One Music-Maker’s Musings: Baroque and Belonging

from Director of Music Vivian Montgomery

Welcome to the first iteration of what’s likely to be somewhat meandering travels through topics related to musical life, sometimes that of Follen Church, sometimes specifically of me, sometimes of our society or other cultures (like the past, for instance). In coming weeks, I’ll be posting writings on the extraordinary conferences I participated in this summer, the vision and mission of Follen’s music program, the effort to fulfill our anti-racist resolution through the Urban Church Music Friendship’s Initiative, my research and performance of women composers, our exciting February-March residency with San Francisco vocal activist Melanie DeMore, the life of a harpsichordist, the “highbrow and lowdown” divide that still permeates Boston’s musical culture, what it means to be committed to “historically informed” performance, what is the Music and Spirit Unconference happening at Follen in early May, and many other things. I’ll also post each week’s music notes from the Sunday Order of Service, as well as commentary from our special music services. Let me know if there’s something in particular you’d like me to explore. I look forward to sharing all of this with you!


A little discourse on why a workshop on baroque choral works should be offered at the AUUMM 2019 Conference


In my next entry, I’m going to be telling you more about the amazing conference of the Association of UU Music Ministries I attended in Denver in July. It was complicated and powerful because it addressed head-on issues of exclusion, cultural appropriation, and white supremacy in our world, our nation, our church, and, yes, in our music. I encourage you to watch this organization’s activities closely, even join in, and I’ll be giving you all the reasons why next week. First, I want to share with you an interesting process I went through in relation to this organization and its admirable, but thorny, efforts to de-center whiteness, European dominance, maleness, Christianity, and the privilege of being dead in UU music programs.


Before I knew what the focus of the conference was, and how seriously the organization was trying to fully embody those goals, I submitted a proposal to conduct a workshop on leading Baroque choral works with vitality. Nice idea, right? I thought so, since that’s my bailiwick (you know, harpsichordist, doctorate in early music, director of baroque operas and orchestras, and so on). Here’s what I proposed:


“Injecting Baroque Choral Works with Style and Vitality

A hands-on workshop to help choir leaders in bringing more dance, more expression, more flexibility, and greater relevance to learning and performing music from the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries. While vocal techniques and practices play some role in creating clarity and shape in this music, the most relatable and vibrant elements are found in understanding the music as speech, hearing and feeling harmony, being rhythmically playful, and knowing that the notation is just a skeleton. In her choral conducting at Follen Church and in her teaching on the Historical Performance faculty at the Longy School of Music, Dr. Montgomery focuses on expressive freedom and organic connection to musical material, as well as its composers’ heartfelt intentions. No more dry, heavy-handed, or kid-gloved treatment of Bach, Byrd, Purcell, Lully, or Handel! Participants will be provided with insight into such practical historical performance issues as instrumentation, continuo, ornamentation, and editions, and Dr. Montgomery is also a resource for a great deal of marginalized Baroque choral music, including that by women composers and others who have been sidelined by the German romantic male “genius” canon.”


And here are excerpts from a message, sent to me by the AUUMM conference planning committee, who wanted to find a way to include this workshop but questioned its place in this particular conference:


“We are viewing the conference through the lenses of several core values such as:

  • decentering whiteness;
  • accessibility & inclusivity;
  • the role that technology does & can play in our music ministries;
  • personal accountability; and
  • spirituality within Unitarian Universalism

“From these, we have developed the core curriculum that we would like to offer in 2019:

  • developing a common language around the cultural shifts we are facing both within the AUUMM and the broader UU denomination;
  • developing a more non-eurocentric understanding of black & brown music;
  • exploring the absence of “God” in many of our congregations, more specifically, resistance to the liturgy and language of our Christian roots.


“We feel that your workshop could potentially be a good fit and we have a few questions.

1) How does theology play into your workshop presentation?

2) Why should these composers and this music be used in UU worship?

3) Can you find ways to address any of the bullet points listed above in the context of your workshop? (For example, are their early music composers of color that could be featured alongside their more well-known white counterparts? Are there technological advances that we can use to present some of this early music if we don’t have the personnel in our communities?)


“With our workshops, we are aiming to provide a robust slate of learning opportunities that will liberate our minds, ask us to go deeper, challenge us technically and show us innovative ways to be better at what we do. The committee is excited about the possibilities contained within your original proposal and we’re sincerely hope you can incorporate some of the core values & curriculum we are intending to lift up.”


So, at first I was irritated, and I railed at our long-suffering minister Claire (she gets a lot of this from me) about what first struck me as a lack of imagination and flexibility on the part of the conference organizers. But then I set myself to thinking about it and I was kind of glad to get a chance to answer the questions. And now, having attended the conference and seeing how intentionally, and with what creativity, they took on the need for truth-telling and big action in relation to the pressing issues of our time (um, they were the issues of previous centuries too, they just weren’t as recognized), I have a much greater appreciation of why the inclusion of this workshop (as, it turns out, the token Euro-centric white dead exercise) needed to be wrestled with. So I leave you with what I wrote in answer to their questions, which evidently was satisfactory, since I did indeed conduct the workshop, with about 20 somewhat shell-shocked attendees.


My Response

“The thing that I’m able to most easily promise in my workshop is in response to your conference’s mission to ‘liberate our minds, ask us to go deeper, challenge us technically and show us innovative ways to be better at what we do.’ My workshop is intended to do just that in grappling with repertoire that is widely incorporated in UU music ministries across the country. It’s very unlikely that the music of the 16th through 18th centuries is going to be entirely removed from services, despite its clear origins in Christianity, Europe, elite white culture, and patriarchy. Believe me, as a Jewish accordion-playing female who has devoted much of my performing, research, and teaching life to breaking down rigid divides, assumptions, discrimination, and marginalization in the “art music” sphere, I am well aware of the contextual limitations and social-consciousness pitfalls of this huge body of choral music. However, I’m also somebody who’s been dedicated artistically and professionally to stylish and meaningful performance, nourished by an intimate devotional connection, of this expansive literature that is so beloved by so many. In other words, I’m not a likely candidate for working toward excluding it – instead, I work toward true and examined inclusion, integrating this music into the wider and wonderfully diverse sound world we are building in these challenging times.


“What I’ve found is that UU musicians are smart, critically minded, open, and that they recognize that making music collectively with focus and vitality is a spiritual practice as meaningful as anything else that takes place in worship. This goes for “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around,” Hildegard’s “In Principio,” Poulenc’s “Gloria,” “Peace To The World” by Los Lobos, Josquin’s “Ave Maria,” “In the Bleak Midwinter,” Vivaldi’s “Mundi Rector,” Mary Lou Williams’ “I Have A Dream,” Chiara Margarita Cozzolani’s “Magnificat,” or Aarvo Pärt’s “Summa.” As the Director of Music at a deeply examining, social-justice oriented, and extremely musical church, I see it as my job to take into account the messages, concerns, movements, and traditions of the whole community, and to find genuine, convincing ways to weave musical works into those elements. We never stop thinking about what we’re conveying, who we’re speaking to, who we might be losing touch with, or what needs more attention or understanding. However, when, in the midst of all that examination and fluidity, we’re working together on music from these earlier centuries, my job is to make sure we bring the greatest clarity, energy, and spirit to that music.”