Interview with Michael Joncas about “On Eagle’s Wings”

Dela Cruz from the Hawaii Catholic Herald recently did an interview with Fr. Joncas about his very popular song “On Eagle’s Wings.” In the interview “Response to ‘On Eagle’s Wings’ over the years humbling for composer,” Fr. Joncas describes the inspiration behind the song and why he composed it. It is a nice behind the scenes look at a song which has captivated the hearts of many worship goers.

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25 comments

  1. Curious. I hear people say it’s done “all the time” at funerals. In my last two parishes (going back to 2002) we gave families broad license to choose music, and it’s a rare selection. For weekend Mass, I’ll program it maybe 2-3 times a year.

    I really like the piece, and I’m not surprised people readily sing the whole refrain. Along with “Blest Be The Lord” it was the first contemporary setting of Psalm 91 to really be embraced by people. The text, adapted by Fr Joncas, and the original psalm certainly, is just outstanding.

  2. Todd, here in Rhode Island, it is the rare funeral that does not include it. I love it as a funeral hymn because of the gentle message of God’s loving care, especially in times of trial. I have also had it requested for weddings….the couple wishes to live “in the shelter of the Lord”
    Personally, I love singing and playing the piece! From the time I first heard it, it has led me to explore the further riches of Michael’s WONDER-FILLED music which enhances the prayer life of our parish family!

  3. My impression from local sampling is that usage of the piece crested over a decade ago and has been receding since.

    Music directors do congregations no favors by inviting them to sing the verses of the song; the verses were composed with skilled musicians in mind, and the song benefits immensely from having that original conception respected faithfully.

    1. @Karl Liam Saur – comment #4:

      Music directors do congregations no favors by inviting them to sing the verses of the song; the verses were composed with skilled musicians in mind, and the song benefits immensely from having that original conception respected faithfully.

      And thus begins a philosophical debate.

      It’s not a question of inviting the assembly to sing, but when the assembly starts spontaneously singing something that it has heard perhaps hundreds of times before it seems clear to me that it has found in the singing a vehicle for its prayer. The question then is whether anyone has the right to attempt to stop the assembly from singing what has in fact become their song.

      I have found assemblies singing the verses of many songs without being invited to do so, and one could even make a case for saying that this is the mark of a truly successful piece of liturgical music. Pieces where I have encountered congregations joining in with the verses of their own volition include Bernadette Farrell’s Bread of Life, Hope of the World, Ernest Sands’ May the Choirs of Angels and even, almost unbelievably, Christopher Walker’s Out of Darkness, with its hemiola-like cross-rhythms in the verses which musicians would think are not easy, even for a skilled choir.

      I hope I’m not misinterpreting Karl by saying that I think his point would be that congregational involvement in sections of pieces not originally designed for their participation results in an inferior performance of those pieces. From a purely musical point of view, that may be true, but from a pastoral or liturgical point of view a definition of “inferior” might be somewhat different. Hence the philosophical question: how do you quantify the value of the performance of a particular piece in a liturgical context? The US Bishops’ Three Judgements and the Milwaukee Document have something to say here.

      1. @Paul Inwood – comment #6:
        It is refreshing to find complimentary thinking and philosophy with Paul for me. I concur that the process of ownership of performance capability utlimately resides within each individual congregant, and subsequently the conditions that are in place when they aggregate. Paul mentions his English colleagues’ specific “odd” gems, in the colonies we need simply mention Toolanbread. With the tessitura of the Star Spangled Banner, not a soul generally balks at singing either refrain or verse.
        Michael’s gem (and it was obvious as I sat just to his left on the platform at McCormack at NPM 79 it was a gem) began with a genius notion that the verse’s first note, technically a tri-tone against the tonic of the IV (sub-dominant chord) was grounded literally by the gravity of that G tonic which then finds temporary respite in the tonic D in first inversion (David, it’s not a C# as a major seventh, the C# and an A against the G sub-dominant is an amalgam chord whose purpose is likely to suggest temporal instability to stability) and ultimately find home at the refrain, again grounded, this time by the low dominant A. That was light year’s ahead of anybody then, including the Jebs.

        I’m at best bemused by the lauds and vitriol that both have been heaped upon Michael over the decades (we’re both 62). Mannerists who decry his contribution to the library for various stereotypical reasons don’t really know the man’s history, education and vision.

