Bonhoeffer on Cantus Firmus

There is always the danger in all strong, erotic love that one may love what I might call the polyphony of life. What I mean is that God wants us to love him eternally with our whole hearts – not in such a way as to injure or weaken our earthly love, but to provide a kind of cantus firmus to which the other melodies of life provide the counterpoint…

Only a polyphony of this kind can give life a wholeness and at the same time assure us that nothing calamitous can happen as long as the cantus firmus is kept going.

– Dietrich Bonhoffer, from Letters and Papers from Prison

A cantus firmus is a musical term referring to a fixed song within a pre-existing melody forming the basis of a polyphonic composition.


Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, The Enlarged Edition, ed. Eberhard Bethge, London, SCM Press, 1971.

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  1. Bonhoeffer gave us a wonderful analogy of the Christian life as piece of contrapuntal music in which every part is in harmony with every other part and the whole is a work of art and genius.Only a great artist rises to this high level of art…someone like Johann Sebastian Bach, perhaps…or in the spiritual sense that Bonhoeffer meant, such a person would be someone we would call “a saint”. Such a saint would be someone like Brother Andrew who maintained the same strong sense of God’s presence among the business of pots and pans in his kitchen as if he were kneeling to receive the Blessed Sacrament.

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