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Von Balthasar, Mozart and the Quest of Beauty


Von Balthasar's was no purely theoretical preoccupation with beauty. The award in 1987 of the Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart Prize in Innsbruck was the rounding off of a life whose secret passion had been music.

Hans Urs Von Balthasar

Hans Urs Von Balthasar had and has a way of popping up in unexpected places, and he popped up at the end of last year in Fr Ephraem Chifley's Adelaide Review food column, somewhere between the chargrilled quails and the octopus tentacles at the Eros restaurant in downtown Adelaide, South Australia: "It is recorded that the most erudite theologian of this century, Hans Urs von Balthasar, stalked out of a seminar of dull divines muttering that 'all the eros has gone out of theology'. Eros, the youthful demi-god, symbolises the ecstatic desirous love, both human and divine. Hans is probably right".[1]

Hans usually was right. Henri Cardinal de Lubac, among many others, considered that "this man is perhaps the most cultivated of his time. If there is a Christian culture, then here it is!."[2] Von Balthasar — the ascetic scholar, the exponent of beauty par excellence, the extraordinarily prolific author who considered his writing a sideline to his pastoral work — has a voice of reassuring authority:

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. Beauty is the disinterested one, without which the ancient world refused to understand itself, a word which both imperceptibly and yet unmistakably has bid farewell to our new world, leaving it to its avarice and sadness.[3]

His was no purely theoretical preoccupation with beauty. The award in 1987 of the Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart Prize in Innsbruck was, according to nephew Peter Henrici SJ, the rounding off of a life whose secret passion had been music. In his speech of thanks he reminisced:

My youth was defined by music. My piano teacher was an old lady who had been a pupil of Clara Schumann. She introduced me to Romanticism. As a student in Vienna I delighted in the last of the Romantics — Wagner, Strauss, and especially Mahler. That all came to an end once I had Mozart in my ears. To this day he has never left those ears. In later life Bach and Schubert remained precious to me, but it was Mozart who was the immovable Pole Star, round which the other two circled (the Great and Little Bears).[4]

In Basel the students experienced "unforgettable evenings on the training courses when he would sit at the piano and play, from memory, Mozart's Don Giovanni;[5] later he gave away his stereo as he knew all Mozart's works by heart (and he probably preferred his own interpretations anyway). "Nothing will be able to separate me from Mozart and from the highest creations of Haydn, from the ever-new and terrible experience that there are things too beautiful for our world".[6] His monograph "The Farewell Trio" (from The Magic Flute) is sublime like the music.

The nobility of this genius is so exclusive that it excludes what is common by enclosing within itself all that belongs to the world. In order to be born, it needs no pompous Wagnerian theatre but precisely the wooden barracks on the Viennese willow-marshes, the paradise of the puppet theatre and of the magical farce in whose form and clothes it enters this world. Like everything that is truly great, it is available to all and everyone without grudging — since it knows that greatness quite automatically remains esoteric and does not need the artificial and false magic of a 'circle' — and it laughs as it pours out a horn of plenty full of practical jokes on the spectators, gives the child its first piano piece and sings its favourite song even to the dullest ear, winds popular melodies like meadow blossoms into the exalted garland and can — like the divine wisdom — satisfy every social class and every rung on the ladder with one single bloom from this bouquet. What enters the ear of the superficial listener with pleasure the very first time he hears it arouses tears, as an inexplicable miracle of beauty, even the thousandth time in the true lover.[7]

Von Balthasar's original field of study was German literature, and for his doctorate — received summa cum laude — he had read the entirety of modern German literature as a matter of course. His studies gravitated towards theology:

Well, just as I was once constrained as a boy to plough my way through the entire undergrowth of Romantic music from Mendelssohn via Strauss to Mahler and Schönberg, before finally I was allowed to see rising behind these the eternal stars of Bach and Mozart — and for a long time now, these two have taken the place of all others a hundred times over — so, too, I had to clear my path through the jungle of modern literature, in Vienna, Berlin, Zürich and other places, until at last the kindly hand of God took hold of me and chose me for a true life. But here, once again, everything was different; one had to begin at the beginning and eat one's way through endless stretches of spiritual literature, like eating one's way through a pastry mountain to get to the land of milk and honey (and the mountain was perhaps as dry as it was sweet), until gradually, in the course of theological studies, the true encounters came.[8]

Some years ago I phoned from Adelaide to order from the publishing company he founded, the Johannes-Verlag, letting the phone resound in the hallowed — and, in the wee hours there, presumed empty — halls, and waking the gracious Cornelia Capol, a founding member of the Community of St John (another of von Balthasar's "progeny"). We went on to correspond. My most treasured compliment as a concert pianist is Cornelia's writing that the music was "full of gratitude". Other treasures she posted were as yet unpublished works of Adrienne von Speyr, who is central to this story.