    2. @Karl Liam Saur – comment #4:
      Perhaps it is receding in your corner of the world, but it is as loved as ever in my corner and frequently requested☺️
      No one MAKES the assembly sing the verses – they own the piece and they pray it all the way through!

  4. In comment 2, I meant to write people readily and willingly sing those verses. I wouldn’t browbeat them into joining in on them, but I’m disinclined to put a stop to it. It is an occasional psalm request for a wedding or funeral, and in those instances, people seem satisfied to listen.

    It would be fascinating to see how many songs with verses intended for cantors or psalmists have become “through-sung” congregational favorites. And to delve into the why of that.

  5. It’s used a lot around here too, especially at funerals. It’s more or less become the “Bring Flowers of the Fairest” or “To Jesus All Hearts Burning” of the late 20th century. I think that this song exhibits the same kind of emotionalism in congregations as those hymns did in our forefathers.

    I would take issue though that it is a piece of ‘liturgical’ music. It can be sung at Mass as any other hymn or spiritual song can, but it is not part of the liturgical texts of the Mass or the Office. While the refrain has allusions to psalm verses, they are less clear than the verses of the song itself. I think that the refrain of this song touches people, especially at funerals, because it conveys the image that the deceased is now an “angel in heaven,” so erroneously prevalent in modern religious thought, and even among the “spiritual but not religious.”

    I’m also wondering if people are confused by the use of “the snare of the fowler,” take right from the Authorized (King James) Version of Psalm 91.

    1. @John Kohanski – comment #8:
      Say what?!

      Psalm 91? Sunday Compline. Common Psalm for the season of Lent. One of St Augustine’s seven penitential psalms. Pretty sure it’s one or both of the propers for the First Sunday in Lent.

      “I think that the refrain of this song touches people, especially at funerals, because it conveys the image that the deceased is now an ‘angel in heaven,’ so erroneously prevalent in modern religious thought, and even among the ‘spiritual but not religious.’”

      So, is this your personal thought? The result of polling? The angel reference is pretty clear in the minds of many Catholics–the temptation of the devil. I think we need a lot more to go on than some vague sense. This setting put the words of Psalm 91 on more lips than every setting of Qui Habitat in history.

      I think we have a lot more to worry about from those who are religious but not spiritual.

      1. @Todd Flowerday – comment #9:
        + 13

        I was beginning my own response, but yours is great.

        About that “It’s more or less become the ‘Bring Flowers of the Fairest’ or ‘To Jesus All Hearts Burning’ of the late 20th century,” I’d say “No, there is no comparison.” Those two examples have neither good texts nor good music.

  6. In Staten Island, too, I see no sign of it receding as a choice for funerals. It’s become very much connected to funerals in many people’s minds. I think its prevalence at 9/11 funerals just cemented it.

  7. Todd–you haven’t heard people say “we now have another angel in heaven” or some other such statement when someone dies? I have, and I’ve heard it said to people grieving the loss of someone as a means of consolation. The “becoming an angel” has nothing to do with verse 3 of the song. It’s the >refrain.< It's emotional, listen to those words and picture your loved one, newly deceased, "raised up on eagles wings" and "shining like the sun." As I said, the verses are clear and readable as Psalm 91, the refrain, not as much. Please slow down, go back, and re-read what I wrote carefully.
    Father Ron, I was not comparing the quality of the words (or music) of "To Jesus…" and "You Who…" just that the latter seems to filling the same emotional function for congregations as the former did 50 and more years ago. "Eagles Wings" is the new 'traditional.' Terri and Linda seem to be affirming that as well. Around here too, it's also hard to have a funeral without it.
    I know Psalm 91 is sung at Compline on Sunday, and that it's verses make up the introit, gradual, tract (it takes about 11 minutes to sing this, btw!), offertory, and communion on the first Sunday in Lent. That is not the point. This song is a paraphrase of Psalm 91, not a liturgical text. If that is the case, then "A Mighty Fortress" (Ps 46) "O God Our Help" (also Ps 91), "All People that on Earth do Dwell" (Ps 100), and "Praise My Soul the King of Heaven" (Ps 103) are also liturgical texts. Would you agree?

    And thanks for that last statement. I’m glad you’ve judged and convicted me.

