New SCSM Publication!

Sacred and Secular Intersections in Music of the Long Nineteenth Century: Church, Stage, and Concert Hall. Edited by Eftychia Papanikolaou and Markus Rathey. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2022.

The Society for Christian Scholarship in Music is proud to announce the release of a new book in its series of publications. After Exploring Christian Song (ed. by M. Jennifer Bloxam and Andrew Shenton) and Christian Sacred Music in the Americas (ed. by Andrew Shenton and Joanna Smolko), the new volume, Sacred and Secular Intersections in Music of the Long Nineteenth Century: Church, Stage, and Concert Hall (Lexington Books, 2022), explores the impact of religious subjects on secular music in the nineteenth century. The editors, Eftychia Papanikolaou and Markus Rathey, have assembled nineteen fascinating essays that range from theological reflections about the spiritual power of music around 1800 to studies of religious themes on the Parisian stage and the singing of hymns in the trenches of the American Civil War.

As the editors highlight in their preface, the book conceives of the “the category of the sacred not as a monolithic attribute that applies only to music written for and performed in a religious ritual. Rather, the ‘sacred’ is viewed as a functional as well as a topical category.” What follows is adapted from the book’s introduction, which the editors decided to set in a dialogical form.

EP: We are both familiar with narratives that placed special emphasis on how the secular concert hall replaced the church as the primary venue of musical creativity, but the reality is much more complex. Even though innovative genres such as string quartet and symphony had their place in secular venues, the church remained an important supporter of musical performances, and church buildings still were the main space where many people experienced large-scale musical performances. Romanticism did not displace religion; rather, it embraced its most powerful ideological tenets.

MR: In Wilhelm Heinrich Wackenroder’s famous narrative, the fictitious musician Joseph Berglinger listens to music in a concert “as if he were in a church.” Wackenroder’s account of the life of a musician is one of the foundational texts for what would become over the following decades the idea of “Absolute Music.” But even more, Berglinger’s reflections on his listening experiences is a reminder that the “sacred” is more performative than it is essential. He does not describe the nature of the music or its style; it is the listeners and their attitudes that establish the sacred in the secular space of the concert hall.

EP: This description truly gives us a glimpse into the missing link of how audiences perceived the religious implications of all genres. As several of the essays illustrate, many composers used religious music in their secular compositions with the intent that audiences would “listen” to these symbolic sonic messages and decode their implications. On the other end of the spectrum, inferences of the sacred were inserted even in music prevalent in the domestic sphere, thus creating a nexus of meanings that operated on the levels of the symbolic and the commonplace.

MR: Many contributions in this book have ramifications for a broader re-evaluation of the relationship between “sacred” and “secular” in the long nineteenth century. It becomes apparent that references to religion were often not confined to music alone but that they frequently appeared in a multisensory framework. I would suggest that this multifaceted crossover was not only confined to the arts proper but that it even shaped the discourses about music in aesthetics and historiography.

EP: Yes, one of the ideas that struck me early on in my research on romantic masses was how tight constructions of the sacred and the secular appeared in nineteenth-century historiography. Older scholarship privileged opposition between the two and, even in the twentieth century, a composer’s entire corpus of music was usually studied in accordance with this binary: sacred music genres (masses, motets, etc.) were exalted as products of the loftiest compositional activity, whereas secular genres (symphonies, chamber music, opera) belonged to a separate, worldly artistic sphere. These binaries were artificial, however, and they failed to account for the permeability and cross-pollination of musical vocabularies between sacred and secular compositions, church and concert music. Several of the chapters in the book bring up the concept of Kunstreligion, which is difficult to explain with a short definition. Do we have a good way of approaching that elusive idea?

