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Ethnomusicology: “Right Singing in Estonian Orthodox Christianity: A Study of Music, Theology, and Religious Ideology” by Jeffers Engelhardt

As I’ve more or less said before, I’m not an ethnomusicologist, but my interests do tend to at least touch things ethnomusicologists care about and vice versa. Thus, I at least keep my eyes open, and also as I’ve noted before, I’m in a good place to to do so (at least for the next two weeks).

The current issue (Winter 2009, Vol. 53, No. 1) of Ethnomusicology: The Journal of the Society for Ethnomusicology has an article titled, “Right Singing in Estonian Orthodox Christianity: A Study of Music, Theology, and Religious Ideology,” by Amherst College faculty member Jeffers Engelhardt. It is “an intimate musical ethnography of how Estonian Orthodox Christians at a small parish in Tallinn are making their liturgical singing ‘right'” (p.32), and seeks to examine the questions,

What do musical change and religious renewal reveal about the dynamic interrelationship of theologies and musical styles? How are orthodoxy and orthopraxy established musically? How do local histories condition the possibility of current and future practices? (p.32)

These are great, practical questions, and Prof. Engelhardt has been able to base his exploration of them on practical experience — between 2002 and 2007, he spent a lot of time conducting field research at Cathedral of Saint Simeon and the Prophetess Hanna in Tallinn, including singing in the choir (although, as he notes, he is not an Orthodox Christian himself).

Prof. Engelhardt makes several excellent points and observations; he places his work in the context of religious renewal for Christians in general in Estonia, which is “a process of investing their lives in the post-Soviet order with a particular morality and soteriology.” Estonian religious renewal is significant because

[it] both recognize[s] and resist[s] conventional aspects of the modernity mythologized in post-Soviet and postsocialist transition and ostensibly figured in the European Union: democracy, liberal pluralism, secularism, free markets, cosmopolitanism, universal human rights, consumerism, individualism, “normalcy,” and benign nationalism. (p.36)

For the Orthodox Christians in particular, “right singing” is an ideal which exists in this context;

it is a musico-religious poetics whereby Orthodox Christians are transforming understandings of personhood, human ecology, and secularism in Estonian society through sonic ideals that have decided moral and ideological dimensions. […] Thus, the musical and liturgical practices, congregational life, and institutional affiliations of local Orthodox communities in Estonia bring together a host of aesthetic, theological, social, and ideological concerns. All of these concerns coalesce in the idea lof right singing… [which] is a conduit of illumination and transforms invidiual and corporate bodies into Orthodox bodies of Christ. Right singing creates the correct unity of doxa (belief) and praxis (practice) that is the conservative essence of Orthodox Christianity. (Ibid.)

Prof. Engelhardt follows up on this point by suggesting that “[i]f the singing is right, then the belief expressed in that singing is right; if the belief is right, then the musical practices grounded in that belief are right” (p.37).

In other words, religious renewal in Estonia is not just about reclaiming something repressed during the Soviet era but about fundamentally trying to reshape the world around them into something consonant with their Christian faith; furthermore, “right singing” is not just an expression of these aims for the Orthodox Christian in Estonia, but one of the instruments through which the aims will be completed.

Given this, one of the really interesting points of Prof. Engelhardt’s analysis of the Cathedral’s practice is when he speaks of using Byzantine music for special Liturgies, such as a specific example where a parishioner was to be ordained to the diaconate.

There are a number of reasons why [the Cathedral] would use [Byzantine music] to make this liturgy special. Singers, priests, and parishioners at the Cathedral…invest Byzantine chant and styles of singing perceived as temporally or geographically distant with special significance. These ways of singing are right because they sound the right religious ideology and create the right religious imaginary [sociological term referring to a set of values, institutions, laws, and symbols common to a particular social group and the corresponding society]; they distinguish Estonian Orthodox musical practices from Russian Orthodox Obikhod-inspired practices. For [the Cathedral], Byzantine sounds are “right” because they are “more archaic” and “more monastic” than the Estonian Orthodox traditions with marked Russian Orthodox and Protestant Lutheran influences; Byzantine sounds bring worshipers to the “right level”… [and] Byzantine ways of singing are “more ascetic” and evoke the “feeling” that is such an important part of Orthodox Christian experience… [and] Byzantine ways of singing bring [the congregation] “to the source” of the Christian tradition[.] (p.39-40)

This interlocks with earlier point of how “right singing” (orthopsalmody?) is an ideal which exists in the context of religious renewal in Estonia: “[F]or Orthodox Estonians, the trajectories, geopolitics, ideologies, and moral norms of this kind of transition do not correspond entirely with the Orthodox lives they imagine leading” (p. 41), therefore

[r]ight singing is…how Orthodox Christians situation themselves within a global religious imaginary… [which] has enabled religious renewal and, in the process, established alternative, Orthodox perspectives on the modernity being fashioned through post-Soviet transition, reframing its liberal ideologies and doctrine of secularism. The Byzantine aspects of right singing, in other words, create a form of “morally inflected cosmopolitanism”…that is given voice through liturgical practice[.] (p.44)

He reaffirms and restates this point a little later:

