Brother Basil (John) Magnus, CSC (1828-1909)
“It was a sorrowful message the Church bells announced to us on Friday, February 12, 1909; another member of Holy Cross has been called to his reward, a member long esteemed and loved by all—Brother Basil—[he] left suddenly, but not unprepared. His entire life has been an act of preparation for the supreme moment.” (Scholastic, 42:349) “He was a man of extraordinary modesty. When he joined the Congregation of Holy Cross he came with no blare of trumpets. It was not known then or afterward until it was accidentally discovered that he was gifted with a genius for music; that in all America there were few who knew the contents of musical literature as he did, and fewer still could interpret them with such exquisite delicacy and feeling.” (Father John Cavanaugh, funeral oration) “Genius seldom hides and when it does, someone uncovers it. For some months after Brother Basil joined the Congregation…in 1852, he revealed nothing of his musical background he had acquired in Bavaria, Germany. The fact was that he was something of a child prodigy, playing viola when he was eight years old and learning the violin previous to that age.…Professor Maximilian E. Girac, a music teacher at Notre Dame…discovered Brother Basil. No longer could the modest religious hide the fact that he excelled at piano and organ and proficiently played on many instruments, among them oboe and flute. Professor Girac is believed to be the founder of the music department at Notre Dame, and the list of the faculty members in 1852 contains just one musician, Brother Basil.” (Schmidt, CSC, Br. Evan, “One Man’s Music”, N.D.) He was the organist at Sacred Heart Church for fifty-six years; his only assignment for the entirety of his religious life. Perhaps he was best memorialized by renowned Holy Cross poet Father Charles L. O’Donnell, C.S.C. (d. 1934) who wrote the ode “The Dead Musician” on the day of Brother Basil’s death. Below is the first verse:
He was the player and the played upon,
He was the actor and the acted upon,
Artist, and yet himself a substance wrought;
God played on him as he upon the key,
Moving his soul to mightiest melodies
Of lowly serving, his austerities,
And holy thought that our high dream outtops, —
He was an organ where God kept the stops.
Of all he gave us came so wondrous clear
As that he sounded to the Master’s ear.