Raewyn Connell: A Sociological Playlist

Professor Raewyn Connell contributes the next “sociological playlist” in our July series. Introduced below, the playlist can be listened to in full here.


The music I play during the day while I’m working is the church cantatas of J. S. Bach. Some of them include chorales that we used to sing in the church choir when I was a kid, I’ll include below a poem I wrote about that. The great advantage is that there are a whole lot of cantatas, so by the time you get to the last one you can go right back to the start again and they sound completely fresh. Well actually there are other advantages, like this being some of the best music ever written… Sociologically, it’s fascinating because of the intricate counterpoint, a model of complex social cooperation that to me is a foretaste of genuine democracy, a society of mutual aid. Prefigurative music for prefigurative politics? Also, once you get used to the style, they are incredibly varied in mood, message and construction. Some meditative, some tragic, some triumphant and noisy, some militant, some harsh and philosophical, and some just so beautiful you want to cry.

Bach was noted in his day as an improvisor on the keyboard, especially the organ. In Baroque music the performers were expected to improvise and decorate as they went along. Not exactly jazz, but far from the rigid orchestral music of the nineteenth century. So this music embeds creativity and innovation, like all good social practice. Here’s a 6-item playlist, includes some very famous stuff.

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Music While Working

  1. Cantata no. 156, Ich steh mit einem Fuss im Grabe (I stand with one foot in the grave – as we all do in the COVID-19 epidemic). Track 2, the tenor aria with chorus. Falls in the incredibly-beautiful category, with grim undertones. Just like life.
  2. Cantata no. 100, Was Gott tut, das ist wohlgetan (What God does is well done), any track at all. One of the philosophical ones, though a bit repetitive. Great for post-structuralist theorists.
  3. Cantata no. 80, Ein feste Burg (A mighty fortress), the opening chorus. One of the triumphant and militant ones – and one of the most famous tunes of all, which goes back to Martin Luther – a Battle Hymn of the Reformation. For radical sociologists of all factions.
  4. Cantata 170, Vergnuegte Ruh (Contented peace), the opening Alto aria. What it says – one of the peaceful, meditative ones. I suggest this one for the quantitative sociologists, to soothe the soul while they are trying to get SPSS to work.
  5. Cantata 140, Wachet auf (Awake!), the opening chorus. Another celebrated one. This is for the narrative sociologists. It’s based on the Biblical narrative (parable) of the wise and foolish virgins. The chorus is also in the incredibly beautiful group. And aren’t narrative sociologists incredibly beautiful?
  6. Cantata 38, Aus tiefer Not schrei ich zu dir (From deep distress I cry to you). Opening chorus; alternatively the tenor aria, track 3. Heartrending stuff. This one is for doctoral students, and not just in sociology. Supervisors should listen to track 6, the final chorus, Ob bei uns ist der Suenden viel (Although our sins are many…).

PS: Here is the promised poem:

The Choir, 1955

The church was a small hot oblong built on sand, not far from the beach,

with a small hot lively Vicar who touched the keys

and taught us to sing in tune. A pure Welsh name he had,

but he was Church not Chapel,

he loved the ceremonious chants of England, and lit

not too many candles. He’d sit down

by the waters of Deewhy and weep

in four-part harmony. Wesley, Bach, a bit of Handel would float out

to bless the banksias and the sheokes and the black lagoon swans.

We got a musical education and bruised knees.

The playlist can be listened to in full here.

Raewyn Connell is Professor Emerita at the University of Sydney. Read about Raewyn’s work here.

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