Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Barth on Mozart

It is a little collection of encomia from the twentieth century’s most prominent Protestant theologian to the best-loved, and probably irreligious, composer of the late eighteenth century. For years I’ve been aware of this little book, and finally got around to reading it this week.

It can be read in a single sitting, but Karl Barth’s Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is worth savoring over a long weekend. The magisterial dogmatician’s ebullient delight in Mozart and his music reveals just the kind of child-likeness that the author admires in the composer.  Over and over in these four short pieces Barth praises Mozart’s capacity for “play,” and that delightful verb characterizes his prose as well. As one very skilled amateur musician friend of mine often remarked, “this is why we say we are playing music.” It is fun to see the towering theologian agog at the bewigged wunderkind.

Three words capture what Barth admired in Mozart: joy, freedom, grace. Of course Barth cannot ignore the irony that he, a Reformed dogmatic theologian, should favor Mozart’s music over all others. Shouldn’t Bach, the quintessential church and Christian composer, have that place of honor? “It may be that when the angels go about their task of praising God, they play only Bach. I am sure, however, that when they are together en famille, they play Mozart and that then too our dear Lord listens with special pleasure.” (23) No, while for Barth Bach is perhaps too much concerned with a message (and Beethoven with a personal confession); “Mozart does not wish to say anything: he just sings and sounds.” (37) It is this singing and sounding, with joy and in freedom, that appealed to Barth.

And what of grace, that sola of the Reformation? Where does Barth find grace in this apparently disinterested Roman Catholic and Freemason, whose sacred music is often accused (I admit, I am among the accusers) of being disinterested in or flippant with sacred texts? Barth’s little book might well serve as an exercise in the theology of “common grace,” of the imago Dei which flares out of even unworthy vessels. (Think of Salieri’s arguments with God in Amadeus. PeterSchaeffer’s play neatly captures the jealousy “religious” people sometimes have when they see God’s creative gifts so freely distributed.) This book of short pieces on Mozart might, I say, serve as an argument for common grace. But to Barth’s credit, and for the enjoyment of the reader, he does not.

Because, surprisingly, Barth finds something genuinely sacred in Mozart’s music. In explanation of his love for Mozart, he notes that “the New Testament speaks not only of the kingdom of heaven but also of parables of the kingdom of heaven.” (57) Mozart’s joy, freedom, and grace as parables of the kingdom, the presence of God. Well and good, but what about his sacred music? How are we to square the unavoidably happy sounds we hear in his Kyrie and Miserere? "We will never hear in Mozart an equilibrium of forces and a consequent uncertainty and doubt." No matter how some of the more somber movements of the Mass may begin, they will eventually  
sound as if borne upward by the trust that the plea for mercy was granted long ago[.] Benedictus qui venit in nomine Domine! In Mozart’s version he evidently has already come. Dona nobis pacem! – a prayer, but a prayer already answered. This feature is enough to mark Mozart’s church music as truly sacred, all objections notwithstanding.(56) 
And, dare I say, may make a Mozart Mass suitable for a Protestant Eucharist!

Barth’s pieces were all written in 1956 for Swiss periodicals upon the bicentennial observation of Mozart’s birth. A nice bonus in the edition I have just read is the Foreword by John Updike. Here again, a nice surprise for those who do not know the religious, theologically serious side of Updike. This makes a nice companion for a playful collection by a towering theologian. Perhaps that could only happen with Mozart in the middle.

Karl Barth, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart trans. Clarence K. Pott (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986).

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