The Catholic University of America

 Elizabeth-Jane Pavlick McGuire Defense

Final Examination of Elizabeth-Jane Pavlick McGuire

For the degree of Doctor of Philosophy

December 2, 2010 10:30a.m., Caldwell Room 125




Regis J. Armstrong, O.F.M., Cap., Ph.D.  



"Such Harmony Is in Immortal Souls": The Spirituality of Music Explored through the Life and Music of Ralph Vaughan Williams

This dissertation uses an interdisciplinary approach to formulate a spirituality of music that is rooted in theology, aesthetics, and phenomenology, ultimately claiming that the experience of music is inherently spiritual—in other words, it is a means of mutual communication with the divine.  First, an historical survey of the theology of music examines the ways in which music has traditionally been considered spiritual.  Second, the experiential side of music is explored through the lens of a spiritual phenomenology of music.  It is proposed that music’s meaning is best understood as a kind of self-disclosure or revelation of both the composer and the divine. 

The study then turns to the life of the early 20th century British composer Ralph Vaughan Williams, who, despite being an avowed atheist for most of his life, wrote about his experience of music in spiritual terms.  Vaughan Williams’s spiritual biography is presented in order to show that a person need not be a professing believer in order to feel a profound sense of the divine when experiencing the ultimacy of music.  Although Vaughan Williams may not have been a religious man, many of his works have religious themes and elements to them.  An analysis of pertinent works from Vaughan Williams’s canon reveals that traces of the divine may be found in his music in the themes of the sea, the journey, and the beautiful.

The final chapter proposes that music acts as a sacramental mediator for God’s presence to any person involved in musical communication, whether it be the composer, the performer, or the listener.  Applying the template of a spiritual phenomenology of music to the example of Vaughan Williams, the study demonstrates that oftentimes persons who are not participants in organized religion or even believers still experience music as a window to the divine.