The Cantus Firmus: The Enduring Melody of Faith

“For me to live is Christ” – Philippians 1:21

“Rely on the Cantus Firmus.” – Dietrich Bonhoeffer

All of us who have had the privilege of working as a priest in a parish have had to a greater or lesser extent the following pastoral experience. You are called to the bed of a dying parishioner either at home or more usually these days in a busy hospital ward. When you arrive, it becomes immediately clear to you that the person is very close to death and may not even be conscious as you administer the Sacrament of Sick. Often, gathered around the bed are the person’s family who are understandably distraught.

Having done all that you can do sacramentally for the dying person, you often invite the family to join you in prayer as you sit around the bed of the loved one who now stands on the very cusp of entering eternal life. In this solemn moment, you may begin to say a decade of the Rosary or the Lord’s Prayer.

At this blessed moment, sometimes a little miracle takes place. As you say the prayers, you notice the dying person beginning to mouth the words with you, which indicates to you that as the individual is approaching the end of life, they still have at the center of their lives the bedrock of a religious faith that is perhaps the last thing they are aware of on this earthly plain.

When this little miracle happens, you are profoundly touched, as are the sorrowing family around you, by this last lingering demonstration of faith and hope in God. It is a powerful sign that even when all else seems to be failing from a human perspective at least, what remains to the very end is our faith.

Of course, we don’t have to wait for the last moment of our earthly lives to see what is of lasting importance to us. As we all make our journey through life, we are given opportunities to reflect on and possess anew what is really at the center of our life, that which enlivens it with a real and lasting spiritual meaning and purpose.

These opportunities can come to us in different ways if we have enlightened eyes to see them. Sometimes we are at peace and relaxed on vacation or on a spiritual retreat when looking at the beauty of the natural world around us, or perhaps in silent prayer, we get a fleeting glimpse of what is really of importance in our busy lives and how we need in the future to pay closer attention spiritually to it. In these fleeting moments, we become more consciously aware, perhaps for the first time, of the “golden thread” that connects us to God, of which, sadly, because of the busyness of our lives, we are so often mindlessly unaware.

Perhaps, however, these moments of spiritual insight come to us at times of fear and distress when we are facing an uncharted future where the old certainties of the past no longer seem to apply.

Inevitably as we make our journey through life, we face situations and circumstances where we are consciously aware that we are being tested. This period of testing often causes us to reflect more deeply on what is at the spiritual center of our lives.

A sudden illness or diagnosis can stop us in our tracks. As we come to terms with it, we often have to discover or rediscover what is of lasting and enduring meaning for us and which gives us the courage to move forward in a positive spiritual way to meet with unlooked-for challenges.

It is not just health issues that can bring us to these moments of greater insight. Sometimes an unplanned change in the ordered circumstances of our lives can open us up to reflecting more deeply on our spiritual priorities. At these times, we come to realize that what worked for us in the morning of life no longer works in the afternoon or even the evening.

To the saints of our Church, of course, all this makes perfect sense. They have the humility and the wisdom to see what is really important in life. For an example of this we only have to look at the life and death of the much-loved Cardinal Basil Hume (1923–1999), one-time Archbishop of Westminster here in England. When Cardinal Basil was given a diagnosis of stomach cancer, he almost immediately wrote a letter to the clergy of the Archdiocese of Westminster on his spiritual reaction to this unexpected news. This is what he wrote:

“You may have heard that I have recently been in hospital for tests. The result: I have cancer and it is not in its early stages. I have received two wonderful graces. First, I have been given time to prepare for a new future. Secondly, I find myself uncharacteristically – calm and at peace. I intend to carry on working as much as I can. I have no intention of being an invalid until I have to submit to the illness. But nevertheless, I shall be a bit limited in what I can do. Above all, no fuss. The future is in the hands of God. I am determined to see the Holy Year in [2000].”1

Alas, that final wish was not to be granted; Cardinal Hume died on June 17, 1999.

Cardinal Hume is an example of a person of holiness who in the face of a terminal diagnosis goes back to the basics of his faith and through that faith shows himself and us too, how to embrace fully what life is presenting in terms of a terminal diagnosis and the end of earthly life.

With the example of Cardinal Basil before us, what does this all mean for you and me who are still very much alive and who are trying to live out our faith in the ordinary circumstances of our daily lives? What does all this talk of discovering what is really of lasting meaning in our lives suggest, and how important is it for us to reflect prayerfully upon it?

