Friday, March 10, 2006

Karl Barth's Letter of Thanks to Mozart

My dear Conductor and Court Composer:
Someone got the curious idea of inviting me and a few others to write a "letter of thanks to Mozart" for his newspaper. At first I shook my head and even looked at the wastebasket. But if there is anything which has to do with you, I can say "No" only in the rarest cases. And did you not also write more than one somewhat funny letter during your lifetime? So, why not? They certainly know more there where you dwell now, unimpeded by time and space, about each other and about us than do we ourselves down here. Thus I actually do not doubt that you have known for a long time how grateful I have been to you almost all my life and always will remain. Nevertheless why shouldn't you read this in black and white?

Two excuses have to be made first. Number one: I am one of those Protestants of whom you are supposed to have said once that we were unable to understand properly the meaning of Agnus Dei, qui talus peccata mundi. Pardon me, probably you are now better informed on that. However, I do not want to bother you with theology. Believe it or not, I actually dreamed of you last week. Here is the dream: I had to examine you (why, I don't even understand, myself). I knew that under no circumstances would you be allowed to fail the examination. I asked you about the meaning of "dogmatics" and "dogma," by pointing in the most friendly way to your Masses, which I like especially. But to my great regret I got not the least answer from you!! Don't you think we'd better give this point a blessed rest?

The second excuse is far more complicated. I have learned that you could enjoy only the praise of connoisseurs, even in your childhood. As you know, there are not only musicians but also musicologists on this earth. You yourself were both. I am neither the one nor the other. I play no instrument nor do I have the faintest idea about the theory of harmony, let alone the mysteries of "counterpoint." Those very musicologists disturbed me deeply whose books I tried to decipher when I drew up an address for the recent celebration of your two hundredth birthday. By the way, I cannot help thinking that if I were young and had to start this kind of studying I would clash with a few of your most outstanding theoretical interpreters in the same way that I did with my theological masters forty years ago. But be that as it may, how can I, under these circumstances, thank you as a connoisseur? In other words, how can I make you happy?

To my relief, I have also read that you sometimes made music for hours and hours for very lowly people. This you did only because you somehow had the feeling that they were pleased to listen to you. In this way, with a repeatedly delighted ear and heart I have heard and still hear you play. I myself am so utterly naive that I cannot tell in which of the thirty-four periods of your life, according to the classification of Wyzewa and Saint-Foix, you are nearest to my heart. Surely, surely, you began to become really great, let's say, about 1785. But I hope I won't hurt your feelings (or will I?) in confessing the following: It has been and always will be impossible for me to listen without deep emotion not only to Don Giovanni and to your last symphonies, to the Magic Flute and the Requiem but no less to the "Hafiner" Serenade and the Eleventh Divertimento, etc. Actually, I am deeply moved even by Bastien and Bastienne! Consequently, you are interesting and dear to me much earlier than the moment when you can be praised as the "pioneer" of Beethoven!

What I owe you, frankly, is this: whenever I listen to your music I feel led to the threshold of a world which is good and well ordered, in sunshine and thunderstorm, by day and by night. Thus you have repeatedly given me, a human being of the twentieth century, courage (not haughtiness!), tempo (not exaggerated tempo!), purity (not boring purity!) and peace (not complacent peace !). If he really digests your musical dialectics he can be young and become old, he can work and relax, he can be happy and depressed; in short, he can live. You know now, far better than I, that much more is necessary for that purpose than the very best music. But there is music which helps men to this end (ex post and only incidentally!) and other music which cannot help toward it. Your music helps. This I have experienced all my life (I am going to be seventy years old and if you were living you would dwell in our midst as a patriarch of two hundred years!). Moreover, I am convinced that our century, which is becoming more and more obscure, especially needs your help. For both these reasons I am grateful to you that you have lived, that you wanted to make and did make pure music in the few decades of your life, and that you still live in your music. Please believe me that many, many ears and hearts, scholarly and unscholarly, just as my own, still like to hear you for ever and ever - not only in the year of your jubilee.

