Blog Post #5

The research I did for the third paper was far easier than for the first two. It was mentioned in class that you will give students in the future a topic and thesis for the first podcast and then by their last podcast they will be able to choose both. I think this is a very good way to guide us in this process. I was/still am mostly lost when it comes to researching and coming up with a thesis out of nothing. I appreciate that we are given the liberty to choose our own topic on something that is interesting to us, and I think I would have gotten off to a better start with more structure at the beginning.

I struggle when I want to use a source that is specific to my topic, but don’t have enough. Learning to use general sources about Bach’s cantatas or even just Bach’s vocal music is something that I am not very good at. In the same way, learning to incorporate the readings we had for class into a paper that isn’t really related is something that I still need practice with. I also know that I could start my research sooner and that is another issue.

I am still working on the process of actually writing as well. I finally tried to outline a paper for my third paper and I will try to do that from now on. I know that I will be able to write more clearly when I can organize my thoughts from the beginning, so I think fleshing out a paper’s components before starting to work out how to say it will work to my advantage. I am appreciative of all the help that I have gotten this semester with writing and with feedback in general. Understanding this process will help me to continue my work on writing and grow toward being a more clear, and concise writer.


One of the greatest things that I am taking away from this course is my experience with research. After most of the semester, I finally realized how essential it is to actually go to the library and open a book. It is so tempting and easy to search and search databases and I think especially millennials tend to think that there is no way that the library would have a book on their research topic. It seems like the chances of finding something online are a lot higher just because of the amount of databases we have access to, but the reality is that the shear amount of sources online does not outweigh the amount of quality sources in the library. I think that the help I received in this class was a good extension of the practice we had in the first music history courses.

I was also impressed with the conversations that were had throughout the course. There was a lot of civil discussion in a class that is very personal for some people. The discussion after the election was a great model for how to have an intellectual conversation while validating people’s beliefs and not taking any hard feelings away from that. I liked how we were invited to set conversational guidelines at the beginning of the course which gave us some ownership to the material we learned and helped to create a safe and dynamic conversation space. Though the space was safe, I didn’t feel like I had much to say in class discussion. A lot of the readings were dense and I honestly skimmed most of them. It was hard for me to see how they all related especially when trying to fit them into a small topic for a research paper.

I appreciate the small class discussions and the work we did which focused on process. I will take away a new understanding of the music I sing and I will always question if the designations sacred and secular are necessary.

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.

Music and Religion: Learning a New Language

“What language are we using in our discussions?” was the question raised in the very first class session of Music and Religion. Now that it comes to the last day of class, my semester long experience with this course has been indeed a learning process of a new language that connects me with a subject that I had never explored before.

Having little religious background, except for two semesters of required religion courses that I had very limited memory of, I have always been resistant to talk about religion because I don’t consider myself a qualified and appropriate member to enter such conversation. This class, however, fairly pushed me to engage in such public discussions by driving me to reconsider my position and approach in verbal and written communications specifically about music and religion. How to initiate a safe environment of discussion? What are the proper tactics to deliver an argument? How to construct a common ground for efficient dialogues when the audience is of different religious background and/or having different religious principles?

One thing that I found effective dealing with these challenging issues was to build the religious aspect of the conversation upon the musical language that becomes the foundation of our communication. Always relating theological statements back to their musical counterparts – the motives, the melodic contour, the harmonic progression, the rhythmic quality, the instrumentation, the voicing, the text setting, etc. – helps me to overcome the potential gaps that I have with the audience and encourage me to involve in rational, objective and academic dialogues about the subject.

I should admit that this class was not the most pleasing and self-assuring class that I have taken, for I had plenty of discouraged and depressed moments through the semester. However, after coping with all kinds of barriers to find myself a proper seat in the discussion about music and religion, I can say I have attained the language that enables me to no longer absent myself from a significant field of musicology.

How can music be real if our ears aren’t real?

As we bid farewell to the last few fleeting days of not-finals, I can think of only one reflection that accurately describes what I’ve gotten from this course. Although I did manage to learn quite a bit about Luther, the Reformation, and music (& religion) in general, my most valuable takeaway was that of renewed respect for the complete subjectivity and ambiguity of music.

Like, what can we really know, you know? It might sound like a cop-out, but it seems that, as a musicologist, it’s a true struggle for concrete knowledge about music other than times and dates and other indisputable (sometimes) facts. Our journey through this class has shown me the difficulties of conducting thorough research into the more meaningful aspects of music. There is so much scholarship on the topic of music and religion that it’s challenging to make original, non-obvious claims.

I appreciated the opportunity we were given for a wide range of research topics, but I think that the course could have benefited from a narrower focus overall. The range of material at some points felt overwhelming, and I feel that the breadth of the scope somewhat prevented me from gaining a deep understanding of anything we talked about. On the other hand, there is still a lot about the relationship between music and religion that we didn’t cover (obviously). What I mean by that is that as westerners, we really have such an inadequate understanding of the music of other parts of the world. I get it, that’s what World Music is for, but if we’re going to focus on the Reformation, then let’s focus in further.

The podcast projects are my favorite part of the class. I really enjoyed being able to focus on topics that interest me, and the prospect of releasing these snippets of knowledge to the world brings a more concrete sense of relevance to the abstractness of the study of music. To me, listening to a finished podcast is much more satisfying than reading a finished paper. It’s more of a work of art than an essay is. It’s also a good way to include modern technology into the course.

I’d say the class was a success. Despite my critiques of it, I found it very fulfilling, and I think that it would be a good class to keep on the books.

Final Reflection

The readings from the beginning of the semester are the ones that have really stuck in my memory. I think the Sorce Keller reading is probably the one that will apply most broadly to how I think about music and music history in the future. Thinking of misinterpretation as a certainty can give us a lot of freedom to draw out meanings of our own from music. This was an idea that was very present in my mind when we read the Hildegard articles, which were personal favorites of mine. I also really appreciated readings on music in religions outside of Christainity- I thought the article on Islam was extremely relevant for us, and the article on Suya music gave me welcome exposure to a culture I knew absolutely nothing about.

The readings on Luther and Bach tend to blend together a bit more in my mind, but I think the guest lectures really became helpful additions to the course here. I remember that Professor Bateza’s lecture on Luther’s life and theology was particularly helpful for me- it was the first time I’d heard an explanation of the Doctrine of Justification that I really connected with. While I’m thankful for the deeper insights to Luther and Bach that I’ve gained through the course, I do think that our focus on them meant that we had to sacrifice talking about some other intersections between music and religion that could have been really interesting. Like many other students, I would welcome any more class content about theological traditions relating to music in religions outside of Christianity. I think it also would have been interesting to study some Western sacred music composed after Bach- as the podcast topics revealed, there are so many pieces that can add something new to the conversation about music and religion.

I appreciated that the class was very research-focused. The process is difficult and time-consuming, but it can be a very rewarding, and I like that research gives you an understanding of a topic that is much more detailed than what you can achieve with a single class discussion.

I’m too exhausted to come up with a title

This class was really, really hard. I expected this, though. I expected to work hard, learn a lot, and be challenged. This fulfilled my expectations. However, there were many ways where the course surprised me. First of all, I expected (as I think many did) that there would be more on non-western music. I think what we covered in a semester was appropriate, but that maybe the name “Music and Religion” wasn’t quite accurate. I felt that the structure and material of the course was very scattered at the beginning (in a good way) but then was so focused that I got a little lost towards the end. I also found most of the readings really hard to get through and usually did not understand more than about 25% of them (at least until getting to class). However, class discussions based on these readings were always fascinating for me, despite how useless I tend to feel in discussion-based classes. I usually would finally understand the article or chapter I had attempted to read and felt pushed to consider such a wide range of perspectives that I never would have thought of. I almost always left class saying “That was such an interesting class!!!!!” So, I think the most positive memory from Music and Religion will definitely be the in-class discussions.

Research. This was something I really struggled with this semester. I found it difficult to do largely self-guided (or one-on-one) research that was not inherently related to the class topics. I definitely appreciated the possibility for us to research whatever we were interested in, but I think it would have been less of a chore (and I think there is still room for it to be equally rewarding) if there was a more narrow focus/place to start. Also, while I don’t feel like the workload was unreasonable, I think I would have had more successful podcasts/finished products if they had been more spaced out. The first one had SO much time, and the last two seemed to be completed within a much smaller time frame. I just felt more stressed and less rewarded the further we got in the course.

All that being said, this has been one of the most exciting and challenging courses I’ve taken at St. Olaf. I think there are a lot of ways the course could be improved for the future, but I think it is absolutely one to keep around. (If we all make it through this week alive.)

Final Reflection: I guess I like Bach, and my ancestors were kinda cool.

Well, we have reached the end of a long and sometimes strenuous semester. Altogether, I think that this course was one of the best courses I’ve taken if I consider the academic progress I have made as a researcher and a writer. I also discovered a new appreciation for Bach; before, I wasn’t into his music as much. But now, I actually have found that I like Bach, especially his Passions, and that I will not cringe anymore when I hear his name. His music was pretty to me before, but now I know that there’s far more to it than meets the eye. Also, from investigating the music of the Anabaptists, I was able to learn more about my family’s ancestors, and that also proved to be a rewarding experience.

This class involved a lot of things I knew how to do. I knew how to read articles, how to come to class with a question or two (though if I actually asked them was a different story), and how to cite things in Chicago style.

However, I didn’t know how to critically engage in discussion and conversation with people about delicate topics. This I learned from our agreement to regard everyone in discussions with respect and understanding. Our discussions made me think, frustrated me at times, and altogether helped me to become a better discussant and become a better listener.

I also had no idea how to even begin to make a podcast. Through learning and submitting assignments in this medium, my technologically challenged self was able to learn a new skill that I hopefully can use with my students when I become a professor (hopefully – a lot of luck will be involved). I’m glad that I was able to learn this new skill and look at my work not only in a classroom perspective but in a real-world perspective as well.

And now that we’ve talked about the skills I’ve learned, I can talk about Bach! I honestly just didn’t really care for him before. I respected him as a musical genius, but his music just wasn’t my cup of tea. But, we were able to listen to a lot of his music, especially music with more dissonance, and I found myself enjoying that music the most, actually. His music just seemed too perfect to me before, but now I see that he also produced music that showed his beliefs and feelings. The Magnificat and the Passions also really pleased me and helped me to discover that Bach isn’t so bad. He’s actually pretty cool. I was hoping to discover a new appreciation for him; that was one of my goals for the semester, so I’m glad I could do that.

Finally, researching the music of the Anabaptists really was a highlight for me this semester. I opted to write the long research paper instead of creating a third podcast because I found the topic so interesting and had so much more to talk about! My family is Baptist, and since they descended from the Anabaptists, it was nice to learn more about the religion 500 years ago that shaped my own religion today. It helped me better understand why my church works the way it does, and it helped me to appreciate the music of my ancestors more. I’m really grateful that I was able to research them and learn more about them. I was especially excited to learn about their respect towards women and their lack of notated music – things I never would have thought to think about! This class helped me critically engage with my family’s religious history.

Altogether, it was a really organized, helpful class that challenged me but taught me much more than I anticipated.

I am just smol child trying to research

I had reasonable suspicion this class would emphasize Bach and Luther’s musical ideology. Once completed, I will have made three podcasts that all relate to Bach’s own music either directly or indirectly.

Within the organ community, we tend to worship Johann Sebastian Bach as some theologians worship Martin Luther. Of course, this is only because we’re fascinated by by his skills as a composer and church musician. In this course, I was excited to be able to take time in a course to study Bach’s work in a more intensive context. In my own personal study for my papers, I was challenged by the research process.The podcast medium has been frustrating when things have gone wrong, but rewarding and exciting when things have gone right. The biggest challenge this week will be refining my third paper topic since I’ve been talking about Bach related works this entire semester.

I enjoyed the in-class discussions we had, especially the one concerning the election. I wasn’t expecting this course to end up feeling like an open forum, and that was really fun to observe and be a part of.

I think it would have been fascinating to spend a few more days focusing on other religions’ relationships with music. I understand that this class looked forward to the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, but once we got into a rhythm, it seemed to mature into a class where we mainly focused on music we already felt comfortable with. Of course, this is not to detract from the meaningful topics we did cover. There’s only so much one could fit in a semester.

All in all, I really appreciated the open research possibilities this class gave. This class has been incredibly challenging, and being able to choose my own topics that interested me made the challenge that much more meaningful. I’m a 19 year old organ performance major, so I’ll be there first to say that I’m not a profound musicologist; however, this class gave me practice time to creatively dive into the research process and explore the topics that I care about.

Reflections on a Semester

This course has been quite the experience for me this semester. Going into the class I did not have a lot of expectations about what it would be like, but I certainly was not anticipating being as overcome as I was by the sheer vastness of the subject. This class has been the first time that I’ve felt completely overwhelmed by a subject matter and felt completely lost within it. I had never really considered just how intertwined religion and music truly are. The history of religion is so integral to the history, development, and meaning of music in profound ways that had never overtly occurred to me and that is probably one of the biggest takeaways I have from this course, on a broad level.

I will always appreciate having started the class with the Marci Sorce Keller reading about how we understand and examine music. It put into words and a coherent argument something that had been on my mind on the issue of musicology for a long time now, and I felt that it was a very important way to start off this course, because it was even more applicable here, where we looked more closely at musical works and tried to place our understanding of them in more specific and detailed contexts.

I think this course has taught me most how to narrow my focus of study above all. On a larger scale, the broad scope of this course has shown me how important it is to have a clear direction with my studies in order to have a more focused outcome in what I have learned. On a more micro level, my work in my projects has shown me how to keep my scope narrow and concise, because sometimes you can only say so much about a certain subject in the context of certain assignments. This will be an invaluable lesson for me moving forward, as I have always had difficulty reigning myself in, and the podcast projects have greatly aided me in getting better at this.


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.


As I’m looking back on this course, what stands out to me most is not really the general course itself; I don’t believe I am any more of an authority on music and religion than I was at the beginning of the class. I do think I am a more well-rounded music history student after being exposed to so many different, interdisciplinary topics in the class, and I know that I am a better researcher.

I was going to say that some of my favorite readings and discussions weren’t about my core interests as a liberal arts student, but that’s actually not true. I loved the reading about Suya songs and I enjoyed our discussion about how to properly study music from “other” cultures without making them The Other. At first glance, this article could be unrelated to my interests but the deeper conversation had a lot to do with struggles I have in any field of study.  I found Dr. Rodland’s lecture-recital about Bach, and especially the information about numerology, to be fascinating, but while I don’t really know anything about organ music, Bach is a major musical interest of mine. And of course, I really appreciated that we got to read about Hildegard (I was especially a fan of Holsinger’s work, although apparently that’s an unpopular opinion). I was also really interested in the discussion of how anti-Semitism can manifest itself in music. Unfortunately for me, Bach had been one of the very few composers/historical figures that I had managed to keep unproblematic before this class–I have a Bach tattoo and my senior recital is Bach themed. But problematizing and complicating things isn’t actually negative; it just means that we’ve actually devoted the time and thought to really considering what is going on in history, in music, in religion, and in the composer’s mind.

The biggest challenge for me in this course was class discussion. I actually did carefully read (or at least attempt to find something comprehensible) for class almost every single day. This issue is admittedly a personal problem in discussion classes, but it’s not always so difficult. I felt that even after reading the articles and thinking through discussion questions ahead of time, nothing I could come up with was really worth adding to the discussion. Often, my peers’ comments just went way over my head. I’m not sure if this is because of rhetoric that was used or my lack of background knowledge about the Bible or some other inadequacy, but try as I might, I really only came up with worthwhile contributions when we were discussing things that I felt like a resident expert on (read: gender–and sometimes not even that). I’m not one to talk just to hear my own voice. Maybe that means I don’t belong in this particular academic setting, but at least I found the experience of listening to others valuable. I’m not sure that there’s an easy solution to this, and I’m also not meaning to make an excuse for myself. But I do believe that I did the appropriate work outside of class and I hope I didn’t ever come off as indifferent.

Finally, if I could take a similar course again, I would love to learn more about non-Christian religions, especially religions that are being practiced today. It could be difficult to find scholarship on recent musical religious topics, but I would have enjoyed hearing more contemporary views, rules, regulations, and purposes about/for religious music.

Final Course Reflection: I’m not a musicologist but it might be useful

Throughout this class I have not so much learned a lot as I have had the chance to explore topics of my choice and grown in how I listen to and participate in conversations about religion and how it relates to music. I grew the most from our class discussions, and the points that we teased out from the readings and identified as the most important to use as basis or a spark for further ideas. Our discussions allowed me to see into the perspective of others, especially those that don’t share my beliefs, religious or otherwise. It was also helpful to have such a group to discuss the results of the election with and connect what we had been learning to current events.

I think that what we learned and discussed in this class can be applied to how I think about my future profession as a musician and how the music that I may be singing fits within the theological and historical context of Christianity. Such insights will help me be more in touch with my own personal belief and whatever belief is baked into whatever that music might be. Otherwise, I don’t really know how what I learned can be useful, as I do not plan to become a musicologist (perhaps in grad school if I have to take more courses in history).

I understand that this class occurred partly because of the Reformation, but I wish that we had spent some more time on non-Western music (beyond the course introduction), as well as on contemporary music (which we only mentioned in discussion and did not read about explicitly in readings). I also found myself becoming a bit bored doing only Bach for so long towards the end of the semester.

Overall, this course had great opportunities for applying what we discussed to our own areas of interest, and I feel like I will walk away from this with improved ability to examine these topics effectively.

Liberal Arts: Learning How to Question My Perspective

I remember the excitement I felt when I registered for this class. The topic was familiar to me, since we discussed it at length in our regular music history class, and the intersection of music and religion is a prevalent topic at St. Olaf in general. However, before I encourage anyone to take this course, I would have to stress that it is only as rewarding as the amount of work the student is willing to put into it. This semester has been difficult. The readings are long and can be dense and dry, and the papers and podcasts require time and care.

This course challenged me, in both the great amount of work we all put in to succeed, and in the differences of perspectives from the authors we read and from our peers. The Sorce Keller article, with which we began the class, set a precedent for the class, as it asked me to question my own tastes, and why I consider some genres of music good or bad. I especially loved the Holsinger reading on Hildegard for a few reasons, the first being that Hildegard’s music is stunning, the second being that someone could potentially make the argument that a Catholic nun in the twelfth century was a proto-feminist. Although the argument is not foolproof, I still can assert that Hildegard was a bad-ass woman for her time.

The podcasts, though difficult and time consuming, are some of the more rewarding papers I have written. Because I was free to choose any subject relating to the course, I was able to choose topics in which I was interested. I found some great books while researching that I would like to add to my own personal collection. Why Catholics Can’t Sing by Thomas Day would be a great Christmas present for my mother.

Like I stated in the first paragraph, this class forced me to question my own perspectives, which is a lesson that I will use in many different aspects of my life, especially as a teacher. I wish that we had more time to focus on more non-Western traditions, and more modern music. The intersection between music and religion spans much more than what could be covered in one semester.

Music and Religion: What I learned and What I’ll take away

This was a very good class for me to take. It forced me to look at religion from a very different perspective than what I’m accustomed to doing. I was seeking more of an experience where I could learn more about how religion and music intersected and how each fed off the other. I certainly got that from this class in more ways than one. Through the process of reading the class readings and podcast topics thinking of how to incorporate these two topics together, I was forced again to see how complex this intersection is.

Like I said in my first paper, as an evangelical Christian, I wish that life was much more simple and black and white. I wish that religion wasn’t so complicated and that music wasn’t so complicated too. Ten people (even evangelicals) can look at the Bible and come up with completely different interpretations of the same text. There’s too much subjective opinion, and that is one thing that will always frustrate me about life in academia. You can never find an objective truth, and you’ll spend your whole life writing your educated opinion. I want something more practical for my life.

But that being said, the process of research and writing has also been very invigorating. Through my work in this class, I’ve been forced to face some challenges to my pre-conceived notions and have needed to defend my views logically and succinctly. Through thinking through my faith, it has made it stronger. This process of thinking and questioning used to terrify me, but now I realize that it’s OK to read other views and consider them (this has been a process my whole college career). Through thinking about music’s connection to faith, I’ve come to love music even more as I start to understand that God created all music to glorify Himself.

I wish we had dug more into practical theology and how music and religion helps us live our lives, but I know this isn’t Bible college. I’m very happy though I went to a college of the Church where I could ask these questions, and this class has just made me want to learn more about music and my faith. As a future seminary student who intends to keep on teaching music, I want to know how my two loves can be combined to live out my fullest vocation. This class got me started for sure, and I’m very grateful it was an option for upper level history (nothing else would have been nearly as interesting and fulfilling as this course).

Reflections on a Challenging Semester

Oh boy. What to think about this semester.

I’ll be the first to admit that this class was not my number one priority: I was planning a senior recital, juggling a few jobs, and switching majors (as a SENIOR yikes). I was absolutely ecstatic for this course coming into it, however, as I am (now) a Church Music major and want to pursue a career in sacred music. I loved learning about the earliest readings we did – Suya, Hildegard, Music and Religion in Islam, etc. As we continued, however, things started feeling very similar. While I do appreciate the focus on the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, I wish it was a bit more spread out throughout the semester. As many others have mentioned, it also would have been great to focus on non-Lutheran or even non-Christian religions. It’s tricky though, with a topic name like Music and Religion, to narrow it down to something that will fit the time allotted.

Which brings me to what I’ve learned. I’ve learned that research is incredibly hard and I really don’t think I’m very good at it. Starting too broad and narrowing it down was very challenging, so I often started too narrow and then couldn’t expand enough to find what I needed. What’s more, I quickly turned topics that I was interested in and ruined them for myself because I associated them with stress. I actually ruined Beautiful Savior for myself this year at Christmas Fest. I doubt this struggle with research was due to the class or the research itself; it’s been a pretty tough semester. But it did help me realize what little exposure I’ve had to research at St. Olaf and helped me improve (a little? I think?).

I’ve read a few others say that they were affirmed in their Lutheranism during this class. I was affirmed in my Catholicism. It was very helpful to learn about what I’m not to further justify what I am. I will definitely take that mindset into my future life. I also greatly appreciated the discussions we had about healthy discourse and the election. Those were some of the greatest conversations I’ve had while at St. Olaf, and it was so amazing to come to a common ground of respect for one another. One thing I would recommend going forward is to encourage more conversations that don’t specifically surround a piece of music or one composer – some highlights were: appropriateness in worship, sacred vs secular intent in a worship service, thinking about pop music as sacred, and the two I mentioned earlier. This way, there’s room to talk about a specific piece if wanted, but everyone feels just a little bit more safe to participate. I also think one less podcast and more emphasis on in-class reading and discussion would have helped the atmosphere of the class a little better. It was really hard sometimes to justify going when it didn’t seem like anything we discussed in class would be graded.

