Nov 15, 2009

John Henry Newman and Music

Online Edition: November 2009
Vol. XV, No. 8

John Henry Newman and Music

by Susan Treacy

With the announcement on July 3, 2009, that the Holy See has approved for beatification the Venerable John Henry Cardinal Newman (1801-1890) the enduring interest in the English convert has blossomed anew.

Cardinal Newman’s eloquence as a preacher and as a writer is well known; less well known is his gift for and appreciation of music. Throughout his long life, Newman approached music as a performing musician (violinist and chamber music), composer, and writer on music.

Newman’s love for music was probably encouraged by his father. John Henry Newman began to study the violin at ten years of age. His boyhood diary records his early progress: February 26, 1811: “began music”; March 1-3: “a lesson of music”; March 20: “began a tune”; March 23: “began themes”; April: “began duets”.1 In 1813, John Henry recorded that he had become “much better at bowing”. As a result, his father suggested getting a new violin: “If the Doctor approves of it, buy the Cremona”.2 John Henry’s sister Jemima became an accomplished pianist and “his two brothers used to accompany him in trios, Frank playing ‘the bass’”.3

At Oxford Newman was very active as a violinist in chamber music. Tom Mozley, husband of Newman’s oldest sister, Harriett, described Newman’s skill by saying that he had “attained such a proficiency on the violin that had he not become a Doctor of the Church, he would have been a Paganini”.4

Composers of the Classical and early Romantic eras — Haydn, Mozart, Cherubini — were among Newman’s favorites, but the first place was accorded to Ludwig van Beethoven, whom the young man had christened “The Dutchman”, to annoy his music teacher. We know of this boyhood interest in Beethoven because of a letter that John Henry’s mother wrote to him on April 18, 1816. In her letter she recounts a concert attended with a friend, at which they heard some of Beethoven’s music, and mentions that they were “fascinated by the Dutchman” and they recalled “you and your musical party frequently”.5

An Oxford friend, Edward Bellasis, remembers how Newman introduced the boys of The Oratory School to the music of Beethoven. “They might start with Corelli, and go on to Romberg, Haydn, and Mozart: their ultimate goal was Beethoven, and round would come the ‘Father Superior’ with ancient copies of the quintet version of the celebrated septet, and arrangements from the symphonies; nor were the first ten quartets, the instrumental trios, the violin sonatas, and the overtures forgotten”.6

As for Newman the composer, John Henry wrote to his mother in March of 1821: “I am glad to be able to inform you that Signor Giovanni Enrico Neandrini [his name Italianized] has finished his first composition. The melody is light and airy, and is well supported by the harmony”. Actually, it was not his first composition, as he had already composed by age fourteen both the music and libretto for a comic opera. In addition, Newman composed a number of hymn tunes, as we shall see below.

Newman’s poems become hymns

The winter and spring of 1832-33 saw Newman — at the invitation of Richard Hurrell Froude and his father — traveling in the Mediterranean. During this trip Newman wrote many poems, including “The Pillar of the Cloud”, better known by its first line, “Lead, Kindly Light”.

Newman and his friends spent Holy Week in Rome. Here he met with the Abbé Fortunato Santini, the Vatican’s music librarian, in an effort to learn what he could about Gregorian chant. Back in England, a revival of Gregorian chant was under way, both in Anglican and in Catholic circles, and the young minister sought to become better informed about this ancient sacred art.7 Newman’s taste in church music, despite his interest in Gregorian chant, was eclectic, and often as not reflected the contemporary penchant for the orchestrally accompanied Mass settings of Haydn, Mozart, and others. He also believed in the utility of popular hymns in evangelizing and catechizing people of many walks of life. In his autobiographical novel, Loss and Gain, three young men —Bateman, Campbell, and Reding — vigorously discuss the merits of Gregorian chant versus “modern” music, along with Gothic versus Classical architecture. After a while, Bateman admits to preferring instrumentally accompanied chant, “the glorious old chants, and just a little modern richness”.8 Bellasis comments that:

The foregoing would probably open out … a wide field for further discussion, but so much may be fairly gathered, viz., that the Cardinal’s musical views were sensible ones, even if open, theoretically, to some differences of opinion. Omnia probate, he seems to say, quod bonum est tenete. [“Test everything, hold fast to what is good”, from Thessalonians 5:21. – Ed.] He had, of course, no sympathy with extravagances. His was a cultured, at any rate a refined taste, sui similis [“like himself”], and when it was said in April, 1886, that Niedermeyer’s B minor Mass was “elaborate”, he observed: “Well, I like a medium in music, although I may be wrong in that.” All was well, we suppose, provided the best gifts of Catholic masters in their art were in good faith proffered to Almighty God.… All was well, too, if singers and players were animated with the Catholic spirit that breathed in a Haydn and a Mozart, to say nothing of later giants. Under such conditions, and with due observance of the unaccompanied chant in Advent and Lent, the male choirs of both Oratories in England have probably done a good work, and if so, one worthy of Saint Philip’s blessing.9

Newman, despite his love for the full sound of an orchestral Mass, was cognizant of the dangers of this kind of church music, as he revealed in The Idea of a University.