I have only a hazy feeling about the music played there where you now dwell. I once formulated my surmise about that as follows: whether the angels play only Bach in praising God I am not quite sure; I am sure, however, that en famille they play Mozart and that then also God the Lord is especially delighted to listen to them. Well, this alternative may be wrong. Besides, you know that better than I do, anyhow. I mention this only in order to hint metaphorically at my meaning.
And so, with all my heart,

From Barth's Mozart Festival Address, "Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart."
In other words, Mozart's Figaro has nothing to do with the ideas of the French Revolution and Don Giovanni has nothing to do with the myth of the eternal libertine (as Kierkegaard asserted!). Certainly there does not exist a special Mozartian "philosophy of Cosi fan tutte" either, and one should not read too much "humanity-religion" and/or political mysteries into Mozart's Magic Flute. The fact is that, whether we like it or not (and it can be seen in his letters), neither the nature surrounding him nor the history, literature, philosophy or politics of his time touched him directly or in a concrete sense. Nor was he moved to represent or proclaim any decisions or dogmas. It is to be feared that he never read much, and he certainly never speculated or taught. There is no Mozartian metaphysics either. He sought and found only his musical possibilities, themes and tasks in the world of nature and spirit. With God, the world, men, himself, heaven and earth, life - and, above all, death - before his eyes, in his ears and in his heart he was an unproblematic person. For that reason he was a free man, in a way which was apparently allowed, ordered and therefore exemplary for him.

This involves the fact that his music was uniquely free from every exaggeration, basic friction and contradiction. The sun shines but does not dazzle the eyes, nor demolish nor scorch. Heaven arches above the earth but does not press upon or crush and swallow it. And so earth remains earth, but without being forced to hold its own against heaven in titanic revolt. In the same way darkness, chaos, death and hell render themselves conspicuous but are not allowed to prevail even for a moment. Mozart makes music, knowing everything from a mysterious center, and thus he knows and keeps the boundaries on the right and on the left, upward and downward. He observes moderation. Again he wrote, in 1781, that "the emotions, strong or not, never should be expressed ad nauseam and that music, even in the most horrible situation, never must offend the ears but must please them nevertheless. In other words, music must always remain music." He was (and I quote Grillparzer's beautiful words) the musician "who never did too little, and never did too much, and who always arrived at but never went beyond his goal."

There is no light which does not know the darkness too, no happiness which does not include sorrow; but also inversely, no alarm, no ire, no wailing to the aid of which peace would not come, from near or far. There is no laughter, therefore, without weeping, but no weeping without laughter either. There never was a Mozart of such utter gracefulness that the nineteenth century, after praising him, could grow justly tired of him. But neither did there exist this "demoniac Mozart" whom our century wanted to substitute. The very absence of all demons, the very stopping before the extreme, and precisely the wise confrontation and mixture of the elements (let us say it again) amounts to the freedom in which the true vox humana speaks in Mozart's music. In it the entire scale is unmuffled, but at the same time undistorted and uncramped. Whoever correctly hears him, may, as the human being he really is, feel himself understood and called to freedom: as the clever Basilio, the affectionate Cherubino, as Don Giovanni, the hero, or as the coward Leporello, as the gentle Pamina or the raging Queen of the Night, as the all-forgiving Countess, the terribly jealous Electra, the wise Sarastro and the foolish Papageno all of whom lie hidden in us. Or we may think, as all of us do, of ourselves as persons destined for death, who yet live on and on.

Something at the last, however, must be perceived and mentioned. Mozart's center is not like that of the great theologian Schleiermacher, identical with balance, neutralization and finally indifference. What happened in this center is rather a splendid annulment of balance, a turn in the strength of which the light rises and the shadow winks but does not disappear; happiness outdistances sorrow without extinguishing it and the "Yes" rings stronger than the still-existing "No." Notice the reversal of the great dark and the little bright experiences in Mozart's life! "The rays of the sun disperse the night" - that's what you hear at the end of the Magic Flute. The play may or must still proceed or start from the very beginning. But it is a play which in some Height or Depth is winning or has already won. This directs and characterizes it. One will never perceive equilibrium, and for that reason uncertainty or doubt, in Mozart's music. This is true of his operas as well as of his instrumental music, and especially of his church music. Is not each Kyrie or Miserere, even if it begins at the lowest depth, carried by the trust that the prayer for grace has in fact been answered? Benedictus qui venit in nomine Domini! In Mozart's version he has apparently already arrived. Dona nobis pacem! This prayer, too, has already been answered in Mozart's music, in spite of everything. For this very reason his church music has to be called truly spiritual music, in spite of all well-known objections. Mozart never lamented, never quarreled. He would have been entitled to do so. Instead, he always executed that comforting turn which is priceless for everyone who hears it. That seems to me, as far as it can be explained at all, to be the secret of his freedom and thereby the nucleus of his singular quality, for which we asked at the beginning.

