Last night I nearly completed a long-deferred sorting of Richard John Neuhaus’s CD’s and LP’s. It’s an impressive collection, encompassing a great deal of classical music and some of the folk music written and recorded by his friends in the anti-war movement. There are records by the one-time associate Neuhaus later referred to with typical wryness (though who knows how much real seriousness) as “my old girlfriend, Joan Baez.” There are also a couple odd disco and country albums, probably slipped in by junior fellows possessed either of questionable taste or sly humor. Pawing through all the albums, one admires Neuhaus’s devotion to music, if not his care in leaving it organized upon his departure. No doubt his mind already was trained on the higher songs of the heavenly chorus.
Some men’s tastes are catholic; Neuhaus’s were Lutheran, or at least Germanic. Bach above all, then Mozart, Beethoven, and Brahms. He once wrote that “little great music had been written” since these four, to which Robert Louis Wilken—the chairman of our board and Neuhaus’s lifelong friend—incredulously replied, “Haydn? Schubert? Chopin? Schumann? Strauss? Mahler? Grieg? Sibelius? Puccini? Holst? Ralph Vaughan Williams? Dvořák? Poulenc? Barber?”
Neuhaus’s record collection contained most of those names, of course, but not that of Mahler nor (no less worryingly) of Shostakovich. Yet he was attuned to some more recent music, and praised in particular that of Henryk Górecki, Arvo Pärt, and John Tavener. The music of these “holy minimalists,” Neuhaus held, had been shaped by their orthodox faith and the encounter with twentieth-century totalitarianism.
It’s not surprising that Neuhaus would be drawn to these latter-day masters and the work of their greatest predecessor, Bach. For him, music always came back to prayer, and prayer took on definitely Lutheran forms. Even after his reception into the Catholic Church, Neuhaus (with the permission of his friend John Cardinal O’Connor) continued to pray evening prayer from a Lutheran prayer book. The humbly composed, utterly wonderful hymns it contained remained as much a musical presence in his life as the work of any composer. They are sober, joyful, firm in faith—the well-springs that nourished Neuhaus’s own life in faith and the writing that flowed from it.