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VSHA Sunday Meeting Report – 10 AM, November 3, 2014

by Barrie Webster


Sunday’s guest speaker was Dr. Susan Lewis-Hammond, Director of the School of Music at UVic. We asked her to talk about music in the context of its common labelling as being religious or secular.

Dr. Lewis-Hammond grew up in Toronto, and took her formal education not only in Canada, but also in the United States, and Europe. She completed both an Master of Fine Arts and PhD in musicology at Princeton University, where she completed a dissertation on Italian Madrigals. She had previously earned a Master of Music with a specialization in musicology at the University of Arizona in Tucson with a focus on comedy in Roman Opera. Being a multi-talented young person, she completed not only her BA in music and political science, but also her BMus in piano performance at Queen’s in Kingston at the same time. Further, during her undergraduate studies, she spent a year at the University of Glasgow, where she studied political theory and international relations, while continuing piano studies at the University of Edinburgh. All of this academic experience gave her a broad view that reinforced her ability to describe the history of music and the role of religion and secularity (associated with music that gives pleasure). Her focus was on European cultural examples.

Susan began with a short recording of early Gregorian chant that was spine-tingling – clearly religious and pure in its unison style. Musicians soon wanted to introduce a little more variety, demonstrated as polyphonic chants became the latest genre the next century. But conservative forces within the Church objected, since the pleasure derived from the more attractive music got in the way, in their opinion, with the serious religious message in the words. As the ages went by, music became more complex, making it more interesting and more attractive to listen to, and soon, for many, the words didn’t matter so much any more. The conclusion was that the religious or secular labelling of the music depended more on the context of the music rather than the music itself. Some in the audience observed that they preferred religious music when the words were in a language they didn’t know, so that they could concentrate on the music and ignore the words.

A spirited discussion ensued exploring the dimensions of music that various members of the audience enjoyed or found unattractive in the context of music for community tastes or music for the individual.

Ultimately, we recognized that music appeals to emotional side of the listener (in the very best sense) generating pleasure, inspiration, and the recalling of associations with the music that we welcome. It also can generate destructive, violent, and antisocial responses and sometimes is used expressly for those purposes, for instance in conflict.

These days, music is generally experienced according to the mindset of the listener, with some claiming religious inspiration from the same music that others find simply musically beautiful and uplifting. And this sort of response to music can be experienced whether or not one is primarily religious or a secular Humanist.