I leave one question unanswered: How is it possible that I, an evangelical Christian and theologian, can so proclaim Mozart? How could I do this even though he was such a Catholic and even a Freemason and besides through and through nothing else than just a musician? He who has ears to hear has certainly heard. May I ask all the others, who perhaps shake their heads in astonishment and alarm, to be momentarily contented with the general reference to the fact that the New Testament speaks not only about the kingdom of heaven, but also of the parables of the kingdom of heaven?


Ray said...

Harold Best says, "...Listeners are co-offerers. The performer offers ther performance, the listeners offer their hearing. ...all worshipers are at work worshiping. The issue is not whether the music has merit or power, but whether the worshipers are making an offering." Mozart's music can be valid for worship because it is a proper and fitting tool.

Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

As Mike knows I am not a fan of Mozart. I really only like his latest works. His last three symphonies and Requiem I like. His Mass in c minor is okay but I don't quite forgive him not finishing the Credo.

I have always liked Haydn quite a bit better but it's hard to explain to people why that is. Even if Haydn said otherwise I consider Haydn to be the more interesting and adventurous composer. I think Robert Craft had a point suggesting that Western music could have done without Mozart and still had Beethoven, Craft also says Western music would still be poorer without Mozart's contribution.

Since I haven't heard Mozart's operas yet I exclude them from cosideration of Mozart's contribution ... and his operas have nothing directly to do with liturgical music.

Anonymous said...


I'm only vaguely familiar with Karl Barth and his theology. I had read some things on him some years ago, but can't dredge up a clear memory of what I read.

Could you give some background on Barth that might explain some of the points in this letter to Mozart? Why do you think Barth might want to write a letter to Mozart?

Mozart was from a Catholic background, I believe.

Michael Dodaro said...

I did a quick search on Barth and found several articles. Excerpts follow from these sources:

Conservative and Liberal:
Conservative evangelical theology and modern liberal theology were, Barth proposed, really siblings under the skin. Each in its own way represented a regression to the errors of the 19th century. Having both of them in view, he remarked: "I find it lamentable that in the church’s theology and preaching, a relapse to the 19th century is everywhere evident" (p. 212). In particular, he noted that the theological left was really less progressive than it supposed.

It isn’t just a matter of the Bultmann school. I view the whole Bultmann school as a reversion to questions from the 19th century long since left behind. Schleiermacher and Feuerbach are also again in the air. At the time of the "Strauss affair" in Germany, people also spoke in this way. And now these good people suppose -- I mean those on the "left" -- that they are producing something highly modern, but in essence it’s nothing new. Only they don’t know it. They haven’t adequately studied the history of theology. Otherwise they wouldn’t act as though a new era had dawned with their existentialism. It’s the same old stuff in a new form. (p. 212)

Neither the left nor the right could adequately proclaim the gospel, because neither knew how to uphold contemporary relevance and doctrinal substance at the same time. Just as the left wanted relevance without substance, so the right wanted substance without relevance -- the impasse of the 19th century. "These two extremes," said Barth, ". . . are for me a thing of the past. On both sides one must go forward instead of always moving backwards"

Barth’s appreciation for the vitality of Scripture, he added, had grown from his experience in the pastorate:

Here’s how it was for me. Not until I was working as a pastor did I finally discover that the Bible is a good book. Yes, I had become a pastor without knowing that it’s a really good, a really interesting, a really worthwhile book, a book above all books. And then I learned it. And for me a completely new existence began. (p. 432)

