Not An Immediately Impressive Character
Mozart always had something to say, and he said it. But we should not complicate and spoil the impact of his works by burdening them with those doctrines and ideologies which critics think they have discovered in them but are in face an imposition. There is in Mozart no “moral to the story,” either mundane or sublime. – Karl Barth, “Mozart’s Freedom”, in Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, p. 51
Mozart’s music, like the teeming drama of the Bible and like good crisis theology, gives us permission to live. “With an ear open to your musical dialectic, one can be young and become old, can work and rest, be content and sad: in short, one can lice”; thus Barth speaks directly to Mozart, in a tone of profound gratitude. Those who have not felt the difficult of living have no need of Barthian theology; but then perhaps they also have no ear for music. – John Updike, “Foreword”, Karl Barth, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, p.12
I felt I would be remiss, commenting as I have been on Barth’s shorter writings, if I didn’t at least mention the tiny collection of four essays on Barth’s favorite composer. Reading through the pieces, ranging from just a couple pages to a dozen or so, the most delightful feeling I had as a reader was encountering a Barth one hardly imagined existed. The combative, serious, elder statesman of European theology is transformed in to . . . a fan. I use that term pointedly. There is a joyous, childlike quality to Barth’s writings on Mozart – as he points out again and again, the same qualities expressed in Mozart’s music – that would be impossible to find in his theological writings. He sheds his theological cloak and is just Karl Barth, the now-old man (the four pieces were written when Barth was around 70 years old) who still remembers the joy he felt as an eight-year-old, hearing his father play on the family piano just a few lines of Mozart. To be captivated and captured this way – Barth’s description is similar to those we read from people talking about love at first sight – is a special gift. Barth clearly recognizes this, celebrating all that Mozart has given him over his long life.
I would also be remiss, however, if I did not note that themes that appear in Barth’s theological writings appear in these essays. Along with them, of course, is the kind of blindness, or at least myopia, Europeans then had about classical and symphonic music over and against both folk music and non-Western music. To say, for example, that Mozart’s music is “universal” is to make a claim that just cannot be justified. Despite its beauty and power, I would hazard a guess that non-Westerners might hear it and enjoy it, yet also find it lacking something their own music offers them. Which is not a criticism, but an observation. That Barth was famously against making such statements about the universal nature of theological language, hard pressed as he was to emphasize again and again that theology only says one thing, one specific thing, and then falls silent. In much the same way, despite calling Mozart’s music “universal”, Barth says in the quote above that Mozart says what he says, and only what he says, then moves on. In other passages, he talks about Mozart’s utter lack of interest in political or religious controversies of his day; his ignorance of art, literature, and poetry; his supreme dedication only and ever to his music, even to the detriment of his personal life.
At the same time, Barth says that all the eighteenth century is on display in Mozart’s music. Not just the music of the times – Barth notes that Mozart studies everything from older contemporaries like Haydn and Handel to folk and bourgeois tunes – but the times themselves. In the midst of his personal ignorance, Mozart’s ear was so attuned that he expressed life without preaching. The best music, of course, always does this. The Beatles, for example, were always their best musically, socially, and politically when they weren’t playing their instruments from a soapbox. Marillion, a band contemporaneous with U2, is far more interesting theologically than the a-bit-too-twee U2. Tool’s songs are far more interesting social commentary than anything from Rage Against The Machine precisely because Tool isn’t revolutionary. The best music contains politics, religion, and social commentary without being self-aware. In this way, Mozart’s music transcended the limitations of his own ignorance, offering listeners all of life without ever shouting about it. In the same way, the complaints that Barth’s theology was thin on the ground when it came to ethical and political matters misses the point that, for Barth, all theology was ethical and political. It just didn’t scream it in people’s ears; like the revelation upon which it reflects, theology deals with the one thing. That one thing, however, contains all the most needful things, as does our human reflection upon it.
In much the same way, Barth remarks upon Mozart’s freedom as a composer, yet a composer free always within the musical and compositional constraints of his time. No revolutionary despite his commitment to Freemasonry, Mozart rather used the discipline of the imposed constraints as boundaries within which he could fly. Freedom is an enormous theme of Barth’s theology. God is defined as the one who loves in freedom. Grace in the form of the Incarnation is the free choice of the Son. Faith, the gift of the Holy Spirit in the life of the Church, is the acknowledged freedom to love God. Unlike the Divine freedom, however, human freedom as the gift of our loving God is always a freedom limited and constrained by the content of the revelation of who God is. Thus, as Barth is at pains to define in Church Dogmatics, Vol II, Part 1, God is the one whom we may freely love because must fear God. Our love for God only truly free when it springs from the necessity of our fear of God. Our proclamation of our faith in this God necessitates as a presupposition our fear of God; our proclamation, however, is always free precisely because this God we fear is the God whom we may freely love. Human freedom is neither absolute, nor able to be our free faith unless it is bound by the God to whom it testifies, in the necessary fear of this God who chooses to reveal the Divine Life to sinful humanity.
For Barth, then, Mozart’s music – setting to one side Mozart’s far too short life of dissipation, naivete, and carelessness in matters of life and love – is an exemplar of the kind of freedom Christians have in the Church. As such, Mozart serves as a witness to how we are to live in the Church, doing the one needful thing because it is the one thing we can do. I don’t believe these observations are accidental. Nor do I believe them to be a case of Barth reading in to Mozart that which is not there. It demonstrates, rather, how powerful a tool music is, offering the devoted listener the possibility of insights to all areas of human life and endeavor. One need not be a lover of Mozart to recognize the power music has to shape how we think and believe; to reflect back to us our highest hopes and deepest despair, sometimes at the same time. For Barth it was Mozart, sine qua non.
If nothing else, these short essays offer a possibility. In the church’s ongoing life, there are all sorts of resources at hand that have a theological voice to which we should – perhaps – give a closer listen than we might. Whether it’s Mozart or Mos Def or Metallica, paying closer attention might offer rewards we hadn’t known were there before.