Does Music Help the Spiritual Life? 

As we’ve had discussions on books which have helped us know the Faith better, on spiritual reading books, and even blogged to share jokes, and as the Feast of St Cecilia, Patron Saint of Music approaches  (22 November), now might be a good time to reflect on the role – if any – of music in building our spiritual life.

There are people who misinterpret the exhortations of the great mystical saints who teach us to avoid seeking sensible consolation in prayer,  as meaning that any sense of uplift within the soul is a bad thing and to be avoided  This is nonsense.  Singing a devotional hymn should lift our mind and soul to God and so it is with other beautiful music.  I remember hearing a composer once explain her conversion to Christianity by telling a radio interviewer that, while she could explain how she chose the notes that created a beautiful melody, she could not account for, nor take credit for, the impact it had on the listener’s innermost being – the soul.  That set her thinking anew about the whole question of the existence of God and ultimately led her into Christianity. Unfortunately, I had switched on the radio halfway through the interview, and this was some years ago, so I’m unable to provide the name of said composer.  Anyway, it stands to reason that a composer may well have the talent to create a lovely piece of music, but is unable to foresee the impact it will have on individual listeners.  That recognising this fact has led at least one composer to seek Christ, is wonderful. 

So, in honour of St Cecilia, let’s share some of our favourite pieces of music, whether hymns or some moving pieces which may raise our minds and souls to God.  The two videos included in this introduction are among my own favourites … Enjoy!

Reminder – to post a video directly onto the page, simply find it on YouTube and copy the link from your browser.  Bring it back to the blog, and paste it into a comment box, with your own remarks, perhaps explaining why it is one of your favourites. No limits, either, feel free to post as many as you wish!  If you can’t find a video-presentation, just tell us what kind of music helps your prayer and meditation.  Of course, if you disapprove of hymn singing or of seeking any sensible consolation in prayer, let us know, but be aware that the saints were not banning sensible consolation – they were simply warning us against thinking that we are not praying well if we lack such sensible consolation. Over to thee!

48 responses

  1. Maybe these 2 are of the unorthodox type Ed but you know me always a Rebel ( or so they used to tell me at work) with a few adjectives thrown in for good measure. As it’s near Remembrance Sunday I don’t think there’s any more poignant Ballad than this’

    and I can never forget this from my young days . Sometimes Decks of Cards hold bad memories of me losing Money 💰 but not this one . God Bless . J. D …

  2. My soul is uplifted when I hear the old hymns, especially the hymns to the Sacred Heart, Sweet Heart of Jesus, To Jesus, Heart All Burning – those and others. Sometimes a tear comes to the eye, partly because I associate those lovely hymns with the days before this madness set in, and you could go to Mass and a Catholic school and know you were hearing the faith.

  3. Folks,

    I’ve gone in to edit your comments, so that your videos appeared as videos and not just as links.

    Tip:

    When posting a YouTube video, you need to click at the end of the link (don’t add dashes — or full stops …. ) Simply click – and it’s best to place the link on the next line. Otherwise, it won’t open as the video, only the link will appear.

    Catholic Truth at your service!

    To be brutally frank, FOOF neither of those tunes would lift MY humble soul to God and the world of the spiritual life, but, hey, we’re all different and some of us are, as you know yourself, VERY different 😀

    And Fidelis … while I do love to hear Gregorian chant… a whole, entire, rosary…? I do LOVE the Credo in Gregorian chant but not sure I would be turning up for an entire sung rosary. Am I a really bad girl, or what? (Recommended answer: “or what…”) 😀

    Finally, Nicky – I love the hymns to the Sacred Heart as well…

  4. As I said Ed there not Hyms so to speak but as You say we are all different. The Green Fields of France , when I heard the Furies at the SECC in 1980 literally made the Hairs on my neck rise. Of course that was when I actually had Hair. But I can never forget the Deck of Cards played on An old Wind Up Record Player in our house when I was a wain. I wish I had that Record Player now it would probably be worth £ Thousands. Thanks anyhow for the advice on how to post a video. I didn’t know that . God Bless. J. D.

