Review | Revival and Reconciliation: Sacred Music in the Making of European Modernity by Philip V. Bohlman

Revival and Reconciliation: Sacred Music in the Making of European Modernity. By Philip V. Bohlman. Lanham, MD: Scarecrow Press, 2013. [xxxiv, 285 p. ISBN 9780810881839. $85.] Music examples, illustrations, bibliography, index.

Reviewed by Nicholas J. Chong


Philip Bohlman’s Revival and Reconciliation: Sacred Music in the Making of European Modernity brings together eleven essays concerning the role of music, religion, and sacred music in modern and postmodern Europe.  All but two of the essays have been published elsewhere in earlier versions, but Bohlman notes in a preface (“Sources”) that he has “thoroughly revised” each of these previously-published works to reflect the findings of more recent research (xiv).[1]  In line with the author’s scholarly specialties, the essays focus on Eastern European and Mediterranean geographical contexts, and on the period since the fall of the Berlin Wall.  At the same time, they try their best to situate their various objects of study within broader historical and geographical contexts, reaching back (sometimes quite far back) into the past, as well as reaching out to other parts of Europe.

Revival and Reconciliation is also the sixteenth volume in a series entitled “Europea: Ethnomusicologies and Modernities,” edited by Bohlman and Martin Stokes, who contributes a foreword here.  The larger scholarly goal of this series is made clear on a page preceding the colophon: to turn ethnomusicology back towards Europe, towards a continent normally placed under the disciplinary purview of historical musicology.  The intention is to explore less familiar, non-canonical European musical repertories and, in so doing, to broaden the cultural definition of Europe beyond those provided by dominant historiographical narratives.  In this book, both Stokes’ Foreword and Bohlman’s Prologue explicate what this project means for the study of European sacred repertories:  it challenges the usual idea that European modernity is secular and, in turn, challenges the dominance of Christianity in understandings of European religion. Bohlman seeks to tell stories that resist the conventional teleological narratives of modern European history.  For him, the revival of sacred and sacred music in Europe since 1990 indicates how the past is used, at least by some, to oppose a hegemonic idea “modernity” and to deal with a time of cultural and political uncertainty.  Bohlman grapples continuously with the paradox that in an era otherwise marked by increasing secularism in Europe, “in some European societies and among some social groups [religion’s] presence remains tenacious” (xxvii).

Although the essays in Revival and Reconciliation concern a variety of specific subjects and were (in their original versions) written over a period of more than twenty years, a number of themes recur across all of them, which Bohlman helpfully summarizes in his Prologue (xxix-xxxii).  These themes include:

  1. the undeniable dominance of Christianity, especially the Catholic Church, in the “longue durée” of European history (even if, as Bohlman shows repeatedly in his work, this does not mean that the non-dominant voices of Jews, Muslims and minority Christian sects should be ignored).  
  2. the connection of religion and music to place: sacred “spaces” and “landscapes”; different types of religious, ethnic and political boundaries; and movement, as exemplified by migration and by religious pilgrimage. 
  3. the relationship of religion and politics, especially with regard to “empire and race” (xxxi).  (Indeed, showing how the sacred and secular overlap in unexpected ways is, more broadly speaking, a key goal of Bohlman’s book.)
  4. an emphasis on worshipping communities, rather than on individuals, on popular religious practice rather than on religious institutions.
  5. revival, defined both in a limited sense (actual religious revival) and more broadly (retrieving or attempting to retrieve something from the past as a social or political gesture)

The special importance of this last theme of revival is perhaps reflected in the book’s organization.  The eleven chapters (corresponding to the eleven essays) are divided into four sections whose headings are all variations on the idea of “going back.”