Adrienne von Speyr (1902-1967) was the first woman in Switzerland to be admitted to the medical profession. Von Balthasar relates:

She was certain from a very early age that she wanted to become a doctor, like her father. She fulfilled this ambition with iron determination, despite all the objections of her family, and paid her own way through her medical studies by doing tutoring. Only one temptation troubled her from time to time — to study theology, so she could learn more about God. "All her medical studies and practice were seen as an act of obedience to God." There was one other important factor: her passionate love of music. ... At the Tochterschule in Basel she took lessons with the famous conductor Münch and had to practise three hours a day. During the hard years when she had been rejected by her family and was feeling very lonely, "making music occupied an ever-larger part of my life. I more or less revelled in it and hoped through music to come to God so that I could offer my life to him without reserve." In the end she realised she could not do both — medicine and music ... "And so I decided to sacrifice music for the sake of my future patients. I thought it would enable me to get closer to them, that it would be better if I approached them with a renunciation behind me."[9]

And this astounding character sketch:

She was marked by humour and enterprise. She was like the boy in the fairy tale who sets off to experience fear. At her mother's instigation she had to leave high school but secretly studied Greek at night by the light of a candle, so she could keep up with the others. In Leysin she learned Russian. After her transfer to the high school in Basel, she quickly learned German and at the same time took a crash course in English to catch up with the rest of the class. As I said, she paid for her medical studies by tutoring. Then there is her courageous readiness to stand up for justice. When a teacher struck a boy in the face with a ruler, she rushed forward, turned the teacher to the face the class, and shouted: "Do you want to see a coward? Here's one!" On one occasion in the lecture theatre an intern gave an injection to a patient which promptly killed him. The intern falsely blamed it on the nurse and was defended by the professor. Adrienne got her fellow students to boycott the professor's lectures for so long that he had to move to another university. It was precisely this courage, maintained in the face of the most extreme physical pain, which enabled her after her conversion to take on, for decade after decade, every kind of spiritual and bodily suffering, especially participation in the agony of Christ in Gethsemane and on the Cross. Indeed, when she realised its significance for the reconciliation of the world, she constantly asked for it.[10]

He received her into the Church, and they worked in the closest collaboration for 27 years, for 15 of which they lived under the same roof in Basel (there was, of course, gossip). It was she who co-founded with him the Community of St John. He regarded her work as far more significant than his own:

The greater part of so much of what I have written is a translation of what is present in more immediate, less technical fashion in the powerful work of Adrienne von Speyr the richness contained therein will only be recognised in more mature times.[11]

He was her amanuensis, but

she was so deathly tired from about 1950 on that I seldom asked her for dictation. Since her works numbered some 60 volumes by about 1953, it seemed to me a limit had been reached even from the standpoint of how much could be read, and I myself had accumulated as much stenographic material as I was able to handle. For Adrienne, who was penetrating ever deeper into divine truths, this curtailment which I imposed was inhibiting, really a disappointment. Her spiritual productivity knew no limits: we could just as well have two or three times as many texts of hers today.

From the mid-fifties on, her weakness was so great that it was always necessary to consider the possibility of death; no physician could understand how she could still be alive at all. From one year to the next the conviction grew — the absolute rock-bottom of human endurance had been reached. But always this point was lowered once again to new depths . It was an inconceivably protracted diminuendo, which became ever softer and softer. A dying in the slowest of all slow motion. She was content with it and grateful, since she was thus able to give up more than would have been possible otherwise.[12]

Much more might be told of this ineffably lovely story, this fairy tale come true as the sweet fruit of obedience. One could also discuss the many charisms — the frequent and exhausting bilocations, the stigmata, the healings in her surgery including thousands of babies saved from abortion — but the proof of any pudding is in the eating. And doesn't proving mean testing, and testing begin with tasting? Take, for instance, the sheer personal helpfulness of the writings, alluded to by von Balthasar in his introduction to Adrienne's posthumous works:

As with great ecclesial missions, the themes addressed are always guiding answers from Heaven to open questions of the age, answers which the age possibly did not expect (otherwise she could have discovered them herself), which she maybe does not want to hear, but which — if prepared for a conversio which always involves an effort of penance — help her far more profoundly than the superficial solutions she cobbles together on her own.[13]

The first of these posthumous works, The Book of All Saints, contains hundreds of mystical "prayer portraits", mainly of canonised saints, but of some artists and philosophers also. Mozart is there. Whilst in prayer together Adrienne's confessor and spiritual director gently questions her:

(Can you see Mozart?) Yes, I see him. (She smiles).

