Music Notes

The commencement speaker at the Mason Gross School of the Arts convocation this year was Adam Levin, a prominent New Jerseyan and an important consumers’ rights advocate. Faced by a sea of graduating artists, musicians, dancers, actors, and their families, Mr. Levin thought it imperative to speak to us about the importance of asking questions and challenging the status quo. He said, “People will warn you against taking chances. Ignore them. People will offer you a life with no room for your vision. Refuse them. People will seek to smother your curiosity in a plush bed of certainty. Resist them.” Therefore, he went on, art is interrogatory. An empty canvas is a drawing board for challenging the conventions of our day. A silent auditorium is an opportunity for a musician to ask important questions. What could the mostly empty sanctuary of an historic church be?

Levin highlighted his point by citing the perniciousness of modern misogyny, in particular the recent Rush Limbaugh-Sandra Fluke controversy. Limbaugh hurled slurs at Fluke after she addressed Congress on making insurance coverage for contraceptives mandatory. Levin’s challenge to us, the class of 2012, is to use our art to interact with society about evils like misogyny. What we must do is to use our artistic voice to address what we see is wrong with the world. And the world will fight back with tooth and nail, trying to undermine us on each step of the way. This creative process is what the Town Clock CDC and Dina’s Dwellings has experienced as they have settled on a plan to house women in the sanctuary. It was a challenge to create the CDC, and the process for raising funds and awareness will certainly be a bumpy road.

Among other important features, First Reformed Church is a beacon for women in New Brunswick. Our church houses the Women’s Guild, and once a year the prestigious Martha Award is handed to a significant woman citizen within the halls of the church. Dina Van Bergh was the matriarch of the church family in the nineteenth century, and the nascent housing project that is named after her is going to house abused and underprivileged women and their families. Finally, much of the leadership in our church is female – we are a church that structurally and theologically supports women. That the Town Clock CDC chose to focus on women’s issues is no surprise, especially in our time that is filled with many unfortunate people who hate women.

A musician is always responsible for crafting a voice: whether trying to bring out complicated voices in Schumann’s counterpoint on the piano, or mastering a vocal exercise to enhance the natural beauty of one’s singing. However, having a voice does not always give one comfort. A new vocal technique can feel unnatural for a time, and Schumann’s counterpoint certainly can give one a headache in the beginning stages. Slow, patient practice and broadening one’s comfort zone is imperative for progress in art. Even though it may take a very long time, and the path may be painful, agonizing, and sometimes even boring, the final product is more wonderful than you can imagine. A musician is satisfied, and more than that: she channels the divine voice through this devoted discipline.

First Reformed Church is a place of comfort. We are a family here, and we aim to protect and encourage the people we love. New members are always welcomed whole-heartedly with a song, “Blessed Be the Tie that Binds.” We try hard to reassure people with music, preaching, and fellowship. The mission statement on the draft of the Memorandum of Understanding between FRC and the Town Clock CDC states that our sanctuary is “a welcoming home, infused with early nineteenth century charm, offering the people of New Brunswick many types of community spaces and shelter opportunities.” But how will we be challenged by each other? Sometimes protection is not as helpful or as loving as throwing somebody into deep water. The process itself that brought us to this community development project was an exercise in deep-water swimming. Certainly, the decision to begin the CDC that will build Dina’s Dwellings was not comfortable at all – it has been painful to consider restructuring our beautiful sanctuary. But, the cause we are serving is greater than the discomfort we will go through to achieve it. In other words, the birth pangs of the development of the church’s voice must lead us to the realization that we are responsible for encouraging others’ development.

How can we challenge the women we protect in Dinas Dwellings to find their voice? According to the same Memorandum draft, this project is “for women and women with children who are victims of domestic violence, or human trafficked, or are experiencing homelessness for a variety of reasons.” Even though the MOU is in its early draft stages, and has not yet been approved, it is very clear about the type of person Dina’s Dwellings is aiming to serve. And nobody needs our support more than women, especially abused, homeless, and trafficked women. More than giving them a place of comfort, a sanctuary in the midst of their uncontrollable lives, there must be something else we can offer.

Victims of domestic violence so often are also victims of emotional abuse that forces them to be silent. Abusers assert control by overpowering the abused person’s voice, and when the abused cries out, her voice is often unheard. She quickly learns to be quiet, to assuage the abuser, and to avoid painful reactions. According to The Healing Arts by Cathy Malchiodi, “Art as a healing force does not come easy for those whose lives have been controlled, are accustomed to betrayal and punishment, and have learned self-hatred. But inevitably when it does, creativity and imagination restore a sense of possibility, identity, and reconnection with parts of the self that were silenced in order to survive the violence”
( The arts: music, theater, visual arts, and dance, are tools for healing. They challenge us to have a vision and try to capture that vision in finite media. Musicians have vision, yes, but more importantly for us there is a beautiful sonority in our minds – a conception of the ideal sound. We try to use our tools: our voices, instruments, fingers, breath, to give voice to that sound and be as true to our conception of beauty as we can. This process is very similar to psychological therapy—bringing to consciousness the true version of our inner voices, whether pained, pleased, beautiful, or harsh. This is the root of the significance of having an artistic voice.