In his book The Enduring Melody, the late Rev. Michael Mayne (1929–2006), former Dean of Westminster Abbey here in London and a well-respected spiritual writer, called this central theme, using a phrase taken from music, the “cantus firmus.”

In his book, Mayne tells us that in his late middle age, while still a very active Anglican priest, he had to deal with a sudden diagnosis of inoperable cancer of the jaw.

“From that icy moment of diagnosis, when you know that everything has changed, I recognised two things. First, that this would prove an unwanted but important test of the integrity of what I most deeply believed, both as a human being and a priest: a kind of inquest on all those words spilled out of pulpits or in the counselling of others or at hospital bedsides . . . Secondly, I felt the need in whatever lay ahead not to waste the experience, but to write about it honestly as I could day by day.”2

As he entered the uncharted country of cancer, Mayne gives us insight into his inspiration behind his desire to write his last book. He tells us that he wishes to help others who are suffering like him with significant illness and a terminal diagnosis to find spiritual meaning in what lies ahead of them.

Toward the end of The Enduring Melody, written shortly before he died, Mayne sums up for us why he has spent so much of his life as priest writing books of spiritual insight:

“However mixed our motives in writing (or reading books), in the end they are about our desire to share (and learn more about) what it means to be human and what matters to us most, our desire ‘to speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.’ For those of us who write such books, and nervously launch them into a critical world, they aim to be, in short, a small – and sometimes quite risky – act of love.”3

It is Mayne’s “act of love” that I want to speak to now, harvesting from his insight what was central to his own spiritual life and which is central to all of us who call ourselves Christians — what endures in faith and hope and what gives meaning to it all.

Essential to his last book is a spiritually rich idea, taken from the historical study of the development of Western music, that of the cantus firmus. Using this metaphor, Mayne helps us all to think perhaps more reflectively on what is central to our human experience from a deeply spiritual point of view.

In his introduction to Mayne’s book, the late English Catholic spiritual writer, Fr. Gerard Hughes, S.J., expressed his own enthusiasm for the metaphor of the cantus firmus. Reflecting on this useful metaphor, Hughes quotes from the sixteenth-century English composer William Byrd on the art of musical composition.

“There is a certain hidden power in the thoughts underlying the words themselves, so that as one meditates and constantly and seriously considers them, the right notes in some inexplicable fashion suggest themselves spontaneously.”4

Here Byrd is describing in embryo what Michael Mayne presents in his book, namely the importance of the cantus firmus and, by way of analogy, how an awareness of this part of our spiritual lives might help us all to see what is at the center of our faith.

Amusingly, in the first few paragraphs of The Enduring Melody, Mayne quotes a former Archbishop of Canterbury who claimed, “The Church is like a swimming pool: all the splashing goes on at the shallow end.”5 Building on this flippant but insightful remark, Mayne says that all too often we Christians, both clerical and lay, can easily get caught up in the inessential and the trivial (the babble and incessant noise of the shallow end of life) rather than allowing ourselves to go into deeper spiritual waters through silence, prayer and an attentive listening to the promptings of the Holy Spirit. It is only in the deeper waters of silence and prayer that we can hear our own cantus firmus.

Before, however, going into greater depth about the spiritual cantus firmus of which Mayne speaks, perhaps it would be helpful to look at what this term means in its original etymology in the historical development of music, particularly in the West.

For most of the early Middle Ages in Europe, Church music consisted of Gregorian chant: one line of melody attached to the words of the liturgy. This simple way of praising the Lord was connected primarily to the celebration of the Mass and the Divine Office chanted by monks and nuns. This type of music in its elegant simplicity was the only music that was heard in churches, monasteries and convents. That simple and economical music came to be called the cantus firmus or the “fixed song.”

By the twelfth century, it began to be discovered that two or more melodies could be combined and thus, over time, the cantus firmus became the basis for polyphonic compositions through the addition of counterpoint.

Gradually, harmony, counterpoint and polyphony became more popular because it caused a beautiful harmony to be heard which touched the hearts and souls of those who heard it. However, in the midst of all this musical elaboration, the cantus firmus was not lost; rather, it became the tenor line of any musical composition that employed polyphony. It is interesting to note at this point that the word tenor comes from a Latin word meaning “to hold.”

The cantus firmus or the tenor line was the part of the polyphonic composition that held the underling melody from which all musical elaboration began and to which it returned during the course of a piece of music. The cantus firmus in this new world of polyphony became the underlying bedrock of the whole composition. Without its grounding force and resonance, the other parts of the composition could be lost because they lacked the inspiration and leadership provided by the cantus firmus.

