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Pope Benedict XVI, Mozart and the Quest of Beauty

  • MARK FREER

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was born in Salzburg on 27th January 1756, and his 250th anniversary is being celebrated this year in concert halls and on the airwaves all over the Western world.

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Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
(1756-1791)

Everyone, it seems, loves Mozart. As a small boy I would march round and round the room to an old recording of the Haffner Symphony that my father used to play, and in my professional vocation as a musician that love has remained and grown. And I find myself in excellent company. The Pope's brother Msgr. Georg Ratzinger for thirty years choirmaster of Regensburg Cathedral recently gave an interview to the Swiss Catholic press agency KIPA, in which he divulged that Benedict XVI's favourite musical pieces are the Clarinet Quintet and the Clarinet Concerto. Inside the Vatican reported that Benedict was playing Mozart on his piano on the Sunday afternoon following his installation as Pope, when he returned to his old apartment to see his brother. And papal biographer George Weigel said in Newsweek after Benedict's election that "here is another surprise for cartoonists of the dour Ratzinger: he's a Mozart man, which I take to be an infallible sign of someone who is, at heart, a joyful person." Georg Ratzinger supplies further anecdotes:

Does he still find time to tickle the ivories?

Very seldom. But the last time I was in Rome with the Cathedral Choir the piano lid was open, and Mozart sonatas were lying there, open. He knows himself that his playing is hardly of an elevated standard, but he enjoys it. And his desire to make music still finds its most beautiful outlet in Mozart.

What sort of piano does he have then?

It's of no particular brand. We bought it when he was lecturing in Freising. The action is not so great, but it looks very nice, and the tone is fine. For the papal palace in Castelgandolfo the Steinway firm has donated a small grand piano, one which I also used to enjoy playing very much. There's talk of getting one for the Vatican too, but my brother says it's not worth it. For one thing he doesn't have much time, and also he gauges his own abilities realistically. For his own playing, his old piano is good enough.

Msgr Ratzinger also gives a musical portrait of their family home:

Reverend Kapellmeister, how did you and your brother come in contact with Mozart for the first time?

At home we played the harmonium. Our parents were of the view that it would prepare us for the organ. In one practice book was a piece of two lines reputed to be by Mozart. I could never identify it later. The "Mozart year" 1941 saw an intensification. During the 150th year after the composer's death there was a Mozart broadcast every Sunday, at lunch time. As I was the one in the family who was the most musically engaged, I was allowed to take my father's place at the table, which was directly next to the radio. Then in July I went with my brother to a Mozart concert put on by the Regensburg Cathedral choir. They sang excerpts from The Impresario in costume, and it was quite wonderful. I couldn't sleep the whole night.

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But let's hear Pope Benedict himself on the subject. In the extended interview that was published ten years ago as Salt of the Earth we read:

You are a great lover of Mozart.

Yes! Although we moved around a very great deal in my childhood, the family basically always remained in the area between the Inn and the Salzach. And the largest and most important and best parts of my youth I spent in Traunstein, which very much reflects the influence of Salzburg. You might say that there Mozart thoroughly penetrated our souls, and his music still touches me very deeply, because it is so luminous and yet at the same time so deep. His music is by no means just entertainment; it contains the whole tragedy of human existence.

Penetrated our souls...so luminous...so deep...contains the whole tragedy of human existence, says the man who is now Pope. Many, including myself, would agree. The deeper one enters into Mozart's music the more one seeks to find there, in between those little quavers and crotchets; in short, the more one allows it to 'penetrate the soul', then the more it is felt as transcendent, sublime, consummately beautiful.

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Cardinal Ratzinger enjoying Mozart

Hans Urs von Balthasar was a close friend of Cardinal Ratzinger (together with Cardinal de Lubac and others they founded the Communio International Catholic Review, published today in fifteen countries). Balthasar dared to express himself in directly theological fashion, speaking of the "...miraculous Mozart, who... had the 'power of the heart' to sense infallibly the true and the genuine".

Referring to The Magic Flute, he writes:

What must appear everywhere else as a vain image of fantasy or even of blasphemy the definitive revelation of eternal beauty in a genuine earthly body may well have become blessed reality just once, here, in the realm of the Catholic Incarnation.

And this astonishing passage from his Tribute to Mozart:

Do we not come from God and return to him, passing through the waters and fires of time, suffering and death? And why should we not permit ourselves to be led through the dissonances of our existence by the Zauberflöte, a tremendous adumbration of love, light and glory, eternal truth and harmony? Is there a better, indeed another manner to bear witness to the nobility of our divine filiation than to make present whence we came and where we are going? All those whom we take for our models tried to have it that way, and above all he who knew himself to be the Son of the Father, who had the face of the Father before his eyes always, and whose will he accomplished. Mozart serves by making audible the triumphal hymn of a prelapsarian and resurrected creation, in which suffering and guilt are not presented as faint memory, as past, but as conquered, absolved, fixed present.

