thought and scholarship, and to look for possible counter arguments or differences in interpretation.

divinae Musices horto

You could say that the Butt has peaked my interest. In fact I will say it, because its funny, and the explosion of German Lutheran compositions during the baroque period is not something I initially considered to be theologically motivated. Coupled with the social interplay between many famous North and Central German baroque composers that I’ve found, I think that I have a very skewed conception of their compositional motivations.
This brings me to Johann Adam Reincken’s Hortus musicus, at the beginning of which he penned a Latin forward and extensive cover page describing the “sacred garden of music” that he is tries to create in his suite. He uses this garden as an allegory throughout the suite, and Ulf Grapenthin links the well constructed fugues within the sonatas of the work to monumental buildings crowned with “Soli Deo Gloria.” To me, this proclaims an intrinsic link between music (even secular/instrumental) and the divine. I hope to look more into Reincken’s Hortus musicus to reveal more musical “proof” of these compositional theologies, and compare them to the composers of the time like J.S. Bach, and Buxtehude, who were all comparing works and communicating.

In my initial research I have run into the monumental problem of the Germans. It seems that they speak German. Which I cannot read. It is apparent that finding English books and articles on my in-depth subject within the baroque period will take some digging, both on the musicology side, and the theological side. Luckily, I already have the Butt reading to get a start on the theological interpretation of Reincken’s instrumental works, and if nothing else I can try to justify my argument through the interpretation of instrumental works, which obviously aren’t in need of translation.

Christmas Fest: A Worshipful Performance

The Reformation was a time in which church practices were questioned, and theological turmoil developed radical new ways of thinking about the Christian religion and its relationship with worshippers. This conflict sparked theologians like Calvin, Zwingli, and Luther to create a wide breadth of theological writings. As a school affiliated with the Lutheran tradition we can use these writings to gauge our success in using the theological tools that the reformers created to shape out effects on the world both within campus and off campus. It should be noted that Luther would likely argue that no theology, even his own, should take precedence over the words of the Gospel. It is then with great care that we apply the sentiments of the reformation to faith and worship in our own time to the Christmas Festival at St. Olaf.


It is difficult to know with 100% certainty, but most performers and hopefully all conductors would agree that Christmas Fest is either spiritually or emotionally moving, and the intentions of directors and organizers is to share that experience with the audience. Luther’s main argument for music is that it enhances the text and theological ideas that it is intending to convey, and Fest certainly does this by focusing the message of its repertoire on the birth of Christ. It also enforces the ability for all to understand the text being sung through printed books that contain text and translations. Creating a meaningful spiritual experience for all involved though a mass display of St. Olaf’s talent and coordination is Christmas Fest’s purpose and it succeeds in upholding Luther’s views on music.


Problems only arise when discussing whether one should call Christmas Fest worship or performance. The most obvious allusion to the reformation would be the comparison of the admission price of Fest to the selling of indulgences. Certainly, St. Olaf is not peddling that one must attend Fest in order to be saved by Christ, but it does create a boundary between people and the words of the Gospel which is contrary to Luther’s hope that all can be given access. Calvin and Zwingli would certainly dislike the practice of Christmas Fest and its use of instruments and lack of congregational song which distort their views of song as a motivator for zealous prayer. It is subjective whether the musical selections for Christmas Fest are chosen more for their musical value and “delight of the ear” or for their theological value, but it should be considered when deciding whether Fest is either worship or performance.

African Hymnody and the Yoruba

African hymnody is a relatively new development in the musical world, and its distant relationship to western music means that it attracts relatively little scholarship. The scholarship that does exist is recent, and in the scope of the total scholarship primary sources make up a large percentage. I have been particularly impressed by the work of Bode Omojola an ethnomusicologist who spent several years researching Yoruba (a tribal cultural group) music in Nigeria, produced several field recordings, and published his work in 2012. He visited several churches of varying traditions, both describing and analyzing their musical practices.
Omojola’s work one example of recent scholarship, and it is exciting because of the detail and accuracy that modern ethnomusicology brings to research, and the possibilities that it allows for the topic of African hymnody. African Christian music has a heavy western influence and thus it is difficult to find an objective account of the actual practices within sources that are even 10-15 years old. Choosing a topic was also difficult, because the scholarship was not only limited, but there are many cultural groups reflected within the scope of African hymnody that is seen in western hymnals. I knew I wanted to look at a hymn in a modern American hymnal, and analyze it within its original cultural context so my topic was necessarily chosen by looking at the hymns available and comparing it to the cultural group with the best scholarship available.
My necessarily narrow topic proves to be exciting because of its small body of thorough and extensive research. Many of the articles and books I found on Yoruba music took several approaches to analyzing the cultural influences on Christian music within their communities, and they sought to explain African rationale to a western audience. The modernity of the topic also allows for access to recordings, and translations of texts to help convey the musical ideas and textures that explanation cannot fully encompass. The ability to hear the music has been able to inform my comparisons to our western conceptions of African hymnody in a way that is not filtered through a third party who is describing the music.

Music in Worship: a Sensual Argument

Plato, Aristotle, St. Augustine, St. Chrysostom, Ibn abi’l-Dunya, and countless other dogmatists all agree that music affects humans in drastic and sensual ways. Aristotle describes how music can have an “orgiastic effect” on the listener, which seems to be contrary to a common ascetic concept of devotion to the divine. Thus, it is remarkable that so much of religious worship centers around the use of music.

The Greek concept of dualism between body and spirit fuels most of the justifications which are made for allowing volatile and sensual music within worship. Augustine acknowledges in his Confessions that when sacred words are sung they can often “stir the mind with greater religious fervor . . .  and kindle an ardent flame of piety.” He continues to acknowledge that music can often indulge the listener and obscure the meaning of the words it is attempting to convey. It is the effect on the spirit through the body’s senses where music both holds potential power for worship, but also great danger. It is this risk that some are willing to embrace, and other strictly avoid, but no one denies the great power that music has over the listener.

Worship may feature music widely because some decided the risk of corruption was worth the political gain, as Richard Taruskin suggests in The Oxford History of Western Music. Others like the Islamic mystic “whirling dervishes” see only divine experience in purely sensual worship, and leap toward the risk it poses with arms outstretched. Whatever the motivation, worship music today owes its existence to someone who deemed the risk of corruption worthy of the gains that sensual worship could bring over purely spiritual worship.