In all true and successful polyphonic compositions, the cantus firmus is foundational to the upbuilding of the other harmonious parts of the work. It is usual in many great musical works that the cantus firmus is the first melody that is heard by the listener. Right from the beginning the cantus firmus presents the musical theme that will be developed by other musical voices and/or instruments which look to the cantus firmus for original inspiration and for a starting and ending point.

As often happens at the end of any musical piece that uses polyphony, the music returns to the simple cantus firmus that was heard at the beginning. At this point there is a kind of “homecoming” which draws together all the polyphonic variations that have been heard during the course of the composition.

Michael Mayne believed that the composer Johann Sebastian Bach was the master of the cantus firms, the fixed song. “His fugues are built upon a structure of melody in the home keys, the cantus firmus, which he then decorates, turns upside down, plays with, but always comes back to it in the end.”6

A great example of all this, of course, is Bach’s “Goldberg Variations” (BWV 988, 1741)7 for piano which begins with the cantus firmus which is built upon and expanded through the many variations only to end with a return to the cantus firmus that began the whole piece and which simply brings it all to a harmonious conclusion leaving the listener feeling that he or she has been on a musical journey that had a beginning, a middle and an end, all intimately connected each to the other.

Mayne, making use of the analogy of the cantus firmus, maintains that each of us in our own spiritual lives possess a cantus firmus which is the central melody of our spiritual lives which makes sense to us and resonates with everything else.

“Perhaps it is only as we grow older that we can hope to discern the cantus firmus of which we can say: ‘this is mine and mine alone; much as I have deviated from it and chosen my own note-lengths, this is its ground base.’ There are certain critical truths and experiences that have seized me and shaped me, and it is this firm ground that speaks to me, of what is authentic (and therefore authoritative), and to which I return, touching base as it were, at every stage of my unpredictable human journey.”8

For we, who are Christians, our base note, our cantus firmus, is the person of Jesus Christ and his example and teaching as Mayne illustrates from his own life and experience:

“My Christian faith has been formed in me as I have reflected on the mystery of Jesus, who is a kind of self-portrait of God in human terms and who, in claiming that God’s name is Father and his nature is love, reveals all I need to know of the One whose creative Spirit holds me in being from moment to moment.”9

We ourselves might not use the same rich Trinitarian language that Mayne does, but nevertheless, in whatever way it is expressed in us, it provides the bedrock of our faith around which everything else in our life should harmonize.

Michael Mayne bases much of what he says about the cantus firmus on the spiritual insights of the great German theologian of the twentieth century, Dietrich Bonhoeffer (1906–1945) who first used this musical term analogously to describe the spiritual life of the Christian.

Before looking in more depth at Bonhoeffer’s valuable contrition to this creative way of looking at our spiritual lives, let us briefly look at his life and the context in which he came to see the value of the cantus firmus as a workable and useful spiritual analogy.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was born in 1906 into a prominent academic and musical family. His father Karl was a psychiatrist and a lecturer at the University of Bonn in Germany and his mother came from an aristocratic background. Dietrich was one of eight children, four boys and four girls, and he grew up in the affluent suburb of Grunewald in Berlin.

Dietrich was fortunate enough to be born into a rich cultural and musical family environment. His family were friends of many of the great writers and musicians of their day, who were often guests at the Bonhoeffer house. Thus, from his earliest days, the young Dietrich was exposed to a highly cultured environment which formed him into the person that he was later to become.

It became clear from his earliest childhood that Dietrich possessed many talents and abilities. He had great gifts in music, playing a number of instruments at a young age. He was so gifted in this area that his parents thought that he would in time take up a musical profession. His love and appreciation for music remained with him throughout his life, which goes a long way to explaining the subsequent analogy of music (the cantus firmus and polyphony) that helped both him and us to understand something of the true nature of our spiritual lives.

Despite his precocious musical talents, at an early age Dietrich decided to make the study of theology his life goal. At the age of 21, he completed a doctorate in theology at Berlin and went on to be a professor of theology, not only in his native Germany but also for brief periods in the United States and England. All this set him up to be potentially a major theologian and writer not only in his own country but throughout the world.

In 1933, when Hitler came to power in Germany, Bonhoeffer, who had by this time returned to Berlin, quickly saw the totalitarian nature of the regime and joined the group within the German Evangelical Church that resisted the Nazi attempt to take over the Church’s message and life.