All in all, I really enjoyed this class, though it was not what I expected. I learned a lot about research and myself, while learning and appreciating a lot more about Bach. I hope that the feedback given helps the course get better so it can be taught many more times – it’s a perfect topic for St. Olaf.


Research and Reflections

Looking back on this course, I think I will remember and appreciate the research and writing process. I really enjoyed learning to evaluate sources and investigating topics about which I had little background. In the past, I have sometimes had trouble coming up with an arguable thesis, and the writing I’ve done in this class has helped me feel more confident in this respect. I also had never had to change papers into podcasts, and I found the podcast part of the class to be an educational experience. While I secretly hope I won’t have to make too many more podcasts in the future, I feel happy to know that I can if asked.

I think another specific take-away from this class for me will be the research I am doing on my last paper. I am currently writing this paper about a Bach cantata, and I wish I had written this paper earlier in the semester. It is forcing me to think critically about the Bach and Luther articles we read for class. Since my first two research topics involved non-Lutheran, non-Bach traditions, I felt like class discussions didn’t have a lot in common with my research. Now that I’m researching a Bach cantata, I am finding so many connections! I am excited for this paper to help solidify in my mind some of the topics we have covered in class conversations.

Nevertheless, getting to choose my own topics motivated me to want to do extensive research, and reading articles from a variety of traditions inspired me to seek out music I previously didn’t even know existed. I highly valued the time I spent researching the shofar and Sacred Harp singing, and I loved reading articles such as those about the Suyá and Sufi traditions. For this reason, I wish we had spent a little more time exploring non-Christian, non-Western traditions (although I do realize that “Music and Religion” is a huge topic, so it would be impossible to include everything).

Blog Post Number Six

This semester has certainly been a mix of valuable lessons–most of these lessons can fall under the category of “realizing how much I don’t know, and how to get around that”. As the title of the course suggests, to conceptualize and understand the crossroads (hehe) of music and theology is, for lack of a better word, hard. Of course, our scope was slightly more narrow–our readings were focused on western music and its ties to the reformation. No matter, I still feel like the big takeaways from each reading were something along the lines of “wow, you ought not to make any claim about this composer/piece and how they/it relates to this theme unless you approach this topic of xyz, all of which you’ll inevitably misunderstand, and that’s OK”.

Nonetheless, I realized about mid-november that the learning process within such a vast and open-ended topic is non-linear, and oftentimes not about “putting more information in my head”. In other words, objective facts and schools of thought within music and theology aren’t just going to be ‘understood’ through the readings. But the readings serve to guide our thinking.

The research projects, however, were certainly the crux and biggest learning tools for all of us (if you disagree, get out). The process of researching, writing on, and simplifying-into-podcast-form an uber-narrow topic really helped me conceptualize how to approach academic learning (all the while improving my writing and critical-thinking skills?–maybe?).

To be quite honest, another extremely valuable lesson from this course was: you get out what you put in. The discussions were flat, almost every day. Days when I skimmed the readings, I could participate little. Days when I had read more deeply, I could participate a little more. Days I didn’t read, well, I didn’t say much. It got really frustrating, because most people didn’t ever read (kudos to those who did, you know who you are!), therefore we became insouciant with the general level of effort. Had we all put more time in, I predict the class dynamic and depth of discussion would have been inspiring and engaging. Boo to all of us students. Its true, and we all know it. Sorry if this last paragraph offended you, but we sort of owe Professor Epstein an awkward apology for making his job harder.


Final Blog Post: Course Reflection

I knew this course was going to be challenging, a lot of work, and that it would be a wonderful combination of my two majors here at St. Olaf. I think it did turn out to be all of those things but in a different way than I imagined. Reflecting back on this course I definitely will remember and appreciate one of the early articles we read about the Suyá people as well as all of our conversations about Bach. I always wonder about appreciating art without understanding the full intent of the artist (that would be nearly impossible), and this course and our Bach discussions have further complicated those questions in my mind. I also will always remember that the distinction between “sacred” and “secular” music is not a strict dichotomy and I should use those words and categories sparingly and with qualifying explanations.

One of my biggest challenges with music history is finding how it translates to life beyond St. Olaf. However, because the entire semester we looked at music overlapping other parts of life I think I practiced looking beyond one topic or subject for how it influences and is influenced by other parts of the world (such as politics, power, geographical location, etc.). Additionally, as with any course in college, the dynamic and pace of the classroom participants and the schedule present a new set of challenges. I think I will remember this class fondly for how it pushed me to create different kinds of work on a timeline in a group of people (and young scholars) who were all coming from different religious backgrounds and points of view. When I go into my life after St. Olaf, I will look back at this class as one of my most homogenous experiences since we all have a strong bond of all being St. Olaf students who had taken a year of the music history survey and there’s a lot of shared common knowledge there. This semester was a unique one for me, just as every semester is unique. Since courses do not exist in a vacuum I wonder how being in a different life stage would have changed my perception of this class.  

I appreciated that we were preparing for the 500th anniversary of the reformation and we had the theme of Luther running throughout the course, but I think I would have enjoyed spending more time exploring other religions and their musical traditions. I’m sure that would end up needing to be its own course, though.

Life Can Only Be Understood Backwards

The sources I’ll probably rely on the most are Luther’s preface to Symphoniae jucundae. It’s personally one of my favorite writing of Luther because it resonates so well in my life as well as a good explanations of why music and Lutherans go hand in hand. Another source I’ll remember is the Holsinger article on Hildegard because it was so distant from what I knew about Hildegard from Great Con. One source I will thoroughly try to forget is John Butt’s article on the metaphysics of Bach. Basically whenever Spinoza is brought up, even if only to say that he will play a large role in the next chapter, I will not be a fan.

I will also remember the conversation we had about the election. It was really neat to come together and talk about it in a cordial way. We’ll have to see what happens, but I bet if we can keep coming together like that, things probably won’t go to hell in a handbasket. I also really liked our discussions about BWV 243. Usually I don’t think about her much at all, so it is good to be reminded that she is important for understanding the story of Jesus’ life.

A lesson I’ll probably use outside St. Olaf is that just because a paper has an absurd thesis, doesn’t necessitate it having a weak argument. Not only are there forces in the field to which I may be unaware, but being charitable at the outset of a paper seems like an academic virtue.

I wish we had spent more time on the theologians who influenced Luther, and what they thought about music. I am sometimes guilty of deifying Luther too much. Placing Luther in a tradition that I believe goes back at least to Augustine makes Luther seem less like either a one off madman or ecclesiastical savior, and more like a reasonable human character.

This class covered two topics which are of great interest to me and most of the people I know, quite frankly. It was enjoyable and informative, and I hope it will be taught many more times.

The title is half of a quote from Kierkegaard’s journals from 1843.

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.

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.”

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.

Reflections on the Semester

As a whole, Music & Religion challenged me in many ways, which gave me a wealth of knowledge that I didn’t even realize I gained. I can name off a long list of things I hadn’t even thought about before this course, including homoeroticism in Hildegard’s compositions, Islamic approaches to music, and what Martin Luther might say about Christmas Fest. Although the course mainly focused on Christianity and music, I was glad to read and talk about other religions and music as well. Through sometimes intense readings and class discussion, this class fulfilled me in the exact way I hoped it would.

The thing that will stick with me the most is the research I did for my papers and podcasts. Regardless of the thesis, final grade, or amount of time spent editing my papers, I learned so much about specific topics that are profoundly interesting to me. For my papers, I chose topics that interested me and applied to my real-life experiences. I’ve already found myself saying things like “did you know A Mighty Fortress is Our God is actually a paraphrase from a psalm?” which is frighteningly geeky but I’m not sure I would’ve known stuff like that without being prompted to find out.

From class discussions over the semester, I’ve found many new ways to think about music. I think it’s easy to categorize tough topics in your mind as black or white, no grey area. Music, however, will probably never fit into just one category, which comes as a refreshing change to some of the ways I’ve learned music in the past. Yes, you CAN challenge the meaning of music and you might not be right about it. Drawing inferences from music with evidence that supports your idea is probably even better for your brain than crossword puzzles.

I do wish we would’ve gotten to spend more time on music of religions outside of Christianity. Since St. Olaf is a Lutheran school after all, I think sometimes we focus too much on where “our” (but obviously not everyone’s) traditions came from. At the same time, I don’t think it was extremely detrimental that we didn’t spend as much time talking about other religions since the content we did cover was full of so much information. Overall, I’m very glad I got the opportunity to take this class and am thankful for all of the hard work I put in to learn something new.

I’m Writing About More Non-Beautiful Music

I decided to write about one of the Bach cantatas from the list of suggestions, and I thought it would be interesting to pick the first one available on the list – just to see what I could find. That turned out to be a lot more difficult than I had anticipated. After spending a while trying to find something intriguing about “Meine Seufzer, meine Tranen,” I expanded my options and looked at “Nimm von uns, Herr, du treuer Gott.” After listening to the opening chorale, I decided that this piece had a lot to offer. It has historical references, intense dissonance, strangely harsh text, and potential ties to Calvinism. My only concern is that I’ll get tired of listening to it before I turn in my podcast next week.

The dissonance and orchestration of the cantata seem like they will be interesting to research and analyze. The opening chorale has such jarring dissonance that I find it unpleasant to listen to (continuing my pattern of picking non-beautiful music for podcasts). In contrast to the dissonant chorale, the first aria is accompanied by a busy, seemingly-happy flute part. This felt like a strange background to the text (in which the singer pleas to God for forgiveness from sin).

The texts of the cantata movements also interested me. The first aria says, “…so that, through sinful acts, we might not be destroyed like Jerusalem.” The instrumental chorale is called “Why are you so angry?” These texts seemed particularly harsh and also seemed to possibly refer to a particular time of difficulty. It turns out that the text of this cantata came from a poem by Martin Moller (1584). Moller apparently had Calvinist leanings, which might explain why the text of this cantata is so dire. On the other hand, I was surprised that Bach would choose a text with Calvinist undertones! Bach composed this cantata in 1724, the year after he left a Calvinist patron (for whom he wrote mostly “secular” music, since Calvinists weren’t looking for chorales, etc.). I wonder if this influenced his choice of text. On the other hand, maybe I’m reading too much into the meaning of the text.

As I continue my research, I plan to further investigate the points I’ve mentioned so far. I’ve found a few good academic sources specifically talking about this piece, but I predict that I will have to read more general sources about Bach’s life and times; I’ll probably also have to do most of my own analysis. So far, I think my thesis will probably center on Bach’s ideas about beautiful music, Bach’s connections to Calvinism, or a creative analysis of the combination of text and orchestration (which I haven’t developed yet).

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.

On Motivation and the Senior Slide

Over the Christmas Festival Weekend, I had an idea to look into BWV 80 Ein Feste Burg for my final paper/podcast combo. I started researching. I listened to it. I immediately got bored. I’m not quite sure why I felt so unmotivated by this topic, but I decided to try to follow something I was more passionate about.

I really want to look into the Magnificat (D Major, BWV 243) and specifically the 3rd and 4th movements – Quia Respexit into Omnes Generationes. The third movement has such an incredibly different sound than anything else in the Magnificat; the chromaticism, the descending lines, and the starkness of oboe and basso continuo aren’t seen anywhere else in the Magnificat. Right now, I have a lot of ideas about this piece and am not fully sure where to take them. These movement focus on the section of the Magnificat dealing with humility: “He hath regarded the lowliness of His servant, for behold from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed.” It’s clear that Bach intended to apply an entire mood to this movement, but I find the incredibly quick change into Omnes Gereationes startling and interesting. I feel like there’s something there.

Right now, I’m doubling back on the Rathey and Heller articles we read earlier. I really want to avoid just regurgitating information that we already discussed, and I’m hoping that by focusing on the two movements will allow me the freedom to discuss many things about those movements. One interesting thing that I want to pursue more is when one author (and I honestly thought it was Rathey, but now I can’t find it) called Mvmt. 4 a turba chorus. Of course, I have no idea where this thread will go, but right now I’m digging to see if there’s anything important there.

One last idea that I think would be interesting is analyzing how these two movements are inherently Lutheran Marian theology as opposed to Catholic Marian theology. This would require a comparison of the religious side of things and an application directly into the text. This is super intriguing to me but I’m scared to dive in because of the difficult research and sort of abstract method of coming to a thesis.

All in all, I’m glad that I’m at least excited about my topic now. It will possibly be more difficult, as I really have to make sure I’m not copying the articles we read already, but at least the motivation is there. Fight the senior slide. It’s only fall semester.

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.

Ich bin ein guter Hirt

The inherent perfection of Bach’s music, both spiritually and aesthetically, is a topic I find quite puzzling. What exactly makes even his most ‘minuscule’ (*gasp* but nothing by Bach is mundane!) compositions sound still so wonderful?

I’m not going to be exploring exactly that topic for this final paper, but I want to look at ways that Bach shows his imperfections, and struggles within his music.

Of the listed cantatas, Ich bin ein guter Hirt (BWV 85) seems the most-fitting to explore this subject. I aim to analyze features of the text, harmony, and orchestration that arguably embody Bach’s many struggles with life; namely, being a good shepherd.

My introduction should bring to the table sufficient evidence that shows the universal perception that Bach’s music is perfect and that he was wholly devout, and then introduce scholarship that challenges this notion. My thesis, hopefully, should be the following: Ich bin ein guter Hirt has strong allegories that show Bach’s inner turmoil with faith. 

After my analysis, I hope to conclude by showing: While we deify Bach for his inspirational and timeless music, he was just as human as any of us. Searching for elements that portray his ‘human’ side adds to the profundity of the experience for the listener (Bach may have even wanted this?).

I’m wondering if I should also explore the topic of how Bach’s ‘deification’ (I need to find a new word) goes against Luther’s ideologies? or is that too hard to address in one paragraph? Maybe its possible to insert semi-briefly within the conclusion?

Bach’s Mass in B minor (and why finding research is so hard)

I decided to take on the Kyrie from Bach’s mass in B minor. I haven’t actually heard the mass before, so I’m really excited to listen to it and find good information about it.

To my surprise though, it’s REALLY hard to find articles about the Mass (at least on Academic Search Premier and JSTOR)!! I found many little 2-3 pages articles (some written in 1888, a little too dated for my purposes…) and some promising articles (only to discover they’re in German. I guess I shouldn’t have taken French…). So as of right now, I have no idea what direction my paper will take.

But, the nice thing is that there do seem to be quite a few good books written about the mass (now whether they’re in our library is the question now…). So, I suspect there will be good information somewhere. But, I’m struggling at the moment to see how i’m going to write a paper that is all that different from the Bach paper I just wrote (basically making Bach a fully sacred composer). The mass is the epitome of sacred music, and Bach certainly composed it that way. So, I’m not sure at this point how I’m going to make a compelling and unique argument about this mass (given what seems to be a lack of good sources).

i know with the tools we’ve been given in this class and St. Olaf, I’ll come up with something good. It just seems quite daunting at the moment! But, all the best arguments were a little unconventional and off the beaten path, so I guess that’s my job to explore that brush as I continue researching.

*Insert Unoriginal, Obvious Thesis Here*

When beginning research on Bach, one must first realize the sheer amount of scholarly resources that exist. There are so many resources because Bach wrote an incredible amount of music in his lifetime. I decided to research Bach’s cantata, Christus, der ist mein Leben, BWV 95. An overview of its Wikipedia article informed me that it draws on multiple chorales from other composers, and a Spotify searched informed me that it is technically gorgeous. A search on Catalyst brought up few specific results. There are books of analyses of Bach cantatas, yet not many on this specific one. The best resources I have found are the resources listed on the Wikipedia, most of which came from a website titled Also included is an essay from John Eliot Gardiner, in which he discusses specific musical motives within the cantata, which will definitely be useful as I try to work out a thesis.

Christus, der ist mein Leben translates as “Christ, you are my life,” and the texts of the cantata contemplate death in a joyful manner, where the choir and the soloists view death as an end to all suffering. Bach adapted four different funeral hymns, fitting for the subject matter.

The difficulty in writing about Bach is not the lack of specific resources, but rather deciding on a thesis, as my peers have stated below. Because Bach was so intentional about his compositions and where he drew melodies and themes from, it seems silly to argue that he was intentional, because to any trained musician, obviously he was. As I delve more into the particular usage of each of these funeral hymns, hopefully I will find inspiration for an arguable thesis about this cantata.

Fürchte dich nicht

Pretty much all I know about this motet is that the St. Olaf Choir performed it in 2015 and that, like most of his motets, Bach composed this for double choir and string consort. The most interesting thing that I have been able to dig up without actually having gone through the score is that there is a lot of controversy over the time and location of its composition—either in Leipzig in 1726 (as a majority of scholars suspect), or earlier in his Weimar period (suggested by newer research and stylistic analysis).

I may talk about its function as a funeral piece, trying to reconcile its seemingly “jubilant” attitude with the sentiment that Bach intended for it and that listeners in his time would have probably recognized. Its reassuring and comforting demeanor situate it well as a funeral piece, even though it may seem inappropriately upbeat to those who don’t know the meaning of the text.

Another source of research could be other settings of similar text, such as Philip Stopford’s Do Not Be Afraid. There are several verses in Isaiah that begin with this source text, “Fear thee not…” but all of the pieces written from them can be said to share a common thread.

Like I said, musical analysis is going to have to play a large part in this project, so I will likely delve into the significance of the two choirs’ interactions with each other, the role of the strings, and the overall deftness of Bach’s setting. Score analysis is everything in a paper like this. Like David said, it’ll be a struggle to turn “Bach is cool” into a legitimate thesis.

Zing it?

So, to be perfectly honest, I chose this motet because the idea of working with a piece I already know was a lot less daunting than trying to get to know a whole cantata or motet in a short time (and I just really needed something new to think about.) However, I adore the Bach motets, so it’s still an exciting topic. One thing that intrigues me is the purpose of this composition. Several sources have suggested that its main function could have been pedagogical. When considering the text of the first and third movements, this makes a lot of sense to me.

Sing to the Lord a new song!
The congregation of the saints shall praise Him,
Israel rejoices in Him, who has created it.
Let the children of Zion be joyful in their King.
Let them praise His name in dances,
with drums and harps let them play to Him.

Praise the Lord in His works,
praise Him in his great glory.
Everything that has breath, praise the Lord,
Hallelujah! (

What makes me wonder about this theory most is the second movement. I think it’s likely that Bach was thinking pedagogically in terms of texts/faith/theology as much as he was musically, but the text of this middle section is such a drastically different mood. The chorale juxtaposed with commentary feels deep and personal, and the dialogue between the choirs particularly piques my interest. The text makes me wonder if this WAS, in fact, written for a funeral, or with death in mind. Maybe not, but I think it’s worth investigating. So, my plans for continuing research and developing thesis ideas are to look into putting this motet into the context of Bach’s life – especially personal, not just professional, the context of these texts (when would they have been used and what would people associate them with?), what evidence we have of this motet being performed, and to analyze the counterpoint of the motet (perhaps comparing with other works from a similar time but written for other purposes or occasions.)

Bach Again (ha)

With all that’s happened in this class, I feel more comfortable in the research process now. My first paper was easier to research since the thesis and topic dived right into sources about a well researched area of Bach’s works. My second paper gave me more trouble, as its thesis was Bach related, but the topic at hand had almost no scholarship. This next paper should be easier to tackle in the research arena. Given that our topic category is provided, I decided to choose to look at the St. Matthew Passion. I’m not sure what my thesis will be though. After going through some preliminary research, I could take a thematic approach and look into the spirituality of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. I could go the analytical route and see how Bach ties in spirituality into the form of the work. Personally, I’m just intrigued by the many settings of the chorales. Or perhaps I could look into the history in which the piece was performed, considering it’s likely the piece isn’t really a double chorus oratorio in the same way we think in modern times.

My concern lies in trying to find an arguable thesis that’s not obvious in all of this. (“Look, Bach did a cool thing” is not a thesis – David below me.)

Having performed the piece as a soprano in the children’s miniature chorus, I know that this piece is a rich work of art. I just need to do more research to find out what’s worth talking about. I hope to look more into the settings of the chorales within their own contexts as a starting point. If that turns out to be a dead end, I will focus on the relationship between the two choruses and see where that leads me.

Exploring the Religious Significance of Brandenburg Concerto No.5

Fascinated by the other-worldly keyboard capriccio of Bach’s Fifth Brandenburg Concerto, I devoted my last paper to exploring the religious symbolism of the piece. In this paper, I will continue studying this subject and examine questions reminaed unresolved from the previous essay.

Drawing on Michael Marissen’s writings in The Social and Religious Designs of J.S. Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos, I have evidenced the religious symbolism embedded in the Fifth Brandenburg Concerto with relevant passges from Lutheran theological documents. In the next draft, I would like to bring in broader Lutheran theology on music-makings, especially to demonstrate Luther’s own writings about music, discussed in Robin Leaver’s article ” Luther on music” (Lutheran Quarterly 20/2, 2006: 125-145). An efficient use of this resource will better justify my interpretations of sacred messages from Bach’s “secular” composition.

In addtion, I will also expand the music analysis provided in the current draft. For the moment, I have overviewed the formal structures of each movment and specifically broken down the keyboard cappricio in the first movement in terms of its musical gestures and designs. To further strengthen my argument, I will be drwaing attentions to overall harmonic progressions and musical details in other movements as musical evidences of Bach’s perception and depiction of heaven and earth. Importantly, more comprehensive musical analysis potentially enables a new aspect of my argument. Currently, my thesis centralized on examining how Bach delivered religious messages in the music. However, with closer musical analysis of the piece, I have noticed a recognizable cyclic musical depictions in all movements of Fifth Bradenburg Concerto which starts from the earth, progressing to the heaven, and eventually returned to the earth. Therefore, building on my current argument on the religious metaphors that Bach adapted in his composition, I hope to also prove the religiously transformative listening and performing experience generated from the music.


“Look, Bach did a cool thing” is not a thesis

For this paper, I didn’t originally plan to do a Bach cantata, but since it is strongly suggested I will do so. I had the idea of examining the music of Charles Ives, but upon finding Cantata 66 (Erfreut euch, ihr Herzen, or “Rejoice, ye hearts”) I see that many of the techniques of exegesis are the same for both ideas, just using different music.

While Ives’ music is very accessible to me, as it is written in English and utilizes familiar ideas, Bach’s music was also composed to be very accessible to its audience, rife with musical expression and text painting that highlight the scripture. Though preliminary research, I have found that this cantata has a unique structure that does just this. Written for the second day of Easter, it is largely joyful and upbeat, the majority of the text rejoicing in Jesus’ resurrection and the salvation it brings for humanity. However, it does contain a section in which some of the text is darker. Following the opening joyful chorus and thankfully reassured bass aria comes a section that is a dialogue between two voices at odds with each other. One voice asserts proudly in the second duet that “I do not fear the darkness of the grave” while the other says exactly the opposite. This dialogue of hope and fear shows both sides of the story, but in the end the voice of praise and confidence wins and finishes with assurance in the power of God that leads to the final chorale which glorifies God and pleads for further mercy and consolation.

