An Abiding Overture: Karl Barth and the Hearing of Mozart

John McPakeOn the run up to Mozart’s birthday, we thought we would revisit an article from the Different Voices magazine for you to enjoy.

One ‘different voice’ is that of the theologian. Here theology meets music as John McPake investigates an enthusiasm of one of the twentieth century’s most influential thinkers.

Of Requiems and Portraits
The year 2006 marked the 250th Anniversary of the birth of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) and witnessed a veritable outpouring in terms of celebratory concerts and literary reflection upon the work of an undoubted genius. His music has moved and touched its hearers across the generations and has a particular accessibility and a resonance in the hearts and minds of many. Such accessibility and popular resonance often invites the scorn of music critics, as if such characteristics were, in some sense, unworthy of serious music. However, there is more than sufficient evidence to suggest that, contemporary popularity aside, Mozart’s music has a transcendent quality which touches the hearer and moves them in ways that are not necessarily amenable to formal articulation.

The hearer of Mozart’s Requiem might readily agree with this suggestion, especially if they discern in such a work his final struggles and “hear” him lay down his pen in the midst of this unfinished composition. The 1984 film Amadeus, which captured eight Hollywood Oscars and may be said to exemplify the myth-making surrounding the Requiem, might be held in the critics’ eyes to be responsible for the mythologizing of Mozart in a manner which obscures the profundity which lies at the heart of any reflection on this theme, and we might not entirely disagree with them on that score. However, once we strip away the layers of myth and legend that shroud the Requiem, we hear again the transcendent quality that transforms the music into a medium giving intimation of the Divine.

But how are we to interpret the Divine thus intimated? The characteristic pictorial image of Mozart is that found in the portrait painted by his brother-in-law Joseph Lange in 1782. The painting is not yet complete and, of course, it never shall be. Nevertheless, in a profound sense this symbolises and re-presents Mozart. He is well known, yet finally unknown, as his collected letters undoubtedly disclose. (Mozart’s Letters, Mozart’s Life, 2000, edited by Robert Spaethling) He is known in part, yet always revealing more to the hearer of his music. The hearer of the Requiem may well wait for the Lacrimosa, and listen for that pain-filled moment when Mozart lays down his pen for the last time. If we “hear” that moment, we might sense inwardly that which is symbolised in the portrait; the person of Mozart present, yet also, in the same moment, absent.

If we “hear” that moment and it deepens within us a longing for the realisation of that which is not yet complete, we find ourselves in the company of many others who find in Mozart a musical companion for this life’s journey. Whether it is in the heights or in the depths, the music of Mozart, in its light and shade, captures the moment.

In the company of Karl Barth: A “hearer” of Mozart
Undoubtedly, that company would include the Swiss theologian Karl Barth (1886-1968) who was, and remains, one of the greatest Reformed theologians of the 20th Century. Barth’s massive, yet incomplete, Church Dogmatics dominated the theological landscape in the middle period of the Century, producing, in equal measure, rapture and despair among the hearers and readers of his works. Equally, these works continue to draw forth a theological response which suggests that the source from which he drew is not yet exhausted.

Once more, the sense of the ‘not yet complete’ is woven into our perception of Barth. Of course, the pictorial image is much clearer, yet Barth himself was conscious of this sense of the ‘not yet complete’. Thus, in the Preface to the final part of the Church Dogmatics that he would complete, Barth acknowledges that, for all his efforts, his work would remain an ‘opus imperfectum’. Indeed, he recalls, by way of comparison, ‘that Mozart’s premature death interrupted work on the Requiem in the middle of the clause Lacrimosa’ (Church Dogmatics IV/4, 1969, p.vii), and we sense that Barth himself was enchanted by the myth of that moment as recorded in the collection of his occasional writings on Mozart. (Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, 1986, p.49) Equally, for his hearers and readers there remains a profoundly dialectical quality to his words, in terms of that enduring quality which is proper to all talk of God. They seem to defy every attempt at a final comprehension and to express, for the sympathetic hearer, a profound harmony and yet, in the same moment, to embrace a profound dissonance.