The first of these sections, entitled “Remembrance,” comprises three chapters broadly related to the Mediterranean.  Chapter 1, “Past, Present, and the People without Music History,” interrogates the scholarly tradition of treating the Mediterranean as timeless, outside history.  Bohlman’s attitude to this tradition is highly nuanced:  to perpetuate this tradition without reflection is to impute Western categories of thinking on other cultures, yet it is also true that many of those same cultures do subscribe to forms of “timeless” conceptions in defining their own identities.  In particular, timelessness is an especially important idea of diasporic (religious) communities.  Throughout this essay, Bohlman shows how music’s temporal qualities have made it a key component of ideas of timelessness, for both the scholar and the cultures he or she studies.  Chapter 2, “Recovering the Mediterranean, Recovering Modernity,” explores the role of Jewish music, “as a sacred music connecting the Mediterranean to Europe” (24), in the construction of Western musical discourses.  Early modern Europeans, for instance, used the Jewish music of biblical times as models of perfection.  Along the way, Bohlman critiques the history of his own field, pointing out its complicity in constructing timeless and false musical cultures abstracted from actual history.  The first section of the book ends with “And She Sang a New Song,” a study of the way in which gender roles are reconfigured in Mediterranean sacred song repertories.  Bohlman pays particular attention here to the role of women both in religious communities and in religious symbols, imagery and narratives.

The second section is entitled “Return,” and is made up of three studies of religious pilgrimage in Europe, two of which focus heavily on the Marian pilgrimage site of Medjugorje in Bosnia-Herzegovina:  Chapter 4, “Pilgrim’s Progress,” and Chapter 6, “The People’s Voice in Sacred Song.”  Using Medjugorje as the primary example, the first of these two chapters explores why pilgrimage has been so central to the practice of folk religion in the modern, post-modern age.  In a link to concepts raised in earlier chapters, Bohlman argues that in folk religion, pilgrimage enables the meeting and intermingling of past and present, blurring various “boundaries,” both literal and figurative.  Sacred music, in turn, “serves as a means to mirror folk religion” (61), its purported timelessness attractive in an age where it is increasingly difficult for people to carve out spaces in which to contemplate the timeless.  In this chapter, Bohlman is especially attentive to the relationship between music and material culture:  to the role of technology in reproducing music for mass groups of pilgrims and to the link between sacred music and sacred iconography.  “The People’s Voice in Sacred Song” describes the crucial role of music in communicating the specific spiritual messages of Medjugorje, especially to far-flung diasporic communities.  This essay then proceeds to an extended discussion of religious revival.  Bohlman proposes seven processes of revival, connecting the religious dimensions of revival to what he sees as its political dimensions—folk religion, Bohlman seems to imply, is very much a form of popular political action.  This connection between religion and politics then receives more detailed treatment in Chapter 5, “The Final Borderpost,” which centers on the political aspects of pilgrimage, in particular on the manner in which pilgrimages cross political borders.  As Bohlman writes, “Pilgrimage, and its expressive agent, music, are components of a contested Europe—of contested boundary areas” (82).

Chapters 7 and 8 of Revival and Reconciliation make up its third section, entitled “Revival.”  Chapter 7, “To Hear the Voices Still Heard,” is a poignant study of the role of synagogues in post-1989 Europe, focusing especially on their function as “vessel[s]” of Jewish liturgical music (136), a repertory that had been central to historical debates over Jewish identity in Europe.  For Bohlman, the uncertainty associated with what synagogues now mean in the “new Europe” is emblematic of the difficulty for Jewish communities to define themselves culturally in the same setting.  This chapter is followed by “Sacred Popular Music and the Journey to Jerusalem,” which explores the intersection of the sacred and popular in the religious music associated with the Catholic Jubilee Year of 2000.  Bohlman uses this phenomenon as a springboard for a detailed meditation on the more general relationship between sacred and popular (169-71, “Religious Music and the Instantiation of Sacred Space”), stressing that in religious settings, the private interacts with the public to a greater degree than is often acknowledged—and that music is crucial in mediating this interaction.  Sacred music attains characteristics of the popular and, conversely, the ostensibly popular music of the new Europe often incorporates sacred themes.