In general, then, what is sung at the Cathedral…and, just as important, how it is sung, localizes temporally and geographically distant Orthodox sounds in order to make singing right… Byzantine is a chronotope (a temporal and spatial field of action) incorporating aspects of musical style, theology, and religious imagination that captures what singers sense as the archaic, originary, and more authentic qualities of their way of singing. Negotiating this kind of proximity…within a global Byzantine imaginary as part of the ongoing renewal of Estonian Orthodoxy and amidst ongoing social, economic, and ideological transformation, then, is a process of making singing right. (p.46)

Prof. Engelhardt concludes with some startlingly sympathetic observations:

The ideal of right singing gives voice to eternal religious truths that empower Orthodox Estonians to live faithfully and in relation to God, one another, and a global religious community. The soteriological, ethical, and affective dimensions of right singing are profound, and by singing the right way, Orthodox Estonians realize their full humanity through the unity of beauty and truth, aesthetics and veracity. […] By endeavoring to sing the right way… Orthodox Estonians work at incrementally transforming themselves, their Church, and their world into this likeness [of God]. Musical practice, in other words, is an agentive means of religious transformation as it shapes individual and communal disciplines, sensibilities, and moral actions. (p. 50)

Prof. Engelhardt’s ethnography is very thought-provoking, and it is remarkable how applicable the picture he paints of the situation in Tallinn is to the Orthodox church choirs in the United States I’ve seen or with whom I’ve sung. While not using the specific technical language of ethnomusicology and sociology, I’ve participated in many conversations about Orthodox liturgical music that wind up in largely the same place as this article. One question that comes to mind is, just as much as the “Byzantine imaginary” allows Orthodox Estonians a means to frame their responses to modernity, I wonder to what extent we might hypothesize that some Orthodox Americans, or even Orthodox Christians elsewhere, wish instead to synthesize modernity with the Byzantine imaginary? What does that look like? How does the synthesis differ from the response?

Now, a questionable point, at least for me, is methodology. A large portion of Prof. Engelhardt’s fieldwork depends on his perspective as a participant in the choir, and he acknowledges that while he is participating with the faithful, he is not participating as one of the faithful. Without getting into the question of whether or not one should sing in the choir if one is not Orthodox, I’ll just say that it begs the question of how his observations were colored by the perspective of a non-believing participant. I don’t doubt that it likely helped to make his observations as sympathetic as they are, but it seems to me that there are lines being crossed with this methodology. Again, I am not an ethnomusicologist, so I acknowledge I raise this question from a standpoint of ignorance, and I would be curious as to how an ethnomusicologist might answer this concern. One way or the other, this is a methodological approach that strikes me as at least requiring full disclosure — that is, it not being enough for the researcher to state that they are a non-adherent; rather, a statement of of what the researcher’s religious beliefs actually are is needed to clear up any ambiguities. I could very well be totally wrong on this point, and if I am, that’s fine, but that is my initial reaction.

In all fairness, Prof. Engelhardt acknowledges the problem to some extent, noting that not being an Orthodox Christian presents certain challenges to this kind of work:

The ideal of right singing gets at things that are hard for ethnomusicologists to get at: belief, faith, the numinous, and apophatic ways of knowing through negation rather than through the positive statements of modern scholarly practice. The challenge for non-Orthodox ethnographers like myself, then, is to apprehend at all the correct unity that makes singing right. (p. 37)

Another shortcoming is the bibliography; of 125 total references listed, literature which specifically treats Orthodox Christianity only gets six entries. Of those six works, four deal with Orthodox sacred music, three of which focus on Russian practice. Given the prominence of Byzantine chant in the ethnography, it is odd to me that the references would not reflect more substantial reading and understanding in that area. Some citations talking about theology of icons or liturgical aesthetics in general would also seem appropriate, given how Prof. Engelhardt synthesizes his points in the conclusion.

There are also some curious imprecisions here and there; there is a quotation on pp. 35-6 from the “Canon for Sunday Orthros,” which hardly narrows down exactly which Canon it might be (and his translation from Estonian isn’t a lot of help, either). He refers to the diaconate being the first step in becoming a priest; while it can be, yes, it is not the prescriptive matter that he implies. In another instance, he speaks of “an authentic Orthodox theology of sound” (p. 49) without clearly stating what that might be or providing a citation.

Having noted these points, however, I think there is much to appreciate about Prof. Engelhardt’s work, and whatever I may wonder about his methodological approach, I applaud his willingness as a non-Orthodox Christian to treat the musical practices of Estonian Orthodox Christians on their own terms. If you are interested in reading the entire article, it is not available online, but if you’re near a university library, they should have the journal on their shelves.

I’ll close with Prof. Engelhardt’s final paragraph, which is perhaps the part every scholar who works in areas related to religion should read:

Beyond these conclusions about why the right singing of Orthodox Estonians is right (conclusions based on a musical ethnography of orthopraxy), one verges on matters of belief and faith (the inwardness and veracity of doxa) that reveal the limits of how modern, secular scholarship produces knowledge… Suggesting how musical style, religious ideology, and sociohistorical circumstance affect the rightness of sound is only part of the story. The other part of the story is about the epistemology given voice through the outward expressions of orthopraxy; it is about the ineffability of some religious experiences, the unverifiable efficacy of some rituals, the possibility of divine revelation, and the corporeal sensibility of the authentic, all of which are no less real or true than musical style, religious ideology, and sociohistorical circumstance. Regarding these profoundly significant aspects of right sounds, one must, I believe, defer to those for whom they are right, stopping short of any complete representation in order to recognize and reflect on their ultimate meaning and power in the lives of the faithful. (p. 52)

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