Is this comparison of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Karl Barth merely accidental? Or, might there be a deeper affinity? The latter, for Barth himself, is so, for he is a self-proclaimed “hearer” of Mozart, who, in 1955, declared: ‘I confess that thanks to the invention of the phonograph, which can never be praised enough, I have for years and years begun each day with Mozart, and only then (aside from the daily newspaper) turned to my Dogmatics. I even have to confess that if I ever get to heaven, I would first of all seek out Mozart and only then enquire after Augustine, St. Thomas, Luther, Calvin, and Schleiermacher.’ (Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, 1986, p.16) Equally, he declares that ‘the high point of 1956 for me was my invitation to give the memorial address on Mozart and his work at the celebration held in Basel’. He continues:

I am not especially gifted or cultured artistically and certainly not inclined to confuse or identify the history of salvation with any part of the history of art. But the golden sounds and melodies of Mozart’s music have from early times spoken to me not as gospel but as parables of the realm of God’s free grace as revealed in the gospel… Without such music I could not think of that which concerns me personally in both theology and politics… There are probably very few theological study rooms in which pictures of Calvin and Mozart are to be seen hanging next to each other and at the same height.’ (How I Changed My Mind, 1969, pp.71-72)

To those who know, and despair, of Barth’s theology, the intimation that it is a theology inspired by Mozart may come as something of a surprise and as a catalyst for further despair or, at the very least, a quizzical look in the direction of the Almighty.

Barth testifies to having heard played for the first time at ‘about five or six years old’ and to having been ‘thrilled… through and through’, and poses the question: ‘Could it be that the characteristic basic “sound” of both the earlier and the later Mozart… is in fact the primal sound of music absolutely? Could it be that he discovered this “tone” in its timelessly valid form?’ (Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, 1986, pp.15, 28)  This testimony, whatever we make of it, indicates an engagement with Mozart that, at some level, was of particular significance to Barth. Equally, the concept of Barth’s hearing of Mozart as the equivalent of an abiding Overture to the Opera that is the Church Dogmatics requires to be embraced, even by the most sceptical of Barth’s hearers and readers.

Thus, Barth may speak of the ‘incomparable Mozart’ whose music is characteristic of an age whose optimism corresponds to the proclamation of the Christian Gospel in its affirmation of the goodness of God’s Creation (Church Dogmatics III/1, 1958, p.404), which points to a theological appreciation of the goodness of Creation more evident in Barth’s later writing. Likewise, Eberhard Busch’s magisterial biography of Barth records an ongoing, and seemingly deepening relationship, between his subject and the music of Mozart, such that when Barth is discovered to have passed over into the ‘life everlasting’ it is to the musical backdrop of Mozart, having previously laid his pen to rest in the midst of an unfinished sentence. The hearer and reader of Barth might listen for that moment when he lays down his pen for the last time. If we “hear” that moment, we might sense inwardly that which is symbolised in Busch’s portrayal: the person of Barth present, yet also, in the same moment, absent. (Karl Barth, 1976, pp.498-499) Truly, life may imitate creative art.

Mozart as a ‘hearer’ of ‘the voices of creation’
However, in seeking to state the precise nature of the relationship between Mozart’s music and Barth’s theology, one of the real difficulties is that there is, in truth, very little systematic engagement with Mozart by Barth. The references scattered throughout the Church Dogmatics are few in number and, in the main, incidental. That is, except in one profound engagement in the Church Dogmatics III/3 where Barth addresses the question of “God and Nothingness”. He asks:

Why is this man 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 liberating? (Church Dogmatics III/3, 1960, pp.297-298)

He then asks why it is ‘possible to hold that Mozart has a place in theology, especially in the doctrine of creation and also in eschatology’, and answers that: ‘It is possible to give him this position because he knew something about creation in its total goodness that neither [theologians or musicians] either know or can express and maintain as he did.’ (Church Dogmatics III/3, 1960, p.298)

