BY MARA KLEINBERG ’22
Each year, Mount Holyoke students look forward to the Vespers concert. Performed by members of the Glee Club, Chamber Choir, Chorale and other musical groups on campus, the performances aim to celebrate the dawning of the winter season. This year’s theme was “On a Winter’s Night.”
One would think such an important Mount Holyoke tradition would reflect the religious diversity of the student body. Yet, sadly, Vespers does not. According to Wikipedia, Vespers historically is “a sunset evening prayer service in the Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Eastern Catholic, Anglican, and Lutheran liturgies of the canonical hours.” In other words, Vespers is a Christian prayer service that takes place at night. In the past, the event was called “Christmastime Vespers,” but the name was changed in 2015. Although the title has changed, this event still contains many of its Christmas themes from 1899, the year the tradition began.
Much of the music Chorale members must sing for Vespers are carols, including “O’ Come All Ye Faithful,” and “Joy to the World.” If they aren’t carols, they are traditional prayers in other languages about Jesus and St. Nick. Of course, that is not to say that all of the songs sung this year were devoutly Christian; “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” and “Stars Shall I Find” are primarily about winter. But even these songs have strong Christian associations.
As a Jewish person, I am uncomfortable singing much of the music we are instructed to perform. I feel almost completely excluded from this tradition, as my faith is hardly acknowledged or included. I am not a very religious person, but after performing in a Jewish choir for five years, I have found music an important tool to strengthen my relationship to God. In the same way, Christian members of the choral forces are able to feel this spiritual connection to their religion while performing; others are not. Hanukkah songs have been performed at Vespers in the past, but this year they were originally absent from the selection. When I brought this up, my Jewish friend and I were instructed to help find Jewish music to include in order to make the concert more inclusive. I did not help because it felt unfair that as a full-time student, I had to be the one to find a Hanukkah song. It shouldn’t be my responsibility as a Jew to educate others; they need to educate themselves. “Hanukkah O’ Hanukkah,” the song that ended up being added, felt somewhat tokenistic. Unlike the other pieces, filled with harmonies and key changes, this song is repeated and sung in one key. It’s a rather easy piece and isn’t helping anyone learn more about music by singing it.
Although Vespers now includes a Jewish song, I am aware that I am not the only minority in Chorale or the Choral Forces. A Muslim friend of mine also feels excluded by the event. A fellow firstie feels that Chorale does not make it well-known to singers that this concert is religious. A sophomore told me that there are plenty of Jewish songs she knows that we could have sung, yet were never presented as an option. I am not suggesting that we should get rid of the Christian songs, just stop making the majority of the music Christian. Mount Holyoke itself is not like any other college; as a traditionally women’s college, many of its policies strive for inclusivity of individual gender expression and sexual orientation. If we are so progressive as a college in this way, why must we continually exclude people outside of the Christian majority with this concert?
I understand that Chorale and other musical groups on campus try to be inclusive in other ways. When we were singing “Joy to the World,” we were told to cross out “men” and write “all,” despite the lyrics regarding the Lord. During “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” we were instructed to sing “Holyokers” instead of “Christmas.” I have heard that in Jazz Ensemble, singers have been instructed to cross out “Israel” from much of the music. I am confused by some of the attempts to be inclusive because they don’t resolve the religious aspects of Vespers. We are still singing about Jesus and praising the Lord, just without specific parts of the liturgy.
I know that not much can be done as the semester comes to a close. However, in the future, I feel that there are a few solutions: either Vespers should be advertised as religious, the music should be inclusive of everyone’s faiths, or none of the music should be religious at all.