In terms of the paper and podcast, I see what I could do for the podcast itself, focusing on these ideas and demonstrating how Bach illustrated them with his music. But for the paper, I am still a bit lost when it comes to finding a thesis, since “Look, Bach did this cool thing”, while 100% true, is not very arguable. So far I have not done much research but I am already intrigued by this unique format which seems to convey its point through dialogue and inclusion of dissent that is eventually consoled. I look forward to delving deeper into the music and finding how the meaning within impacted its audiences.

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.

Anabaptists: Everyone hated them I guess

So far, I’ve been researching the Anabaptists and their opinions on women. And, so far, I’ve seen that women were well-respected in their circles (quite literally, during worship) and I’ve concluded that despite the immense drawbacks from joining a persecuted religion, they would have been drawn to Anabaptism. A huge part of this allure was the music of the Anabaptists and their attitudes toward music.

Really, a lot of information on this subject exists, but I don’t have access to all the things I would like to read through. I feel the need to keep reading more and more in order to completely understand the issue backwards and forwards.

But, this comes with a huge drawback: I am not particularly good at explaining things. After I’ve read from fifteen sources on the Anabaptist’s opinions of women worshiping versus the Lutheran’s opinions, I don’t remember which source had which information, which information is not common knowledge, and what I need to outline more specifically in my paper. So, I need to find a better way of documenting every piece of information from every source in order to really keep straight all of the research I’m doing.

That being said, I don’t feel like I’m deep enough into my topic. Yes, it is quite broad, but I hope to expand on it more in an expansion of my original 5 page paper. So far, my research has rendered wonderful results – but they’re almost too perfect. My argument feels very sound, but I don’t feel like my counterarguments are solid enough.

I was given the advice to make the case that Anabaptism was more women – friendly than other religions. While this isn’t really my main point (that being that the music ideology of the Anabaptists would have drawn women in), it is a good way to further solidify my argument. An abundance of information exists comparing the religion with others at the time. However, I wonder if I could add another layer of counterargument to it.

Would the musical ideologies have balanced out the intense persecution they would have faced? I’m not so sure. Quite literally everyone hated the Anabaptists – they were alienated from the start by Luther and by the Catholics, and their opinions on baptism were too extreme for the times. Perhaps the sheer number of women who converted can speak for itself and justify that yes, the benefits outweighed the cost.

I also feel like there could be research out there negating the role of women in Anabaptist churches, and I’d like to look into that. I also would like to talk to at least one member of the Religion faculty here to see if they know anything about it as well. Overall, I think I’d like to take my paper to the next level and make it more believable through in-depth counterarguments.

Reflections on Research and Formality in Writing (it’s not a dichotomy)

I am likely not going to be a higher level academic musicologist than I am right now as I wrap up this 300 level music history class. I took the introductory music history classes as a sophomore and learned about musical terms such as ‘organum,’ ‘antiphonal,’ ‘motet,’ ‘cantata,’ ‘l’homme arme,’ and ‘opera.’ Some of things blurred together or have become filed away somewhere in my brain that needs a bit of coaxing to remember. I lost faith that I would ever actually know with certainty what each of these terms meant in all of their nuance. Then I realized I’ll never know it all, but I might as well start and know a little bit more today than I knew yesterday. I chose to research BWV 140 because the famous Sleeper’s Wake melody is one of my Mom’s favorite melodies and was one of the pieces she had in her wedding. A little personal connection never hurts as a catalyst for podcast-creating-motivation.

Though this topic is definitely of manageable scope (thanks, Prof. Epstein) I still began with the noble Google search: “What is a Bach Cantata.” I know myself and that I always need an accessible point of entry to the topic (read: not incredibly academically/scholarly inclined). So, after reading the wikipedia entries and a few weird websites, I felt confident to jump in…to a Grove search. I read that, “about two-fifths of Bach’s sacred cantatas must be considered lost; of the secular cantatas, more are lost than survive.” There are a lot, so it is surprising that so many have been lost! I learned that Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme, is a church chorale intended for the 27th Sunday after Trinity and has text by Philipp Nicolai. (Grove)

I do not plan to write any more music history papers for school in my life (I’m not ruling it out, but signs point to no). However, the hard work required in this process and the gems of knowledge that result in researching and understanding many voices of a topic are rewarding in and of themselves, especially when I have even a slight connection to this cantata. I’m trying to enjoy the research process as I immerse myself in the final music history paper, but I am also really looking forward to the finished podcast product.

Was Jesus a Tenor?

I’m going to have to do a lot of circumlocution in this paper. I suppose that the entire point of this project is to get us to identify musical to theological links on our own. That’s probably going to be what I have to do anyway, because I haven’t found a single verifiable source that talks about BWV 38 explicitly yet. There is obviously lots of scholarship on Bach’s cantatas, much more than there is scholarship on Wycliffe and Hus. As I have thought about the process for this last paper I think that perhaps I was coming at it the wrong way. The point isn’t to get inspired by the work of another. Instead, the task is to find an argument in the music for yourself, and then use argument similar to those of more established scholars as evidence for why our argument is correct.

What I know thus far from my research is that BWV 38 comes from the second Leipzig cantata cycle. It was written for the 22nd Sunday after Pentecost. I also know that some scholars think it is a rather sad piece, and that the big tenor solo should be omitted. Although I have never been a huge fan of prominent tenor solos, I think the tenor solo in this piece gives it a balance and symmetry that without it the piece would be sorely wanting. The solo also lends itself to deep theological importance. I could see a paper that would focus on the musico-theological connections of this aria alone, despite how much it would pain me to give even more attention to a voice part which too frequently steals the spotlight from its lower brother. 

In summary: although I haven’t found any sources which directly address my piece that doesn’t mean they don’t exist, and I might not even need them. If I can find other cases where music historians identify similar musical occurrences in their pieces and link them to a theological argument, I will be able to use their arguments to lend credence to mine.  

A Leap of Faith

Just today, in fact, I finally committed to doing my final paper and podcast on Bach’s Ich freue mich in dir BWV 133 in the spirit of the holiday season. I’m still just beginning the research process, which can be a bit daunting especially since I’m not familiar with the piece I’m writing about. With my past papers, I haven’t stepped too boldly out of my comfort zone in terms of topics, but this topic is going to force me to take a leap of faith and challenge myself to think critically about a piece I’ve never thought about before.

One of the main things that has jumped out to me about this cantata so far is the fact that the author of the poem Bach used, Caspar Ziegler, is apparently not very well-known. This is a bit hard to believe considering Bach made his poem quite famous with his cantata, but all of the sources I’ve seen so far make Ziegler out to be someone with very little experience in the arts. I think it would be interesting to research the meaning behind the text from the author’s point of view, which is something I hope to do.

I have really enjoyed reading about all of the imagery in this cantata as well. At this point, I’m struggling with which direction I should take my paper since I’d like my paper to focus on imagery within the piece. With this topic, I’m having a difficult time coming up with a thesis that isn’t too standard but also isn’t too complex. So far I’ve considered discussing imagery in terms of instruments and voices used, direct biblical connections and representation, or arguing the imagery used does not depict the biblical text accurately (which I’m not sure I agree with, but it could potentially be fun writing a paper this way). I know I have a lot of work to do, and I’m sure my topic will narrow itself down as I delve further into research

How many more times will I use the phrase “Luther’s hymnody” in this paper?

I’m starting the process of expanding my first paper, which was about Luther’s Christ lag in Todes Banden chorale and its medieval musical roots. I considered a couple different ideas for how to expand the scope or depth of my paper- my first thought was to continue exploring how the Victimae/Christ lag melody was used after Luther’s time; maybe by examining later works that quoted the melody. However, I was worried that pursuing this line of research wouldn’t fit with the core of my original argument, and that the paper would turn into more of a narrative re-telling of where the melody has been through the centuries, when it should instead be an expanded, thesis-driven analysis.

So I’ve chosen to go a different route, and contextualize the Christ lag chorale a bit more fully. Hopefully I will be able to make some larger claims about Luther’s hymnody that use Christ Lag (and maybe another chorale tune or two) as an example/examples. I’m starting off by trying to find information on some questions that remained unanswered in my first version. These questions are:

  • Luther’s chorale text shares some images with the text of the original sequence, but are there significant differences between the two texts that reflect Luther’s new theological ideas?
  • How many of Luther’s chorales had similar roots in Catholic liturgical music? Exploring this question could either strengthen my thesis (by showing that Luther preserved a great deal of earlier tunes) or bring up a counterargument that is worth addressing (that the inclusion of melodies with medieval roots was inconsequential, rare, or not generally representative of Luther’s hymn-writing process).
  • How significant was Christ ist erstanden to the development of Christ Lag in Todes Banden? I essentially dismissed its influence in my first version of the paper, but I’d like to find a source that gives more information about the hymn or about leise in general.
  • What other information can I find about hymn-singing practices in Luther’s congregations? The tidbits I found about the ways Luther’s hymns were sung and incorporated into worship were really interesting to me, and more information might shed some more light on how churches actually experienced new worship music in contrast with previous traditions.

Gender and Sexuality in Bach’s Christmas Oratorio

As usual, I am having trouble locating the niche in musicology where the scholarship I want can be found. At this time, I have tried everything I can think of to find writing on what I KNOW must be an issue, but have barely found anything. I found a book by Markus Rathey, Johann Sebastian Bach’s Christmas Oratorio, that sounds like it could have what I’m looking for. I found an excerpt of the book on google books, but otherwise, it’s not in the library, nor does it appear to be available via Interlibrary Loan. I thought the book would be especially useful for locating other sources, but from the footnotes I can see in the preview, lots of Rathey’s sources are quite heavy-sounding and/or in German.

In searches on Catalyst and journal databases (I’ve tried Academic Search Premier, Gender Watch, and Music Periodicals Database), I have been using different combinations and Boolean arrangements of the following search terms:

Christmas Oratorio
BWV 248

All of these searches have come up with either unrelated articles or exactly nothing.

So I’m not really sure where to go from here. I will try going to the music library and just flipping through the table of contents pages of as many Bach books as I can. This strategy has worked with some of my other music history research when I couldn’t find the right search terms.

I’m planning to research either the first or the fourth cantata from the Christmas Oratorio.

In Part I, I would focus on the “Christ as Bridegroom” trope. It is everywhere in the text, and so are some very interesting phrases like “Supreme Ruler” and “Lord/King,” which have their own gendered, even colonialist implications. The lack of interest in Mary in this text and the simultaneous focus on unborn/newborn Jesus’s pleasure would also be interesting ideas to pursue. The sections that refer to the bridegroom are both sung by an alto soloist (the first in recitative, and the second in aria form).

In Part IV, the text focuses on Jesus’ circumcision, which seems like a strange thing to be singing about at length. There is also another long section about being Christ’s beloved, including the representation of him as bridegroom. Some of the language in this cantata borders on literal sensual desire for Jesus (“I look to you longingly”/”I shall call you enchanting, since breast and heart are enflamed with love for you”). Finally, this cantata uses a soprano in duet with an echo soprano and a bass (at separate times) during some of the aforementioned sections. I would like to investigate what the choice of the female voice (or at least female-sounding, even if a woman wouldn’t have been the performer) does for the cantata and why Bach made that choice.

It’s also possible there are gendered connections to Bach’s previous works that he used to write the oratorio, but I have not seen anything about this.

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.


Mathis der Maler Part 2

Now that I have spent a month since I first started researching Hindemith’s Mathis der Maler for my second podcast, I am now moving on to my final project and am continuing my work for the final paper. I have come across a number of problems with this paper that I have not always had in the past. I have mostly struggled with trying to clear my argument from other authors that have written about Hindemith’s opera, and also trying to distinguish my argument that the religious implications of the work are separate from the political ones that have so often been talked about in terms of the work. I have found that it is easy to find myself writing and working in such a way that I think I am making a point about the religious implications, but it ends up sounding like an argument in favor of the opposing thesis almost as much. This is probably why so many authors have for so long talked solely about the political context and implications of the work.

I am trying not to let this discourage me too much however. Now that I have more space with which to work within the paper I am going to aim to add more religious background which is actually going to be redirect me back away from the musical side of the paper for a bit before returning to it. When I wrote my second draft of the shorter paper on this subject I was able to, I think more successfully, add to the musical and dramatic evidence for my argument and situate the argument in the context of the opera itself. But now I need to re-situate the work in the broader religious context of both Reformation and 1930s Germany. I am a bit worried about the latter because I think it may be difficult to successfully provide an appropriate background to the religious context for a work like this. It seems it may be a bit difficult to prove or directly link the opera to the religious background of the time with any certainty. Hopefully though, if I am able to achieve this, I will be able to successfully build a more coherent argument that fully supports the possibility that there is religious importance and meaning to the work that is completely separate from the political implications.

Brandenburg Concerto No.5 and Bach’s Understanding of Social Hierarchy

For a long time I was not a fan of Bach. My distorted impression and negative emotion toward Bach came from bad childhood memory when I had to strenuously memorize Bach’s inventions and fugues for piano grade exams. Therefore, it was almost a cultural shock to me when I entered college where almost everyone loves Bach. Perhaps since then my attitude toward Bach began to change, as I had a chance to gain a more comprehensive view of Bach’s music. This semester I studied the Brandenburg Concertos in Tonal Analysis class and it was an absolutely thrilling moment listening to the harpsichord cadenza in the first movement of the fifth concerto. Alongside musical analysis, the class discussions also touched on probable religious interpretations of the piece but didn’t go further. Therefore, I decided to do some research on this topic.

I started off my research by reading chapters from The social and religious designs of J.S. Bach’s Brandenburg concertos by Michael Marissen. As Marissen demonstrated in his book, baroque writers frequently took orchestra as a metaphor of social hierarchy, while one significant Lutheran viewpoint was that in the heavenly world the earthly hierarchies would no longer be necessary. Therefore, it is arguable that Bach, a devotional Lutheran, metaphorically demolished the idea of social hierarchy by composing iconoclastic orchestral parts in the Brandenburg Concertos, including the thrilling harpsichord cadenza. At the same time, Marissen reiterated the point that the unconventional orchestral arrangements did not symbolize earthly rebellion toward the social hierarchy which Bach in fact relied on for a living, although had many troubles with. Instead, the Brandenburg Concertos are religiously significant because they musically depict the next world where social hierarchy disappears.

Based upon Marissen’s viewpoint, in my own research paper I am going to provide a specific musical analysis on the Brandenburg Concerto No.5, in terms of its form, orchestration, and other musical details, and connect these musical features with further religious interpretations. Through series of musical evidence on the score, I will try to argue that Brandenburg Concerto No.5 reflected Bach’s understanding of the Lutheran theology that visioned the absence of social hierarchy in the next world.

Research is Hard: And Other Thoughts about the Research Process

I’m going to be honest, I have a potential topic (Christian hip hop and trying to apply some of the lenses I talked about in my first paper), but I have not done sufficient research as of yet to justify it. Life gets very busy on the Hill, and thus time is very limited for the vast amount of things I have to do on a daily basis. I’m barely sleeping as a result, and I’m still behind in virtually everything.

But, I can talk about the process of research and writing because I have done it numerous times and will do it for this paper ASAP. As my title states, research is hard work. You have to find good quality academic sources (something that’s hard with my topic being such a personally felt one, not much academic research has been done on CCM music. I was lucky to find the excellent book I found that is the basis of my interpretation of my second paper), and sift out the good information from the bad. With our class as well, we are asked not to just spit out information and conclusions that other people have already come up with, but to synthesize and evaluate all the information to come up with a new and interesting thesis that no one has ever thought of before. While this is a very exciting prospect, it’s really tough to do. It requires you to pick and choose sometimes what scholars have said to make your own point, forgetting some things they said that actively contradict you (if you’re really doing a great paper, you have to answer those challenges within your argument). You have to spend a ton of time synthesizing very complex and dry articles into a compelling and persuasive paper. On top of all of this, you have to credit your sources and be super paranoid about plagiarism.

It’s a really tough but fun process. I wish that I had had time thus far this semester to really fully invest in this course and give it my all, because this is scholarly work that I actually finally care about. These next two months will be better, and I can’t wait to finish off this course with products that I’m really proud of individually and collectively as a class.

It’s actually Friday and I still don’t really have a thesis.

This week has been overwhelming. I picked a direction for my paper (studying Bach’s Nun Komm der Heiden Heiland) and expected starting research to be so much easier with a more focused, specific topic. WRONG! In the past, I have picked a direction for a paper, begun research, and then changed that direction and formed a thesis based on my findings. This time, however, I am struggling to do successful preliminary research without coming up with a thesis first. There is not a huge amount of scholarship on specific Bach cantatas, and so I have been wondering which elements I should focus on. I could look at the cantata as a genre through Nun Komm, I could focus on Bach and his relationship with this text/motivation for setting it/theological implications through the setting, or I could connect it more to Luther and his adaptation of the Latin Veni redemptor gentium. I have no idea at this point what will be most fruitful, interesting, and relatable to the class. I also wonder if there is some really really really cool lens with which to study the piece that I am just way too tired to think of.

I plan on doing a small amount of research in each of these directions to see what is least overwhelming and most possible/interesting. However, based on my findings about the specific piece, it looks as though most of my argument using Bach’s setting of Nun Komm itself will be my own analysis informed by more contextual and general research.

****EDIT: I can’t believe I didn’t think of this before, but another option is comparing/contrasting Bach’s two settings of Nun Komm der Heiden Heiland and looking at how they evolved differently from Luther’s chorale/the original chant. So I’m going that direction for awhile. Yay.

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.”

Giving Meaning to Research: So What?

As I embark on the early stages of this next paper-writing journey I am struggling with bridging my personality to the realm of academic musicological writing. I need to find a purpose to motivate me to want to learn about and do a good job. I started finding this purpose by asking myself: why do I want to explore antisemitism in Bach’s St. John’s Passion? Throughout the research and writing process, I’m starting to find my answer. The Bible was written a long time ago and Bach wrote the passion a long time ago. Everyone involved in the original creation of these primary sources is dead, so there is no chance of changing what has already been written. If there are antisemetic tones we should call them out. Should we stop performing St. John’s Passion? I think not. Is an informed performance necessary? Absolutely.

There are a few points of intervention to consider. First, the point of view from whomever(s) wrote the Gospel of John. Next, the point between the Gospel of John and Bach, and the point between Bach’s composition and the performers executing a performance of the passion itself.

I’m going to make a case for at which of these points we need to intervene as scholars dedicated to lifting up equal human rights and respect without ignoring creations from the past.

I have found a few great sources so far including a compilation of articles titled Pondering the Passion that includes an essay called “The Passion in Music: Bach’s Settings of the Matthew and John Passions.” This will be a good entry point into the discussion as well as other articles in this book which look at the passion narrative from numerous points of view. Another book I checked out from the library is called Who Killed Jesus: Exposing the Roots of Anti-Semitism in the Gospel Story of the Death of Jesus by John Dominic Crosssan.

There is a lot of literature about this topic and there is no way I’ll be able to read it all. I am nervous to write this paper because I do not have the depth of background knowledge that I would like, but I will need to do my best given the time constraints to say something helpful, original, and accurate.

Pietism and Orthodoxy: Two Flavors in the Same Dish

In our silliness, Lutherans like to think of our tradition as being a singular continuous stream flowing from Luther’s pen to the current age. But as my research into pietism and orthodoxy has shown, this is obviously not the case. Almost immediately after its establishment, different flavors of Lutheranism began to emerge. This fact might be troubling at first, but on a second look it makes lots of sense in a Lutheran lens.

One of the most important significances of the Reformation is that the church is in constant need of reform. It is terribly dangerous to assert that the faith is completely defined and set, that its precepts are perfect and need no revision. Obviously the Augsburg confession continues to be a groundwork for our doctrines, but it does not address many of the concerns of the contemporary church. One of the slogans of the ELCA is “Always being made new.” We believe we need this constant renewal on two levels. We need it on a personal level, for although we are redeemed we remain sinners. We also need it on the institutional level, for the brokenness of our lives leads to brokenness in the church.

However while on the outside pietism and orthodoxy can seem quite opposed initially, within the lens of Lutheranism they can be seen as quite hand in hand. At the core of both movements is the preaching of the Good News. This preaching manifests itself in different ways, in different communities, but this also is good news! We needn’t be carbon copies of each other in order to be living the faith in an authentic way. Just like Pastor Matt explained that we shouldn’t think of translations as faux pretenders, but rather as living expressions of the same word. This is how I’ve come to think about different expressions of Lutheranism in the 17th century.

Carmina Burana: The Reformation in the 11th Century

The full title of the Carmina Burana is Carmina Burana: Cantiones profanæ cantoribus et choris cantandæ comitanibus instrumentis atque imaginibus magicis, which means “Songs of Beuern, Secular songs for singers and choruses to be sung together with instruments and magic images.” By just reading the title, you might not guess that its poetry was written by 11th-century monks and clergymen. The subject matter is almost appalling when you think of the context in which it was written. It ranges from taking the Queen of England to bed, to being a goose in an oven, slowly burning and dying. To write this paper, I’m looking for evidence of two things: That the spirit in which the text was written mirrors that of the Reformation 400 years later (rebellious sentiments against hypocrisy and contradiction in the Catholic church), and that Carl Orff attempts to reconcile its secularity by setting the text to music in a manner that manages to allow the work to be seen in a religious light once again.

The convenient thing about this subject is that most of my “research” will be analysis on my part—of the text and of Orff’s setting. I’ve yet to find a reputable source of scholarly writing on this subject either online or in the music library, and I’m not really sure what kind of information is out there on this subject. I bet I’ll find writing on the different languages used in the work; the poems are in Medieval Latin, Germanic Latin, Middle-High German, Old French, Provençal, and some of the pieces are even “macaronic” (made of macaroni)(jk), meaning they are a jumble of different languages. To me, the use of the vernacular in these poems is a dead-ringer for what happened during the Reformation.

I think that my best course of action with regard to analyzing the music will be to use the infrequent religious references in the text as guide points to focus on. The most well known reference is in the penultimate piece of the work, Blanziflor et Helena. The “chorus” has convinced the female main character (soprano soloist) to fall in love, and this piece is a glorious congratulation. Blanziflor comes from the French Blanchefleur, a word meaning “white flower” and also being a common representation of the Virgin Mary. The chorus compares the soprano’s beauty to Mary and Helen of Troy, hailing her with the explosive first line: Ave formosissima! (Behold the most lovely).

The research has been slow so far, but the more I do, the more I become convinced that my thesis actually has some ground to stand on, which isn’t something I can say for every paper I’ve written.

Beautiful Savior would be much more beautiful if people would write about it

I’m finding myself in this horrible trend where I think of a super cool topic that has very little research to back it up. Right now, I’m synthesizing the sources that I have to see if there’s actually enough to continue with this topic… to be determined.

