New Course Explores Storied, Unexpected Relationship Between the Jesuits and Music

Students studied the misunderstood relationship and showcased their research in a culminating, full-length concert

What do Freddie Mercury and Chance the Rapper have in common? They've both created music that nods to their Jesuit ties. And they're both topics of discussion in the course Music & the Jesuits, taught by Daniel DiCenso '98, assistant professor of music.

The Jesuits' relationship to music is widely misunderstood, says DiCenso — and it's also widely under-researched.

"I could have called the course 'Music & the Jesuits?' — question mark intentional — because, initially, the Jesuit order was the only order of priests that outlawed involvement in the Office, meaning the singing of the Divine Office," DiCenso explains.

The roots of the music aversion can be traced back to St. Ignatius of Loyola, who wanted the Jesuits to be free to go forth among the people without needing to come back to congregation multiple times a day to sing the psalms. As a result, the Jesuits got a reputation for being against music. "There's a truth to that, but it doesn't mean they weren't involved anyway," DiCenso says.

With limited resources about the relationship between music and the Jesuits (upon completing a textbook in class, DiCenso remarked, "Congratulations! You've now read everything ever written about music and the Jesuits."), DiCenso saw the course as an opportunity not only for students to discover the history, but for him to do the same.

"I knew what I knew, and I knew what I wanted to find out," he says. "So I thought it would make a great research seminar, in which I frame some things and then we send the students out on quests."

DiCenso dug deep to find unexpected stories about how the Jesuits relate to music. His colleague Jessica Waldoff, associate professor of music, suggested the class study an orphanage Mass written by Mozart.

"There was a Jesuit orphanage in Vienna that was consecrating a new church and they hired 12-year-old Mozart to compose a piece for it," DiCenso says. "The idea was that the piece would be composed by someone the same age as the charges in the orphanage."

But throughout the semester, DiCenso and his students are expanding the Jesuit music connection beyond commissioned works to unconventional pieces in which Jesuits are more influencer than direct driver. To capture this surprising relationship between Jesuits and music, DiCenso assigns a weekly "snapshot," where students identify examples of "tenuous, stretchy supposition about a relationship between some kind of music that we wouldn't think to be Jesuit music, and the Jesuits," says DiCenso.

In the classroom — a small, warm room nestled in Brooks Hall — students teach each other about unexpected connections they've discovered. The late Mercury, front man of the rock band Queen, attended a Jesuit high school in India; a number of Queen's songs (think, "Bohemian Rhapsody" and "All God's People") lean in heavily to Jesuit themes of social justice and equality. More recent examples are even less expected. Chance the Rapper's manager, Pat "The Manager" Corcoran, also attended a Jesuit high school; on the albums he's produced, multiple songs nod to his Jesuit heritage.

"Initially, Jesuits were missionaries, though they eventually got into the business of schooling and it's been quite controversial as to whether schooling put the brakes on the missionary work," DiCenso remarks. "Regardless, you are, in a sense, training missionaries." DiCenso points out that a Jesuit education is no guarantee that Jesuit influences will seep into the lyrics, but once in a while, to the careful listener, that's just what happens.

For Lauren Carey '19, a music major with a minor in education, finding and redefining what "counts" as Jesuit music has been enlightening: "In most of my other music classes, it's rare that we discover something 'new' about music. However, since there has not been a lot of scholarship on the Jesuits' relationship to music, in this class we make it a goal to find new connections to music that is not obviously 'Jesuit' music."

The course, which was born out of discussions surrounding the College's 175th anniversary, leads to a final event much more spectacular than an exam — a full concert with Jesuit music performed by various musical groups on campus (of which include a number of students from the class). The lineup includes traditional songs and psalms written, composed and performed by Jesuits, interspersed with spoken lessons about different aspects of the Jesuits' relationship to music throughout the years.

Every element of the culminating concert, held at the end of March in St. Joseph Memorial Chapel, was planned by students, from the program notes to the spoken-word elements accompanying the music. Henry Stutz '19, an accounting major, says the concert-planning process has been a wild ride as a non-music major.

"But," he adds, "it will be very rewarding to see our work and research come to fruition as a grand concert, as opposed to the traditional paper or exam that I am used to."

Course Catalog

Music 299: Music & the Jesuits

Professor: Daniel DiCenso

Department: Music

Description: The purpose of this research seminar is to document the many ways in which the Jesuit order has been involved in the field of music over time and space. A major aim of the seminar is to investigate the relationship between music and the Jesuit mission. While it is now well-known that the Jesuits have been important composers and patrons of music, the many ways in which the Society of Jesus has used music as a tool of its mission across all contexts remains less well understood. The goal of the course is to construct a more robust sense of the many ways the Jesuits have engaged with music as art and music as a tool of mission. In doing so, the seminar will not only increase students' understanding of the subject at hand, but also contribute to scholarship in the field by investigating through course projects some never-before-explored aspects of the Jesuits' engagement with music.

Meeting Times: Tuesday | 1 p.m.-3:30 p.m.

Classroom: Brooks 452

Required Reading

  • "The Jesuits: A History from Ignatius to the Present" by Course Catalog John W. O'Malley, S.J. (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2017)
  • "Music as Cultural Mission: Exploration of Jesuit Practices in Italy and North America" by Anna Harwell Celenza and Anthony R. DelDonna (Philadelphia: St. Joseph's University Press, 2014)
  • "The Ratio Studiorum: The Official Plan for Jesuit Education" by Claude Pavur (Institute of Jesuit Sources, 2005)
  • Additional readings throughout the semester


  • Snapshot in Jesuit music history
  • Program notes and lesson presentation for Music & the Jesuits concert
  • Three short one-page written responses
  • Final paper

Grades: Jesuit snapshot, written response papers, concert program notes and lessons, final paper, attendance and participation

About the Professor: Dan DiCenso earned a B.A. in music from Holy Cross; an M.A. in music, an M.S. in education and a Ph.D. in education from the University of Pennsylvania; an M.A. in classical studies from Villanova University; and a Ph.D. in musicology from the University of Cambridge. He is a specialist in medieval liturgy, with a particular interest in the history of Gregorian chant during the eighth and ninth centuries. He has also taught courses on common practice music and contemporary popular music, including pop music, hip-hop and rock

Written by Jane Carlton for the Spring 2019 issue of Holy Cross Magazine.

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