Karl Barth on Mozart and the Harmony of Creation

Following on from yesterday’s examination of the relationship between popular music and the search for the transcendent, today I would like to examine the capability that music has to lead us, not just to grasp blindly for something beyond the mundane, but to positively recommend us towards God and actively impart something of the divine to the human soul, to connect us to the wider vision in which the operations of His grace in the world take place. To do this I will be using as an example the incomparable Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, but through an assessment of his genius by the Protestant theologian Karl Barth. Barth’s analyis of Mozart’s work provides an excellent way into seeing just what it is that makes the music of Mozart so compelling and sublime.

The assessment takes place in the third part of the third book of Barth’s Church Dogmatics, prior to his larger discussion of chaos and nothingness. With the exception of some extraneous pointers to favourite Protestant theologians (and a couple of casual digs at Catholicism), which I have excised, the passage is as follows:

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…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 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 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. Et lux perpetua lucet (sic!) eis – 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 of 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 his 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…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 threshold 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.

Church Dogmatics (1961), III.3.50, pp. 296-297, T&T Clark.

            What Barth brings to light so clearly here, and advocates so convincingly, is that the essence of Mozart’s achievement lies in his ability to capture the whole complexity of life, and that he renders this complexity not just as experienced by us finite beings, but as seen in the context of a grand narrative – in the light of God’s eternal vision and loving will. He does this not by minimising the very real dark places that exist within creation, but by producing a glorious unity in which those dark places fit into a fully integrated act of being that cannot be denied, and in which the darkness is not glossed over, but is shown up against the unconditional primal being of goodness and light.

Barth sees Mozart as being a sort of chosen vessel for the glory of God’s original creativity to flow through and be shown to mankind – that the young composer ‘did not produce merely his own music but that of creation’ and that he was ‘remarkably free from the mania for self-expression’, simply offering himself and his talents as a conduit for glorious transcendence to enter the world. It is perhaps because of this mediatory aspect to his composing that he was, as Barth notes, so generous and indiscriminate with his instrumentation, seeing all instruments, including the human voice, as equally capable (and, in the right place and time, equally necessary) for mediating what he himself wanted to show to the world – that vision of the totality and harmony of all creation.

Similarly, Mozart’s compositions themselves show a remarkable, almost preternatural balance and integrity, with each note communicating itself perfectly only because of its relation to the others around it – take one out of its context and the whole thing loses its essence. But again, we do not get the sense that this is the work of a careful musical architect, patiently and judiciously building his creation, but instead we feel that the reason each note perfectly fits into the whole is because the piece is a whole – we feel its unity because it was created (or rather, ‘heard’) as one vision. This is certainly in keeping with Barth’s theory that Mozart was gifted with some kind of window onto the divine glory, and, despite the manifest suffering both around him and in his own life, could see all in the light of the perfection of the divine will.

Such a gift would certainly explain – putting to one side for the moment the nature of his faith – Mozart’s ability to comprise both light and dark in his music without denying the felt reality of the latter but also delivering a profound sense of tenderness, hope, and (very often) real joy. In the Adagio of his Clarinet Concerto, for example, we meet surges of a gentle compassion that consoles precisely because we can recognise it as compassion – the sense of light that has suffered with, has been in and through darkness before it comes out to meet us. Francis Spufford, describing the effect this piece had on him after a particularly draining and painful night of argument with his wife, writes that:

It is not strained in any way. It does not sound as if Mozart is doing something he can only just manage, and it does not sound as if the music is struggling to lift a weight it can only just manage. Yet at the same time, it is not music that denies anything. It offers a strong, absolutely calm rejoicing, but it does not pretend that there is no sorrow. On the contrary, it sounds as if it comes from a world where sorrow is perfectly ordinary, but still there is more to be said. I had heard it lots of times, but this time it felt to me like news. It said: everything you fear is true. And yet. And yet. Everything you have done wrong, you have really done wrong. And yet. And yet. The world is wider than you fear it is, wider than the repeating rigmaroles in your mind, and it has this in it, as truly as it contains your unhappiness.

taken from Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense (2013), pp.15-16, Faber and Faber.

            Similarly, in his Great Mass in C Minor, Mozart delivers everything from the grand majesty of God’s sovereign lordship to the intimate relationship made possible by the Incarnation, alongside moments of very human yearning, hope and sorrow. In the Ave Verum Corpus (one of the most restrained and moving pieces of music I know) we are given a purely natural feeling of consolation accompanied by the indescribable sense of supernatural peace that comes from sacramental union with Christ. There is delicacy here, but also wholeness – Mozart again and again somehow channels and delivers the whole breadth of human feeling and intuition, both heavenly-looking and mundane, in one harmonious piece.

I share Barth’s view that Mozart was given the gift of being able to see something of the divine light and glory in its wholeness, and also that he was freed of the need for self-expression and self-justification that so often gets in the way of pure artistic articulation – that he ‘had the peace of God which far transcends all the critical or speculative reason that praises and reproves’. Barth also notes that, in this respect, he was pure of heart, for how else could the divine light pour through him so unadulterated and full of vitality. But, what of his faith and life – how do we reckon his frivolous lifestyle with the purity of heart so necessary for man to glorify God in the world?

It seems that, despite Barth’s claim that he was not a particularly active Christian, Mozart, who was well instructed in Catholic doctrine by his father, does seem to have been fairly observant, regularly praying the Rosary and faithfully attending Mass. There is a great deal of confusion about whether he received the Last Rites (or just Extreme Unction) but there is no evidence to suggest he would have refused them, and he received a Catholic funeral, with a Requiem Mass (his own) performed at a later service. Also, whilst any private writings are scarce, letters do remain in which he affirms the importance of his religion, of the Church and the sacraments, and of his personal devotion to God. He also wrote an enormous amount of sacred music.

However, he was by all accounts probably not as rigorous in observance as his father had been (or wished his son to be), did indeed enjoy the high life, had a penchant for rather coarse humour, and was a Freemason from 1784 until his death (on this latter note, the Papal Bull banning Freemasonry in 1738 was not promulgated in Austria until 1792, after Mozart’s death, and it seems that Mozart himself did not see his membership as being in conflict with his faith). So, overall, whilst Mozart certainly did seem to have been a believing, observant Catholic, and also someone who saw his talents as a gift given by God for His glory, he was not completely ‘pure of heart’ in the conventional sense.

And yet, his music shows forth a contact with the divine life that most of us can only dream of and, as noted earlier, to be able to channel that pure light itself requires a certain purity within the subject. Is there a sense in which the artist, whilst not morally pure like the saint, can still live in the light of God and keep part of themselves set apart so that they might channel that light and share it with the world? It seems there must be. Anyway, there is clearly more mystery here than the heart and mind of man can hope to fully penetrate to, and such a recognition of the mystery in Mozart’s own gift and vision must inevitably lead us back to the abiding glory of his music – creation shown in its totality, with light and dark, clarity and mystery, all finding their resolution in the glorious unity of divine Love.

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