I’m interested in looking at Beautiful Savior. I had never heard this hymn before coming to St. Olaf, and obviously it’s inescapable here. I have a lot of questions that I could answer: does it align with Luther’s beliefs about congregational singing? How do the militaristic connotations of the text and melody relate to early beliefs about Christ as a warrior, and does that influence the popularity of the hymn? Does it appear in other faith traditions? (And does that have any significance?)

I think my best shot will be the first question, though I can’t stop thinking about the militaristic connotations. I am hoping that by performing my own analysis of the text and the chorale tune, I can compare and relate to what Luther says in his Preface to Symphoniae iucundae, what we read on the Lutheran chorale, and draw from new sources. For instance, there are SO many dissertations out there on the function of music in worship. The challenging thing for me right now is that most scholarship on the tune itself is part of a narrative about St. Olaf, and that feels like too narrow of a topic. I feel that the lack of other sources proves that the hymn is not super prevalent, answering a previous question.

My next step is to try to dig deeper into the tune and text themselves. I have some preliminary background knowledge from and the minimal background information in the “History of the St. Olaf Choir” books that the library has (side note: why have so many people written books about that? At least there are some killer photos of Dr. Armstrong).

I’m going to take a look at the companion commentaries to the ELW next: we looked at those frequently with JBobb in his interim course, and they typically provided a good background bio and often some places to look next. I welcome any other sources about specific hymns that I might not have thought of yet. I’m really hoping that there’s enough this time that I don’t have to change my thesis again, so any direction and feedback is VERY welcome.

Rachmaninoff’s All-Night Vigil, but What Context?

I write this knowing that I still do not completely have a topic picked out. I know that I want to research Rachmaninoff’s All-Night Vigil, but, due to my lack of knowledge of Orthodoxy and Russian history, I was not sure what I would find. A quick Google search led me to ask more questions that required more research. How religious was Rachmaninoff himself? How were the growing tensions between the church and state reflected in this music? The All-Night Vigil was written in two weeks, and two years later, was banned from its home country, due to its religious nature. However, Rachmaninoff wrote this without specifying whether the vespers were meant to be performed in a sacred setting or a concert hall.

A search in Catalyst proved a bit challenging, only due to the sheer amount of recordings of the All-Night Vigil that exist. Many articles are reviews of recordings or concerts. I found a dissertation by Alice Generalow, which provides context within the Russian Orthodox Church, and within the history of Russia, and also within Rachmaninoff’s own life.

As I continue to hone in on a topic, I will decide what sort of lense through which I want to look at this piece of music. If I place within a much larger context, like the post-World War I state of the USSR, I may be getting too far away from study of the piece itself. If I place it within the context of Rachmaninoff’s life, I may not find enough information to fill a five minute podcast.

The Dance of the Seven (Thousand) Articles

Given that my last paper topic was quite closely tied to Luther and Reformation theology, I wanted to venture further away for this next project.

Unlike most of the other music we’re studying this semester, Richard Strauss’ Salome is not a sacred work. However, many elements within the opera make it a worthy candidate for examination: the biblically-based story line; the layers of religious prophecy; the provocative conflation of the violent and the erotic with the sacred.

Beyond these broad thematic elements, Salome also stands as the product of a particular era in German (or even generally European) intellectual history. The opera, which depicts several Jewish characters from in and around the court of King Herod, arrived on the stage at a time when anti-Semitism was deeply ingrained in European society and was rising in virulence. This socio-religious context adds another layer of complexity to an analysis of religious elements in Salome.

The opera’s 1905 premiere shocked and scandalized audiences, but along with its infamy the opera quickly gained acclaim. It would be easy to cast the opera as a testament to the potential power of music not towards the pure and the religious, but instead towards the carnal and the blasphemous- and indeed many of its audience members reacted as such. Thus despite the fact that Salome is not a religious work, it inspired many of the same debates that theologians had been having about music for centuries.

Although there is certainly plenty of musicological scholarship about Strauss and Salome, there are also articles in disciplines like dance and gender studies that address some of the same questions that I have. It will be interesting to see which of their interpretations are shared by musicologists, and I will have to be careful to keep my thesis narrow in order to avoid getting lost in the subject’s complexity. I’m not yet sure where my argument will focus or which direction it will point towards, and I will have to think carefully about how to incorporate musical evidence and analysis, but it is clear that although Salome is not a religious work, it has inspired many of the same debates about music that theologians have discussed for centuries.

Mathis der Maler

Paul Hindemith’s Opera and Symphony, “Mathis der Maler” is set in the 1520s and focuses on the character of Mathis Grünewald, a Reformation-era painter. In an opera concerning an artist during the Protestant Reformation, the religious background of the plot and meaning of the characters in the work are of great importance. One would think then, that scholarship on this work would take into, at the very least, some consideration of the religious meaning and importance that undergirds the work.

I am learning quickly that this is not necessarily the case. Much scholarship has been done on Hindemith’s work in terms of its placement within Nazi Germany, and the parallels drawn between Mathis’ life and Hindemith’s efforts to exist within the regime of the Third Reich. Less emphasis has consequently been put on directly analyzing the religious aspects of the work. Certainly at the least there is a great dearth of analysis as I have searched on this subject in the English literature on Hindemith’s composition. It is possible, that this is a consideration taken into account in the German scholarship; however, I cannot read German, so the extensive body of literature that one can find on this topic, as outlined in the very helpful and exhaustive annotated list of literature compiled by Luttman. This leaves me with both a daunting and exciting possibility of being able to combine the political analysis of the work with its religious elements. This could be very rewarding, however it leaves a large task for me to take on. The other bigger issue is that it is a basis for what could be a large undertaking and a difficult and vague area for me to develop a thesis. Either way, it is an exciting possibility, and I look forward to (and dread just a little) the upcoming project.

새찬송가전집: A New Hymnal for an Evolving Tradition

When I was in Korea visiting my best friend from high school in June of 2015, I purchased a hymnal from a small kiosk in a street market near the Dongdaemun Gate in Seoul, one of many that sold Christian books (bibles, hymnals, and others). The vendor was an older Korean man who jumped up when we walked in and showed genuine surprise when I (with my friend as translator) inquired about purchasing a hymnal. He produced a small green book with gold letters on the front that read “한영 새찬송가전집 / New Korean-English Hymnal”. I flipped through and actually recognized some of the tunes, albeit with unfamiliar words and somewhat different harmonizations. The vendor cut me a deal for ₩20,000 (about $18) and I left.

Fast forward to last week. When I was brainstorming topics for this paper, the idea of examining Korean church music came up, as Christianity (Catholicism and Protestantism combined) represent the largest religious group in Korea (“non-religious” excluded). A quick search on Catalyst ([Korea* AND church music]) led me to an article discussing the newest version of the Korean hymnbook, called the New Korean Hymnal. Unlike hymnals in the US, it is used across many of the protestant denominations in Korea. Its release in 2006 was part of an emerging effort to “Koreanize” the music of the church in Korea, as up to that point, the great majority of the music had been western in origin. From there, I found more articles about how imperialism and colonialism over the last 100 years or so impacted the development of religion in Korea and how, in the last two decades, Korean Christian organizations have made conscious efforts to incorporate traditional music into their worship, adding many hymns based on traditional or newly-composed Korean tunes. After reading this, I discovered that the hymnal I had purchased was indeed a Korean-English bilingual version of this new book. I then decided that I want to explore this return to tradition and how it correlates with reformation ideas of the use of vernacular, traditional and popular/secular tunes, and other forms of adaptation to create more unique and culturally valuable worship.

I am finding that locating print sources that are not too general is difficult, as so far I have only found ones that relate to my topic tangentially. However, I have found several articles and dissertations from which I will likely be able to pull material and find more sources.

From Bach to Bolcom

I originally wanted to talk about the influence of jazz in church music: what aspects does it change, and what stay the same; however, I felt this may be too broad, so my wish is to focus on analysis of one piece specifically: What A Friend We Have in Jesus, a gospel prelude by William Bolcom, and how this piece serves as an equally powerful reflection on its text just as any Bach chorale prelude would. This piece is one that I’ve become more and more familiar with over the past 5 years because the organist that I’d like to work with in graduate school, Dr. David Higgs, has the definitive opinion on this work. He and William Bolcom have worked together closely on the technique and nuance of this piece, with Bolcom revising different aspects of the piece per Higgs’ suggestions. I’ve heard Higgs play it in several concerts, I’ve had a lesson with him where we focused on this work, and I’m playing it in a student recital tomorrow.

My goal in this paper/podcast is to uncover how it serves the texts with a strong analysis. As far as researching goes, because there isn’t any written research available that I could find specifically of the piece, I need to find sources that explain Bolcom’s background as a composer, and what influenced his compositional style to see if his jazz writing is authentic to jazz heritage, or if it is jazz music run through a “classical” filter. I’ve reserved some books about the history of jazz music in the church, and jazz’s impact on religion to see if there is a connection there; if there is, I may want to modify my thesis to include this as an intermediate evolutionary step between Bach and Bolcom.

Early America: Shaker and Sacred Harp Singing

For my second paper, I’m focusing on early American folksong. I began by researching Shaker music, which I enjoyed listening to and which surprised me with its similarities to Sufi music. Ultimately, though, I am not sure if there is enough literature on Shaker music to allow me to make a well-researched argument. My back-up option is the Sacred Harp (shape-note) tradition, which I have also begun to research.

Up until the last two days, my only exposure to the Shaker tradition was “Simple Gifts,” a Shaker song referenced in Copland’s Appalachian Spring. As I began my research, almost every facet of the Shaker lifestyle and religious musical tradition came as a surprise to me. Only one small Shaker community remains today, so my research focused on Shakers in the 1800s. Shakers lived in celibate communities in which all children were adopted (and given the choice to leave at age 21). They believed in the equality of men and women and opposed slavery. In terms of music, they composed hundreds of unison songs, hymns, and anthems that all members of the community sang. Shaker composers notated their work with letter names and marks indicating melodic direction (up or down).

The most distinctive part of the Shaker tradition is the way believers performed music. The word Shaker comes from the name “Shaking Quaker.” In fact, Shakers worshipped with music and ecstatic dance; in many cases, specific motions went along with specific songs.1 This troubled a lot of other Protestant communities, who believed dance had no place in religious practices. The use of dance to reach a state of ecstasy reminded me of the Sufi dances we read about in Shiloah’s “Music and Religion in Islam.” Just as non-Sufi Muslims condemned Sufi dancing, non-Shaker Protestants condemned Shaker dancing.

Although I’m learning a lot about Shaker music from the books available in the library, I haven’t been able to find many scholarly opinions on it. In one sense, the Shaker tradition is very well-documented because its songs were written down.2 On the other hand, I have only found three books and a handful of articles about it.

After spending a long time trying to justify how I could keep researching the Shaker tradition, I decided to look at the Sacred Harp tradition instead. I haven’t gotten very far on this research, but so far I am particularly interested in the ways Sacred Harp singing was made accessible to people not trained in music (for example, singers sometimes used a solfege system to make singing more participatory).3

At this point in my research, I don’t feel like I have enough information to be able to clearly articulate a thesis. I have a general idea of the traditions I’ve read about, but I think I’ll need to do a lot more reading before I’m able to narrow in on a topic.

1 Daniel W. Patterson, The Shaker Spiritual, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1979), 28.

2 Patterson, 35.

3 Buell E. Cobb, Jr., The Sacred Harp: A Tradition and Its Music, (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1978), 59.

Sacred Madrigals and Secular Masses

Every once in a while we come across a piece of music that is categorized in a way that makes us ask why. I’m talking about secular masses and sacred madrigals. I am looking into writing about pieces which exist in a genre which seems questionable. I have found multiple articles on how church music and madrigals are related which is a start. Epstein suggested that I focus on one piece that is in a genre that it wouldn’t normally be in and look into why. I haven’t decided on the exact piece, but I have found some ideas when researching.

One of the hardest things about working with this topic is that I haven’t found a specific piece yet because I needed to find works that are in this category. Searching for those pieces was difficult because of the language used; like how do I put “music categorized in a genre that we wouldn’t expect” into a couple words. I found that a common term used for some pieces is spiritual madrigal. So I was searching for madrigal AND church or madrigal and relig* and there was virtually nothing. Once I figured out the language that writers use, it was easier to navigate the databassi.

I’m thinking I’ll use a madrigal that has to do with the happier parts of a church holiday (I found one about rejoicing in the joys of Lent) so that I can focus on the intent of the composer. There is no way that a madrigal of this kind would be sung in a church, however a secular mass could definitely be sung is a church depending on the text. So I want to look at the intersections (not sucking up) of sacred/secular and come back to our question about if the categorization is really necessary.

Research is Hard

Unfortunately, as I begin to research a new topic, I am still having some of the same issues as I did with my last topic. Much of what I’ve had trouble with is simply not knowing what to search to read about what I want to learn. When I was writing about Hildegard, this was unfortunate but not surprising; I basically had to make my own connections because the connection between Hildegard’s music and music of the Black church hasn’t been made before. I assumed that this new topic–gender and theology in gospel music–would be a road better traveled. However, because I haven’t extensively studied theology, theologies of music, or gospel music/singers, I’m having a lot of trouble just figuring out what searches will bring up relevant sources. So far, I’ve tried combinations of gender/wom*/fem*/gospel/religi*/names of gospel singers. I’ve found a lot of articles that look interesting, but I’m not quite sure how I’ll make an argument out of them.

Based on what I’ve read so far, here are some concepts I’d like to try to connect or find out more about:

Black women as “musical missionaries” (Jerma A. Jackson)–looking at Rosetta Tharpe as an example

Judith Butler’s thoughts on sound/music–more about popular music, but could apply the concepts

Article titled “On Exoticism, Western Art Music, and the Words We Use” by Ralph P. Locke–haven’t read the whole thing yet, but has a lot of important perspectives that I’d like to incorporate, esp. because I don’t want this paper to turn into a study of the “exotic other.”

Useful article by Tammy L. Kernodle that gives an overview of African-American women’s contributions to gospel’s evolution–I will use this to find more search terms/research specific people

Idea that African American men in gospel quartets served as role models for the community–so were women singing gospel also role models or is that transgressive?

Another article by Kernodle exploring Black women’s relationships with each other in musical groups–disproving the myth that they can’t work together because they’re too competitive/focused on men–and how they can validate each other and work together (female friendships are the happiest side of women’s and gender studies so hopefully this fits somehow so I get to talk about this!!)

Possibly how freedom songs/activism grew out of the gospel movement–music as a catalyst for change–this might be pushing it too far out of the topic.

Identity and sound and embodiment of music/theology in a certain type of body

So, these ideas are a little scattered right now but I see promising prospects. I hope to find some kind of common thread that will help me focus the topic, but also find enough to talk about.

Anabaptists: not just what I learned in Sunday School

For our second paper/podcast, I decided to go back to my roots. I was raised Baptist, and before I was baptized, I had to take a short, three-day course that taught me the history of my denomination, going all the way back to the Anabaptists. This led me to wonder about the music of the Anabaptists during the Reformation – they were present during that tumultuous time, yet, I haven’t heard much about them in class or delved into their musical and theological beliefs on my own.

So far, I’ve found some information about what the Anabaptists thought of music in online articles, but I’d like to find more information in book sources here on campus. Originally, I thought I might be able to find information about it in the music library, but it looks like I’ll have to broaden my search and see if there are books about the Anabaptists in the religion sections of Rolvaag that mention their views on music. This seems likely. I also am struggling because a lot of information online through the databases has been about the musical theologies of modern Anabaptists, Mennonites, and the Amish. Even though the Mennonites and Amish were branches off of the Anabaptist tree, I’m more interested in the music of the 16th century Anabaptists than modern ones. Although, it does make me wonder if I should change my topic to compare how their theology of music has changed over time.

I’ve also found a couple “witness” hymns from the Anabaptists about being persecuted, and I think I’ll try to incorporate those into the paper. I’m just not sure if I should focus on one of the hymns and analyze it, or if I should try to have a broader main point and use the hymns as evidence to help prove that point. I think that the former may be a better approach to this paper, though. I’m actually surprised about how much information is available on the musical theologies of the Anabaptists. It seems like there are some books that aren’t available to me via our library system, or books I wouldn’t be able to request through inter-library loan soon enough for them to arrive in time for me to use them in my paper.

I thought that I would compare the Anabaptist view of music with Luther’s, and for that, having some hymns as evidence would work well. However, I have realized that it might be best to narrow my topic to the undercurrents of survival in the music of the persecuted Anabaptists. Articles that I’ve found are titled “Music of the Martyrs,” “Anabaptist Martyr Ballad,” and “We want to tell with singing.” So, I think it will be difficult to separate their music from their pride in survival – not that I think that I should separate them at all. Luther never said much about them, other than that they fundamentally disagreed on baptism, so any primary resources connecting Luther’s faith with the Anabaptists may prove hard to come by. Once I am able to look at more books in Rolvaag, I think that I’ll be able to fully realize my exact topic and how I will use my examples as evidence.



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.

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.

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.

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.

Mendelssohn or Psalms?

I will admit, I haven’t gotten very far in my research yet. I’m currently stuck between two topics that I find equally as interesting: why the Bay Psalm Book was a failure despite its heavy use, or why Mendelssohn’s Reformation Symphony demonstrates the ultimate sign of Lutheranism despite Mendelssohn’s Jewish ancestry.

Initially, I was set on writing about Mendelssohn, but after reading about the Bay Psalm Book, I found it somewhat comical enough to steal my heart. Most of the sources I’ve been reading from hype the book as if it’s the best thing that has happened to humanity, then immediately acknowledge it’s failure and describe how badly it was written. The fact that this poorly written psalm book was fought over so badly makes me wonder what would’ve happened if a well-written book had taken its place. Would it have died out as rapidly as it did? The only issue with this topic is, I’m unsure what stance I would take or what argument I could make about it. Much like my previous paper on Ein feste Burg, most of the information is a bit too straight-forward to twist into an opinion of my own.

My other topic, Mendelssohn’s Reformation Symphony, falls a bit into the same boat. I feel it would be inaccurate to argue that Mendelssohn underwent a musical revolution by converting to Lutheranism especially since it was his family, not him, that decided to make the switch. I also don’t believe this was done under very happy terms, and my research has indicated he and his siblings weren’t necessarily pleased with it. I think there are a lot of great details in the Reformation Symphony I could reference in a paper, but I don’t have a firm grasp on a broader thesis.

I’ve found that, when I’m researching, I get too caught up in the facts and theories to remember what I’m actually trying to say. While both of these topics interest me, I know I’ll need to make them more substantial and focused before committing.

Christmas Fest: Worship or Performance

First off, a quick apology for the tardiness of this post. Orchestra tour has kept me busy!

But now on to the fun topic of talking about Christmas Fest. Some of my most powerful musical experiences have come from being a part of Christmas Festival at St. Olaf. No matter how stressful it always is to memorize those hymn verses at the last minute or preparing all the rep we have to do memorized, in the end I’m always satisfied musically and spiritually through this process. But our discussion last Thursday brought up a very important and interesting question that I’ve thought about often: Is Christmas Fest a worship service or a performance? More importantly for the purposes of this blog post, what would Luther think of Christmas Fest?

First off, I would argue that just because something is a performance doesn’t mean that it can’t be worship. For me (and I believe also for Luther), what really counts is the motive behind what you are doing, in other words, are you doing this Festival for God or for man? With this festival admittently this isn’t an easy question to answer. Christmas Festival is a huge money maker for the college and one of the main events that has put St. Olaf in the national radar. Every day is sold out and packed with very wealthy alumni, who all have expectations of what happens during Christmas Fest (like Beautiful Saviour at the end of every night, there would be literal riots if we didn’t sing that song). So in that sense, we are undoubtedly putting on a performance based on consumer expectations and tradition.

But at the same time, is there anything wrong with that? Can’t we still worship even if part of the motive is commercial? This is a dichotomy that I talk about extensively in my paper about CCM, but I’ll summarize my point by saying that inward motive is more important then outside factors. While I can’t judge the motivations of every participant, for me I am actively worshiping as I participate in Christmas Fest. I’m aware of it being a performance, but that’s not at the forefront of my mind when I sing and play. When I perform, I am doing it for Jesus and His glory. Now as I’ve mentioned before, I have a very conservative evangelical outlook on life, where everything I am is based on Him who gave me life. I am always very aware of being too much a performance and not worship (much of my concern with CCM is this), but I don’t think Christmas Fest is struggling with this in nearly the same way. As Luther said “Why should the devil have all the good music”, and in general I would agree. Thus, Christmas Fest can be worship and performance in my mind, because preparing performance well only contributes to worshipping God in my mind.

Christmas Fest: Why do we DO it?

St. Olaf College’s Christmas festival has happened for more than 100 years. It’s one of the college’s claims to fame and every Scandinavian in Minnesota has made the pilgrimage to Christmas Fest. But what’s the point? When F. Melius Christiansen started the festival, the goal was probably to create a meaningful Lutheran worship experience. Of course, this is probably still a large part of the reason we do it today. But that’s hard to say when the college’s entire marketing year revolves around the commercialization of a “sacred” festival.

Christmas Festival is a week of profits for the college. Of course, there are expenses–the set, the overtime for ensemble leaders, the huge amounts of Norwegian food in the cafeteria, extra energy and water used on campus. But in return, the college gets recruitment, donors, prestige, profits from ticket sales and meal prices, and a supposed affirmation of the Lutheran tradition at St. Olaf. Isn’t this exactly what Luther tried to end for the church? Of course, indulgences and a profitable festival aren’t exactly the same thing. But both are taking advantage of theology to make a profit for an institution, whether it’s the church or it’s a college connected to the church.

Maybe Luther would have appreciated the use of vernacular in Christmas Fest, though. Much of the music is in English (or Norwegian) and the selections are pretty standard; the musical similarity is like the use of a familiar language. The community that attends the festival usually knows what to expect. However, maybe this stagnancy isn’t what a reformer like Luther would have wanted. Christmas Fest could change and grow with the times and the different goals it might be fulfilling now. Even though it’s built on a Christian tradition (Christmas) and still contains some artifacts of this, like the scripture readings, I would argue that a majority of the people who attend Fest do so just to enjoy the music and community and holiday season. Much of the religious interpretation of the festival has to come from the way individuals approach their thinking about it. But again, maybe Luther would like this! After all, maybe the sacred nature of Christmas Fest is something that can only be achieved by “faith alone.”