  5. Looking at the options I saw that I had Traditional Hymns, Classical music or both of those, or none of those. I immediately wanted Gregorian Chant but it wasn’t an option! I used to love to sing but my voice is going now although I do still open my mouth when the hymns come on in church. I have been in several choirs but I don’t attempt to sing the tenor parts as I used to do. I love Bach’s St. Matthew Passion,his St John Passion, Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius and the like. All of which I have sung in Concert in the past and I might yet go along to join in with Handel’s Messiah as I have done many times. I do wish that I still had the voice I used to have! Old age robs us of much that we used to have!

    • John Rayner,

      I took it that Gregorian chant would be counted as “traditional hymns”.

      The Dream of Gerontius doesn’t appeal to me, I’m afraid. I always find it very heavy, and depressing to listen to, and I always think that the soul should be joyous, even if on its way to Purgatory! I’d be glad to get there!

      My own favourite is Handel’s Messiah which I think is beautiful and uplifting. I’ll put the link although it lasts for over two hours!

      • I’m sorry to read that you find Dream of Gerontius heavy and depressing to listen to. I find it wonderfully re-assuring and the Halleluja which the Angel sings is truly uplifting. I tried to get an excerpt of just that bit but failed.
        I did get quite a fine excerpt of “I know that my Redeemer Liveth” sung by Lynne Dawson and here it is :-

        My first encounter with The Messiah was when I was in my teens and I went to hear Isobel Baillie sing the soprano role when she was in her prime. And she was outstanding! Of course I have heard it sung many times since and have myself sung in the chorus as a tenor over many years. Of course I do love it.

        • I detect that I have annoyed you by saying I find the Dream of Gerontius heavy and depressing so I am sorry about that. The extract you play “I know that my redeemer liveth” is very beautiful, so can I amend my previous statement to say that I find some parts of The Dream of Gerontius beautiful and uplifting. I shouldn’t have said “heavy and depressing” as it makes me look really uneducated musically! That’s a beautiful excerpt by Lynne Dawson.

          • Sorry Michaela, I should have made it clearer that I could not get the bit I really wanted from the Dream of Gerontius.
            What I did get is, of course, from The Messiah which is by George Handel. It too is an Oratorio which I know very well. I see that you posted the whole Oratorio whereas I only posted “I Know that My Redeemer Liveth” I presumed (erroniously it seems) that everyone would know that it comes from The Messiah which is so very popular. The Dream of Gerontius is far less popular and such gems as the Angel’s farewell to Gerontius is a beautiful, lilting farewell as Gerontius goes to meet God and find his fate (which is Purgatory) before he finally makes it to heaven.

            • LOL! I suppose my butter fingers can be blamed for my confused post!

              I don’t really remember much about the Dream of Gerontius because it’s years since I heard it, but my statement can stand that I’m sure bits of it are uplifting.

  6. To answer your question, Editor (and speaking as a Church musician), sacred music is the very sound of the spiritual life – that is, Gregorian Chant and the older classical music. Some have described Beethoven’s music as the “music of the spheres” – perhaps, but I’ve found that once you go beyond the sacred music of Haydn and Mozart, the more worldly you get – until by the time you arrive at Verdi’s Requiem, you can hardly distinguish it from opera.

    That said, the Mozart Requiem is to me one of the most profound works of sacred music ever written, and all the more poignant because Mozart died before he could finish it. One can almost imagine the footsteps of death approaching at the beginning of the Introitus:

    (Notice that I picked the Scottish Chamber Orchestra’s performance…just to make sure all those zeroes stay in my paycheck…..)

    • RCA Victor,

      I don’t think that all the old classical stuff necessarily lifts the soul. Speaking for myself, I find quite a lot of it depressing. However, I find the peace and lightness of Strauss moves my soul, for example, much more than some of the Requiems do. I hope this doesn’t make me a heretic! LOL!

        • RCA Victor,

          The two things that I just do not enjoy and don’t lift my heart at all, are some of Tchaikovsky’s work (but not all) and every opera I’ve ever heard, LOL! Opera gives me a headache, sorry, but I do not find it uplifting at all.

          • Michaela,

            How about this of Tchaikovsky? (automatically goes to a second video) (and don’t watch the conductor, his beat is almost impossible to follow!)