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All this will inevitably scandalise those who regard Mozart primarily as a Freemason, and The Magic Flute principally as a piece of Freemasonic symbology, both true enough in themselves. (Balthasar too the "theologian of beauty" is viewed in certain circles with suspicion. Yet the Holy Father, as Cardinal Ratzinger, said at von Balthasar's funeral, "the Church itself, in its official responsibility, tells us that he is right in what he teaches of the Faith".) The subject of Mozart's Freemasonry was raised with Georg Ratzinger:

Does it disturb you that Mozart was a Freemason?

It isn't for me to pass judgement on Mozart. He was a man with many difficulties arising from the period he lived in, and from the circumstances of his life. The issue of his Freemasonry disturbs me insofar as he was not only an ordinary member, but attained the rank of Master, and wanted to found his own lodge. Freemasonry was obviously fashionable at that time in Vienna. Certainly he hoped for material gain from his membership. Whether he reflected on the theological implications I don't know.

No thoughtful Catholic will have difficulty distinguishing Mozart's music from his Freemasonry, any more, for example, than separating Bach's work from his Lutheranism. If we were to dismiss every human work that had been created by a sinner, there might not be much left standing. I was once taken to task for leading a congregation in a "Protestant tune", to which I replied, "which note was Protestant, the E-flat or the B-flat?"


But above all this is important: the liturgy is not a thing the monks create. It is already there before them. It is entering into the liturgy of the heavens that has always been taking place. Earthly liturgy is liturgy because and only because it joins what is already in process, the greater reality.


Let us move on.

All beauty comes from God. There is no beauty that does not come from the Father through Christ, Himself the embodiment of all beauty. St Augustine, in a famous passage from the Confessions, addresses God as Beauty personified:

Late have I loved You, O Beauty ever ancient, ever new, late have I loved You!

Contrary to popular opinion, true beauty (the only kind there is, despite Satan's posturings) is objective. Truth and goodness are beautiful, just as the beautiful is true and good. A wonderful passage from Balthasar's The Glory of the Lord says,

Beauty is the word that shall be our first. Beauty is the last thing which the thinking intellect dares to approach, since only it dances as an uncontained splendour around the double constellation of the true and the good and their inseparable relation to one another. [my italics] Beauty is the ... one without which the ancient world refused to understand itself, a word which ... has bid farewell to our new world, leaving it to its avarice and sadness.

In former times the liturgy, too, "refused to understand itself" apart from beauty: beauty was taken for granted. The fact that the holy liturgy has in broad terms been a casualty of the modern exaltation of ugliness is for Benedict XVI a matter of grave concern. He speaks scathingly of:

...mass culture geared to quantity, production and success. Pop music joins up with this culture... It is a reflection of what this society is, the musical embodiment of kitsch... Hindemith used the term brainwashing for this kind of noise, which can hardly be called music any more ... Is it a pastoral success when we are capable of following the trend of mass culture and thus share the blame for its making people immature or irresponsible? (A New Song for the Lord, p.108)

For him, "faith becoming music is part of the process of the Word becoming flesh" ( p.122 ). But there is no chance here of doing justice to the breadth and profundity of our theologian-Pope's writings. Here is one small taste:

It is not the case that you think something up then sing it; instead, the song comes to you from the angels, and you have to lift up your heart so that it may be in tune with the music coming to it. But above all this is important: the liturgy is not a thing the monks create. It is already there before them. It is entering into the liturgy of the heavens that has always been taking place. Earthly liturgy is liturgy because and only because it joins what is already in process, the greater reality. ( p.129 )

And a last word from Msgr. Georg Ratzinger:

Many describe your brother as the "Mozart of theology". What do you think of this title?

Joachim Cardinal Meisner of Cologne coined this phrase. It has a certain justification. My brother's theology is not as problematic and difficult as that of Karl Rahner... Directness, clarity and form: his work does seem to have these elements in common with Mozart's music.

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Acknowledgement

Mark Freer. Pope Benedict XVI, Mozart and the Quest of Beauty. AD2000 (April, 2006).

AD2000 is published in Australia. Visit their web site here.

Printed with permission of the author, Mark Freer.

The Author

Mark Freer is an Adelaide church musician and concert pianist. He is organist and choirmaster for the ecclesially approved Latin Mass at Holy Name Church, St Peters, and has performed and broadcast in Australia, Switzerland, Germany and Italy. At the 2005 international symposium in Lugano, Switzerland commemorating Hans Urs von Balthasar's 100th anniversary he presented a lecture and a Mozart concert accompanied by the leader of the Queensland Orchestra, Warwick Adeney; his seminar paper appeared in the Spring 2005 Communio journal entitled "The Triune Conversation in Mozart: Towards a Theology of Music". He may be contacted at mark.freer@mac.com

Copyright © 2006 Mark Freer
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