The Community of Thousands of Opinions in One Gym

Change, tradition, religion, and expectations. Each person has their own ideas about what should exist and morph in each of these categories, and never are two peoples’ ideas the same about such things. Christmas Fest at St. Olaf College is a prime example of such a conflict coming into the spotlight (if you will). Luther says that for a church service to accurately be considered a worship service the Gospel must be shared. Additionally, he is a big fan of music and says that actions which connect participants closer to God are sacred and good and should be included in the service. Christmas Fest costs money to produce, and St. Olaf charges the audiences money to attend. People who donate money to the college get rewarded for their financial success by better ticket buying options. A few years ago Christmas Fest was rebranded from a worship service to what we know it to be today: a profit-pumping concert with good intentions and carefully manicured shadow vowels across the massed choir. If Luther came to a Christmas Fest rehearsal right after Thanksgiving break what would he see and think? If Luther came to a Christmas Fest performance what would he think? Would he be disgusted that the college is putting a cost on the chance to worship and celebrate the Christmas story as he was disgusted with the practice of indulgences? Or would he look at the large rehearsals as opportunities to work at strengthening one’s personal connection and relationship with God? In a time of reform it is so easy for patterns to be made and conclusions to be drawn. However, each and every person who participates in planning, performing, or attending Christmas Fest has a different idea of what it needs to be. It is impossible for everyone to be pleased, and if St. Olaf can raise enough money from Christmas Fest to further spread joy and love (as the Lutheran tradition would interpret Jesus’ mission to be) it is worth going against the grain of the handful of people who think pursuing quasi-maniac rehearsal perfection is not a noble way to work toward a deeper relationship with God.

Christmas Fest

What is it exactly that the machine of Christmas Fest stands for? Does Christmas Fest stand primarily as a worship service, glorifying God through a musical celebration of Christmas? Or perhaps the two hour long ordeal stands primarily as a concert? Certainly it would seem that Christmas Fest got its humble beginnings with the former. In this sense, St. Olaf’s Christmas Festival was created with the intention of creating, if not a worship service exactly, a worship-like environment for members of the community at hand and far away could come together in celebration of their common Lutheran heritage and Christmas.

Like many long-standing traditions though, Christmas Festival has morphed, emerged, evolved. Over time, the religious messages have remained, the gospel of Christ’s birth still told to its audience every performance. Yet there are what seem like countless numbers of aspects of the Festival that fly in the face of anything to do with an actual worship service. With high ticket prices, a message that seems to get buried within a Christiansen chorale here and a Vaughan Williams showstopper there, and an audience and community more wrapped up in the shallow traditions of Christmas Fest, it would begin to seem that any notions of a primarily religious Christmas Festival have long been lost.

Here I think, among many things which have already been discussed in great lengths in their blogs posts, Luther would take great issue with the domination of tradition in the planning of Christmas Fest’s yearly conception. On one hand, Christmas Fest’s play to the audience’s desire for tradition serves as a vehicle of sorts to allow the audience of Fest to approach the monstrous behemoth that is Fest and try and make sense of it, musically, academically, religiously. The audiences that come to Christmas Fest know exactly what to expect each and every year. In this sense Christmas Fest’s structure helps audiences understand ti more easily, which Luther would have supported. Yet still this blind traditionalism also belies the fact that it also permits a sense of complacency that I believe Luther would have abhorred. For we are in dangerous territory if we continue to ascribe to systems of theological/religious meaning that we leave unexamined to determine its relation to the message that’s intended to be conveyed.

In other words, if we want to best save Fest’s original purpose, and hold on to the event’s religious value, maybe it’s time that Fest no longer be done for the sake of keeping traditions strong, and we evaluate how those traditions can help it serve its purpose.

Christmas Fest: A Meaningful Academic Event

Professor Bobb described Christmas Fest as an academic event done in a meaningful, authentic way. The choirs are college choirs, not church choirs. Even looking at Christmas Fest as an academic experience, however, several theological problems arise. Nevertheless, I think Luther would have had a few positive things to say about it.

Certain elements of Luther’s theology do seem to indicate a problem with Christmas Fest. One line from Psalm 9:1 particularly draws my attention. It says, “Some people confess with their lips only. They are the ones who say one thing in the heart and another with the mouth, like the sinner who has evil intentions and sings to God nevertheless.”1
This seems to imply that people should only sing what they believe. If people are required to sing prescribed religious songs as part of their academic experience, how can they avoid sometimes singing text with which they disagree? Furthermore, how can students of different branches of Christianity avoid singing text counter to their own beliefs (and consequently sinning)?

Another dilemma arises when one considers that Fest is one of St. Olaf’s biggest moneymakers. Luther warns against the misuse or prostitution of music.2
The need for tickets at Fest makes one wonder if religious music is being used for financial gain, arguably a misuse.

On the other hand, some aspects of Fest seem to agree with Reformation theology (even when we consider the event through an academic lens). According to Luther, “music reigns in times of peace.”3 For example, in 1541, Luther called people to sing prayer in response to the threat of the Ottoman Empire. Christmas Fest themes often promote peace, and Luther likely would have approved of this decision.

Likewise, Luther believed that the expression of real faith required music. While he may have objected to parts of Christmas Fest, Luther probably would have liked the general idea of a well-meaning event centered on music. He also would have valued the individual connection to God that many people gain from the Fest experience.

As an academic event, Christmas Fest presents some theological issues. Despite these objections, however, Luther likely would have found admirable qualities in Fest concerts.

1 Robin A. Leaver, “Luther on music,” Lutheran Quarterly 20/2 (2006): 127. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost (accessed July 28, 2016).

2 Martin Luther. Preface to Symphoniae jucundae, trans. Ulrich S. Leupold, in Luther’s Works, LIII (Philadelphia: The Fortress Press, 1965), 324.

3 Leaver, 136.

Christmas Fest is both Sinner and Saint.

As Lutherans assert that humans are simul justus et peccator (simultaneously sinner and saint), so I will assert that Fest is too. To put it in the vernacular, Fest is… complicated. It is quite consistent with Lutheran theology that things like Fest happen at schools like St. Olaf. Most fundamentally, Fest could be understood as a service of the Word, in the sense that the songs are meant to entice the listeners and singers to reflect on the gospel (when I say gospel I mean “Good News”) message of the birth of Jesus. In this sense, Fest is a perfect example of evangelism. It also makes sense from a Lutheran point of view of vocation that we spend so much time and energy on it. Having been justified by Christ’s death and resurrection, we can spend time working for the good of our neighbor by learning lots of songs  that elucidate the gospels, and singing at them.

The thought that music has the ability to bring greater understanding of the Good News is consistent with Lutheranism too. We’ve been using music as an instrument of edification since the Reformation. My personal research has also shown that proto-reformers whose ideas greatly influenced Luther, namely Hus and Wycliffe, held similar views on music as Luther. Thus, at its best, Christmas Fest is St. Olaf staff, faculty, and students, working together to share the Good News with the community at large.

However, we must also address the sinner side of Fest. To begin with, it seems problematic that people have to pay to see it. From a Lutheran standpoint, money should not influence how much one is able to participate in the church. It is a particular fault of our society to conflate the acquisition of wealth with God’s favor. The belief that one being rich indicates that one is favored by God is a stumbling block over which the Puritans fell, and over which the political right in America often falls today. I grant that Christmas Fest is not cheap to produce. It requires the time of many professionals whose services cost money, and those services  should be highly valued and adequately compensated. However, upon considering that Jesus was poor and disadvantaged enough in his society to be born in a barn, it seems awfully ironic that St. Olaf would prohibit the demographic to which Jesus belonged in participating fully in the celebration of his birth. If it is true that one cannot serve both God and mammon (Matt. 6: 24), then it seems like we should be perfectly willing to perform this artistic unpacking of the gospels free of charge, for any who care to listen.


I also worry about the pageantry. The pomp and circumstance around Christmas Fest can seem all consuming. To a degree, we feel like we’ve worked hard, and our hard work should be rewarded by the admiration of middle aged people in Norwegian sweaters who coughed all throughout the performance and clapped for a long time when we finished. To understand this situation through a Lutheran lens, one must consider the two kingdoms doctrine. Basically this doctrine asserts that the worldly kingdom is broken, slightly tragic, and temporary; whereas the heavenly kingdom is right relationship with God, the holy, and eternal. This is really a gross simplification but I’ve probably written too much already. In terms of the heavenly kingdom, Lutherans take the apostle Paul at his word when he says “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift through the redemption that is in Jesus Christ,” (Rom. 3: 23-24). Basically the thought is that by our own power we do only bad things, and that it is by God’s action alone that we aren’t sentenced to eternal awfulness. However, in the worldly kingdom, relative levels of blame or praise may be assigned based on how well one loves one’s neighbor (a thought which of course needs more nuance than may be provided here). The takeaway is that when Lutheran’s are at their best, they’ll do what they believe to be a loving action regardless of whether or not they receive a tangible benefit from their efforts. I understand that in order to maintain its existence, St. Olaf needs money. However, it is necessary to point out that compromising one’s beliefs in order to prolong one’s existence is not, in any way shape or form, a Lutheran value.

I also have qualms with singing in dialect. It seems really pointless to me. In most cases I don’t believe that singing in a particular dialect helps an audience understand the words being sung. This matters a lot when one is trying to convey the gospels. It also strikes me as odd that in general we only sing in dialects when we sing music that we perceive as having an origin foreign to a white, anglo-saxon tradition. We never sing early  American tunes in the style of shape note singers. We never sing Luther chorales as they would have been sung by his parishioners. We recognize that these styles of singing are unappealing to the modern listener. Why then do we insist on changing the way we sing in English a song which originated out of a non-white community or tradition? Similar questions may be raised about why we sing in foreign languages in contexts where only the vernacular will be understood by a majority of the listeners.

Christmas Fest is important to me. In some dramatic ways, it can draw St. Olaf musicians into an even closer bond with each other.. All of us recognize that Fest can be (or rather, is) a nightmare, but we get to experience this nightmare together. And for some of us extra silly folks, Fest is an opportunity to express our joy at a particular event, which we assert happened in 1st century Palestine, in a place not designed for childbirth.

Finally I would like to exclaim that it is just fine that Fest happens in Skogatorium. Lutherans should not necessarily be interested in owning the most glamorous, the most expensive, or the most beautiful. During Christmas Fest Lutherans ought to  remind themselves that that the person called Jesus of Nazareth was born in a stable; the lowliest of living establishments. We are quite fortunate to have such a place as Skogitorium. It is warm and dry, and as safe as we can reasonably hope. Performing Christmas Fest is taxing on most performers, but I have to think it’s worthwhile.

Christmas Festival: A Musical Commentary for Spiritual Fulfillment

In many ways, the St. Olaf Christmas Festival resembles kind of worship service. It contains many elements of a modern Lutheran service, including a processional, several congregational hymns, prayers, a Gospel reading (always a recounting of the nativity or a related story), more (a lot more) than one anthem, and a recessional. Most if not all of the music at Christmas Fest is “sacred”, using texts derived from scripture or other religious sources. It even has a theological message every year, albeit one that is a broad attempt at connecting pieces together and often drawn directly from a text (for example, “The World Renewed With Love Divine” coming from a very similarly named hymn that made an appearance). However, while all of this is true, attendance comes with an admission fee and the cultural pressure to wear a Norwegian sweater and visit the Caf for over-priced lutefisk and lefse. And while it takes the form of a worship service, nobody but perhaps the planning committee would call it such, as every other aspect points more to a concert as part of a larger cultural celebration.

When Leonard Bernstein wrote his Mass, he too stuck loosely to an existing liturgical form: the Roman Catholic mass. He hit all of the Mass Ordinary (in the right order) and many elements of the Mass Proper (although not really in the right order) and inserted his commentary, in a manner consistent with what was traditional and catered his content to the newly minted Sacrosanctum Concilium (a result of the Second Vatican Council’s move towards ecumenism and accessibility, or, more simply, an attempt to become more like protestants). And, like Christmas Fest, while Mass sticks roughly to a liturgical form, it is very non-liturgical and would never be used as liturgy. It is first a foremost a “concert mass”, or a mass intended for performance and consumption for the enjoyment of its listeners but not for worship.

Both Christmas Fest and Bernstein’s Mass clearly function more as concerts and performances than worship services, but that does not, however, negate their theological and spiritual significance. As Bernstein inserted his commentary on Religion and the American spiritual zeitgeist of the 1960s and 70s, the planning committee of Christmas Fest molds together a theme and selects music that best expresses that idea, creating a new commentary on the Gospel and the story of Christmas that we all know well. While it may seem very formulaic, it still is something that Luther would have valued as it presents the spiritual in a more thought-provoking and accessible setting, even if it tends to seem somewhat commercial and kitschy at times. And this formula works: while certainly not every participant or attendee of Christmas Fest has a “religious” or “spiritual” experience while singing or listening, many will say that they come out of the experience having found spiritual or religious value, and enough that many people make a yearly pilgrimage to campus to see it (my parents included, who came for the first time last year after being devoted members of the radio and TV audiences for years and don’t own any Norwegian sweaters and certainly don’t come for the lutefisk).

While Christmas Fest, like Bernstein’s Mass, would not be labeled by most as a worship service, it is nonetheless a valuable spiritual experience for many and with a theological commentary rooted in the traditions of the Reformation.

Christmas Celebration

On the St. Olaf College website, the St. Olaf Christmas Festival is described as “one of the oldest musical celebrations of Christmas in the United States.” It’s important to remember this self-definition when questioning this event’s identity: is it a concert, or is it a service?

It’s kind of both. It has elements of theology that align quite well with Luther’s ideas in the reformation. Christmas Fest presents a theme every year that is reflected through most of (if not all) the repertoire selected. This year’s is “Light Dawns, Hope Blooms”. In my own research regarding my first paper, I discovered that Luther believed musicians’ job in worship is to present musical sermons with a compelling theological message that’s accessible to the congregation. I’ve never been an audience member of Christmas Fest, but I believe it would be difficult to not catch a glimpse of each yearly message since the theme is clearly pasted above the roughly 500 choir members in a catchy font.

Christmas Festival has another important factor pointing itself towards being more of a service: congregational hymns. There is a processional hymn for all to sing when the choirs enter, two hymns in the middle of event, and a recessional hymn when the choirs exit into the round. Luther was an avid advocate for accessible chorale tunes so all present at a service could sing together.

Unfortunately, Christmas Festival loses its validity as a service in politics. Entry to the event costs $30 per person, plus a $7 “transaction fee” when purchasing. This makes the festival an exclusive event rather than inclusive. If St. Olaf wanted it to be closely aligned with service practices without overbooking each night, tickets could be reserved for free with a free-will donation optional. Along with the clapping that follows the final notes of Beautiful Savior at the end, it’s really not possible to argue that it is a service any longer. Because the actual contents of the concert mainly have the intentions of a service, I don’t think it’s entirely fair to call it simply a concert either. It’s a celebration of Christmas; the website is not wrong.

Is Christmas Fest a Concert or a Worship Service?

Concerts with sacred repertoire are nothing new to any musician. Especially in my Catholic high school, every concert we sung had a few sacred pieces on the program. Every February we would put together a “Sacred Concert,” with all choirs (there were seven choirs and three extracurricular groups), where we asked audience members not to applaud until the end, similar to Christmas Fest. These sacred concerts were often during Lent, yet had nothing to do with the Lenten season, similar to Fest’s place within the Advent season, yet treated more as a Christmas celebration than an Advent service. Although music in the Catholic tradition has a different purpose, I came to St. Olaf without being bothered by Christmas Fest. I understood the idea of a sacred concert, but when it was explained to me that Fest was a worship service, I was confused. Why would the audience pay upwards of thirty dollars for a worship service, which should be free and open to the public?

The consumerism aspect of Fest is the part with which many participants struggle. The music fits into the idea of a service, but how do Swedish meatballs, lutefisk, and Norwegian sweaters relate to a prayer service? The students are not only bothered by the incredible amount of people crowding their campus, but also the sheer amount of hours they must dedicate to this event. Mass choir rehearsals begin in a week, and students sacrifice days out of their Thanksgiving break each year to return and prepare and exhaust themselves with four long concerts and a dress rehearsal, immediately before finals. These long hours do not help the participants to feel spiritually renewed.

While there are contentions as to what Christmas Fest actually is, some aspects of Fest align with Lutheran music theology. Each year, audience members (or congregation) are asked to sing four hymns at different points in the concert. Pastors Matt and Katie both read scripture that pertains to the theme selected by the directors. Christmas Fest uplifts the spirits of some audience members. I like to believe that Christmas Fest is popular not only because the music is beautiful, but because the music is beautiful AND spiritually uplifting, which is the music that Luther praised so highly.

How do I know what a dead man thinks about a modern tradition? I don’t.

Apparently, people have a problem with Christmas Fest.

I can’t say I’ve ever thought of a problem with Fest. I’ve always loved the hullabaloo, the excitement, and the chance to worship God. Also, the repertoire is fun to sing. Even though it’s long, it’s like when a runner does a marathon. Tiring, but still, glad to have done it.

In Luther’s day, he borrowed from secular traditions like in his chorales and other musical works, and he encouraged worship in vernacular. Fest accomplishes this, but we also include more pieces from foreign traditions (“Chinese” tunes, “Gospel” songs, and songs sung in dialects). The issue of appropriation aside, I can see how these songs may be deemed as a bit too modern or different for us to include in a very Lutheran, lutefisk-filled weekend of Christian worship.

While Luther did condone slowly incorporating new things into the church, I don’t know how he would feel about us singing these more modern-inspired songs. On one hand, I think that they reach people in ways that hymns sometimes do not. Everyone worships differently and feels closer to God through different kinds of music. Personally, I don’t feel anything at all while singing hymns, and even though Fest is more of a pageant/performance, I feel very connected to God when listening to the more contemporary pieces at Fest. Some people may have different experiences and think that the “O come, All Ye Faithful” that we sing basically every year is just the most awe-inspiring thing they’ve ever sung as worship. I think that it’s important that Fest include these varying genres in hopes of having at least one or two things that every member of the audience can love and feel more connected to God. Since Luther encouraged music that brings incredible amounts of joy and happiness because it’s a gift from God, I think that this is very important.

Also, I suppose there is the issue of Fest being more of a performance than a worship service – it’s a strange hybrid of the two, which I think is fine! There’s nothing wrong with this fairly unique spectacle. As to Luther’s opinion, I think he would have approved, especially considering his opinions on vocation – this isn’t nearly as controversial as say, if you were playing covers of screamo music for a living. I have no qualms categorizing this as a Luther-approved way to spend our free time (since, you know, we don’t have to spend all of our time doing good works to get to heaven, according to his doctrine of justification).

However, I am not a Luther scholar, and I cannot possibly know what Luther would have thought. He’s been dead for 470 years. I can have my opinion, but he could surprise me. As I understand it, surprising people was kinda part of what he did (“surprise, here’s 95 theses,” “surprise, I actually don’t support the peasant revolt,” “surprise, I’m kinda racist,” etc).

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.

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.

F. Melius Christmasfest

If you can judge the “Lutheran-ness” of an event based on the ratio of sweaters to humans, then when Luther died, he surely ascended into Skoglund Auditorium. Christmas Fest is one of the most effective examples in the world of music being utilized as a form of worship, as years upon years of St. Olaf students and choir members have been told. In my view, the fact that Pastor Matt narrates throughout the event and reads the Gospel with Pastor Katie makes Christmas Fest a time of worship. It really is as simple as that. There is a conscious effort on the part of the artistic committee to make it possible for people to worship at Fest. Without those key things, it would be so much easier to call it a “concert” of Christmas music. In its current state, with each year’s theme so profoundly integrated into the narration and performance, and taking into account the deep-rooted tradition with which we St. Olaf students resurrect this exquisite exhibition of Christmas spirit each year, I think the only ones who wouldn’t call it worship are the ones who haven’t really thought about it.

The concept of music being accessible to any congregation was so important to Luther that he composed his own chorales with the intent of spreading the efficiency with which music could transmit ideas and doctrines. Having the time to compose chorales instead of  doing ‘works’ is definitely a benefit of guaranteed salvation through faith. While perhaps he would disapprove of certain pieces we perform that are too inaccessible for our congregation of twelve thousand, the spirit of the Reformation is intensely alive each year  in Christmas Fest.

Would Luther jam to Fest? Probably…

…but would he consider it worship? Maybe. Maybe not. Although Luther was an advocate for music in worship, it was also very important to him that worship be accessible AND that the congregation be fully involved and engaged, when appropriate. It could be argued that Fest does, in fact cover these bases – the audience joins in singing hymns, the choirs sing a huge variety of music, and even the Gospel is read by real pastors in vestments! However, Luther was still a proponent of liturgical services, and while there is a flow and an art to Christmas Fest, there most certainly is not a liturgy. On the other hand, worship in Luther’s day and place was still very similar to Catholicism in terms of structure. Therefore, the idea that Fest can be considered some sort of “creative worship” would have been completely foreign to Luther. I do not think it would have been a worship experience for him. He may even have disapproved of having an event with an ambiguous mission – is it worship or is it performance? However, I will not go so far as to suggest that he would have viewed the whole event as sacrilegious. After all, Luther believed in his calling to spread and preach the Gospel. It is difficult to consider his thoughts on a modern day concept, but it is important to wonder about, because it keeps us actively thinking about decisions in our current worship and theology. Since Luther wanted all people to feel connected to God through worship, I find myself thinking that he would be open to the idea that in 2016, Christmas Fest is a form of worship for many, even if not for himself, and that worshipping God in any wholesome capacity is the most important thing we can do to appreciate and accept God’s gift of faith.

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.

Christmas Fest: Conflict or Confluent?

A beloved tradition of a college of the Lutheran church, the annual St. Olaf Christmas Festival echoes the Reformation musical theology and embodies Martin Luther’s perception of music and religion in many ways. First and foremost, Luther constructed his cosmology of music upon this core statement that music is next to the Word of God. According to Luther, music is a divine gift uniquely assigned to humans as a medium to praise and thank God for His forgiveness and love. As a result, music has long been an essential part of Lutheran worship tradition. Correspondingly, serving the traditional Christian holiday, Christmas Fest centralizes on religious repertoire while incorporates essential worship rituals such as gospel readings in between music performances. We can argue that Christmas Fest is necessarily Lutheran because in this event, music is valued as effective and significant as text readings in terms of fulfilling the demand of Christian holiday celebration.

Beyond the fundamental appreciation to music itself, distinctive from many other Christian beliefs, Lutherans tolerate and value diverse mediums of making music, embracing both vocal and instrumental music, as well as virtuosity in musical performances. Christmas Fest inherits the Lutheran acknowledgement to the variety approaches of music making by including both choral repertoire and instrumental piece into the event, although vocal music always dominates the program. In addition, Christmas Fest features fairly virtuosic performing groups, such as the St. Olaf Choir and  the St. Olaf Orchestra, and the choices of repertoire are particularly demanding as well.

Despite of these connections with Luther’s statements about on music and its effectiveness in worship, Christmas Fest does face several fundamental problems in regard to the Reformation musical theology. One essential premise for the Reformation Theology to function is the existence of faith in Christ. However, Christmas Fest inevitably involves individuals who are of other or without religious belief in both the participants and the audience, due to the college setting of this event. This problem of lack of religious devotion is augmented when the college advertises the event as a school concert and sales tickets for it, which conflicts with Lutheran’s idea that making music is justified primly and essentially because of the religious motivation.