The final section of the book, “Reconciliation,” contains the two essays in the volume that have not been published elsewhere, Chapters 9 and 11.  In chapter 9, “Music of the Other Germany,” Bohlman investigates self-identifiably German music that does not conform with the ideals of “die Musik”—that is, European art music, viewed as German and Christian in its roots.  He begins by reminding the reader of the importance of religion to constructions of German art music—a construct as unified as the unified Germany it purports to represent.  He then presents as an opposition to this the music of minority Christian sects, as well as the music of Jews and Muslims—a Germany that resists the unity of the hegemonic view.  The following chapter, “World Music at the End of Time,” is an extended historiographical meditation on the globalization of “world music.”  Bohlman argues that the way in which world music is defined as “outside history” is linked to various modern and postmodern theorizations of the “end of history,” which in his view are ultimately religious in nature, influenced by Christian eschatology.  Bohlman considers ideas of the “end of history”—which he labels collectively as “endism”—to be expressive of a utopianism that is a response to the historical conditions of modernity.  The concept of utopia is then subjected to more scrutiny in the book’s final chapter, “Journey to Utopia,” where Bohlman explores (sacred) music’s potential to make “miracles” of intercultural reconciliation happen.  He suggests three possible forms of resistance to hegemonic historical teleologies:  “utopian imagination, dystopian nostalgia, heterotopian reality” (249).  The first two are necessarily imaginary—journeying into a no-place idealized future or seeking a return to the past.  The unavoidable reality is “heterotopia,” defined as the “convergence of utopia and dystopia,” where communities can be defined by hopes for an unrealized “post-ethnic” Europe, but hopes which also derive from reaching into the past (249).  Bohlman concludes the chapter, and the book, by exhorting the reader to accept, even embrace, the ambiguities and tensions in this model, which reflects the complex place of sacred music in the new Europe, where religious revival occurs alongside increasing secularism, where religion is used both to divide and unite.

Read as a whole, from cover to cover, the book suffers at times from repetitiousness.  As mentioned earlier, Bohlman’s Prologue makes clear that a set number of themes recur throughout the book, but the book also occasionally repeats particular examples, like Medjugorje, in multiple chapters.  To be fair, however, such overlap of material has the benefit of better encouraging the reader to make connections between what might otherwise seem to be disparate ideas and examples, and in any case, the book’s organization makes it more user-friendly for those interested in its chapters as individual essays.  Another practical concern, for this reader at least, was the relative paucity of notated musical examples, which made it difficult to get an aural sense of the musical styles and repertories Bohlman describes.  There are obvious problems with transcribing into canonical Western notation music that comes from outside that notational tradition.  However, one wonders if some transcription, with appropriate acknowledgement of its limitations, could have helped at least a little in giving non-specialist readers especially an idea of how the music being studied sounds.  Indeed, those who fear that notation might reify the music should consider that Bohlman’s focus on the materiality of music (CDs, prayer cards with song texts, advertising material for concerts etc.) risks reifying it in a different way.  In any case, anything that regularly reminds the reader of music’s sounded form, that conveys a sense of the music experienced as heard, should be welcomed.  If notation is problematic, then perhaps modern technology might help, for instance by making pertinent recorded examples available to the reader via a website or in an accompanying CD.

More significant criticism might be directed at some of the argumentative and methodological assumptions which, to this reviewer at least, occur repeatedly throughout the volume.  One of the most admirable qualities of Bohlman’s work is its thought-provoking emphasis on blurring the boundaries between things often thought to be opposites:  past and present, sacred and secular, public and private, communities in Europe and their diasporas elsewhere.  In some contexts, this blurring of boundaries could, in my view, have been pushed further.  The most obvious example is Bohlman’s emphasis on popular religious practice, what he calls “subaltern religion” (108), rather than on so-called institutional religion.  “Folk religion,” he writes, “does not depend on orthodoxy or the institutions of the church, rather, it emerges directly from belief systems that provide coherence among believers themselves” (108).[2]  One wonders if this binary is overly simplistic, if the “believers themselves” and the “institutions” in fact act in a much more complex and dynamic relationship.  This is shown, in fact, by Bohlman’s own example of Pope John Paul II’s charismatic appeal (181)— an institutional leader who inspired popular religious fervor.[3]

In a few other contexts, however, blurring boundaries seems, in my opinion, actually to go a little too far.  Bohlman’s essays include references to different religious traditions, sometimes in close proximity on the page.  His underlying point is obviously to show commonalities between these diverse communities, and especially, as he states repeatedly, to include the perspectives of non-dominant religious communities like Jews, Muslims and minority Christian groups.  This apparent impulse towards a kind of universalist attitude towards religion—it is a common assumption of modern comparative religious studies—and the search for common ground is much needed in a world where religion has been a cause of so much human conflict.  However, it seems reasonable to ask whether more specific attention also needs to be given to the particularity of individual religious traditions.  Can we go too far in using the practices at Sufi shrines to understand the musical repertories associated with the shrines of Christian saints (173-74)?  To cite another example, the Muslim hajj and Christian pilgrimage obviously share many similarities (87), but might there also not be significant ways in which they are different?  Perhaps the very valid and commendable search for common human impulses driving different religious groups might be more frequently balanced by some acknowledgement of the ways in which those groups also are, and see themselves as, distinct.