Doubtless, here, too, the highest genius may be made subservient to religion … but it is certain that religion must be alive and on the defensive, for if its servant sleep a potent enchantment will steal over it…. If, then, a great master in this mysterious science … throws himself on his own gifts, trusts its inspirations and absorbs himself in those thoughts which, though they come to him in the way of nature belong to things above nature, it is obvious he will neglect everything else. Rising in his strength he will break through the trammels of words; he will scatter human voices, even the sweetest, to the winds; he will be borne upon nothing else than the fullest flood of sounds which art has enabled him to draw from mechanical contrivances; he will go forth as a giant, as far as ever his instruments can reach, starting from their secret depths fresh and fresh elements of beauty and grandeur as he goes, and pouring them together into still more marvellous and rapturous combinations —and well indeed, and lawfully, while he keeps to that line which is his own; but should he happen to be attracted, as he well may, by the sublimity, so congenial to him, of the Catholic doctrine and ritual, should he engage in sacred themes, should he resolve by means of his art to do honor to the Mass, or the Divine Office — he cannot have a more pious, a better purpose, and religion will gracefully accept what he gracefully offers; but — is it not certain from the circumstances of the case, that he will be carried on rather to use religion than to minister to it, unless religion is strong on its own ground, and reminds him that if he would do honor to the highest of subjects, he must make himself its scholar, must humbly follow the thoughts given him, and must aim at the glory, not of his own gift, but of the Great Giver?10

While still an Anglican clergyman, Newman worked hard with local working-class children at Littlemore. In a letter of April 1, 1840, to his sister Jemima he wrote:

The children are improved in their singing. I have had the audacity to lead them and teach them some new tunes. Also I have summoned out a violin and strung it … [and] begun to lead them with it, a party of between twenty and thirty, great and little.… I have just begun chanting … Gregorian chant which the children seem to take to.11

The Oratory hymn book

Though the children apparently took to the chant, this experience, along with the charism of St. Philip’s Oratory, later inspired Newman — once he had entered the Catholic Church and was ordained — to resume the writing of poetry. This art had lain dormant since 1834, and Newman took it up again in the service of the Church. A mark of The Oratory since Saint Philip’s time had been the promotion of popular religious hymns in the vernacular. To the Oratory hymn book Newman contributed not only hymn lyrics but also a number of hymn tunes.12

A good example might be the hymn “Pilgrim Queen”, the tune also composed (or perhaps “adapted”) by Newman.13

In addition to melodies by Newman, the Birmingham Oratory hymn book contained tunes by Beethoven, Mozart, Mendelssohn, and others, adapted to the lyrics. Bellasis advocated:

Take up then the Father’s book, hear the people at the May devotions sing such winning songs as the “Pilgrim Queen” (No. 38, Regina Apostolorum), and the “Month of Mary” (No. 32, Rosa Mystica), or listen during Saint Philip’s Novena, to “Saint Philip in his School” (No. 49), “in his Mission” (No. 50), “in Himself” (No. 51, “Regulars and Saint Philip”), and “in his Disciples” (No. 54, “Philip and the Poor”), and we conclude that, as with the saint, so with his distinguished son, it has been his “aim to make sacred music popular”; and may we not further say that the cardinal, without any parade whatever, but in the simplest fashion, has somehow succeeded at Birmingham in his aim?

The mysterious efficacy of music

Throughout his life Newman espoused the mysterious efficacy of music. During the foundational years of the Birmingham Oratory, Newman spoke on music to some of the fathers and brothers in the community. At the installation of a new organ at The Oratory, The Tablet (August 25, 1877) reported that Newman:

… preached a most beautiful discourse, upon the event of the day; and on music, first as a great natural gift, then as an instrument in the hands of the Church; its special prominence in the history of Saint Philip and the Oratory; the part played by music in the history of God’s dealings with man from first to last, from the thunders of Mount Sinai to the trumpets of the Judgment; the mysterious and intimate connection with the unseen world established by music, as it were the unknown language of another state. Its quasi-sacramental efficacy, e.g., in driving away the evil spirit in Saul and in bringing upon Eliseus the spirit of prophecy; the grand pre-eminence of the organ in that it gave the nearest representation of the voice of God, while the sound of strings might be taken as more fitted to express the varying emotions of man’s state here on earth.14

Earlier, in the Idea of a University, the future Blessed John Henry presented similar ideas when he wrote,

Music, I suppose … has an object of its own … it is the expression of ideas greater and more profound than any in the visible world, ideas, which center indeed in Him whom Catholicism manifests, who is the seat of all beauty, order, and perfection whatever, still ideas after all which are not those on which Revelation directly and principally fixes our gaze.15



1 Percy M. Young. Elgar, Newman and The Dream of Gerontius in the Tradition of English Catholicism (Aldershot: Scolar Press, 1995), p. 70.

2 Maisie Ward. Young Mr. Newman. (New York: Sheed & Ward, 1948), p. 5.

3 Edward Bellasis. Cardinal Newman as a Musician. (London: ?Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner, and Co., 1892). This was a reprint — augmented and with musical examples — from?The Month, LXXIII (September 1891), pp. 1 f. Online at

4 Ward, p. 11. Mozley did not mean that his brother-in-law was a Doctor of the Church in the official Catholic sense (at least, not yet), but rather that he had the requisite knowledge.

5 Young, p. 70.

6 Bellasis, p. 13.

7 For a full exposition of this revival, see Bennett Zon. The English Plainchant Revival (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999).

8 John Henry Cardinal Newman. Loss and Gain: The Story of a Convert, 19th impression. (London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1919), p. 286.

9 Bellasis, pp. 37-38.

10 Newman. The Idea of a University (New York: Doubleday, 1959), pp. 111-12.

11 Ward, p. 363.

12 Collection of Hymns in Use at the Oratory of Saint Philip Neri at Birmingham (Birmingham/ London: Powell & Co., 1856). See Bellasis for images of the musical notation accompanied by .mp3 sound files of the melodies — see URL in footnote 3 above.

13 Bellasis, p. 27.

14 Quoted in Bellasis, p. 24.

15 Newman, Idea…, pp. 111-12.


Susan Treacy is professor of music at Ave Maria University, and a member of the board of directors of the Church Music Association of America (CMAA). This article first appeared in StAR magazine, and is reprinted with permission. (StAR web site:



Susan Treacy