The Second World War, as it did for so many, changed Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s life direction. Eventually he was arrested by the Nazis for his active opposition to the regime and sent to prison. It was in prison, in the last years of his life, that he wrote what was later to be published posthumously as “Letters and Papers from Prison” which has come to be considered by many as a modern spiritual classic.

In prison Bonhoeffer had the opportunity to bring together two worlds that he loved so much, namely theology and music. He saw music increasingly as an important aspect in what he called in German Bidung, which is translated into English as education and character development, in a spiritual as well as a cultural sense.

For example, in May 1944, for the baptism of his close friend Eberhard Bethge’s son, also called Dietrich, he addressed his infant godson directly regarding the kind of future he anticipated for him as he grew up:

“Amid the general impoverishment of spiritual life, you will find your parents’ home a treasury of spiritual values and source of inspiration. Music, as your parents understand and practice it, will bring you back from confusion to your clearest self and perceptions, and from cares and sorrows to the underlying note of joy.”10

David E. Timmer, in his article “The Underlying Note of Joy: Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Musical Theology”11 reminds us that the German word translated here as “underlying note” is Grundton, which in German can refer to the tonic note of a scale or the root of chord. Earlier translators rendered it as “ground base.” In this sermon written for an infant godson we see a reflection, in the simplest of expressions, of what would become in Bonhoeffer’s prison writings the cantus firmus and the polyphony of life.

While in prison, Bonhoeffer, seeing the disintegration of the world around him, felt that the Church had to find ways to express the Christian message to a changed world. It was with this thought in mind that he returned to one of his first loves, the rich hymnody of his Lutheran tradition, exemplified best perhaps in the works of the composers like Bach and Schulz. “It was Bonhoeffer’s first musical love, the hymnody of his Lutheran tradition, that sustained him during his imprisonment.”12

Through the prism of his theological knowledge, he began to see that music in its exact expression provided a metaphor or an analogy to the spiritual life of the Christian. The parts of musical language that particularly interested him were the terms polyphony and cantus firmus.

He came to see “the exceptional prophetic possibility”13 of the musical imagery of polyphony and the cantus firmus; how melody and countermelody might enable theological reflections on the increasingly fractured condition of modern humanity. For Bonhoeffer the cantus firmus in each Christian life is of course the person of Jesus Christ. With this cantus as the center and bedrock of our Christian life, it can be expressed in polyphonic harmony, which begins with the cantus firmus, elaborates on it, and then returns at the end to the cantus which inspires the consistent life of the faithful Christian who has allowed himself or herself to be open to the prompting and harmonies of the Holy Spirit. For Bonhoeffer, the closer we remain in dialogue with our cantus firmus, the more harmoniously will be the polyphony, the reflective harmony, of our lives.

However, as Andreas Pangritz reminds us, the polyphony of life, “conceived by Bonhoeffer as a musical description of a Christian life, does not mean harmony without conflict or dissonance. Rather it includes the perception of light and shadow, of love and suffering, of longing and passion amid social crisis and catastrophe. In other words, it contains both aspects of hope: hopeful resistance against fate and submission to God’s will, full of hope as well.”14

Shortly before his execution, Bonhoeffer returned once again to these spiritually rich metaphors of the cantus firmus and the polyphony of life:

“God, the Eternal, wants to be loved with our whole heart, not to the detriment of earthly love or to diminish it, but as a sort of cantus firmus to which the other voices of life resound as counterpoint. One of these contrapuntal themes, which keep their full independence but are still related to the cantus firmus is earthly love . . . Where the cantus firmus is clear and distinct, a counterpoint can develop as mightily as it wants. The two are ‘undivided yet distinct,’ as the Definition of Chalcedon says, like the divine and human natures of Christ. Is that perhaps why we are so at home with polyphony in music, why it is important to us, because it is the musical image of this Christological fact and thus also of our ‘vita christiana’.”15

Thus, both Mayne and Bonhoeffer provide us with a language taken from the world of music which helps us come into a deeper understanding of our spiritual lives. With Christ at the center of our lives (the cantus firmus) we can allow the resonances of His teaching and example to become the melody, the counterpoint of our lives influencing every part of what is means to be a faithful follower of the Lord. The more we return, through regular prayer to Christ as a cantus firmus the richer will be the harmony that we produce in our lives on all levels. In time, as St Paul reminds us, “It is no longer I that live but Christ that lives in me.” (Galatians 2:20).