One of the other boundaries that Bohlman seeks often to blur is that between the sacred and secular, in particular between the religious and the (socio-)political.  As in the case of the boundaries between different religions, it is indisputable that religion and politics are intertwined in the complex ways that Bohlman so insightfully draws attention to.  Again, however, one wonders if analogies are occasionally pushed too far, or too quickly.  For instance, Bohlman’s description of European colonial expansion as a form of pilgrimage (80) seems, to me at least, to have been insufficiently justified.  Colonialism and religious pilgrimage do share a desire to break political boundaries, but surely not all forms of mass political “movement” are alike?  In a similar vein, calling the 1999 Eurovision Song Contest, which took place in Jerusalem, Europe’s “foremost popular-music pilgrimage” (185), or comparing the 2012 victory in that same contest of a group of Russian grandmothers to a “miracle” (238), is rhetorically elegant, but it is hard not to wonder if it risks trivializing actual religious pilgrimage and actual religious miracles.  One should acknowledge, however, that at numerous other points in the book, Bohlman makes more persuasive connections between religion and politics, between sacred and secular, perhaps because those connections are, in these instances, simply given more space to be thoroughly explained.  One example is Chapter 10’s extended discussion of “endism” and Christian eschatology, mentioned earlier.  Chapter 9 also contains a more succinct illustration of a more nuanced treatment of the relationship between the sacred and secular:

I do not mean to suggest that the sacred and the secular are the same, but rather that they are not.  It may be that music and religion are incompatible, and they thus struggle for the same space.  In doing so, they prevent that space from collapsing into selfness.  They open it hence making entrance by the other possible, if not crucially necessary (202).

With regard to Bohlman’s treatment of the boundaries both between religions and between sacred and secular, one might sum up by asking whether the exploration of similarities and parallels between multiple entities could be accomplished without collapsing those different entities into each other.

Finally, given Bohlman’s apparent desire to see religion as political, and to see politics as religious, it is no surprise that religious groups often come across throughout the book as mass political movements, hence the author’s declared emphasis on religious communities rather than on individuals, described in the Prologue as a focus on “the common voice of communities” (xxxii).  Bohlman is not incorrect when he writes, “individual pilgrims do sing, of course, but the context in which they prefer to sing is that of a chorus of fellow pilgrims” (xxxii).  However, I was troubled at times by the almost complete absence of the voices of individual believers.  How can Bohlman describe what a group or a community collectively thinks without providing testimony from the individuals who make up that community?  Especially when Bohlman seems to attribute political goals to religious communities, I found myself asking repeatedly whether those believers are aware of the political significance of what they might simply consider to be acts of devotion to God.  For example, Bohlman writes at one point that “Europe’s modern pilgrims look only to the past as a means of embodying the connections to a sacred genealogy that will empower them to look beyond the boundaries of the present, boundaries which quickly have proved insufficient to chart the continent’s future and to contain the movement of its increasingly diverse peoples” (101).  It is true, of course, that the actions of these religious believers might be political even if they themselves do not think so.  Our job as scholars, after all, is to theorize, to assess, even to judge.  But without sufficient attention to the individual voices of those we study, is there not a risk of making these communities say what we wish them to say, of inscribing our identities onto others?  In Chapter 4, Bohlman himself writes that though “pilgrimage music forms a common repertory capable of unifying a community during pilgrimage,” it is also true that “each individual invests his or her personal experiences in the music” (65).  In my view, precisely that encounter of individual believers with the sacred, and with the music embodying the sacred, ought to receive more sustained attention.

