Barth on Mozart

‘… Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Why is it that this man is so incomparable? Why is it that for the receptive, he has produced in almost every bar he conceived and composed a type of music for which “beautiful” is not a fitting epithet: music which for the true Christian is not mere entertainment, enjoyment or edification but food and drink; music full of comfort and counsel for his needs; music which is never a slave to its technique nor sentimental but always “moving,” free and liberating because wise, strong and sovereign? Why is it possible to hold that Mozart has a place in theology, especially in the doctrine of creation and also in eschatology, although he was not a father of the Church, does not seem to have been a particularly active Christian, and was a Roman Catholic, apparently leading what might appear to us a rather frivolous existence when not occupied in his work? It is possible to give him this position because he knew something about creation in its total goodness that neither the real fathers of the Church nor our Reformers, neither the orthodox nor Liberals, neither the exponents of natural theology nor those heavily armed with the “Word of God,” and certainly not the Existentialists, nor indeed any other great musicians before and after him, either know or can express and maintain as he did. In this respect he was pure in heart, far transcending both optimists and pessimists. 1756–1791! This was the time when God was under attack for the Lisbon earthquake, and theologians and other well-meaning folk were hard put to it to defend Him. In face of the problem of theodicy, Mozart had the peace of God which far transcends all the critical or speculative reason that praises and reproves. This problem lay behind him. Why then concern himself with it? He had heard, and causes those who have ears to hear, even to-day, what we shall not see until the end of time—the whole context of providence. As though in the light of this end, he heard the harmony of creation to which the shadow also belongs but in which the shadow is not darkness, deficiency is not defeat, sadness cannot become despair, trouble cannot degenerate into tragedy and infinite melancholy is not ultimately forced to claim undisputed sway. Thus the cheerfulness in this harmony is not without its limits. But the light shines all the more brightly because it breaks forth from the shadow. The sweetness is also bitter and cannot therefore cloy. Life does not fear death but knows it well. Et lux perpetua lucet [light perpetual shines] (sic!) eis [upon them]—even the dead of Lisbon. Mozart saw this light no more than we do, but he heard the whole world of creation enveloped by this light. Hence it was fundamentally in order that he should not hear a middle or neutral note, but the positive far more strongly than the negative. He heard the negative only in and with the positive. Yet in their inequality he heard them both together, as, for example, in the Symphony in G-minor of 1788. He never heard only the one in abstraction. He heard concretely, and therefore his compositions were and are total music. Hearing creation unresentfully and impartially, he did not produce merely his own music but that of creation, its twofold and yet harmonious praise of God. He neither needed nor desired to express or represent himself, his vitality, sorrow, piety, or any programme. He was remarkably free from the mania for self-expression. He simply offered himself as the agent by which little bits of horn, metal and catgut could serve as the voices of creation, sometimes leading, sometimes accompanying and sometimes in harmony. He made use of instruments ranging from the piano and violin, through the horn and the clarinet, down to the venerable bassoon, with the human voice somewhere among them, having no special claim to distinction yet distinguished for this very reason. He drew music from them all, expressing even human emotions in the service of this music, and not vice versa. He himself was only an ear for this music, and its mediator to other ears. He died when according to the worldly wise his life-work was only ripening to its true fulfilment. But who shall say that after the “Magic Flute,” the Clarinet Concerto of October 1791 and the Requiem, it was not already fulfilled? Was not the whole of his achievement implicit in his works at the age of 16 or 18? Is it not heard in what has come down to us from the very young Mozart? He died in misery like an “unknown soldier,” and in company with Calvin, and Moses in the Bible, he has no known grave. But what does this matter? What does a grave matter when a life is permitted simply and unpretentiously, and therefore serenely, authentically and impressively, to express the good creation of God, which also includes the limitation and end of man.

I make this interposition here, before turning to chaos, because in the music of Mozart—and I wonder whether the same can be said of any other works before or after—we have clear and convincing proof that it is a slander on creation to charge it with a share in chaos because it includes a Yes and a No, as though orientated to God on the one side and nothingness on the other. Mozart causes us to hear that even on the latter side, and therefore in its totality, creation praises its Master and is therefore perfect. Here on the threshhold of our problem—and it is no small achievement—Mozart has created order for those who have ears to hear, and he has done it better than any scientific deduction could’.

— Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics III/3 (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 2004), 297–99.

9 comments

  1. This might be a little over the top, but there’s no doubt that Mozart brings a sublimity to music that few other composers ever have, except Bach. The latter isn’t so ‘popular’ (at least not with Barth, as far as I’ve ever undertood), but his music reaches beyond this world time and again…as Barth indicates Mozart’s does.

    I think the wonder of Mozart and Bach is that very rarely do they write any music that doesn’t have this sense of eternity in it. Many other composers occasionally achieve this…some more than others….but these two men achieved it almost invariably.

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  2. I remember being told that Barth once was asked about Bach vs. Mozart. He said he had a vision of heaven such that when the angels gathered before the throne for grand ceremonies of worship, the music would all be Bach. But when the ceremony was over and God was alone, He would listen to Mozart.

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  3. “It may be that when the angels go about their task praising God, they play only Bach. I am sure, however, that when they are together en famille they play Mozart.”

    –Karl Barth–

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  4. It is irenic that Barth should have so commented on Mozart before the discovery (if that is the right term) of fractals demonstrating the order that is to be found, yes, even in chaotic conditions. The seemingly chaotic also has an order in it, and we need to remember as much in this time of dissonance and the apparently distasteful in music. There is a greater harmony, refuse to hear it how we will, that must eventually breakthrough and overwhelm the cacophony of meaningless noise with the gladness of glorious purpose.

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  5. I’ve been reading a book called “Proust was a Neuroscientist,” (Jonah Lehrer) in which the author says that Stravinsky purposely set about undermining the way in which we listen to music, and that our brain has to ‘learn’ to listen to music that is more cacophonous in its style. I’m not sure that he’s right; while we can certainly listen to music that’s cacophonic (and Stravinsky is old hat in this regard now) I think our brains still look for pattern and order and beauty in music – even in the most difficult music. If this isn’t there (for instance, I’ve never found it in Boulez, and seldom in NZ composer, Jack Body) we tend to switch off and look for something that still speaks about the glory of sound.

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  6. If Robert Shaw’s telling of the Barth anecdote concerning Sebastian Bach and Mozart be more authentic to Barth’s actual utterance, it be more along these lines:

    When the Angelic Hosts hymn their praise before the Triune GOD, the settngs are–of course!–all Bach. Yet, when they’re–as it were–en choir the music is ALWAYS Mozart, and the Divine Presence stoops at the key-hole of the Choir all the better to hear…

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  7. Thank you for this beautiful essay.
    Thanks for expressing feelings about Mozart in words.
    Yes, he is like a God.
    The Infinite texture of his music communicates the Holy
    on any page it is opened up at.
    He is so needed in this dire and hollow world.

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