The history of Music is full of examples of women swimming desperately to the surface of a male-dominated ocean of music. Sometimes they are successful, and other times they drown. Many of the successful women composers are able to come to the surface temporarily before being pulled back down. One famous example is Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel (1805-1847), the very talented sister of Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy. As a child, she learned to play the piano, but her compositional voice was stifled by her father and brother, since they did not believe that women should publish music, in keeping with the popular beliefs of the time. Nevertheless, Fanny relented, and she composed 500 compositions in her lifetime, mostly for piano and voice. In other ways, as well, she asserted her independence and her individual voice: after her family converted to Lutheranism, Fanny “retained the cultural values of liberal Judaism” (The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians). Despite being the victim of a forced baptism, Fanny knew the identity of her inner voice, and her life was spent fighting to be heard. She was also lucky enough to have married someone who supported her artistic development. In the land of misogyny and anti-Semitism, this remarkable artist found her voice and swam successfully against a subversive tide.

A lesser-known woman composer, who flourished under more generous auspices, was one of the first opera composers. Francesca Caccini (1587-c. 1640) composed operas in Florence at a time favorable to women in the arts. In fact, from 1621 to 1628, the city-state was ruled by two female co-regents, Maria Maddalena and Cristina de’ Medici. Under their leadership, not only were woman artists supported, but the subject matter of art changed to incorporate the idea of feminine power in an unprecedented way. Caccini, for her part, composed successful operas such as La liberazione di Ruggiero that used music (her voice) to elevate women. According to Grout’s A Short History of Opera, Caccini devised a compositional scheme for Ruggiero that equated “gender with tonality: flat keys are associated with the female protagonist, Alcina, and her attendants; sharp keys, with the male protagonist, Ruggiero, and the other supporting male roles; and the key of C, with the androgynous sorceress Melissa” (61). Shortly thereafter, when the young Grand Duke Ferdinando II became old enough to rule on his own, women were forced to retire to the background yet again. It was not until the twentieth century that a woman again figured so prominently in the world of opera. And still, the balance is in favor of male composers today.

Whereas Francesca Caccini flourished in an atmosphere favorable to women, Fanny Mendelssohn had to fight against the will of her male family members to give voice to her art, in a world that not only wanted to suppress women, but also diminish diversity through assimilating Jewish people into mainstream culture. Even Caccini’s glory days were numbered, as Venice was only temporarily ruled by women – family members of the soon-to-be male ruler. It was merely a favorable time of transition until a legitimate grand duke could take control of the government, and the arts, again. Our world, in 2012, is not simply reminiscent of either Mendelssohn’s or Caccini’s scenario: but a combination of both. We face the paradox that women have equal rights to men, but they are not equal in societal stature. A woman almost became the Democratic presidential nominee in 2008 but there are so many more men in Congress. Finally, even though women can vote and represent constituents, their voice is often covered up by the media and denigrated by powerful men like Rush Limbaugh.

First Reformed Church is at a crossroads today. We have recently joined Room for All, an organization for open and affirming churches, and more recently our mission is to support the Reformed Church of Highland Park in their immigrant’s rights activities. Let us make Dina’s Dwellings the crowning achievement in a triumvirate of causes. It is our job to help these downtrodden women to find their voice, and not just to house them. There is a reason this project is being done in a church, and not in an additional building elsewhere in the town. The project is too young to have a specific plan of action on how to give voice to women, but the contemplation of the starting point has been done for us:

If disaster comes upon us, the sword, judgment, or pestilence, or famine, we will stand before this house, and before you, for your name is in this house, and cry to you in our distress, and you will hear and save. (2 Chronicles 20:9)

Jehoshaphat’s prayer for protection highlights the need for believers to give voice to their need, to raise up cries to God in times of distress. It is not our task to only ask God for comfort and protection; it is our responsibility to stand before God and raise up our voices. The candidates for Dina’s Dwellings need our help to learn how to use their voices to pour out their pain, broken dreams, and shattered lives.

To be sure, God calls us not to use our voices only to cry out to him in distress. We are exhorted also to shout for joy. The instructions in Psalm 47 are clear and unmistakable:

Clap your hands, all you peoples;
Shout to God with loud songs of joy…
Sing praises to God, sing praises;
Sing praises to our King, sing praises. (Psalm 47:1,6)

Let us not shy away from this challenge – we are not just building a house for these women in Dina’s Dwellings; we are building a choir of voices that will carry a message of hope and love into the world. We know that this is possible since women have persevered for centuries to make their voices heard. It is not a miracle that we still know who Dina Van Bergh, Francesca Caccini, Fanny Mendelssohn, and other female composers (Clara Schumann, Hildegard von Bingen, etc.) are today. In the future, we may still remember the voice of Sandra Fluke. We may, in the future, experience a utopia similar to that of Florence in the 1620s, for example if a woman becomes president. But that will not kill misogyny. No matter what happens, we simply cannot forget the power of our voices. This is the crux of Adam Levin’s convocation speech: that no matter what voices are against us, our voices need to be expressed somehow, above hatred, fear, and retaliation. Remarkable women are remembered for their voices. If we do our job right, the voices of the women we will house in our sanctuary will resonate to the end of time.

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