            • RCA Victor,

              to be honest, it’s not my scene at all. Some of Swan Lake is uplifting (again, not all, IMHO) but that would be about the extent of my appreciation of Tchaikovsky. I suppose that makes me a snowflake in musical terms, LOL!

    • I adore Mozart’s Requiem. I heard it being performed at the Royal Concert Hall when was about 15 years old. It was spectacular!

  7. Also, to address this in terms of the crisis in the Church, the degradation of sacred music has played an important role in the degradation of the Faith. The loss of Latin, the loss of solemnity, the shallow pop tune settings, the rank sentimentalism, the replacement of the organ with guitars and bongos and amplified noise – no longer elevates the mind and heart to God: it lowers the heart and mind to self-celebration. It just leads to the finger-snapping, embarrassing stupidity of the Youth Synod:

    https://gloria.tv/article/W4LD7BYKzNSA23dwM7bgZimae

  8. ABSOLUTELY!!! That’s how we learn our faith is by singing the propers which are full of doctrine and Tradition.

    Example: Today’s Theotokion in Tone 7:

    O all-praised treasury of our resurrection, we hope in you; bring us up from the pit and depth of sins, for you have saved those subject to sin by giving birth to our Salvation, O Virgin before childbirth, and Virgin in childbirth, and still a Virgin after the childbirth.

    The last part is based on the Lateran Council of 649 which infallibly defined the Perpetual Virginity of Our Lady “ante partu, in partu et post partu”.

    In the Byzantine Tradition, the entire Divine Liturgy is sung. In our Archeparchy, everything is sung except the Creed and the Prayer Before Holy Communion. This is the Divine Liturgy installing Auxiliary Bishop (now Apostolic Administrator) Andrij Rabij in Sept. 2017:

    And yours truly is in this one (guess which one I am 😉 ):

    My personal pet peeve is when people attend Divine Liturgy/Mass and don’t sing – yet have loads of time talking nine times to the dozen about anything after church.

    We had one fellow in church (now deceased) who was usually off-key – but at least he sang.

    Finally, Nov. 22 (Feast of St. Cecelia – thank you for all your help, dear Saint!) was the birthday of our late cantor +John. He was Roman Catholic, married a Ukrainian Greek Catholic lady, fell in love with our Divine Liturgy and eventually became a cantor. He and +Dymytro were our cantors. Both are now deceased (eternal memory!) They had great voices and are very much missed.

    Yours in Christ the King,

    Margaret 🇺🇸

    • Margaret USA,

      I laughed at the man who sang off key “but at least he sang”!!!!

      I love most church music, especially Gregorian chant, and I loved the classical pieces posted here, that I’ve listened to so far. The Gadfly is heavenly and the other classical pieces do lift the heart to the supernatural.

      • Dear Laura,

        I’m glad I could make you laugh. I’m the lay cantor at my parish since both of our cantors passed away (+Dymytro in 2002 and +John in 2011). I have to be at ALL services otherwise Father won’t come. (He’s based at our sister parish and has to drive about 10 miles (+/-) to get to our parish.

        Seriously, I’ve cantored funerals and NO ONE even sings “Lord, have mercy.” or even “Amen”. Father and I might as well be by ourselves. (And that actually happened this year!)

        In Christ the King,

        Margaret 🇺🇸

        P.S. Which side of the pond are you on?

        • I watched it again and I think that must be you at the front standing beside the small boy, because you say something to the priest, like a cantor response? That’s the only woman I can see face on, the rest of the time all the women are standing in a row, facing front, toward the priest. Am I right?

  9. How do you bloggers feel about this one? It’s Stravinsky, one of those 20th c. bad boys, but I’ve always found it very moving (and it also includes chant-like melodies).

    • RCA Victor,

      I haven’t listened to the Stravinsky video right through, but just to a few minutes and I find it heavy, sorry. Maybe if I heard it right through I would change my mind, but what I’ve heard so far is too dramatic to be uplifting for the spirit, IMHO.

