May 6 -Philip Bohlman–On the Origin of Nations: Sacred Music and Religious Nationalism


Religion in its many forms—as myth and metaphor, people and polity, community and chorus—provides one of the most powerful foundations for the nation. The forms in which the religion and nation converge engender what I refer to in this colloquium as religious nationalism. The power of religious nationalism is evident not only in its originary moments, but also in the historical longue durée, its insistent revival at modern moments when the nation is perceived as under threat. Music provides transformational power to religious nationalism, enhancing the ways in which the sacred shape the national everyday, providing the common voice around which political action coheres. Sacred music connects the narratives of national epic in the past to the call to military action in the present. The global voice of religious nationalism today—in India, Iraq, Israel—is that of the sacred in the service to the nation’s selfness.

In this colloquium I turn to the revival of the religious nationalism in our own day to lay the groundwork for a theory that accounts for the agency of sacred music at the origin of nations. It is hardly surprising that many of the most influential frameworks for music and nationalism grow at the confluence of philosophy and theology, notably the seminal works of Johann Gottfried Herder, a Protestant pastor his entire life.  The broadly theoretical framework that I bring to the talk complements several other models for interpreting the nation in history and modernity, particularly the distinctions between the national and the nationalist in music.

To illustrate the colloquium I turn to a specific set of case studies, historically looking at epic as a genre of sacred music that transforms sacred voice into political action. The religious nationalisms that provide case studies come from my long-term ethnography with religious communities in Europe, the Muslim Middle East, and the United States, and I set these in counterpoint with my recent studies of sacred music and religious nationalism in India and Israel.


Philip V. Bohlman is the Mary Werkman Distinguished Service Professor of Music and the Humanities at the University of Chicago, where he also serves on the Associate Faculty of the Divinity School and on the governing board of the Chicago Center for Jewish Studies. He is also Honorarprofessor at the Hochschule für Musik, Theater und Medien in Hannover, and in 2014 he was the Franz Rosenzweig Visiting Professor at the University of Kassel. Research on music and religion provides a center for his teaching and publications, among them Jewish Music and Modernity (2008), Revival and Reconciliation: Sacred Music in the Making of the New Europe (2013), and Wie sängen wir Seinen Gesang auf dem Boden der Fremde!

Jüdische Musik zwischen Aschkenas und Moderne (2015). An active musician, Philip Bohlman is the Artistic Director of the Ensemble-in-Residence at the University of Chicago, the New Budapest Orpheum Society, a Jewish cabaret that performs internationally from Chicago synagogues to Symphony Space to the cabaret stages of Berlin and Vienna. Most recent of the ensemble’s CDs is the 2014 As Dreams Fall Apart: The Golden Age of Jewish Stage and Film Music, 1925–1955. His CUNY colloquium is part of a book supported by the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, Music after Nationalism.

Philip Bohlman–On the Origin of Nations: Sacred Music and Religious Nationalism
Date: Wednesday, May 6, 2015
Time: 12:30 pm – 2:00 pm
Location: Committee for the Study of Religion (GC Room 5307)