Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Karl Barth wrote a small book about Mozart amidst all of his Theological tomes. Ralph Wood gives us some of the precious observations Barth held about the composer.
For the last twenty years of his life, Barth began and ended every day by listening to the work of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Barth’s study contained a picture of Mozart that was hung — as Barth always pointed out — at a slightly higher level than Calvin’s. Barth’s aphorisms about Mozart are widely celebrated. Mozart, says Barth, is content to play while Bach is determined to preach.
The angels may perform Bach when they are before the throne of God, Barth speculates, but when gathered unto them-selves it’s always Mozart. “If I ever get to heaven,” Barth declares, “I shall first ask after Mozart, and only then after Augustine and Aquinas, Luther and Calvin and Schleiermacher.” “In relation to Mozart,” Barth observes wickedly, “Bach is merely John the Baptist and Beethoven is Origen, if not the Shepherd of Hermas.”
Barth is no mere lover of Mozart. He hears in Mozart’s work nothing less than a musical witness to. God’s redeemed creation. Mozart’s “singing and sounding,” as Barth calls it, echoes God’s own gracious ordering of the world. It constitutes for Barth a parabolic correspondence to the Gospel so original that it is not discernible in any other genius of culture. Mozart’s “childlike knowledge of the center of things” certainly did not derive from Goethe’s “wide-open eyes for nature, history and [the] arts.” Mozart perceived what the better-read and better-educated fail to see, what the “connoisseurs of the world and men” do not discern.
Not even the church Fathers and Reformers enable Barth to hear what sings forth from Mozart’s “golden sounds and melodies” — namely, “parables of the kingdom revealed in the gospel of God’s free grace.” Without this musical echo of God’s goodness, Barth adds in a remarkable tribute to Mozart, “I could not think of what moves me personally in theology, in politics.”
It is not the fabled “sunny-ness” of Mozart’s music that enabled Barth to understand afresh the motive force of all theological work. It is, instead, Mozart’s avoidance of that deadly balance and coincidence of opposites which characterize much of modem theology and nearly the whole of modern culture. To envision the cosmos as equipoise (vocab: Equipoise is the state of being balanced or in equilibrium, usually connoting something that is a product of counterbalancing) of contraries — light and dark, earth and sky, laughter and weeping, heaven and hell — is finally to discern how they cancel each other.
This binary view of the world ends ultimately in neutrality and indifference, if not in madness and suicide. That the creation is full of great contrariety there is no doubt, but the Gospel is not such a coincidentia oppositorum. For Barth, on the contrary, God’s activity in history is bent on transforming the interplay of life’s light and shadow so as to make the former always take precedence over the latter. Mozart’s music is wondrously redemptive, in Barth’s hearing of it, because it reveals this gracious imbalance at the core of things:
[Mozart]. . . heard, and causes those who have ears to hear, even today, 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. . . . 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.
Karl Barth, Dogmatics in Outline
Even in the works of his most radiant keys — in the serenades and divertimenti, in Figaro and Cosi fan’ tutte — Mozart is no sanguine optimist. Yet neither do the darker pieces set in minor modes ever descend to self-pitying melancholy. In the overture and finale of Don Giovanni, in the large and small G Minor Symphonies, in the D Minor Piano Concerto, even in the “Dissonant” Quartet — in none of these, says Barth, is life perceived as a lugubrious dialectic of opposites. They are filled, instead, with a joyous sense of the world’s wondrous imbalance:
The sun shines but does not dazzle the eyes, nor demolish nor scorch. Heaven arches above the earth but does not press upon or crush or swallow it. And so earth remains earth, but without being forced to hold its own against heaven in titanic revolt. In the same way darkness, chaos, death and hell render themselves conspicuous but are not allowed to prevail even for a moment. Mozart makes music, knowing everything from a mysterious center.
What [happens] in this center is…a splendid annulment of balance, a turn in the strength of which the light rises and the shadow winks but does not disappear; happiness outdistances sor row without extinguishing it and the “Yes” rings louder than the still-existing “No.” Notice the reversal of the great dark and little bright experiences of Mozart’s life! “The rays of the sun disperse the night”—that’s what you hear at the end of The Magic Flute. The play may or must still proceed or start from the beginning. But it is a play in which some Height or Depth is winning or has already won. This directs and characterizes it. One will never perceive equilibrium, and for that reason uncertainty or doubt, in Mozart’s music. This is true of his operas as well as of his incidental music. Is not each Kyrie or Miserere, even if it begins at the lowest depth, carried by the trust that the prayer for grace has in fact been answered?
Karl Barth, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Thomas Merton attributes Mozart’s musical mastery to a mystical innocence that instinctively intuited the cosmic harmony. He criticizes Barth for his cerebral denial of this supposed heart-knowledge: “Though you have grown up to become a theologian,” he exhorts Barth, “Christ remains a child in you. Your books (and mine) matter less than we think! There is in us a Mozart who will be our salvation.”
Merton has missed Barth’s point altogether. Barth finds Mozart’s music wondrously liberating precisely because it contains nothing inwardly mystical, nothing of that romantic Sehnsucht which mystics confuse with transcendent grace. Like Cardinal Newman, Barth believes that “mysticism begins in mist and ends in schism.” What moves Barth is the serene objectivity of Mozart’s music — its unexampled freedom from mere subjectivity.
Nothing in Mozart’s biography, Barth argues, can account for his unsurpassed musical ability to encircle life’s sadness with a deep and abiding joy. “Mozart often laughed,” Barth declares, “but certainly not because there was much for him to laugh about. Rather he laughed (and that is something absolutely different) because he was allowed and able to laugh in spite of all.”
It was Mozart’s unsurpassed gift to have been what Barth calls an impersonal instrument of the “sounding universe” Having listened to a redemptive harmony not of his own making, Mozart was intent on letting his music resound with it. Hence the virtual absence of any subjective element in Mozart’s work, and hence also the stark divide between the unhappy events of Mozart’s private life and the proverbial gaiety incarnate in his music.
Barth cites Mozart’s own assertion that “the emotions, strong or not, never should be expressed ad nauseam and that music, even in the most horrible situation, never must offend the ears but must please them nevertheless. In other words, music must always remain music.” Nothing less than a deep theological humility can explain, in Barth’s view, Mozart’s splendid self-transcendence over his personal interests:
Mozart’s music, in contrast to that of Bach, has no message and, in contrast to that of Beethoven, involves no personal confession. His music does not give any rules, even less does it reveal the composer himself…Mozart does not wish to say anything at all; he just sings and sounds. So he does not intrude a thing upon the hearer, he does not ask decisions or comments of him, he just lets him alone. You start to enjoy him the moment you allow him to act like that…He does not want to proclaim the praise of God either. However, he does just that: in the very humbleness in which he is, so to speak, nothing more than an instrument himself. In this way he lets us hear what he clearly hears, namely, everything which from God’s creation presses upon him, rises in him, and wants to spring from him.
Karl Barth, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Barth is untroubled by the objection that Mozart did not intend his music, at least not his secular work, to resound with the praise of God’s prevenient grace. That Mozart lived an often miserable life; that he accused Protestants of being unable to comprehend the meaning of Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi; that he was a Freemason of little moral and intellectual distinction — all of this is, for Barth, nothing to the theological point.
On the contrary, it establishes his thesis ever more strongly: Mozart was a man who, however great his personal bondage, became utterly free in his service to Dame Music. Against Ulrich Zwingli’s notion that certain people have a special direct access to God, Barth asserts that “God had a special access to this human being.”