  10. Well, this has been a busy thread – you’re quite a musical lot!

    I’ll catch up tomorrow – right now, I need to get out pubbing and clubbing. Not exactly my kind of music, but I can return, refreshed and energized, to the highbrow compositions tomorrow 😀

      • Now don’t disturb our beloved Editor’s beauty sleep, RCA Victor. And be careful what you wish for… 😉

        Margaret 🇺🇸

      • RCA Victor,

        Being a little mischievous I could not resist your comment of no bagpipe music having not been posted. Your request is my command. Must add that bagpipe is not always to everyone’s taste. It is called Highland Cathedral.

        I do however love listening to this Traditional Hymn the Ave Maria.

          • RCA Victor,

            That’s obviously directed at the bagpipes and not Andrea Bocelli! So, watch it!

            Everyone…

            I’m really swamped today so haven’t managed to listen to everything posted. I will simply say this, after a quick skim of this thread. Nobody needs to feel shy about naming their own preferred spiritual listening or of being ignorant about specific classical pieces. My own knowledge of the classical works and composers could fit well inside the average postage stamp 😀 When I find a piece of music uplifting, I note that, but I don’t go hunting for the entire symphony!

            There’s no such thing as the “right” or the “wrong” type of music – just as the composer I mentioned in the introduction cannot explain how her music affects people, so none of us can explain how any particular type of music, or any particular piece of music/hymn/tune, uplifts other people, whether or not it appeals to me/us.

            I remember once hearing someone describe some light classical music as “shallow emotionalism” – wrong. Big time. The only shallowness that I could detect in that conversation came from the “music snob” who failed to recognise that God touches souls when and in whichever way He chooses. Of course, to be fair, that wasn’t the topic of conversation just a general chat about preferred or favourite music.

            The conversation, however, reminded me of an incident some years previously when I lived in Aberdeen. I met an art student, a young man who was thoroughly enthusiastic about his subject. He detected my own lukewarmness and insisted on taking me to a gallery where he made me sit down on a bench facing a painting which looked like it had been framed in the nearest photograph shop and then had a mixture of paint, concrete and mud thrown at it. Somewhere in the background, there was a face, although male or female (or “they”) I couldn’t say.

            We sat there for what seemed like beyond eternity and from time to time said art student asked what I was thinking. Since I couldn’t risk telling him, I asked him the time. Eventually he sighed and acknowledged that maybe this was the wrong painting to show someone who is not an art enthusiast. To put it mildly 😀

            Anyway, I’m hopeful that by tomorrow, close of business, I’ll have managed to properly check out the music on here, which looks very interesting – and edifying – indeed.

            In the meantime… And this is not meant to be taken personally, RCA Victor, honest 😀

  11. I find some music very spiritually uplifting indeed, particularly hymns like the above Ave Maria and some orchestral renditions. Animals don’t make music so it must be a particular human gift for us to enjoy and bring closer to God.

    Highland Cathedral is no bad either!

  12. At the risk of boring some of you, may I give you the whole theme of The Dream of Gerontius?
    It is the story of the death of Gerontius. He lay dying and he received the Last Sacraments and then he died. The first person he saw was his Guardian Angel (sung by a woman actually) who then takes him to face his final judgement. On the way he passes Hell where all the demons mock him and show their hatred of God (all put to music by Elgar). He then goes on to face his judgement but before he gets there a choir of Angels sing “Praise to the Holiest in the height”. Yes, the very hymn written by Blessed John Henry Newman which Elgar makes into a massive hymn of praise. Then his Angel leads him to the Throne of God and bids him farewell in the most moving, lilting, loving way. He faces his judgement and cries out in anguish “Take me away” since he has had a glimpse of the beauty of God and he sees his own sinfulness. He goes off to Purgatory but in the full knowledge that he will, one day, join all the Blessed in Heaven.
    This is Oh so Catholic! I find it very moving and have myself sung tenor in the choir, at a Concert production. Elgar said after he had written this Oratorio “This is the best of me”! I agree with his sentiment there. Here is “Praise to the Holiest”:-

    I do hope some of you enjoy it!

    • John,

      Many thanks for post that – I look forward to watching/hearing it in due course.

      Some years ago, I did attend a performance of The Dream of Gerontius so I’m sure it will stir some memories.

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