MR: Kunstreligion is a rather ambiguous term that can denote anything between music that borrows religious subjects and musical experience that replaces organized religion. Glenn Stanley has rightfully cautioned that it is a “slippery term.” My problem is that Kunstreligion is often used to imply a one-directional relationship: art becomes, and thus replaces, religion. This is partly true; however, the relationship is much more complex than the term suggests. At its core, the shift we are trying to explore in our book is a shift in the modes of listening. The sacralization of musical listening around 1800 comes at the heels of the French Revolution, which had attempted to replace the Christian religion as the leading ideology in France and beyond the French borders. The history of music and religion in the long nineteenth century is a history of not only secularization but also of re-sacralization.

EP: In fact, sacred and liturgical music that was written for the church adopted the most recent musical developments from the worlds of symphony, chamber music, and opera. Operatic and symphonic elements infiltrated sacred genres, often in stark opposition to contemporary attitudes and writings. As many of our authors assert, Hoffmann, Thibaut, Schleiermacher, and others exalted sacred music of the past and advocated for a return to the Andacht (devotion) and Reinheit (purity) of earlier musical styles. These ideas were absorbed by composers who, nonetheless, continued to write liturgical music that had a strong secular profile, despite the prevalent aesthetic views of the time. Liszt and Bruckner did write sacred music that harkened back to earlier styles of history, but they also wrote masses of the symphonic type, that had a place less in the liturgy and more in the concert hall.

MR: The interconnection between “sacred” and “secular” idioms and genres can also be seen outside the strictly liturgical repertoire. In the same way some composers did not subscribe to these binaries, some musical genres stand between these two alternatives.

EP: The cross-fertilization between the sacred and secular spheres was much more productive than the binary of “sacred” vs. “secular” suggests. Historiography has a fondness for opposites, as suggested earlier, and one genre was consistently left in limbo — that is, the nineteenth-century oratorio. Secular oratorios and oratorio-like compositions were often viewed as sacred music, mainly because of the cross-pollination of their musical vocabularies, and our book includes essays that problematize the nature and function of such compositions.

MR: The conversations about Kunstreligion and the cross-fertilization between sacred and secular music usually focus myopically on the concert hall as the “new church.” Several chapters in our book show that opera also participated in the amalgamation of secular and sacred idioms. Within the aesthetic hierarchy of musical genres, however, opera was not able to catch up with the lofty ideal of the church-like concert hall. How do musical stage works fit into this aesthetic framework? And how does the operatic stage participate in the use of religious symbols during the long nineteenth century?

EP: Opera is definitely another such genre that participates in this synthesis. Romantic opera, of course, was riddled with religious themes and this aspect would require an entirely separate volume to explore fully. We have included some quite similar and also antithetical examples in this collection that the readers will be excited — and maybe even surprised — to read.

MR: Such musical and ideological intersections are especially timely and have allowed us to expand our scope.

EP: It is wonderful to have a group of chapters that expand the predominantly Euro-centric focus of this volume in an invaluable way.

MR: The scholarly discourse about religious music in extra-liturgical spaces has usually been dominated by European music and Austro-Germanic music in particular. By expanding the view to France, England, Russia, Poland, and Italy, this volume already decenters the discourse and shows how these paradigms are reflected within other cultural and sociopolitical circumstances. The chapters that explore American music and the sacred, from the Fisk Jubilee Singers to music that emerged around and after the Civil War, represent great examples whereby religious music served a multitude of functions — spiritually, socially, and politically.

EP and MR: The book is an invitation to think outside of the boxes of established binaries: “sacred” vs. “secular,” “church” vs. “concert hall.” Instead, it offers new approaches that highlight the multi-sensational intersections that blur the lines and thus paint a more detailed picture of music in the long nineteenth century.

Image of Eftychia Papanikolaou

Eftychia Papanikolaou is associate professor of musicology at the College of Musical Arts at Bowling Green State University.

Image of Markus Rathey

Markus Rathey is the Robert S. Tangeman Professor of Music History at Yale University and author of the forthcoming volume with Oxford University Press, Bach in the World: Music, Society, and Representation in Bach’s Cantatas.



Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Chelle Stearns

Associate Professor of Theology at The Seattle School of Theology & Psychology