Following the lead of Luther and Calvin, Barth emphasized that the central content of the Bible was not a system of doctrines, but Jesus Christ himself (p. 424). He pressed this insight in new directions, however, when he turned to hermeneutics. What he once stated in another connection applied equally well to biblical interpretation: "And in particular one ought not to resort too quickly to unity, synthesis and homogenizing" (p. 195). Premature closure had to be resisted, he argued, because the content of the Bible could not be understood apart from its narrative unity. Just as Barth had proposed that God’s being is in his act, and that Christ’s person is in his work, so he also urged that the name of Jesus is inseparable from the narrative in which it is embedded. This inextricability of name and narrative demanded a particular sort of historical understanding. The narrative of Jesus Christ provided the key as much to the unity of scripture as also to the larger history of the world.

"I actually think on the basis of this history. And I see in this history the key to all histories. For the history of Jesus Christ, whose content is the covenant between God and humankind, is the beginning as well as the end and goal of all things" (p. 165).

By understanding biblical narrative theologically -- and thus as a "witness" rather than as a "report" -- Barth broke with modernist preoccupations -- in particular, with historicist and rationalist frameworks of interpretation. Establishing factuality behind the text was just as uninteresting to him, theologically, as striving for some kind of totalizing systematic coherence. His believed that a new conception was needed of what counts as scriptural "unity," one that allows various diverse themes to remain in tension. Biblical doctrines are held together, as he saw it, not by a static logic, but dynamically and dialectically through patterns of thinking grounded in the biblical narratives. These narratives, which bear witness to the mysteries of divine revelation, typically generate antithetical statements when they are conceptually redescribed, but these antitheses are not best regarded as "contradictions."

I would not say, contradiction! I would rather say, speaking by way of juxtaposition, do you follow me? It involves now this and then that. . . . This kind of thinking needs to be a narrative or historical thinking (ein geschichtliches Denken). One may not think [in terms of a static logic]. (p. 272)

Antithetical modes of thought were built into central church doctrines, Barth noted, for example, of the Trinity, of the Incarnation, and of the relationship between divine sovereignty and human freedom, to name only a few. Significantly, a conceptual resolution of such antitheses, however tempting, always resulted in simplicity at the expense of adequacy, and in extreme cases landed in heresy. An interpretive strategy of juxtaposition, on the other hand, such as Barth proposed, would not privilege one existing strand in scripture while drastically marginalizing another. It would allow the various tensions to stand. It would in that way attempt to do better justice to the whole range of scripture as it attested the whole counsel of God. Barth’s proposal, evidenced perhaps more nearly in his exegetical deliberations than in his theoretical remarks, amounted to a new hermeneutical strategy, at least in explicitness and scope. He opted neither for synthesizing the various diverse strands, nor for discarding one of them, but for juxtaposition.

This brand of narrative thinking, Barth believed, was the fitting hermeneutical response to divine revelation. For revelation was always the unity of word and deed -- of actions in the form of speech, and of speech in the form of actions. Barth explained:

The Word of God is the Word that is spoken by him in and with his action. Act and Word belong together. God’s revelation never consists in mute deeds. It is rather an act that as such speaks a Word to human beings. Any theology that would separate God’s mighty deeds from his spoken Word finally proves itself to be destructive of the Christian idea of revelation.

Within the Augustinian and Reformed traditions, Barth’s doctrine of election was strongly revisionist. Predestination, Barth proposed, was not God’s dreadful decree that determined the eternal destiny of the human race by a separation of the "sheep" from the "goats." On the contrary, grounded in the Holy Trinity, election was God’s eternal self-determination not to be God without us, but rather to be God for us in Jesus Christ. There is no depth in God in which he is not fully determined by this gracious decision. In pretemporal election God has determined himself to be God for us. The electing God is the God who speaks both a Yes and No -- Yes to creation; No to sin, evil and death. In Christ, whose death and resurrection embodied them both for our sakes, the No is overridden by the Yes. This profound revision (perhaps Barth’s greatest contribution to the history of doctrine) could not but have ramifications throughout the whole of his theology. God’s free self-determination meant that divine freedom was not arbitrary but wholly an expression of divine love (pp. 289, 267), that the gospel was not a message of rules and regulations but of freedom (p. 259), and that election itself purposed to liberate humankind from its bondage to sin and death for eternal life in communion with God.

