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John Henry Newman: Convert, Saint…and Also Musician

The news of the supreme glorification, on October 13, of Saint John Henry Newman (1801–1890) reawakens interest in this British cardinal, theologian and apologist.

Beatified by Benedict XVI on September 19, 2010 in Great Britain, he was born in London to an Anglican family. For 20 years, he was minister of the Anglican Communion at Oxford. In 1845, after long discernment, he petitioned to be received into Catholic communion. After ordination to the priesthood in Rome in 1847, he directed the first Catholic University of Dublin in his homeland. In 1870, in response to critics, he published an important book in defense of the certainty of the Faith. He received the red biretta from Leo XIII in 1879 as cardinal-deacon of San Giorgio in Velabro and lived peacefully until almost 90 years of age.

Cardinal Newman, as a prolific author of theological, philosophical, historical writings; a delicate poet and refined prose writer; and a compelling preacher, is well known. The good musician and composer is less known.

Music was really important in the life of the future saint, far from being “a mere ingenuity or trick of art like some game or fashion of the day without meaning” (J.H. Newman, Sermoni all’Università di Oxford, ESD, Bologna, 2004, p. 708). From his first violin lesson, when he was ten, he was a talented musician and a frequent concert-goer.

In Oxford, he played a lot of chamber music, having a preference for composers like Haydn; Mozart; Cherubini; and, above all, Beethoven. “Very early Newman mastered music as an art,” his brother-in-law tells, “and attained such proficiency on the violin that had not become a Doctor of the Church he would have been a Paganini” (M. Ward. Young Mr. Newman, Sheed & Ward, New York, 1948, p. 11). We know from a friend of his in Oxford how Dr. Newman initiated his boys into the music of his favorite composer, Beethoven — “the Dutchman,” as he had nicknamed him from a young age:

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 (E. Bellasis, Cardinal Newman as a Musician, Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner & Co, London 1892, p. 13).

From his letter to his mother written at the age of twenty, in which he calls himself by the Italianized name, his talent as a composer is also evident: “I am glad to be able to inform you that Signor Giovanni Enrico Neandrini has finished his first composition. The melody is light and airy, and is well supported by the harmony” (A. Mozley, Letters and correspondence of J.H. Newman during his life in the English church, London, 1891, Vol. 1, p. 61). Actually, he had already tried his hand at composition at the age of 14, when he wrote the libretto and music for a comic opera.

His admirable talents as a poet shine in The Dream of Gerontius, a long dramatic poem written in 1865 — a learned and inspired dream by a soul full of years that feels death close — set to music in 1900 by Edward Elgar, and also in The Pillar of the Cloud, otherwise known from its first verse as Lead, Kindly Light, written in 1833.

This outstanding son of England wrote not only the text, but also the tune of numerous songs, including “The Pilgrim Queen” (1849), in honor of the Blessed Virgin Mary; “The Month of Mary” and “The Queen of Seasons” with the same tune, in honor of the Mother of God (1850); “The Red Sun is Gone” for Vespers. Among the songs of the Birmingham Oratorio, we also find tunes by Mozart, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, and others, adapted to the lyrics.

The Music Festival at the Birmingham Oratorio allowed him to listen to much sacred music, especially Roman Catholic, including the following: in 1876, Beethoven’s Mass in C major, Spohr’s The Last Judgement, Mendelssohn’s Paulus; in 1879; Moses in Egypt by Rossini; Israel in Egypt by Handel; Cherubini’s Requiem in C minor — which impressed him greatly — and Salve Regina by Schubert; in 1885, Cherubini’s Requiem in D minor (cf. P. M. Young, Elgar, Newman and The Dream of Gerontius in the Tradition of English Catholicism, Scholar Press, Aldershot 1995, pp. 98–99).

The mysterious efficacy of music was always a theme dear to the new saint. In this regard, in one of the nine discourses designed for the foundation of the Catholic University in Dublin and published in 1852, he dedicates the sixth paragraph to music. “Musical Science,” which in the 18th century had undergone marvelous development, “has an object of its own” and, “as mathematical science also,” was defined by Newman as “the expression of ideas greater and more profound than any in the visible world, ideas which centre indeed in Him whom Catholicism manifests, who is seat of all beauty, order and perfection” (J.H. Newman, The idea of a university, Discourse IV, Pickering, London 1873, pp. 80–81).

On June 25, 1865, to the intention of two of his friends to give him a violin, Newman reacted like this: “I only fear that I may give time to it more than I ought to spare. I could find solace in music from week to week’s end” (Letters and Diaries of John Henry Newman, Vol. XXI, Oxford University Press, 1972, p. 502). And on July 11, after the arrival of the gift, in thanking them, he wrote: “I really think it will add to my power of working, and the length of my life. I never wrote more than when I played the fiddle. I always sleep better after music. There must be some electric current passing from the strings through the fingers into the brain and down the spinal marrow. Perhaps thought is music” (Ibidem, Vol. XXII, OUP 1972, p. 9).

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