Therefore, through this brief discussion about the consistency and discordance between the Reformation musical theology and Christmas Fest, it is fairly clear that Christmas Fest does not carry one single function but is rather a multi-functional event that serves different groups of people for both sacred and secular meanings. Instead of arguing that the sacred and secular aspects of the event conflict with each other, I would rather say Christmas Fest is a confluence of diverse needs existed in a college campus, since eventually the event functions as a great opportunity to gather the community together with joyful spirits no matter what is the rationale behind.

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.

Music is a Gift from God

The most problematic aspect of Christmas Fest for me is the pageantry. I will shy away from using the word authentic, but it becomes a replicated experience when it is done four nights in a row. It is very well put together and cohesive as held together by the year’s theme and I think this is consistent with St. Olaf’s reputation, but I don’t think we can call it worship. Most of the people are there because they love to sing and are in choir at one of the best schools for choir in the nation, not because they want to bring a gift of worship to the global community. It comes down to intent for me and I know that not everything that is offered is as wholly genuine as it could be.

I also think that Luther’s ideas on music can be congruent with the institution of Fest. Because music is a gift from God, it should be cherished and celebrated, and this action can take many forms. We do sing secular pieces, but it is the music that can also be appreciated and that in and of itself is something that St. Olaf obviously believes in, regardless of the intent of Christmas Fest. Luther believes that music drives away evil, and in the two Fest’s that I’ve been a part of, the theme has been something inspiring world peace. We may not be celebrating God outright in an overly ecclesial context, but the sentiment still stands that we are celebrating the musical gifts we are given (vocation) and contributing to a global effort to create community and stop evil.

To many people, it is confusing why the festival has verses from the Bible, but I think it should be understood that the purpose of Christmas Fest is to share the gift of music with the world, to spread hope in dark times, and in doing so we are praising God and serving him.


The Bear that is Christmas Fest

Christmas Fest has been a significant part of St. Olaf’s musical tradition for over a hundred years, but as many students know, it has a reputation for being both an incredible and painful experience. Strangely, Christmas Fest is somewhat of an enigma as it goes against a lot of what the Reformation set out to change, despite coming from a Lutheran tradition. Fest is, of course, meant to be showy, but is also meant to hold religious depth, sort of like a less cute adult version of a Christmas pageant. So, what is Christmas Fest and is it something Martin Luther would’ve wanted?

In rehearsals leading up to the performance, it is clear Christmas Fest’s music is intended to be perfected, which sounds a lot like the ars perfecta tradition. Through my research, I’ve learned that Luther loved the ars perfecta tradition but knew it wasn’t suited for the common person. Frankly, the average Fest attendee would likely not be able to sound like the choirs. Attendees do get a chance to sing hymns as a large group, but a majority of the music is sung by the choirs only, mimicking pre-Reformation ideals that only church officials get to perform. Aside from that, you run into many problems if you view Christmas Fest as a worship service, especially since you have to pay to attend. Things become less problematic when you view the event as just a performance, but it is difficult to remove the religious element when pastors come in to recite verses from the Bible.

I think it’s beneficial for us to discuss Christmas Fest in terms of what we know from the Reformation, but we should also keep in mind that Fest is its own entity that doesn’t necessarily have to connect back to Reformation ideals. Having been both a performer and a Fest attendee, I’ve been able to see both sides of the experience. As a listener, you buy a ticket with the expectation that you will hear great choirs sing great music, and you’re less concerned about making the event into a church service. From my personal experience, it’s been hard to find audience members that have had a problem with the festival in this way. As a performer, I think your experience depends on what you put into it. I worked hard and was exhausted by the end, but I still enjoyed it and got a small amount of religious satisfaction from it. On the other hand, I absolutely see why Fest can be controversial as it often feels like Christianity is being shoved down the performer’s throat as they’re forced to preach about it whether or not they agree with it themselves. I wonder, though, exactly how much damage would be done by taking the religious element out of Fest; perhaps it would go over well, they’d just need a new name.

Everyone involved in Christmas Fest should be reflecting on what the event means to them and what it might mean to others, but it is especially important for the planning committee to analyze how Fest affects the St. Olaf community. In the end, Christmas Fest is a much bigger deal than just a performance, it’s also something the community cares a whole lot about. Therefore, it’s just as important to keep the big picture in mind as it is to analyze details that will help us better the experience in years to come.

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.

I think Luther would like Christmas Fest.

Where do I even begin with talking about Christmas Fest? I guess I’ll start by saying that it is my second favorite experience of the year, in between #1: all of Holy Week and #3: Christmas Eve itself. The more I keep thinking about Fest, the more I compare it to how Luther sees the world.

For me, Christmas Fest is a religious experience. The texts we sing combined with the crazy amount of talent in the room is definite proof to me that God exists and knows how to have a great time. Of course, this is colored by my personal beliefs that God is everywhere and that everything is a spiritual experience as long as it is done with the right intent. But even those who don’t necessarily have the “God is everywhere” mentality – I think of my roommate who doesn’t really practice any faith anymore – can still feel as though they have been religiously, or at least spiritually, restored by the festival.

So how does this connect to Luther and the Reformation? I keep thinking of what Pastor Matt said to us before fall break, that God has given believers a free gift. We can accept the gift or not, but we can not ever pay back the gift. So we find ways to celebrate, glorify, and recognize this gift in the hopes that one day it will be enough. This gift is Christmas Fest (except WHOA it is definitely not a free gift… $$). Dr. Armstrong always talks about a serving spirit, and how this festival isn’t for us to just show off, but make others feel. Feel more whole, more loved, more inspired. It is Luther’s mentality about faith and grace. The audience can attend Christmas Fest and choose whether or not to accept the gift we are giving. We, as choristers and orchestra members, can choose whether or not to accept the texts the planning committee has given us. The gift of the experience of Fest is, to me, priceless. I know I can never “pay back” the conductors, the pastors, the audiences, the logistics team, etc. for this marvelous experience. But I know that I can pay it forward through my singing and attitude, turning grace into works.

A reflection on research process: We should misunderstand

Talking about religion has in general been challenging for me. Although I am aware of the significance of religion upon people’s life, and the crucial impact of religion upon historical and social development, having limited religious background, I feel like I do not have much to say about this topic. Partially because I am severely concerned that my sparse knowledge has little to contribute and would necessarily reach its limit as I am going deeper to the subject, consequently leading to far-fetched misunderstanding.

But anyhow, I need to write this research paper about music and religion. Therefore, I concentrated on the readings we have done so far in class, confirming myself that at least I could come up with some argument based on what I learned in class. The readings that I focused on are Bloxam and Robertson’s articles about the tradition of “chanson mass,” or “parody mass.” In their essays, Bloxam and Robertson argued for credible allegorical readings on the original secular text of the chanson, and justified the religious motivation of borrowing secular material to compose sacred music. Following their approach, I decided to try out similar religious reading on Missa Fors seulement, a sacred mass of J. Ockeghem borrowing secular elements from his own chanson Fors seulement.

As my research processes, I realized that discrepancies if not conflicts are so common between different sources and scholarships, and each of them has some “misunderstanding.” First of all, I looked up several editions of Fors seulement, which disagree with each other on the arrangement of the two upper voice parts because of their similar voice range. Even Bloxam and Robertson, the two main scholars that I refer to, offered distinctive approaches to allegorical readings on secular text. Bloxam focused on Mariological interpretation of the court lady, the dedicatee of the secular chanson, yet Robertson emphasized the Christological approach in which the narrator of the love song was a metaphor of Christ. In other words, all of these scholarships try to revive the past, but potentially they “misunderstand,” since what truly happened during the Medieval remains unknown. However, like what Sorce Keller said in his essay “Why we misunderstand,” “one does justice to a musical work by ‘misunderstanding’ it, by discovering with our intelligence and creativity what kind of sense it can still have in our time.” Therefore, by following what the previous scholars had been doing, I may justify my own misunderstanding on this topic, that is to offer myself, at least, an opportunity to retrospect to the past and scrutinize the idea of the intertwined relationship between the secular and the sacred.

Schubert’s “Gott ist mein Hirt” – apparently “Hirt” people’s feelings.

Thus far, I’ve done some research on Schubert’s setting of Psalm 23.

Firstly, I will start by saying that this SSAA piece shows off Schubert’s talents well, but does not audibly fascinate me all that much. Maybe, I need to find a better recording than the Kings College Choir of Cambridge on NAXOS, but I doubt I’d find anything better. A lot of reviews of this piece have been written along with a lot of scholarship about the text, so it’s not a difficult piece to research. The ease of accessibility regarding the research materials makes it a good topic to delve into, however, I don’t find myself particularly opinionated about the piece in the first place – do I even like it? Should I argue for the other side instead?

In my paper, I’ve written that I think it is an appropriate setting of the piece, despite previous scholarship that implies it is not – am I only arguing this to play devil’s advocate against people who say it’s an inappropriate setting? I don’t like it when people try to dictate what religious texts can be set to specific kinds of music (a topic heard about in contemporary music, but less scholarship has been done on Christian rock, for example), and so I think I’m just arguing this point in order to fight against people trying to restrict “appropriate” church music to their opinions. Even if I don’t have a strong love of this piece, out of principle, I feel the need to argue for it’s validity as a sacred piece.

The more I look into the piece, the more I see how I can appreciate it and enjoy it – though I may not go out of my way to listen to it because I’m really feeling the need to listen to some small schoolboys sing a little higher than their ranges allow. I can’t say that’s a desire I’ve ever felt. However, I love the text and the message of Schubert’s setting (which I’m only beginning to understand now, after I’ve researched its’ form and the chiastic nature of the text).

In regard to more specific aspects of my research, I’ve been having trouble locating the paper called The Musical Transcript from 1854 – it has a review of the piece I’d like to be able to correctly reference, but at the moment I’m unable to locate it properly. This was a review of someone who really did not like the piece and apparently felt personally victimized by Franz Schubert for this setting of the piece.

My research has not been as difficult in finding sources (except that 150 year old paper), but has been more difficult in regards to my opinions. Am I playing devil’s advocate? Also, how do I make people care about this highly specific topic?

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.

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.

Felix Mendelssohn-Bachtholdy

Mendelssohn’s revival of the St. Matthew Passion is a subject that attracts a large amount of scholarly writing, but most of that writing is so generic that it actually took a long time to sort through. Multiple books (both biographies and compilations) which I thought would be quite enlightening went no further than “…and then in 1829 he revived the St. Matthew Passion. In 1830…”

The two best sources I was able to find were actually secondary sources, despite the number of primary sources I had. They were Olga Termini’s article, “Bach Pupils and the Bach Tradition,” and a book written entirely on the subject of Mendelssohn’s 1829 accomplishment alone: Celia Applegate’s Bach in Berlin: Nation and Culture in Mendelssohn’s Revival of the St. Matthew Passion. Termini’s article focused on specifically how the performance was received, which is exactly what I was looking for, and Applegate’s book had so much pertinent information that I was surprised at how much of it I had to cut out for the sake of getting to the point. I hope to utilize her work more thoroughly in my final draft.

A surprising primary source was Elvers’ compilation of Mendelssohn’s various letters. I’m interested in what insights I would have been able to come across had Elvers decided to include important letters that Mendelssohn received as well as those he sent. The point of view of Zelter, Mendelssohn’s mentor, would have been invaluable, seeing as he initially opposed the Bach performance but changed his mind at the last minute.

It would be fantastic if I could find record of a review of that first performance, but there are two possible reasons for why I haven’t yet: 1 – I’m not looking hard enough, or 2 – they don’t exist. I can solve the first issue easily as we come closer to reaching the final draft, but the second one is more disappointing, if it’s true. Looking back from the vantage point of the 21st century, that event was such a momentous occasion that it would be sad if there weren’t any existing reviews of it. My goal is to determine the cultural impact of the revival and to place its importance into the category of either “religious event” or “secular renewal of a religious artifact.”

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.

Making New Connections: Hildegard and..??

I decided a long time ago that I wanted to explore Hildegard of Bingen’s life and work with my research in this class. I thought this would be a pretty straightforward task that would follow my usual path of research: make a great Boolean search statement, find some articles, and put them in conversation with each other. My expectations were significantly wrong.

The first challenge I came across was that I actually am not sure how to talk about Hildegard’s music. I can write about her philosophies of music and discuss her use of female voices, but I actually do not have the tools to otherwise analyze her music in a way that’s useful to making a point. Because of this, I did not include any specific musical examples or even names of pieces in my first draft.

I also had quite a bit of difficulty just deciding on a topic. I hadn’t really considered how I would write about Hildegard; I just wanted to learn about her and I didn’t have a plan for how I would make it matter and connect that knowledge to other important topics. Thanks to the Holsinger reading on the syllabus, I decided to follow the idea of bodily experiences with music. I initially wanted to compare dance music to Hildegard’s thoughts on physicality of music, but I found virtually no connections that were sufficient for writing a paper.

Because I was having trouble finding a specific topic, it was very difficult to search for articles and books with which to do my research. I eventually found a section of thought and research that theologians were calling “body theology” and followed that concept. I remembered talking about spirituals and gospel music in World Music a few weeks ago and decided (without having seen any connecting research at this point) to connect the idea of a musical trance/being taken over by the spirit to Hildegard’s experience with music.

I don’t think I got very far with this approach in my first draft, but going forward, I’d like to find more information both about Hildegard’s thoughts on the musical body and about experiences and explanations of the trance. I’d also like to look more at the claim that women experience more bodily reactions to music (and to life in general) and relate that to the musical experiences I’m discussing.

Born 25 Years Too Late: The Advantages and Disadvantages of a Modern Topic

Ever since I first listened to Bernstein’s MASS, it stood out to me as a unique and powerful work. I have always wanted to explore the work more, and learning about the mass and its traditional forms (and how composers extended that) gave me a greater appreciation for the work through a greater understanding of its construction.

I was first given the opportunity to write about MASS at the end of Music 242 (Music History 2) when we were tasked with creating an annotated bibliography and writing a topic proposal for a paper we were not actually going to write in order to practice the art of research. Now, we are blessed with the opportunity to write about whatever we want (so long as it contains a whisper of the Reformation) and I finally get to write it. In that proposal, I set the goal of comparing three of Bernstein’s works (MASS, Chichester Psalms, and Kaddish), something which now seems much more daunting and unfeasible for a 5-minute podcast. I ultimately decided to only focus on MASS, and to tie in the reformation by discussing how Bernstein altered and expanded the Catholic mass tradition.

Because I had done the annotated bibliography previously, I had a good starting place. When I first opened Catalyst (R.I.P. Bridge Squared) for the first time and turned to EBSCO, I discovered two things. First, when you write about a topic that is fairly recent (in comparison to many of my classmates’ topics 1971 is not long ago) the kinds of sources you find are either very general (biographies of Bernstein with mentions of MASS, collections of sources, etc.) or very specific (dissertations that analyze specific parts of the work, comparisons of musical style between works). Second, I learned that because of its newness people are still actively evaluating its merits discussing its intentions, most evident in the wide variety of reviews of the work that have been written and are continuing to be written as modern performances continue to reinterpret the work.

It is from these two categories that I found two sources from which I ended up drawing a lot of my material: the first a dissertation on how the Second Vatican Council (Vatican II) influenced the “concert mass” which uses MASS as one of three examples, and a more recent (2008) article from Opera News in which a recent Juilliard grad praises the work for its ingenuity and raw emotional power. I would not have even found the first of these had I not talked about the project with my friend and classmate Natalie who is examining how Vatican II impacted congregational singing in the Catholic church since as a born-and-raised protestant I had never heard of Vatican II or its implications.

I have found myself wishing I could have been born 25 years earlier so I could have perhaps talked with Bernstein himself before his death to discover what he really meant. But while finding research on such a recent topic has proven to be a challenge, it has also proven to be rewarding and illuminating through talking with my peers and finding connections to their topics, accessing a wealth of primary sources from the time of MASS’s debut, and engaging actively with the current scholarly output.

Creative Title About My Research Struggles

When I set out to research for this paper a week ago, I had planned what I thought was a relatively simple, arguable topic: proving that an English composer during the Reformation (such as William Byrd or Thomas Morley) was a secret Catholic through their music. While there is plenty of research on this subject, I just wasn’t finding much of a personal connection or desire to write about it, even though I certainly found it interesting. However, my historically interested brain wanted to make life harder by changing my topic at the last minute. I ended up shifting my focus to the evolution of sung psalmody in England during the Reformation. That was problem number one.

After switching to this topic, I honestly wasn’t sure where I would take it or if I would even be able to find enough information on it. I just knew that it was interesting and important and I wanted to learn about it. However, I ended up finding quite a bit of material that was useful, and here ran into my second problem: I am too interested in my topic. I ended up not being able to do broad research incorporating several different perspectives because I couldn’t bring myself to skim and skip over parts of the reading, especially in one of the most authoritative books on the topic. This was frustrating, because I have pages of notes (half of which I can’t use when it actually comes to writing the paper) and no time to continue researching, but there are four awesome looking books sitting in front of me that I have barely been able to crack open. Therefore, I feel that my first draft lacks perspective. Additionally, I don’t really think it is successfully arguing my thesis, because I still haven’t figured out how to argue it. This research has potentially bogged me down with (really cool and awesome and interesting) history that has much less of a place in my final paper than it currently does in my rough draft. I am hoping that continuing the research process will allow me to strengthen my thesis and my argument so I can filter through what is relevant and necessary contextual information and what is just unnecessary, unarguable history.

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.

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.

In my first blog post, I remarked on the unique relationship between music and religion with the analogy of the heart and brain. Religion is the truth, or brain, that many people place at the foundation of their lives; however, music has the ability to strengthen that foundation with emotion, depending on how the text is set.

When I started researching into my topic, I began with the focus that J. S. Bach created his Orgelbüchlein as a way to embellish the choral tunes that were created from. I knew that Bach was a master arranger and knew his chorale preludes were convincing pieces of music. When I discovered Benitez’s paper on Musical-rhetorical Figures in the Orgelbüchlein of J. S. Bach, I was enthralled. It contains so much powerful information and quotations from Bach’s peers, students, and other professionals of the time to present a convincing presentation of background for Bach’s awareness and education of rhetoric.

This information pointed directly back to my original blog post. Aristotle’s methods of rhetoric were designed to present the truth (or perhaps not the truth) in a specific way that would be convincing. Music, when assisting religion, has the same ability.

This helped me mold my thesis to be more focused; however, it has since caused myself some concern. While I do quote other sources, I’m not sure if my thesis is too closely aligned with Benitez’s paper overall. The issue is I’ve struggled to find any more evidence supporting the idea that Bach used rhetorical devices specifically in the Orgelbüchlein besides Benitez’s paper. I have found an 85 page dissertation studying two organ chorale preludes (listed as one of the sources in my first draft) that I would like to dive into and see if I can find more information to support my thesis from there. Perhaps my next step should be to try to branch out and widen my search for Bach’s rhetorical usage in other works. If I need more convincing evidence, I may look into Bach’s cantatas, as many movements from the cantatas share similar forms to Bach’s Orgelbüchlein chorale preludes.

“Walking Through the Forest” of Research

For my paper, I am exploring the history of Martin Luther’s hymn Christ lag in Todesbanden, which was based on the Victimae Paschali Laudes sequence from the middle ages. Since my topic incorporates two pieces of music and one very well-known theologian, general background information has not been difficult to find. However, this breadth of potential material makes it difficult to sort through sources for specific, relevant details. For example, while a search in the RILM database for English-language journal articles about “Martin Luther” uncovers 96 results, a search with similar constraints for “Christ lag in Todesbanden” only yields three, all of which are about later settings of Luther’s text, rather than Luther’s hymn in its own right. (Unfortunately, I can’t read German- that would make a few more results useful.)

The first truly solid source that I found was the second volume of  Paine and Jeffers’ Translations and Annotations of Choral Repertoire, which focused on works with German texts. The book, which is housed in the Music Library’s reference section, has the full German text of the Christ lag hymn with both word-for-word and sense translations into English, as well as a couple of pages of textual analysis and background information on the hymn. One of the most useful sections was a side-by-side text comparison between Christ lag in Todesbanden, Victimae Paschali Laudes, and the related 12th-century leise Christ ist erstanden. I was able to use this comparison as a jumping-off point for my own analysis of the hymn.

After that reference source, the book that has proved most useful to me thus far is Robin A. Leaver’s Luther’s Liturgical Music. Not only does it provide solid background information about Luther, it also quotes extensively from his writings and other primary source material, and it has an entire section devoted to Luther’s reaction to and treatment of Roman Catholic sequences like Victimae Paschali Laudes. For my second draft, I’d like to look more closely at other sections of the book, and to spend some time tracking down sources referenced in its bibliography.

On a related note, it might be interesting to try and draw more from available primary sources, as Luther’s writings on music are pretty easy to find. I also would like to incorporate some more recent journal articles-I’ll probably have to start with ones about Luther’s hymnody in general, since I had trouble finding any about Christ lag in Todesbanden in particular. 

The Wonders of Academic Research

I will honestly say that I have not done quite enough research yet to justify my topic fully. There’s still more that I can do for sure to have the fullest sense of my topic, but with the limited resources I have, I think I have a fair sense of where my paper could go (I actually now need to read the sources and figure out for sure).

I’m hoping to make the nuanced argument that the CCM movement was overall a positive development in the history of Christian music, but that there are numerous theological and praxial (this word meaning how people live their lives/perform CCM music) problems that are troubling for someone who cares deeply about the mission of spreading the Christian Gospel. The sources I have I think will help me make this argument, but I don’t know exactly yet how the argument will be shaped out. I may very well need to do more research to solidify things.

Firstly, I found a couple solid articles examining the theological content of CCM music, which I’m positive will be very helpful as I aim to talk about the theology of CCM (not comparing it to Luther yet, that will hopefully be my final paper). I also found an excellent paper talking about the conservative anti-rock discourse and its connection to culture wars that I hope will help me talk about the very interesting dichotomy between on one hand condemning rock and on the other hand appropriating much of secular music into the CCM movement. There’s also great sources about the history of the CCM movement and how it’s been seen as entertainment and worship, another dichotomy I would explore.

Again, I don’t know yet exactly how this paper will take shape, and the difficulty with this topic in particular for me will be maintaining my scholarly objectivity. I’ve grown up listening to and loving CCM music and never really having a problem with it (except recently for reasons I’d outline in the paper), so it would be difficult for me to fully understand other Christian traditions who don’t have that as part of their experience. I hope that I can take the evidence where it leads and write an objective paper (which is why I specifically propose a nuanced view of the movement instead of an overly positive one). I have a lot of work to do yet on this paper (I’m behind the A-ball for sure), but I’m excited to do the work and see where it leads because this topic (and class) means so much to me personally and academically.

From Personal Experience to Podcast

While researching for the first podcast,  I was comforted to discover that my own observations of my experiences in different churches were not a unique experience. The congregational singing within Catholic churches is lacking when compared to Lutheran churches. I always wondered why this was. Growing up, I had been encouraged to sing and raise my voice in prayer, but would receive confused looks from strangers if I sang during the liturgy. However, during my initial research, I struggled to find sources that discussed the lack of singing within churches. Mostly they discussed what the Catholic church teaches about singing during Mass, which is starkly different from what I observed in the services I would attend.

