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On Eagle's Wings

Written by J. Michael Joncas in the mid-1970’s, our Communion Song today is a paraphrase of the responsorial psalm. On Eagle’s Wings was originally written for the funeral of a classmate, and has become one of the top 100 songs that every Catholic should know (Pastoral Music, February March 2005). It is often sung at funerals and was even included in the 2007 funeral Mass for Luciano Pavarotti.

J. Michael Joncas obtained his MA in liturgy and theology from the University of Notre Dame. He continued his studies at the Pontifical Liturgical Institute in Rome. In 1980, he was ordained a priest for the Archdiocese of St. Paul-Minneapolis, Minnesota. He has served as a parochial vicar, a campus minister, and pastor. He is currently an associate professor in the Department of Theology at the University of St. Thomas, St. Paul, MN.

Many classically trained musicians have heavily criticized the song. The vocal range is very large, from A (two lines below the staff) to D (fourth line of the staff). Altos and basses love the beginning of the refrain because it starts so low, while the sopranos and tenors prefer the beginning of the verses, which starts at the top of the range. (On a side note, if you don’t know your voice part, you might be able to figure it out with this song.) I know one other top 100 Catholic song with a larger range: I Am the Bread of Life, #738 in the red Worship hymnal.

The other classical criticism is the first note of the verse. Classical music is written using scales, and the first chord of most pieces usually comes from the tonic or home base of the scale. The verses for On Eagle’s Wings start on one of the harder notes of the scale to find which also does not fit in the chord that accompanies it. While this may make the piece a little more difficult to learn initially, the piece has become so well-known, that I’m always surprised to find someone who doesn’t know it and would have to overcome this difficulty.

Music from the 1970’s (on the radio) is no longer considered contemporary. The continued widespread use of On Eagle’s Wings has made it into a traditional song. Only time will tell if it will progress on to become a classic.