    1. @John Kohanski – comment #13:
      Thanks for replying John. It wasn’t my intention to start a pile-on.

      I’ve heard similar such statements about deceased people becoming angels, yes. But I don’t take them as serious theology. I usually associate it with the Eric Clapton song, another good piece of music, though non-sacred, that may be misunderstood. When the dead-into-angels thing is cited within a few days of the loss of a loved one, I never feel inclined to set the record straight. That does nothing to further either the grieving process or the presence of Christ in the Church’s sacramental ministry.

      It’s not my choice to pass on a psalm setting because of some vague connection with sentimentality. If I were, the first thing I might give up is any setting of the Ave Maria. I think less skilled musicians can botch most any good piece into treacle. But it’s not cause for a moratorium.

      The refrain of “On Eagles Wings” suggests Deuteronomy 32:11-12, part of the morning prayer Old Testament canticle for Saturday, week two, I think. It has similar themes to Psalm 91. I don’t know how Fr Joncas got the inspiration for the yoking of those two texts, but given what I know of him as a Scripture scholar, it’s not a surprising call. Or maybe it was just a good weekend praying the Hours.

      I think we’re splitting hairs over what constitutes a liturgical text or a liturgical song. The blending of the Canticle of Moses and Psalm 91 is within the bounds of what are given for the Propers often enough. Sometimes the antiphons are not Scriptural at all. This one is.

      When “On Eagles Wings” is used after the first reading, or during a liturgical action, it is a liturgical song. Singing it is singing the liturgy.

      And as for the last statement, it was intended as a mirror on the one you offered. I would have done better to withhold it. I didn’t quite see the relevance of your criticizing the spiritual-not-religious meme. It seemed like a general pile-on on your part–all the stuff you dislike thrown into an argument.

      It looks like there’s a large variety in practice with the song, doesn’t it?

  8. I’ve always found it amazing that so many Catholics have come to enjoy singing this song with its challenging refrain and verses. If the refrain is not sung in a key that most people can sing, you get in trouble quickly. But it’s one song that people enter into spontaneously with a minimum of encouragement. I’m told it’s used widely in non-Catholic worship as well. BTW, has anyone ever wondered how perhaps the most difficult hymn ever written–Be Not Afraid–always rides atop the list of favorite songs? I find it amazing.

  9. While some may believe I am not objective because Michael and I are close friends and colleagues, “On Eagle’s Wings” ‘works’ – in my opinion, because:

    1) People LOVE it. What this means is, when people really love a piece of music, they get past any particular difficulty or aspect that may seem to, on paper, deem it difficult. In this case – think about it – the range is an octave and a fourth! Also, the vocal line of the verse begins with the psalmist singing a C#, against a Dmaj7 chord. Everything about this would say that the piece should not be easy to sing… but everyone sings it, because they simply LOVE it.

    2) It is so well crafted… good compositions give fruit to participation, “popularity” and usage. Text, melody, harmonic language – combined with the source of a beautiful psalm (91).

    3) This is a difficult thing to qualify or quantify – but the totality of this piece helps to “pray well.” It just does. It is a difficult thing to describe how a liturgical composition does or does not accomplish this. Here it does…

    4) The combination of the melody, harmonic development and text brings it to the fact, that this piece gets to the core of what is for many, the basic struggle and journey of faith – hope. This is a prayer of hope in the midst of the darkest and most challenging of times.

    5) It is also speaks to the power of music to help “proclaim the Word,” and form people in the scriptures, for lack of a better phrase. How many people in our pews (and ourselves as well), would be able to stand up, and by heart, recite the words to Psalm 91… but we all know the verses to “On Eagle’s Wings.” This is one of a dozen such pieces or so, that have truly been (while it does not derive from its liturgical intent, it is a by-product) a way in which Catholics learn the scriptures. Think about this, and also the many pieces of Fr. Deiss, the St. Louis Jesuits, Fr. Gelineau and others who form the people of God biblically, because of powerful musical settings such as…

    1. @David Haas – comment #16:
      Pertinent also to Fr Jack’s observation about Be Not Afraid, many of the most popular contemporary songs of the past two generations are based on Scripture. It’s likely no accident that “You Are Mine” is as popular–both suggested by Isaiah 43:1-3.