The methodological and argumentative concerns I have raised involve issues with which all historical and sociological scholars of music struggle to some degree.  The appropriate balance between competing demands—for example, to find commonalities between communities without stripping away their individuality—is a very difficult one to strike, and could depend on what one’s argumentative goals might be in a particular situation.  Ultimately, therefore, I wish to emphasize that the criticisms I have offered in the preceding paragraphs should take nothing away from the enormous scholarly achievement that Revival and Reconciliation represents.  The book constitutes an anthology of work by one of the preeminent music scholars of our time, writing on topics on which he is a recognized specialist—an indisputable testament to more than two decades of dedicated research and thought.  More importantly, it provides much-needed scholarly attention to the prominence of religion in contemporary Europe—a welcome alternative to the stereotype of modernity’s secular nature.  Even if one does not always agree with Bohlman’s treatment or interpretation of his historical and sociological examples, those examples themselves, mesmerizing in their diversity, are presented and described with an insightfulness and attention to detail that we would all do well to emulate.

[1] References to pages in the book under review will be given parenthetically within the text.  Previous versions of the essays are as follows.  Chapter 1:  “Il passato, il presente e i popoli del Mediterraneo senza storia musicale,” Musica e storia 5 (1997):  181-204.  Chapter 2:  “La riscoperta del Mediterraneo nella musica ebraica: Il discorso dell’ ‘altro’ nell’ etnomusicologia dell’Europa,” in Antropologia della musica nella culture Mediterranee, ed. Tullia Magrini (Bologna:  Società editrice il mulino, 1993), 107-24.  Chapter 3:  “‘And She Sang a New Song’: Gender and Music on the Sacred Landscapes of the Mediterranean,” in Music and Gender: Perspectives from the Mediterranean, ed. Tullia Magrini (Chicago:  University of Chicago Press, 2003), 329-49.  Chapter 4:  “Auf dem Weg zur Wallfahrt—Musikalische Kolportage an den Grenzen zur Volksfrömmigkeit,” in Volksmusik—Wandel und Deutung, ed. Gerlinde Haid, Ursula Hemetek and Rudolf Pietsch (Vienna:  Böhlau Verlag, 2000), 505-22.  Chapter 5:  “The Final Borderpost,” Journal of Musicology 14, no. 4 (Fall 1996):  427-52.  Chapter 6:  “(Ab)stimmen der Völker in Liedern—Musik in der Wiederbelebung der Frömmigkeit in Südosteuropa,” in Musik im Umbruch—Kulturelle Identität und gesellschaftlicher Wandel in Südosteuropa, ed. Bruno B. Reuer (Munich:  Verlag Südostdeutsches Kulturwerk, 1999), 25-44.  Chapter 7:  “Hearing the Voices Still Heard: On Synagogue Restoration in Eastern Europe,” in Altering States: Ethnographies of Transition in Eastern Europe and the Former Soviet Union, ed. Daphne Birdall, Matti Bunzl and Martha Lampland (Ann Arbor:  University of Michigan Press, 2000), 40-69.  Chapter 8:  “Sacred Popular Muisc of the Mediterranean and the Journey to Jerusalem,” in Mediterranean Mosaic: Popular Music and Global Sounds, ed. Goffredo Plastino (New York:  Routledge, 2002), 287-306.  Chapter 10:  “World Music at the ‘End of History,’” Ethnomusicology 46, no. 1 (2002):  1-32.  Chapters 9 and 11 have not been previously published.

[2] In a similar way, I wonder if Bohlman is too quick to separate “popular” religious music from canonical (e.g. liturgical) music.  See, for instance, his assertion that “the pilgrim’s song lies outside the canonical repertories of most religions” (86). 

[3] With regard to the issue of the relationship between lay believers and religious hierarchies, I was puzzled that Bohlman made no mention of the controversy within the Catholic Church over Medjugorje.  Disputes over the validity of the apparitions have been going on for some time, but here are two recent online articles about the controversy, which has pitted members of the local and Roman Catholic hierarchy against laypeople and some local priests:,  The controversy surrounding Medjugorje might serve as a useful example for Bohlman of how ordinary believers are able to resist the rulings of their religious leaders.  At the same time, however, it should be said that the views of even very senior churchmen have disagreed on the issue.  A senior prelate, Cardinal Schönborn of Vienna, has, for instance, come out in support of the Medjugorje pilgrims (see, for instance,  Perhaps this illustrates the need to avoid treating religious institutions as monolithic entities.


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