Further, he suggests that Mozart ‘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’. It is 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… the light shines all the more brightly because it breaks forth from the shadow’. (Church Dogmatics III/3, 1960, p.298)

Mozart saw this light no more than we do, but he heard the whole world of creation enveloped by this light… Hearing creation unresentfully and impartially, he did not produce merely his own music but that of creation, its twofold yet harmonious praise of God. (Church Dogmatics III/3, 1960, p.298)

A living expression of this is found ‘in the Symphony in G minor of 1788’, that is Symphony No. 40 (K. 550), in which Barth suggests that Mozart ‘heard’ the negative aspects of life in the created order ‘only in and with the positive’. For Barth, Mozart is a ‘hearer’ of ‘the voices of creation’ whose vocation is to act as a ‘mediator to other ears’, and he suggests that in The Magic Flute (K. 620), the Clarinet Concerto in A (K. 622) and the Requiem in D minor (K. 626) we have, although short, a life ‘already fulfilled’. (Church Dogmatics III/3, 1960, p.298)

In summing up, Barth contends that ‘in the music of Mozart – and I wonder whether the same can be said of any other works before or after – we have a 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’. He continues:

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… Mozart has created order for those who have ears to hear, and he has done it better than any scientific deduction could. (Church Dogmatics III/3, 1960, p.299)

Mozart and Barth: An Assessment
In seeking to assess the nature of the relationship between the music of Mozart and the theology of Barth, we have focused on the sensory ‘hearing’ implicit in the relationship. What Barth hears in Mozart is the mediation of ‘the voices of creation’ which express the totality of the ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ found in creation, and this, in turn, inspires (if that is not too strong a word) Barth to seek to give a theologically systematic expression to the totality of the ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ found in Jesus Christ.

Is there then a systematic relationship between the music of Mozart and the theology of Barth? We have already noted that one of the real difficulties in assessing the relationship is the relative absence of a thorough engagement with Mozart’s music by Barth in the Church Dogmatics. In the light, or, rather, the shadow of this absence, it becomes impossible to give a definitive assessment.

How then should we regard the relationship? In the absence of the definitive, let us return to the suggestion that we regard Barth’s hearing of Mozart as the equivalent of an abiding Overture to the Opera that is the Church Dogmatics. If we do so, we note that it is an Overture which is, at one and the same time, profoundly interwoven with the great themes of the Opera, yet profoundly free. Unhelpful as this is to the systematic mind, it may stand nearer to the truth than we know. Therefore, what we find revealed in Barth’s occasional reflections on Mozart are the genuine and heartfelt comments of a profound mind who, as a musical ‘hearer’, with no instrumental dexterity of any kind, allowed this music to suffuse his own being and to animate his theological endeavours.

In summing up Barth’s contribution to our understanding of what it is to hear Mozart, we may concur with Hans Küng when he suggests that what:

[Barth] heard in this music was the chord he wished to evoke in his theology… Mozart’s music, he said was, “in a quite unusual sense free from all exaggerations, from all logical breaks and oppositions. The sun shines, but it does not blind, consume, or burn. Heaven arches over the earth, but it does not weigh down upon it, it does not crush or swallow it up. And so the earth is and remains the earth, but without having to assert itself in a titanic revolt against heaven. Thus darkness, chaos, death, and hell show themselves, but not for a moment are they allowed to prevail. Mozart plays his music, aware of everything, from within a mysterious centre; and so he knows and defends the boundaries right and left, up and down. He maintains proportions… There is no light here that does not also know the darkness, no joy that does not also contain suffering, but conversely too, no terror, no rage, no lament that does not have peace standing by, whether close up or far off”. (Theology for the Third Millennium: An Ecumenical View, 1988, p.284)

John McPake is minister at East Kilbride: Mossneuk.