      One of the reasons why I think the Propers as currently constituted are a dead end is that a wide swath of believers are discovering significant texts outside of the psalms and the Gospels. The next two to three generations are a good time for us to be integrating texts such as Isaiah 43:1-3 more deeply into the “official” texts of the liturgy. If indeed we need to go that way at all.

      Meaningful Scriptural texts plus composing chops …

      1. @Todd Flowerday – comment #18:

        One of the reasons why I think the Propers as currently constituted are a dead end is that a wide swath of believers are discovering significant texts outside of the psalms and the Gospels. The next two to three generations are a good time for us to be integrating texts such as Isaiah 43:1-3 more deeply into the “official” texts of the liturgy. If indeed we need to go that way at all.
        Meaningful Scriptural texts plus composing chops …

        Tood, y’know darn well that scold was out of the pickle barrell of discussing OEW, and unverifiable from either of our perches in Iowa and California. Get over the obsession with the propers just because some of my other brothers and sisters think they’re the panacea.’Nuff said.

      2. @Charles Culbreth – comment #22:
        Charles, honestly, my obsession amounts to a yawn, a look at my spreadsheet I made of them when I plan Advent, Lent and Easter, and an occasional laugh at the CMAA.

        I think we’re on the verge of a substantial widening of these texts, if indeed they have a future at all as a formal part of the Roman Rite. A huge shift of contemporary song texts and hymns toward the Scriptures is grace enough. The reform2 folks complaining, “No! You’re doing it wrong! Do it our way, even though we’re two generations late to the party!” looks more obsessed to me. Shrill on occasion, I might say.

        At any rate, I’m happy to let it be discerned well past my personal Song of Farewell. Meanwhile the shrill is occasionally entertaining.

  10. (Con’t)

    this, and pieces like “Come to the Water,” “Keep in Mind,” “One Bread, One Body.” I had the experience of someone coming up to me on All Saints Day, several years ago, and he said to me: “David, I love your song ‘Blest Are They.’ How did you come up with those wonderful lyrics?” I had to gently inform him, that the words came from the Sermon on the Mount in the Gospel of Matthew.

    The point being.. many musical settings, and “On Eagle’s Wings” is the one of the finest examples I can think of, where the musical setting has helped to proclaim, break open, and form the people of God in the scriptures.

    I’m just sayin!

    1. @David Haas – comment #17:
      Thank you, David for “just sayin'” – I agree wholeheartedly with all that you said and I would also echo Stephen (hi Stephen!) in saying that if the piece is something people WANT to sing, they WILL sing it, despite what may be perceived as musical difficulties. The inspiration enters in when the piece, though difficult, has an appeal to more than the mind!
      I do not feel that an “emotional” response is a bad thing – nay, it is a necessary thing!!! It can draw people in and keep them there. Many people’s faith rests on an emotional response as well as a grasp of the cerebral! Why else would we Catholics employ music, vestments, incense, bread and wine, kiss of peace……appealing to all the senses, if not to elicit some emotional response?

  11. I agree with Linda & David wholeheartedly. I play for many funerals in parishes within the Diocese of Providence and OEW is a frequent request. Oh sure, many say it’s overdone, but frequently I observe people wiping away tears during the song. Clearly after all these years it still comforts those who are in grief. I agree with many of the above posts….On Eagles Wings, You Are Mine, Be Not afraid, Blest Are They ….are staples. No matter how musically difficult (range/key/syncopation) it’s my experience the assembly joins in the singing with no problem.

  12. As you might expect, I keep my finger on the pulse of CMAA and fellow travelers at bit more acutely than you, and near as I reckon, I think there’s a distinct lack of focus from RotR lately. I wonder if the Francis phenomenon keeps folks reeling.
    But I gotta say that there’s been a lot of undie-airing out over at MSF (I know you noticed at CS) that would make some of the flame wars here at PTB blush by comparison!
    What a wonderful world.

  13. As I read over the posts which included ones from Michael Joncas and David Haas, I just want to say that quite a few of their compositions have left a deep impression on my faith life as well as that of the people I have served over the past four decades. We still use Michael’s “Gloria in Excelsis” during the Christmas season. And along with OEW at nearly every funeral, You are Mine is used almost as frequently. Thanks Michael and David for your wonderful service to the Church!

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