(Does he have a prayer?) Yes, I see him praying. I see him praying something, maybe an Our Father. Simple words, which he learned in his childhood, and which he prays in awareness that he is speaking with God. And then he stands before God like a child, bringing his father everything: pebbles from the street and special twigs and little blades of grass, and once a ladybird as well, and with him all these are melodies, melodies which he brings the dear Lord, melodies which he suddenly knows in prayer. And when he has stopped praying, no longer kneels and no longer folds his hands, then he sits at the piano or sings in an incredible childlikeness, and no longer knows exactly: is he playing the dear Lord something, or is it the dear Lord who is making use of him to play something to himself and to him at the same time? There is a great dialogue between Mozart and the dear Lord which is like the purest prayer, and this whole dialogue is solely music.

(And how do people fit in?) He loves people. He shrinks from them and loves them at the same time. He shrinks from them a little as children shrink from other, rough children who might break their toys; but Mozart is actually more concerned at the dear Lord's toys being ruined than for himself. And he loves people because they are the dear Lord's creations, and he is happy to be able to delight them through his music. And in his own way he would like to put the question of God before them, even in his merriest pieces.

(He doesn't distance himself from them in his art?) No. Certainly there are moments where the art in a way takes precedence, but it remains enclosed in God. It is as though he had a lasting pact with the dear Lord.

(And the melancholy?) That all has its place too. For he knows that God has to do with sad and gloomy people as well, and that it is hard to carry the burden of the world, and there are times when he feels as though a mighty weight were on his soul; but then he has to take everything into his music, he must point out through his music everything which concerns God and men.

(And Don Giovanni?) When he depicts pride he does not enter into it; he has no part in it. When he depicts sensuality then he does enter in a little bit, for of course sensuality is close at hand. But even his sensuality is so childlike that it actually never turns bad.[14]

Father Hans Urs von Balthasar died as he was preparing to offer Mass on the morning of June 26th, 1988, two days before he due to be elevated to the cardinalate. He had already made the trip to Rome to be measured for his cardinal's robes. Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger said during the funeral homily in Luzern that what the Pope intended to express by this mark of distinction, and of honour [ie the cardinalate], remains valid: no longer only private individuals but the Church itself, in its official responsibility, tells us that he is right in what he teaches of the Faith, that he points the way to the sources of living water — a witness to the word which teaches us Christ and which teaches us how to live.[15]

The best source of further information is Ignatius Press, founded specifically in order to disseminate the works of von Balthasar, von Speyr and de Lubac. Works by Adrienne such as Confession, Handmaid of the Lord, The World of Prayer and The Christian State of Life, together with her extraordinary four-volume commentary on St John's Gospel, would be a good place to start.


(NB works are by Hans Urs von Balthasar unless otherwise indicated)

  1. Fr Ephraem Chifley OP "The cracking of tiny bones", The Adelaide Review, November 1999, 42ff.
  2. Henri Cardinal de Lubac SJ, "Witness of Christ in the Church", Hans Urs von Balthasar: His Life and Work, David L. Schindler (ed), (Ignatius, San Francisco, 1991), 272.
  3. The Glory of the Lord: a theological aesthetics, Vol. 1 Seeing the Form (T&T Clark, Edinburgh, 1982), 18.
  4. Fr Peter Henrici, SJ, "A Sketch of Von Balthasar's Life" in Schindler op cit, 36.
  5. Ibid., 16.
  6. My Work: In Retrospect (Ignatius, 1993), 42.
  7. "The Farewell Trio", Explorations in Theology, Vol 4 (Ignatius), 523ff.
  8. My Work: In Retrospect, 10.
  9. Our Task (Ignatius, 1994), 27ff.
  10. Ibid., 32ff.
  11. My Work: In Retrospect, 105.
  12. First Glance at Adrienne von Speyr (Ignatius, 1981), 44ff.
  13. Introduction to Adrienne von Speyr, Das Allerheiligenbuch (unpublished, copyright Johannes Verlag).
  14. Ibid.
  15. Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, "Homily at the funeral liturgy of Hans Urs von Balthasar", Schindler op cit, 295.


Freer, Mark. "Von Balthasar, Mozart and the Quest of Beauty." Unpublished paper.

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

Copyright © 2000 Mark Freer
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