“I Return to Music Increasingly”: An Interview with Margot Fassler

Margot Fassler


An Interview with Margot F assler 

Margot Fassler is Professor of Music History and Liturgy at the University of Notre Dame and emerita Professor of Music History at Yale. From 1995-2005, she was director of the Yale Institute of Sacred Music, which offers interdisciplinary study of sacred music, worship, and other arts, partnering with YDS, the Yale School of Music, and the Department of Music. Her books include The Virgin of Chartres: Making History Through Liturgy and the Arts (Yale, 2010) and Music in the Medieval West: Western Music in Context (Norton, 2014). Fassler is a member of the North American Academy of Liturgy, a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, an Honorary Member of the American Musicological Society, and a Fellow of the Medieval Academy of America. 

On the importance of children’s choirs, before it’s too late … 

One thing I do is train musicians to build children’s choirs. But for many churches I visit these days, it’s too late. There are not enough children there anymore to start a choir. You’ve got to invest in the future by training the youth in the music of the tradition if you’re going to have a future. Whether it’s Roman Catholic or evangelical or mainline Protestant, you won’t have success if you don’t have a strong music program. You’ve got to have good musicians, and you’ve got to pay them! 

On hymnody as a spiritual guide … 

Music, we know, is an art of memory. It has its own special place in the mind. The hymns you hear as a child or as a teen will always be held dear to you. I’ve seen this even among dementia patients in nursing homes – people whose strong memories of hymns are triggered when someone starts singing them. I hope churches will remember that truth about human nature. Every congregation needs to make conscious decisions about hymnody, keeping in mind that music not only relates to the present in theologically astute ways but ties back to particular places and denominations decades and centuries before. This musical dimension is vital to church leadership – to guide and nurture the spirits of people. 

Three ways of nurturing the spirit … 

We might think of music as nurturing the spirit in three different ways. The first is to regard a great piece of music as belonging to a beautiful theoretical system that has its own set of rules and regulations to follow. When you get a basic grasp of this, it’s like a glorious symphony of numbers, a beautiful reflection of the human mind. Flawed as we are, music gives us some sense of the divine that is within us because of this extraordinary capacity to create such sounds. 

The second way is to consider music as a glue that holds a community or congregation together. In a worship setting you can see people thumbing through the missal or hymnal, seeking the right hymn, endeavoring to join the group in song, because we all feel the power of that kind of beauty that can happen when we sing together. 

There’s a third way as well. It happens when the first two forms of beauty combine – an appreciation of the great technicalities of the music, and an experience of this in a congregational setting. This is rare. And it seems that increasingly the two ways of musically nurturing the spirit are separating. Musicians should be there to nurture people, meet them where they are, help them find their voices, and root them in their own traditions in ways that are artistically and theologically satisfying and strong. It’s hard work, and doesn’t bear fruit overnight; rather it requires a good mixture of talent, training, and patience. 

On the flux and turbulence of religious history … 

The arts and strong preaching have to provide a way out of some of the ideas that are apparently shaping Christianity in some quarters today. People in the churches as well as in the culture have become imbued with a set of values seemingly learned from the media that deny complicated argument and the principles of Christian theology. There has long been a tendency in American religiosity to appeal to the heart first, and if it works, go for it. Our worship history has always been in flux, with tension between contradictory impulses of the intellectual and the anti-intellectual. It’s no different today. But YDS and its partners, including ISM, stand for something else – something very important, based as YDS is historically and in the present on the bedrock of a learned clergy, women and men who lead with the intellect as well as with appeals to the emotions. We need this work more than ever. 

On seeking the divine in the human today … 

We’ve never had a television in our house, so I don’t watch the news. The headlines in The New York Times weigh on my spirit too. I return to music increasingly, because that’s how I find the divine within the human, which is something I believe in.