Gradus ad Parnassum: Steps Toward Perfection

Gradus ad Parnassum, “Steps to Perfection,” is a 17th century manual on musical composition by German composer Johann Fux. It was used by Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and Haydn, and is still used today. The Wesleyan concept of Sanctifying Grace includes the biblical idea of “moving on to perfection.” This past fall, during our worship emphasis on grace, the Chancel Choir and I discussed Gradus ad Parnassum in this context. 

We know of the Logos from the Gospel of John: “In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God and the Word was God.” The Logos is Christ, the Word, present at creation and omni present as creation expands through time. Fux, in Gradus ad Parnassum, whether he realized it or not, discerned this in the music composed prior to his time, and provided guidance for subsequent composers to give the Logos in music further voice. In choir rehearsals, we look for this manifestation of Christ in the music we sing, and strive to bring it to life for ourselves and our congregation.

From Pope Benedict the 16th:

"Faith becoming music is part of the process of the word becoming flesh…When the word becomes music, there is involved [on the one hand] perceptible illustration, incarnation or taking on flesh, attraction of pre-rational powers, a drawing upon the hidden resonance of creation, a discovery of the song which lies at the basis of all things. And so this becoming music is itself the very turning point in the movement: it involves not only the word becoming flesh, but simultaneously the flesh becoming spirit."

Our anthems may or may not include the actual word “grace,” yet, if we rehearse properly and sing as Paul directs, with “heart and mind,” they will nevertheless manifest sanctifying grace for all present. Thus, we strive to realize God’s Logos in music for worship, with the aim of drawing us all closer to God.

Though yet unreached, we nevertheless strive toward this perfection in the service of the worship of God. May we all together climb these “Gradus ad Parnassum.”

Steven Darsey