After a bit more digging, I found an article titled “After Vatican II: Are We All Protestants Now? Or Are We All Catholics Now?” This article by Anthony Ruff encapsulated what I had observed in Mass. He explained why there was this disconnect between what the Church taught, and what the congregation gave. This article provided me with more keywords to use when searching for sources. Eventually I discovered the book Why Catholics Can’t Sing: The Culture of Catholicism and the Triumph of Bad Taste by Thomas Day, which is not only a detailed and in-depth look at the issue of congregational singing, but also is a generally humorous and light read. This is one of those books that I would send to my (very Catholic) parents, because I think they would enjoy it. It is rare that I am researching something so close to my heart, and it is highly rewarding to discover books that I enjoy and that I would not have found otherwise.

I have learned, while doing this research, that often my opinion will not be the popular opinion. Instead of trying to find sources to fit what I already plan on saying, I should be searching for sources that challenge and inform my argument, and that may end up changing my argument altogether. Using personal experience is a good way to begin to form an argument, but it is not the most reliable source, as personal experience is influenced by so many things, and it differs from everyone else’s experience.

Moving In

Starting a research paper sort of feels like moving into a dorm room. First, you don’t even know where you’re going to live. Once you know what building and room you’re going to be in, it is similar to knowing a very very broad idea of a topic. Then, you begin to encounter lots of stuff (boxes/sources) and you have to decide where everything goes. Sometimes organizing a room or research paper is so exciting and filled with possibilities! And sometimes it is an incredibly daunting task that seems to only be getting messier and more challenging. What I’ve found to be helpful in both of these instances is to move from big pieces to small pieces. Every source (or box to continue with this analogy) gets put in a pile with other things like it. Then, I tackle one pile at a time.

Suddenly, it begins to take shape and look like a habitable room, or a passable research paper. However, I need to take a trip to Target to pick up a few more items I forgot, or to help organize. This is similar to another trip (or five) to the library and a visit to the writing help desk.

Lastly, decorations go up on the wall. I don’t want the space to feel cluttered, but I want it to feel like mine, like home, and something I’m proud of. The final edits to my paper will create a cohesive whole that has consistent style and proper grammar, transitions, and organization.

There comes a point in the research process when I always wonder if my topic or sources are any good at all. Do I even have a point here? What am I trying to say? This is the worst moment of “it-gets-messy-before-it-gets-better” but almost always there is a light at the end of the tunnel. In my research so far I have already had many of these cycles. One of my greatest frustrations with the sources I’ve found is the focus on the Song of Songs and not so much on the Palestrina setting of the text. What I did find very helpful was the liner notes from a CD recording of the Palestrina motets, but I’m fairly sure that is not a credible resource to be using in my podcast.

Onward to more organizing and research….

Happy New Year! And why I’m struggling with 5777 years of research material.

I can hardly think of a more perfect thing to do today than to write about the shofar on this second day of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. The shofar, a ram’s horn, is blown on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur (and in some communities during the morning services of the month of Elul). While certain aspects of my research on the shofar have proved fairly straightforward, pinning down facts from Hellenistic times has posed a challenge.

In my research, I’ve been trying to discover why, out of all possible instruments, the shofar has survived as the sole instrument used in Jewish religious services. I have found several general sources explaining its symbolism and role in Jewish faith, both historical and current. Jewish Musical Traditions by Amnon Shiloah (author of “Music and Religion in Islam”), Passport to Jewish Music by Irene Heskes, and several other books that survey Jewish music have helped me justify the shofar’s importance in Jewish tradition. According to Shiloah, the shofar has historically been used to scare enemies, make announcements, and convey messages from God. In Joshua 6:6-20, the wall of Jericho comes down with the blast of the shofar. Furthermore, Jewish mystics historically imbued it with special powers, for example awakening the “celestial shofar.”1 Reading specific passages from Exodus, Leviticus, and other parts of the Bible have also helped me to develop my perspective.

One part of my research has presented a particular challenge, however: I didn’t anticipate having so much trouble nailing down when instruments were or weren’t played in Jewish religious services. A citation in an article by Ethan Tucker (“Musical Instruments on Shabbat and Yom Tov”) led me to read fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Even within this single primary source, no consensus emerges on how instruments were used in religious services in Second Temple Judaism. This source encompasses a variety of opinions, and I have struggled to decide which ones should get my focus.

Narrowing in on why (or if) the Jewish perspective on religious instrumental music changed has also received a lot of my attention. Several sources indicate that most forms of sacred instrumental music were banned at some point around the destruction of the Temple. None of the sources I’ve encountered, however, say who banned it. Many of them give convincing arguments for why instrumental music might be prohibited. For example, playing or fixing an instrument requires the use of tools (banned on Shabbat). Or music might make too much noise. Nevertheless, I am still looking for a good explanation of why these worries surfaced only after the destruction of the Temple (or if that’s what happened at all).

In order to understand these questions, I’m planning to read about how Jewish communities changed after the destruction of the Temple. I hope that reading about non-musical religious shifts will help me assess how and why Jewish instrumental music nearly disappeared from religious contexts.

What’s a theologians favorite lawn game? Duck, duck, Hus!

I should have known better, but finding useful sources was more difficult than I figured it would be.   Initial difficulties were experienced in the mere fact that there is disagreement on how to spell “Wycliffe”. As I mention in the paper, there are a number of variants, including but not limited to: Wyclife, Wyclif, Wyclyffe, Wyclyfe, and Wickliffe. Jan Hus’ name is often anglicised to John Huss, because of the close relationship of Hus’ and Wycliffe’s theologies. Some of the online sources St. Olaf is supposed to have access to through something at Carleton are unavailable. That was annoying. Another annoying thing was that all of the primary sources written by Wycliffe that Rolvaag owns were in dire disrepair, eg. pages falling out, and destroyed bindings. This included such gems as Tractatus de Universalibus.

Some sources I was able to use included Advocates of Reform, from Wyclif to Erasmus by Matthew Spinka. Spinka does a wonderful job of framing the reformer in question before including carefully selected writings from the reformer. However, while this source was good for getting a concise background of both Wycliffe’s and Hus’ theology, music is mentioned nowhere in the book. I was also pleased to find Writings of the Reverend and Learned John Wickliffe. Although it was published in 1831, this book contained documents of Wycliffe actually talking about music, as well as quoting the very same passage from Augustine that appears in Weiss/Taruskin. This short and sweet little passage showed not only Wycliffe’s admiration of Augustine, but that their similarities in theology led to the same concerns in music. Finally in my research on Hus, I was able to find his views on music in an article entitled “Jan Hus : Religious Reform and Social Revolution in Bohemia” by Thomas A. Fudge. In it, I found the same Augustinian fears once again, and was happily surprised by the slight quirkiness of Hus. This is not wholly surprising. Hus was an ardent follower of Wycliffe, so much so that he was burned at the stake 102 years before Luther posted the 95 Theses.

Although the sources I did find were good ones, I need to find a more diverse collection of sources if I am to get a more balanced understanding of these theologians and their thoughts on music. I was successful, however, successful in linking Augustine to Luther theologically via Wycliffe and Hus.

Doing a Good Job

The hardest part of research for me has always been finding the question to research. Partially, it’s because there are so many options and you can’t know how much has been written on a subject until you start researching. For my first paper I initially wanted to follow a text through the centuries and see how it has been used in different contexts. It was really hard to narrow down what text to use. I found an Anglican text that turned out to be written in the late 20th century, so that wasn’t very explorable. I ended up using a text that is from Job which is used in Handel’s Messiah. Using a text from the Bible opened up my scope a lot and I was able to find tons of writings on the text in musical as well as non-musical contexts.

One of the best resources I found for my application was The Catalogue of Choral Music Arranged in Biblical Order by James Laster. Once I decided on the passage from Job, I could go to the Job section of the Catalogue and look up choral pieces where it was used. It lists music that paraphrases the text as well so pieces that don’t use the text word for word can be found too. From that section I was able to search databases for the choral pieces to see if there are writings on them. This catalogue was a great jumping off point for narrowing down specific pieces to compare.

I’m glad that I have some experience using our library resources because there is a lot to sort through. I have felt successful narrowing down the results in the databases as well as finding physical resources in the Music Library. You mentioned in your office that you hoped that we go down to the library and find the books in person to see what is next to them and I found one of my best resources that way. I was looking for a book and I found one on the Messiah right next to it. This book broke down each passage and talked about it in specific. It was a great way to see what I have in front of me and how to use resources that might be partially related.

I am excited to keep researching and narrow down my topic more.

A Mighty Fortress of Outdated Information

For my research topic, I chose to write about Martin Luther’s Ein Feste Burg ist unser Gott and how it has played a crucial role in the Reformation and the future of music in general. I wanted to learn more about Martin Luther and his compositions because my hometown church’s music director always talks about him in conversation, which sparked my interest to learn more.

So far, my research process has been somewhat challenging. It’s been plenty easy for me to find information on Luther himself, but it’s been a bit harder to find specific information on his hymns and how they have influenced the future of music. It’s obvious to me that Luther changed the way modern day Protestants use music in the church, but it’s been harder to find sources that give quotable examples. I really enjoyed Robin A. Leaver’s Luther on Music that we were assigned to read for class, but although relevant, not a lot of topics discussed in the article can be used specifically for elaboration on Ein feste Burg. I also spent a lot of time going through the readings from the assigned chapters by Richard Taruskin in Oxford History of Western Music. Yet again, however, I continued having trouble finding background information on the hymn itself.

Luckily, I found what I thought would be the motherlode of Ein feste Burg information: a small, dusty, and ancient looking little book called Luther’s Battle Song by Bernhard Pick. This little book focuses on the creation and impact Ein feste Burg had on Protestant Germany, but on the downside, also happened to be 100 years old. The book talked about the time in which the hymn was written, the reasons it may have been written, and even included manuscripts and lyrical interpretations. While much of the information is valid, a lot of it is outdated. I felt I shouldn’t use some of the information on why the hymn was written or who actually wrote it because I found conflicting information on other websites while getting ideas of what to write about. After that, I continued finding more and more books that had a lot of information on Ein feste Burg, but they were also all written in 1917, likely as a celebration of the 400th anniversary of the Reformation. I’m hesitant to rely too much on these potentially outdated sources, but I haven’t had much luck yet finding solid information from newer sources either.

Overall, I’ve enjoyed my research on Ein feste Burg so far, but also know that I need a lot more “beefy” information in order to make my paper and podcast solid. While I’ve found a lot of facts, I’m still searching for articles that back up the cause and effect relationship Ein feste Burg (and Martin Luther’s hymns in general) have had on modern day Christian church music.

The Challenges and Rewards of Research

When I decided that I wanted to write about the L’homme armé tradition, I knew that I would need to narrow my focus significantly in order to come up with a definite and concise thesis topic. So as I surveyed the range of potential things to focus in on, Palestrina’s two L’homme armé masses, written in the second half of the 16th century peaked my interest immediately. The fact that Palestrina composed two masses based on the tune is remarkable considering how much later he was composing them. It was nearly 80 years prior that the L’homme armé tradition was at its peak. And not many masses like those had been composed in the intervening time.

This proved an interesting, if not exciting possibility. Why would Palestrina have composed masses based on a tune that at that point was nearly outdated? Surely, I thought, this would have also peaked the interests of other scholars as well. Much to my chagrin, this proved not to be quite the case and it became an arduous journey to try and find much, if any, mention of Palestrina’s two L’homme armé masses. Perhaps due to the fact he was writing with a tune almost anachronistically, much of recent musicological research on the L’homme armé tune seems to have forgotten about his contributions to the tradition.

This proved to be a disappointing find, and certainly posed a significant challenge to the research process. It taught me however, to be as persistent as possible in the research process. I learned to just keep searching and following bibliographic citations until you’ve gathered enough to start to piece together a picture of your research topic. And finally, after struggling to put together enough to start formulating possible ideas, I was able to stumble upon a few articles discussing Palestrina’s masses.

Of particular interest was an article by James Haar directly addressing Palestrina’s involvement in the L’homme armé tradition as an act of historicism. Such a notion was a promising and interesting act of historical speculation upon the part of Haar. And it led me to another realization about researching a topic such as this one. When it comes to trying to determine the background and conception of pieces five centuries in the past, it is nearly impossible to say with any certainty what might have motivated someone to compose an individual piece.

This was both a troubling and liberating realization. While it made my task seem a little more futile, because there was little I could do to come up with any definitive answers to my research question, it also freed me to approach the task from a broader point of view by synthesizing what historical analyses have been done on Palestrina’s historical situation at the time of the conception of these masses and the work done on analyzing what the L’homme armé tradition might have meant during its time in works such as the Kirkman reading for class. This synthesis was what finally led to my breakthrough in my direction for my own work, and gave me the reward of being able to not just add to a limited and narrow academic discussion of Palestrina, but also to the ongoing discussion of the tradition of the L’homme armé tradition as a whole.

The Pagan and the Priest: An agreement over Music’s Unique Access to the Soul

With an attentive ear, music may be heard everywhere. It can be heard in a babbling brook, in the song of birds, in the whistling of the wind, and even in the laugh of a loved one. It is difficult for human bodies to create visual images with only ourselves, whereas it is relatively easy to create sounds. However, music and the creation of sound seems not to stop at only the natural. For Plato, sight was given to humans most fundamentally for the observation of heavenly bodies, and inquiry of the natural universe. Plato believes that it is from such observation that philosophy began, which is of course his end all be all. He goes on to say that the same may be said for speech and hearing, for in a similar manner as our eyes observe the harmony in the rotation of the heavens, music and hearing allow us to access to this harmony by regulating the rotation of our souls. Plato even grants a healing quality to rhythm, that it was given us to counter “the graceless and irrational” ways in which humans so often act. From a Platonic perspective, music would be valuable in worship for the healing properties it has for the wayward soul. Music could also serve as a vehicle with which to give thanks to the gods for the gift of the senses.

Although Athens may have little to do with Jerusalem, Platonic ideals of music were not lost on St. Augustine. Augustine is quite explicit when describing the power music had over him. Music seems for Augustine one of the few ways in which he was able to access the joy that was to accompany right faith in Christ. Augustine even goes so far as to say “A man rejoicing in his own exultation… burst forth into sounds of exultations without words, so that it seemeth to he, filled with excessive joy, cannot express in words the subject of that joy.” (Weisse-Taruskin, p. 25) For Augustine, music done in the right manner could express more adequately than mere speech the impact God could have on the soul. In Augustine’s perspective too it seems fitting that contemplation of the divine should be accompanied by music.

Few people have theologies that differ as grandly as that of Plato and Augustine. However in both their perspectives, music in its proper form is uniquely empowered to access the soul, which is why both a Greek pagan and medieval Christian can agree on music’s importance in worship.   

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.

Music’s Spiritual and Political Instruments

Historically, many religious communities have used music to approach the divine. For some traditions, texted singing was most appropriate, while for others, a full instrumental ensemble could be used to help listeners reach a state of ecstasy. While debates about the appropriateness of various types of music continue today, the even more basic question remains unanswered: why is music such a common part of worship? Two possible answers are music’s inherent ability to inspire listeners and its usefulness as a tool for political ends.

Theologians from various traditions have written about their belief that music, when used appropriately, has the inherent power to heighten worship. Given this quality, it is no surprise that so many religious congregations incorporate music. St. Augustine discusses how listening to sung text inspires him spiritually, enhancing the truth that the text conveys. 1 Likewise, Mevlevi authors argue that music and dance impact the soul,2 allowing people to reach a state of religious ecstasy. According to the Syrian mystic theologian al-Nabalusi, “If the true believer employs [instruments] with good intention and for beneficial purposes, they cannot be harmful in any way”.2 Many religious traditions seem to find music beneficial as long as it is used moderately and intentionally, and this partly explains why worship music is so widespread.

On the other hand, political power dynamics might be partly responsible for the prevalence of worship music. For example, the Carolingian rulers of the eighth century used worship music as a method of solidifying their centralized power. By standardizing chant, they gained stronger control of their territories and changed the path of Christian worship music.3 The music of the Suyá people of Brazil also reflected the influence of power dynamics. According to Seeger, “Knowledge is an important form of power in most South American Indian groups, and the Suyá were no exception”.4 By incorporating songs from animals, enemy tribes, and foreigners into their religious practices, the Suyá displayed their knowledge, and consequently, their power.

Music’s role in worship stems from people’s sense that, when used carefully, it enhances religious experiences. Conversely, however, music’s use has also grown out of its function as an instrument of political power.


1 Piero Weiss and Richard Taruskin, Music in the Western World (Belmont, CA: Schirmer, 1984) 24-27.

2 Amnon Shiloah, “Music and Religion in Islam,” Acta Musicologica 69/2 (July-December, 1997), 143-155, (Accessed August 31, 2016).

3 Richard Taruskin, “Chapter 1: The Curtain Goes Up” in The Oxford History of Western Music, Volume 1, Music from the Earliest Notations in the Sixteenth Century.

4 Anthony Seeger, “The Origin of Songs,” in Why Suyá Sing: A musical anthropology of an Amazonian People (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), 58.

Music: the Universal Tool of Worship

So far, we have read how people (Aristotle, Plato, Pythagoras) and religions (Islam, Christianity, Suya, etc.) have regarded music. Since music spans many religions and cultures, it is important to ask ourselves why. Why is music a universal part of worship? What makes it accessible to religions that stem from every culture, race, and ethnicity imaginable? Is it the numerical perfection found in harmony? Is it divine inspiration that gives it life, as though music itself were a living thing moving through all of us?

I honestly don’t think that I have the answer.  I think that the true nature of music’s ability to move us is not something any book or author can describe. Whether I believe it to be divine or not, I believe it to be inexplicable. It is that all-encompassing and such a massive aspect of worship that I nor anyone else can truly determine why it lives deep within us. I do, however, think that it is naturally just a part of us. Perhaps, it is the holy spirit. Maybe, it is because music is tied with spiritual eroticism, as Holsinger notes in his article “The Flesh of Voice.” Perhaps, it is something that lives in us when a witch removes part of our souls, as the Suya believe (Seeger, “The Origin of Songs”). Perhaps, it’s the flying spaghetti monster. I have a hard time believing the last two examples.

Weiss and Taruskin write of Aristotle’s belief of music being cathartic, and in that regard, I agree. However, I disagree with the ideal (mostly addressed by Plato from the readings we’ve done) that “bad” music done by amateurs is deplorable. I don’t think someone can have “bad” music in a worship setting, because I believe that whatever form or genre of music speaks the most to you and connects you most to whatever higher power you believe in, that genre should be the music that you worship with.

I also think that that is one reason why music is a universal part of worship – no matter how often the powers-that-be in the church or any other organized religion try to regulate how worship music should be, people always create new ways of worshiping through different genres of music. Any genre of music can be used as worship – and any genre of music can move someone to action. Therefore, music can be used in Islam, Christianity, and any other religion and not lose its potency just because the style or genre has changed. The many possibilities of music make it so that there are many possibilities to speak to people via that music on a spiritual level.


Bruce Holsinger, “The Flesh of the Voice: Embodiment and the Homoerotics of Devotion in the Music of Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179).” Signs, Vol. 19, No. 1. (Autumn, 1993), pp. 92-125.

Piero Wiess and Richard Taruskin, Music in the Western World, (Belmont: Shirmer, 1984) 5-10.

Marcello Sorce Keller, “Why Do We Misunderstand Today the Music of All Times and Places and Why Do We Enjoy Doing So?” in Essays on Music and Culture in Honor of Herbert Kellman, ed. Barbara Haggh (Paris: Minerve, 2001), 567-574.

Anthony Seeger, “The Origin of Songs,” in Why Suyá Sing: A musical anthropology of an Amazonian People (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), 52-64.


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.

Since Time Immemorial: Musical Tradition and the Uniquely Human

Insofar as we have examined the history of music and its relationship to religion and worship, a common thread emerges concerning the origin of music. We have seen that even when considering diverse cultures and civilizations, music’s origin is uncertain or shrouded in myth. The truth has been lost to time immemorial, pre-dating the invention of writing and the advent recorded history and belonging only to the remnants of an oral tradition that has since forgotten.

This loss of historical truth is perhaps most obvious in the Suyá culture of South America where, according to Anthony Seeger in Why Suyá Sing, the oldest songs are simply remembered as legends and myths, linking not to historical accounts of origin but to stories about “partly human, partly animal beings in the process of metamorphosis” (Seeger, 52). Nevertheless, this idea of metamorphosis and transformation forms one of the central tenets of their spirituality, and their music, both traditional and newly created, serves to accent and illustrate those ideas.

In Timaeus, Plato speaks of the musical idea of his culture, representing Ancient Greek philosophy. Like the Suya people and the traditions of Islam, Plato offers no connection to a historical account of the origin of music. However, he plainly states that music, like speech and hearing, “is adapted to the sound of the voice” and is “granted to us for the sake of harmony, which has notions akin to the revolutions of our souls”, pointing clearly to a belief that speech and music possess an intimate connection to the essence of humanity (Weiss/Taruskin, 8).

Whether we examine familiar western cultures like Ancient Greece or more unfamiliar ones like that of the Suyá peoples, we find musical and religious traditions so closely intertwined and so deeply rooted in history that nobody can remember them ever being separate. These examples and others we have examined in our readings lead me to believe that this is no coincidence, but rather an artifact of the universal and uniquely human capacities for spirituality and the understanding of speech and language. The ubiquity of music in worship is therefore explained by these transformative and powerfully emotional abilities of music to express our spirituality and illuminate texts, leading to a tradition that spans time and space from modern-day Minnesota to Ancient Greece and beyond.

Music and Worship in a World of Discord

“And harmony, which has motions akin to the revolutions of our souls, is not regarded by the intelligent votary of the Muses as given by them with a view to irrational pleasure…but as meant to correct any discord, which may have arisen in the courses of the soul, and to be our ally in bringing her into harmony and agreement with herself… on account of the irregular and graceless ways which prevail among mankind generally, and to help us against them.”

-Plato, Timeus, as quoted in Weiss and Taruskin’s Music in the Western World

Music’s relationship with religion and worship is often seen as stemming from its power over the human psyche. Beginning with the earliest writings on music, thinkers have explored the profound influence music can have on thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. Yet in acknowledging music’s power, humans have had to face the possibility of music being a danger; being something that is capable of producing negative effects along with the positive. Plato’s reference above to “irrational pleasure,” for example, hints at a common thread of wariness that can surround discussions about music’s place in religious practice.

For this reason, music as an element of worship has been hotly contested in some circles. Even within single religious traditions, questions abound as to which instruments can be used, and what text can be sung, and by whom, and in what mode, and for what greater theological reason. Yet despite thousands of years of debate, political manipulation, and occasional moral outrage, religious traditions across the globe still value a staggering variety of musics as integral to their worship.

