Why Newman loved Beethoven but not Pugin

Fr Guy Nicholls celebrates Mass wearing the saint's vestments (Józef Łopuszyński)

Unearthly Beauty
By Guy Nicholls,
Gracewing, 352pp, £25/$31

Having waited so long for this event, it is almost a shock to see the title “St John Henry Newman” on the cover of this book. Yet this shock is one of joy – that the holiness of this great English churchman has at last been recognised by canonisation.

Fr Guy Nicholls’s study of Newman’s understanding of beauty brings its own original contribution to Newman studies, one less familiar than his famous theological works – but a vital aspect of his work. He discusses Newman’s attitude to music, poetry, architecture and the liturgy. These were important not merely for the aesthetic pleasure they provided but also because they “bring us closer to the transcendent truth of God through the sacramental signs embodied in His church on earth”. Newman was not unworldly – as the founder of the Birmingham Oratory and University College Dublin, as well as the Oratory School, he had strong views on practical matters – but he was otherworldly: beauty, like truth, was an intrinsic attribute of God, and God was the goal and fulfilment of human life.

Beauty was “that power of God to attract the human person to Himself”. For Newman’s friends and those who came under his influence, this attraction was linked to his own holiness. An early friend, Charlotte Giberne, commented on “the beauty of holiness in so young a man” – compounded by his earnestness, single-mindedness and “the extraordinary beauty of his voice”. Its musicality was mentioned in many recollections of others who heard him speak, even if one discounts the romanticised description by Matthew Arnold of Newman preaching in the University Church of St Mary the Virgin in Oxford.

Nicholls traces the development of Newman’s appreciation of beauty during his Anglican period, such as when he attended Vespers at St Peter’s in Rome in 1833 and (reluctantly) acknowledged the power of “Popery” in its “solemn and captivating services by which it gains [its] proselytes”; and when he began to use the Roman breviary in his daily prayers, noting there was “much of excellence and beauty” in it, compared with the Book of Common Prayer; and when he was designing and building the parish church of Littlemore.

Of all the arts, it seems it was music that most profoundly affected Newman. He was an accomplished violinist from a musical family that regularly held musical evenings and attended concerts. He often played with friends and family until the demands of the Birmingham Oratory and his other responsibilities as the English Church’s most celebrated convert made him lay down his violin in 1849. But in 1865 there is a lovely glimpse of Newman resuming practising his violin at Rednal Retreat House, “making the Rednal wilderness resound with solitary strains”.

Beethoven was Newman’s favourite composer, though he also loved Mozart. Schubert’s music he thought “very harmonious and clever, but it does not touch the heart” – always the touchstone of aesthetic profundity for Newman, for whom emotion was as important as reasoned argument. Indeed, as Nicholls relates, Newman’s love for his friends and his intense sorrow at the deaths of Hurrell Froude and Ambrose St John is one of the most attractively human aspects of his character.

Nicholls also discusses Newman’s differences with Pugin over the importance of Gothic-style church architecture. While he appreciated Pugin’s genius, Newman, always alive to the needs and requirements of worship and evangelisation for his own times, thought an insistence on Gothic meant antiquarianism for its own sake, as well as northern “gloom”. Significantly, he always loved Trinity College chapel at Oxford where he spent his student days. He was also impressed by classical buildings during his stay in Italy, commenting that “the brightness, grace and simplicity of the classical style seems more to befit the notion of St Mary and St Gabriel than any thing in Gothic”.

In retrospect, it seems obvious why Newman was drawn to St Philip Neri and the Oratory he founded, partly because of the importance given to music and choral singing and partly because of the scholarly and collegiate nature of the Oratory way of life. St Philip himself, in Nicholls’s words, liberated the “latent playfulness and good humour of Newman’s character”. There was also the Oratorian belief in personal influence – valued by Newman “as the best means of drawing souls to embrace the truth”.

Nicholls’s book includes excellent colour illustrations of the interiors of churches associated with Newman, in particular the Catholic University Church in Dublin, and the Birmingham Oratory, as well as musical melodies and harmonies favoured by Newman from the Catholic Hymn Book (compiled by the London Oratory).

The cover photograph shows the author celebrating Mass in the shrine of the saint at the Oratory, Edgbaston, wearing John Henry’s vestments and using his chalice: a moment of reverence and solemnity, reflecting his subject’s association of beauty with the sublime.