In my work here at Allen Hall Seminary in London as both a priest and formation advisor, I am committed to the formation of future priests. This important apostolate, I often use the word congruence in describing to the seminarians an important part of their journey towards priesthood.

Congruence is not a word that we use much in the English language, and yet it has a very powerful meaning when it is properly understood. In a dictionary definition of the word it means “similar to or in agreement with something so that the two things can both exist or be combined without problems.” (Cambridge Dictionary).16

In my use of the word congruence in seminary formation, I mean that what the seminarian presents to the world in the way he acts, speaks and behaves he must be congruent with what he believes at the deepest part of his being. When there is a clear route between his deeply felt spiritual bedrock and the way he comports himself in his everyday life then he is living a congruent life which brings with it unity of purpose, peace and a simplicity of life.

If, however, there is a breakdown between what he believes at the center of his being and the life he lives on the surface in his interaction with others, then there is a lack of congruence, which if unchecked can lead in time to living a double life, which always ends in some form of discordance.

Before I discovered the insights of Mayne and Bonhoeffer concerning the cantus firmus and the life of polyphony, I was consciously aware of the importance for us all, but especially for future priests, of living a congruent life where ones’s outward way of life is in close harmony with one’s spiritual core, one’s cantus firmus, namely the person and teaching of Jesus Christ. It is from this rich and refreshing wellspring that all else flows, and if we are faithful to the cantus firmus, the harmonies that we produce in the polyphony of our lives will always be in tune.

In light of the rules of the cantus firmus, I want to return to where I began: as a priest by the beside of a dying person in hospital. The insights of both Mayne and Bonhoeffer remind us that we don’t have to wait until we lie dying in our beds to find our own cantus firmus and polyphony of life. All we need to do is to seek it in prayer. What gives spiritual energy to my life as a Christian? What gives life to yours? And how do these core spiritual beliefs influence the way both I and you live our lives in our faithful living out of Christ’s timeless message and example? Is there a congruent golden string in my life and yours that connects to our core religious beliefs, to the people we are and the people we are hoping to become under God’s grace? Let us then leave the last word to Dietrich Bonhoeffer himself:

“What matters, it seems to me, is whether one still sees, in this fragment of life that we have, what the whole was intended and designed to be, and of what material it is made. After all, there are such things as fragments that are only fit for the garbage heap (even a decent ‘hell’ is too good for them), and others which remain meaningful for hundreds of years, because only God could perfect them, so they must remain fragments – I’m thinking, for example of the Art of the Fugue. If our life is only the most remote reflection of such a fragment, in which, even for a short time, the various themes gradually accumulate and harmonise with one another, and in which the great counterpoint is sustained from beginning to end – so that finally when they cease, all one can to do is sing that chorale, ‘Vor Deinem Thron tret’ ich allhier” (‘Before Your throne I now appear’) – then it is not for us, either to complain about the fragmentary life of ours, but rather even to be glad for it.”17

  1. Basil Cardinal Hume, “Letter to the priests and deacons of the Archdiocese of Westminster,” London, 1999.
  2. Michael Mayne, The Enduring Melody (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 2006), 29.
  3. Mayne, The Enduring Melody, 237.
  4. Mayne, The Enduring Melody, ix (foreword by Fr. Gerard Hughes S.J.).
  5. Mayne, The Enduring Melody, 3.
  6. Mayne, The Enduring Melody, 4.
  7. Johann Sebastian Bach, The Goldberg Variations, BWV 988, 1741.
  8. Mayne, The Enduring Melody.
  9. Mayne, The Enduring Melody, 9.
  10. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, (SCM Press, 1953), 101.
  11. David E. Timmer, “The Underlying Note of Joy: Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Musical Theology,” Reformed Journal, April 2021, p. 3.
  12. Robert O. Smith, “Bonhoeffer and Musical Metaphors,” Word and World, Volume 26, Number 2, Spring 2006.
  13. David F. Ford, Self and Salvation (Cambridge University Press: New York, 1999).
  14. Andreas Pangritz, The Polyphony of Life: Bonhoeffer’s Theology of Music (Eugene, Oregon: Cascade Books, 2019).
  15. Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, 106–107.
  16. Cambridge Dictionary definition of congruence.
  17. Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, 70–71.
Avatar About Rev. Michael Doyle

Rev. Michael Doyle is a member of the Formators Team at Allen Hall Seminary in London.