It is possible that the same things that draw us as humans towards religious practice are some of the same things that underlie our intense connection with music. In this sense, music-making and worshiping can have remarkably similar goals: They both can both foster a sense of greater connection to other people and to something greater than ourselves. They both can provide a way for groups to express their identity, and to communicate complicated thoughts and emotions that are inexpressible through words alone. And to borrow the words of Plato, they both can provide relief, healing, and hope in a world that so often seems “irregular and graceless.”

Worship Music: The Universal Power Adaptor

Worship is about seeking a connection. It can be about seeking a connection with others in the physical worship space, a connection with the meditations of one’s own heart, and a connection with a greater purpose, power, or understanding. To come to a greater level of connection and understanding with something one does not fully understand (for example: God), it seems unlikely that the connection and answers will be found in something that which one fully understands. Therefore, music is the necessary bridge between the known and the unknown and is the connector in worship that so many people cling to for a glimpse into whatever it is they are looking for.

This fall in our music history course at St. Olaf College we have been discussing where music comes from. There is something unique and captivating about music that is unlike mere speech. The sounds and traits of music and song can express so much more than the words of a song alone. This extra quality music carries has been attributed throughout the world by many cultures to different things including sounds from nature such as the Suyá tradition of attributing music as coming from nature through people’s spirits living with the birds.1

In addition to providing a mystery in worship of where it comes from, music also carries with it a mysterious bridge between Earth and Heaven. Often in denying oneself of worldly needs or pleasures (for example fasting or choosing to “give something up” during the Christian season of Lent before Easter), worship and religious practices aim to remind people of the impermanence of their bodies and life on earth. According to an article by Bruce Holsinger, in medieval theology it is understood that the less one gives into one’s senses and worldly desires, the closer that person may be to God.2 For example, St. Augustine wrote in his confessions of his pleasure for sound that he was aware of the “danger that lies in gratifying the senses.” Music in worship has the unique ability to both gratify our worldy senses and desires while still connecting our temporary lives on earth to the greater and larger hope of Heaven or life after death.

It is difficult to imagine worship without music. Music is a strong connector between Earth and Heaven, impermanence and permanence, humanity and God. The mysterious qualities that give music power appeal to both the innate human desires and the quest for understanding of a higher power. Universally music has been that bridge and connector in hopes of getting a tiny bit closer to understanding something greater than life on Earth.

The Communal and Individual Power of Music

Music has an incredible power to excite both the human mind and body like few other things. This effect that music has on humanity has been well documented by theologians, philosophers, and scholars throughout the ages. It is not much of a wonder that such a force has been so strongly connected not simply to religion, but to worship. Music’s inherent compatibility with worship stems from its power not simply to elate individuals but to also drive the religious community’s experience as a whole.

St. Augustine speaks directly to the intoxicating effect that music can have on the individual’s soul in his “Expositions on the Psalms” (on the Jubilus), when he says, “It is a certain sound of joy without words, the expression of a mind poured forth in joy.” It is this palpable, yet indescribable joy that caused tears to flow down his face and “truth seeped into his heart.” To anyone who had never been exposed to music before, it is remarkable to think that a wordless sound could reveal some greater truth to an individual.

What really brings music to its full importance in worship is the power that it has to move individuals within a community. The legend of St. Augustine’s baptism makes specific note of the collective singing of the Te Deum after the conclusion of the baptism. This collective tradition of music in worship is not simply limited to Christianity however. Anthony Seeger discusses the collective tradition of music in the Suyá culture of Brazil. The musical tradition in the Suyá culture not only relates very specifically to the souls (or lack thereof) of individuals, but also to the collective nature of their practicing/performing of various music that they gathered and developed over time.

Such a potent combination of both individual and communal empowerment was almost bound to become wrapped up in something as fundamental as religion and spiritual beliefs for religion shares some of these same qualities of structure. Like music, religion, and in particular worship, is both an individual and communal act. For this reason music serves as a natural complement to worship. Both music and worship are simultaneously an intensely intimate, personal action/experience, but also an act that intimately causes you to experience something with others and develop a mutual understanding of the bond shared between you.

Music as Emotional Expression and Practical Teaching

When I state that music has the ability to profoundly affect its listener, I am not profoundly affecting my reader. This idea of music’s emotional impact is as old as music itself (at least as we know it). Aristotle describes an “enthusiasm,” which music provides to some listeners, and even for some, he likens it to a “curative and purifying treatment.”1 It is no question, then, that human beings, being so emotionally affected, should use music in worship to whatever God or gods in which they believe.

Perhaps music is the only form in which some can truly express their faith. Hildegard von Bingen found a medium through which she was able to express her devotion and adoration to the Virgin Mary. The sensuality of Hildegard’s music, and its effect on the body could not have been expressed properly in words alone.2 Augustine states that “by indulging the ears, weaker spirits may be inspired with feelings of devotion.” 3For some, complex and heavy theology is not accessible and weighs too heavy on the mind, but music is a way to ease the teachings of some religions to draw in those with “weaker spirits.”

While keeping in mind the emotional impact of music, perhaps music in worship developed out of necessity and practicality. Before humans were able to write, the oral tradition is how stories were passed down to later generations. As we all learned in elementary school, often lessons are better remembered if they are attached to a melody (I still sing through my ABC’s if I have to place words in alphabetical order). St. Augustine points out that the meaning of the sacred texts is more moving to him if “sung in a clear voice to the most appropriate tune.”3 Of course, if something is moving to us, we are bound to remember it.

Because of music’s strange impact on the human brain, its use in worship seems fitting. Why not take two things we do not understand, and use each to help explain and make sense of the other?

  1. Piero Weiss and Richard Taruskin. Music in the Western World: A History in Documents. (New York: Schirmer Books, 1984), 10.
  2. Bruce Holsinger, “The Flesh of the Voice: Embodiment and the Homoerotics of Devotion in the Music of Hildegard von Bingen,” Signs 19/1 (Autumn 1993), 92-125.
  3. Piero Weiss and Richard Taruskin. Music in the Western World: A History in Documents. (New York: Schirmer Books, 1984), 27.

Fear, Love, and Music

Music has been a part of religious tradition for an almost incomprehensible amount of time. Throughout history, however, perception and understanding of music has fluctuated greatly. Some might argue that music has remained present in worship because of tradition; it’s always been there, so we keep using it. That may be true, but that’s too easy. What does music do for us as humans, and why do we associate it so strongly with our spirituality?

The usefulness of music rarely comes into question. Aristotle saw it as educational, cathartic, entertaining, and relaxing; most modern music consumers would agree with these purposes. While others, like Plato and some Christian and Muslim fundamentalists, say that music is merely a distraction or an evil pleasure, this does not mean they believe music is useless (Routley/Shiloah). What critics must decide is how to harness this negative purpose (pleasure, diversion, beauty) for the good of their god.

While music cannot be called truly universal when the world’s music is so diverse, the experience of singing and the experience of music as an audience member can be generalized. So, music is something widely experienced, its existence and purpose are heavily debated, and it must affect humans in some of the same ways. Here, medieval experiences of music are enlightening. Medieval writers claim that music is an intensely physical, somatic experience, whether the physicality is in the listening or in the voicing of song. Hildegard von Bingen is one medieval composer who emphasized the physical element of music in her composition and her focus on the female voice (Fassler/Holsinger).

For some, the somatic experience of music feels like a gift from above; but to others, the physical element might feel shameful, animalistic, or too pleasureful. It’s in this dilemma that fear comes into play. As human beings, we all experience fear. We deal with this emotion in different ways, but many people turn to religion. Organized religion often promises a safe place where redemption and forgiveness will happen; this is a place where all the bad things and all the bad people go away, but to get there, one is supposed to act in the appropriate manner. Humans are supposedly dangerous beings who need to be vigilant and do the right things. Because music is such a dangerous entity, capable of enticing listeners into pleasure or distraction, it makes people fearful. Rather than avoiding it altogether, religious communities may try to co-opt music for their own purposes. Music, when used for the glorification of a god or the purification of a person, can redeem itself and become less scary and dangerous. Music used for worship is innocent, so music is used in worship in order to take away music’s dangerous power.

We can’t deny that we also simply love music, even when we fear its power. When religious communities use music in worship, they are acknowledging this and embracing it; including an art form that people love is only more encouragement to participate in a religious community.

The Power of Music with Text

Music, religious or not, has been an important part of cultures for thousands of years. Aristotle believed that music can help people relax, provide psychological relief, and entertain as an intellectual pastime.

Music, as a form of art, has so much more emotional power than simply relaxation. It can serve as a channel to convey ideas in incredibly emotional ways. Societies have had struggles and debates throughout history about whether or not music is safe to engage with. Islam struggled with finding the roll of music within its religion. Christianity did as well. These debates exist or existed because music does have such a unique ability to sway human emotion in different ways. Music can be very pleasurable. If approached with a sinful mentality, it can be sinful; if it is applied humbly in worship, it has the power to convey text in worship in an incredibly meaningful way. This is why music is a perfect conduit for presenting religious text.

Peder Jothen’s analogy of the desires of the brain and heart help explain and support this idea. The brain strives for truth, wisdom, ideas, and reasoning, and the heart seeks pleasure. The brain and the heart in this analogy represent the spiritual needs and the physical needs of our whole selves. Worship music is and has been a useful and desirable tool for religion because it has the power to support the truth with an emotional experience that may transport the listener in meditation or simply make the text more meaningful.

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.

Music: A Moral Implication

Music, at its core, is a form of expression unlike any other. Regardless of a religion’s stance on music, one cannot refute that “one finds an unequivocal belief in the overwhelming power of music,” as stated by Amnon Shiloah in Music and Religion in Islam (149). We experience an array of emotions though vocal and instrumental music alike. Although samā view passive listening to music (149), Shiloah argues that one’s faith can be experienced in a far more effective degree with the use of music (148). To incorporate it into warship would allow, theoretically, not only a quicker understanding of the message but also a feeling of closeness with one’s faith and identity. This deepens the impact of one’s own faith.

To further the question Shiloah is refuting, Erik Routley in Church Music and Theology begs this question: in what context is music ‘good’ or ‘bad’ (12)? Music is judged based on the contexts in which it is performed and for what purposes. To judge examples of music outside of the church erases all relevance it has to the argument of how well music can influence religious ideals. While this argument is never explicitly mentioned, it can be implied when arguments are brought against the use of music in the church.

To answer our own question, music is a excellent source of emotion as well as instilling ideas into people over time. A traditional hymn or text provides the message of one’s faith while underlying music, be it accompaniment to the text or the text imposed on a melody, enhances the tone of the hymn or text and thus magnifying its message.

The Universality of Music in Worships

Expressing the grandiose quality of God is an essential part of human worship tradition. For example, architectures of worship from diverse religious background, no matter Christian churches or Hindu temples, usually feature enormously spacial constructions that embody the highness of the deity. Similar to grand architectures, music is also an universal element of worship because of its power to symbolize the magnificence of God.

One of the most traditional and spontaneous ways of making music, singing is a fundamental musical practice in religious activities on account of its effective expression of texts. As St. Augustine demonstrated in his analysis of the tension between love of music and Christian conscience, he said:

 I realize that when they were sung, these sacred words stir my mind to greater religious fervor and kindle me in a more ardent flame of piety than they would if they were not sung.1

Universally, from Jewish psalms to Buddhist chants, religious music often integrates liturgical texts with melody, harmony, and rhythm, in order to empower the rhetorical effect of the words. The strength and uniqueness in the conveyance of texts make singing, alongside with other methods of communication, a common practice of worship.

In the same analysis written by St. Augustine, the Church Father also indicated another powerful aspect of music, that is the emotional appeal. He said:

I also know that there are particular modes in song and in the voice, corresponding to my various emotions and able to stimulate them because of some mysterious relationship between the two.2

The recognition of such connection between music and emotion was also reflected in other writings from different backgrounds. Aristotle recognized the “enthusiasm,” or the purely aesthetic pleasure, brought by musical practices; In Islamic tradition, “sama” implicates the irresistible emotional influence of music, despite which triggered debates around the morality of using music in religious activities.3

Referring to various religious traditions, we seldom notice that music is deemed as feeble. Quite the opposite, people realize the overwhelming impact of music, both on their perception and emotion, which in fact keeps music an indispensable part of worship regardless of all the debates around it.

1 Piero Weiss and Richard Taruskin. Music in the Western World: A History in Documents. (New York: Schirmer Books, 1984), 26.

2 Ibid., 27.

3 Amnon Shiloah, “Music and Religion in Islam,” Acta Musicologica 69/2 (July-December 1997), 149.

Music: The Power to Change Lives and Develop the Whole Person

I honestly say that the reason that I am a future music educator/conductor is because of my deep faith in God and the influence He has had in my life, and my desire to share that experience/truth with others (full disclosure, I write from a conservative evangelical perspective, very different from the Lutheran tradition we have at St. Olaf, although we have much in common).

Without God, I see no purpose for the music we do and more broadly for the lives we live as human beings. I am uncomfortable with the notion that music is purely a human construct or an environmental evolutionary event, because I am well aware of the intense power of sacred music to move people emotionally and lift people up to experience a little taste of the Divine (in a manner that no purely humanistic/naturalistic invention can truly accomplish) in the midst of the evil and ugly world we live in. Music shapes us as individuals and religious people, showing us the best way to live and inspiring us to allow God to change our hearts and walk with Him, thus changing our lives for the better in the process.

I agree fully with St. Basil and Augustine who claimed that music has the power to bring the Divine down to Earth in ways beyond words (like Augustine explaining the Jubilee in Weiss-Taruskin 10), and as Basil puts it “while we were singing we should learn something useful… the teachings are in a certain way impressed more deeply on our minds” (Weiss-Taruskin 9) . As we sing, we learn more and more about God and His incredible love for us as expressed through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ (who I don’t believe was just a great teacher, no musical tradition so beautiful could have developed from as C.S. Lewis would put it “a lunatic or a lier”). Music provides hope for the hopeless, healing for the broken-hearted, and a reminder of the amazing love that God has for us, and thus the love we should have for each other.

There’s a reason beyond the musical elements why I wept profusely every time I heard “It is Well With My Soul” paired with “Beautiful Savior” last year at Christmas Festival. It is Well was written after the lyricist Horatio Spafford (the tune was written by Philip Bliss) lost the majority of his family in a shipwreck (all four of his daughters died, but his wife survived), and the words he writes with such deep faith in the midst of unbelievable tragedy comfort me every time I hear them that “Whatever my lot, Thou has taught me to say. It is well with my soul”. Beautiful Savior reminds me of my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and how awesome He is. Combining the loving tenderness shown in “It is Well” with the majesty of “Beautiful Savior”, I am reminded of God as a loving and majestic God at the same time, without needing to hear a sermon about it (as a potential future pastor, I love sermons. I think music does an even better job of conveying truth).

I fully understand the power music has in other faith traditions, and I acknowledge that the reasoning is probably very similar. But for me, my most meaningful moments as a musician have been in choir after we have sung a beautiful anthem to God when everyone is just silent and standing in awe of the aesthetic beauty that just occurred (I get the same feelings in orchestra, but text makes it even more powerful). For me, I just tasted the love of God on Earth, and that is why music is a universal part of worship because I believe others have tasted this as well whatever tradition they call their own.

Singing is Distinctly Human

Faith means something different to everyone and as such, faith and devotion to faith are shown in different ways. I believe that music is and has been a universal part of worship because of the way it makes the singer feel. In a world where people cannot read nor write, it was used as a tool to help congregants hold on to text and retain the word of the Lord. Singing, specifically, is a uniquely human ability and because the assumption is that humans are the only animals on Earth to have a relationship with God, singing is an expressive way of communication with God.

As we all know, being at St. Olaf, choral participation builds community and there is something special about singing with someone that with talking can’t be found. McKinnon talks about how the gradual was worked into the mass in the early on as a distinctly musical element in the service (11). This was not viewed as a song, but as an actual reading from the Bible, which shows that music and worship developed together. Not only does music bring people together, but it was for a long time something that only the elites could partake in. It would draw people to churches because they would nowhere else be able to find musicians of such a high caliber and thus confusing their intrigue with the music and the sermon. This is conjecture, but I think that it is probable that it was a tactic to get people into the churches and then say, “since you’re here, listen to this Gospel reading.” While there are many reasons that music is used for worship, they all come down to music being a tool that can engage people with religion like nothing else can.

Universal Music or Music for Everyone?

On the first day of class, we talked about if there was music that was inappropriate for worship. As we brainstormed and shared ideas, no one could quite pin down an answer for this question. We struggled with deciding what is good or bad, if the purpose of the music has anything to do with the act of using it to worship, and if any of it really matters anyways. I think all these struggles are the reason music is “universal;” that is, there is some form of music that exists for every kind of worship.

Much of the early church wasn’t concerned with universality, and this continued until chant was codified by the 9th century. Early believers weren’t concerned with singing the same chant (a lot of them were more concerned with staying alive). Routley explains why there isn’t a lot of early history recorded. “Music was to them so natural an activity as to be hardly susceptible at that stage of moral criticism: moral criticism of the music, as we shall see, is in the Old Testament always criticism of the musician.”1 There wasn’t such a thing as bad music, as anything that could give glory to God was acceptable.

Much of the Old Testament is, as always, confusing. Music is both allowed and refuted, sometimes within the same book. Some early church leaders have very clear opinions about music, though, as pointed out by Weiss and Taruskin. Augustine is quoted to define a hymn as a “song with praise of God. If you praise God and do not sing, you do not utter a hymn.”2 I think this mindset is what calls people to believe that music for worship is universal. The texts have now been codified throughout the Church, and many of them cross between different branches of religion as well. But the music is constantly changing. I really think the only thing that matters for music in worship is that there is some sort of text that requires some sort of prayer. In this, music is not universal, but it does exist for everyone.



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.

The Desire for Music and its Importance in Religion

Music has the ability to deepen the meaning of words that accompany it, both in a religious context or even on your local pop radio station you listen to on the way to work. As described by St. Augustine in Weiss and Taruskin’s Music of the Western World, St. Augustine reflects on his baptism, “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). St. Augustine’s account makes it clear that the hymns and canticles sung at his baptism amplified his personal religious experience all the way back in the 4th century. At the same time, music wasn’t always considered an appropriate mode of worship, so why has music become such a universal part of worship today?

In the early Christian tradition, as with many other religions, one had to be careful with their use of music. According to Weiss and Taruskin’s Music of the Western World, using music for unholy purposes such as pleasure was sinful because pleasure gets in the way of the Lord. If early Christians considered music a pleasure capable of distracting them from their relationship with God, then the impact music had on people of this time must have been significant. Luckily, many religions agreed the sin of music is taken away when it is used for worship. Putting religious text to music allows for a more involved worship experience, incorporating song performance skills that give the performer and the listener a heightened sense of praise. In this way, music can be used as a tool for praise that is appealing to the worshiper.

Music has a way of filling in the gaps in thought, feeling, and emotion that words cannot do justice, which can be incredibly powerful when accompanied by a spiritual belief. Using music for religious reasons also gave early humans the ability to experience and explore the tantalizing effects of music without committing a sin. In the present day, music is used much more widely and for purposes other than worship, which has allowed religious music to grow and expand into many types of praise that have a wider impact many people. Music is a nearly universal part of religion because it appeals to and heightens human senses in a pleasurable way which, in turn, allows humans to praise through a medium that makes worship more enjoyable.

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.

Music as a “Universal” Part of Worship

While music is now largely seen as a universal––and sometimes even fundamental––part of worship, this positive affiliation has not always been the widely accepted view. Writing and performing music has long been a source of debate regarding whether it is beneficial or corruptive to the mind.

In his writing about music, Plato makes strong claims about the importance of music in strengthening one’s mind; however, they only apply to the educated. He asserts that only people who know and appreciate good music should take part in it, because they are able to separate their desire for pleasure from their altruistic inclination toward learning and self-improvement. Aristotle writes with a more liberal view, accepting two separate approaches to music: one that is critiquing and using music for bettering the mind by the educated and one that accepts music as a pleasing and indulgent activity. These two great thinkers’ ideas about music both leave room for argument that music can be an asset in worship––if worship is considered a time to improve the mind.

Much later, St. Basil and St. John Chrysostom speak more specifically about the role of music in worship, addressing the immorality of instrumental music and attempting to justify related imagery in the psalms. These scholars describe a metaphorical understanding of music in relation to worship. However, Augustine feels much more conflicted about these ideas, as he finds music in worship to strongly enhance the experience. Weiss and Taruskin write that “the jubilus was the most mystically meaningful part of the chant for Augustine” (25). It is clear that early Christian thought had moved away from being so concerned with the mind, and was more interested in issues of morality and dedication to God. Therefore, music was viewed often as a distraction from the most important part of oneself: spiritual devotion––an evolution of Plato’s thinking. Augustine struggled to accept this because for him, music had a spiritual power that enabled him to actually feel closer to God.

Today, most religious people identify more with Augustine’s thoughts, which is why music is considered a universal part of worship. However, it is important to recognize that this debate is, in fact, still ongoing. There are many types of worship and worship services that do not use music, or even do not condone it. For example, in Quakerism, music has been traditionally viewed as trivial and inappropriate in worship, and while some may have a more modern and progressive ideas, the majority of Quakers still do not use music as a part of their worship. Thus, one might argue that although this debate has evolved and become much less important over time, music as “a universal part” of worship is still too broad to describe its presence and role in all traditions and religions.

Music: a Means and an End

Music and worship are two pillars of human society that have existed for so long that it is difficult to judge which preceded the other. As St. Basil suggests in Weiss and Taruskin’s Music in the Western World, music during worship may have been a useful method of helping followers to comprehend the ideology and doctrine of the religion, similar to putting honey in a medicine that is difficult to swallow (21). In order to facilitate such an approach, a fairly utilitarian view of music is needed—one that is quite different from those of Plato and Aristotle.

Plato’s opinion with regard to music is that it should be used to enhance the intellect, and that to enjoy it capriciously is reprehensible: “[Plato] looked down on the use of music for mere pleasure” (5). Music and gymnastics are the two halves of the path to human perfection, and thus should be treated with scholarly respect. The fundamentals of Aristotle’s view are much the same, but with different judgment. The categories of intellectual and pleasurable music remain, but neither has a good or bad connotation; they must simply be kept separate (8-9). The way in which Plato and Aristotle concur is that music can be an ideal form of art. Its purity can be achieved through study, and the system of self-improvement that it is a part of is of the utmost importance.

These are the two ways of thinking about music presented in certain chapters of Weiss and Taruskin’s book. Music can be utilitarian—like honey on the rim of a cup—or ideal, almost becoming a form of worship in itself. Fortunately, both methods of thought mentioned here seem to encourage the use of music in worship, which perhaps points to the reason why it has been so universally accepted there. Music is both a tool for worship and an ideal to be worshipped, and because of that, its place in religion is well cemented.