The freedom of God was to be answered by responsible human freedom.

Everywhere I see the danger of unfreedom. I saw it in America, and then in parting I said to them I hoped a theology of freedom would also arise in America. That’s what I said to the Americans. I would say the same thing to the Swiss if I had the chance, and also to the Germans if they would still listen to me: The sovereign God’s freedom and the responsible human being’s freedom! (p. 259)

The authority of God was none other than the authority of freedom, not of compulsion or coercion. "The freedom of God is the authority that calls us to freedom" (p. 399).

Human freedom before God was above all to be realized in prayer. Without prayer the theological task would be impossible. "Without entering into prayer one cannot think even the tiniest theological thought sensibly -- not the tiniest!" (p. 83). In the Christian’s daily life, regular times of prayer were just as necessary as spontaneous prayers of the moment (p. 244). At the heart of prayer was thanksgiving: "I believe that what is really missing for us is that we aren’t sufficiently thankful for what God gives us. . . . And I believe that the great sin is ingratitude" (p. 244). Because prayer was no substitute for action, the watchword was: "Pray and work!" "Ora et labora!"

Ora! -- because by ourselves we can neither obtain faith nor love nor understanding nor correct discernment. They become possible for us only as we request them from free grace and so from God, who gives them. Labora! -- because these things are not served to us on a platter, but are constantly to be gained afresh though sheer work.

One final theme may be noted. Throughout the interviews Barth’s understanding of Christ’s resurrection was a recurring topic of interest. An especially interesting exchange took place in an extensive conversation with theology students from Tübingen (pp. 33-52). Curiously, however, one theme never surfaced, even though for Barth it was perhaps the matter of greatest "objective" significance. Unencumbered by modernist arguments about "historicity" (whether pro or con), Barth proposed that, ontically, the significant matter was not so much that the resurrection event was "historical" as that Christ had been elevated from time into an eternal mode of existence without losing his essential temporality. Consequently, the risen Christ, in his saving significance, was able to be the Contemporary of each and every human being, in all times and places. In and through the living Christ, crucified and risen, God related to the entire human race. God’s affirmation and judgment of the human race in the life-history of Jesus Christ was the beginning and end of all things.

When the question of "historicity" took center stage, however, as it did with the Tübingen students, then, in effect, Barth would advance the proposition that Christ’s resurrection was indeed a historical event, and yet it was unlike any historical event that we know. Over against theologians like Bultmann and Ebeling, Barth affirmed that, yes, Christ’s resurrection was really a bodily event. It was really "spatio-temporal:" "somatic, visible, audible, tangible" (p. 34). "It was a matter of the same human being, Jesus of Nazareth, who had previously been among them, and who was now seen in his glory" (p. 35). Over against theologians like Pannenberg, on the other hand, Barth contended that, no, modern critical methods of investigation are not germane to this event in its essential uniqueness (p. 45). Poetic or even mythic elements are ineffaceable from the biblical depiction, precisely because this event is, by definition, a mysterious conjunction of historicity and transcendence (pp. 46-47).

Barth rejected the search for the historical Jesus, because he did not believe him to have been lost. "As if there were any other life of Jesus than that of him who was raised at Easter!" (p. 36). The Easter Jesus, as attested by the apostles, was the only Jesus there has ever been.

The living Jesus Christ! He himself, not an idea of him, but rather he himself, whom they had known, but who was now revealed to them as the Lord of life and death [cf. Rom. 14:9], and who as such now became the content of their message. . . .

Barth often displayed a sense of sober realism combined with robust hope. For example, he acknowledged that, humanly speaking, the prospects for the Christian church did not seem particularly bright. Minority status would seem to be its permanent worldly lot (pp. 307). Fundamentally, the number of dedicated Christians had never been more than a few (p. 317). Nevertheless, the church lives not by worldly prosperity but by its living Lord, who has triumphed over sin and death, and he is present in the community as the Lord of the entire world (p. 299).

It is not we who must care for the dear God, but he who cares for us. In every respect we must take that into account, and live without anxiety on that basis. He cares for us, and he cares for our church and our communities. He sees to it that his truth does not fall to the ground, but rather that it remains on the lampstand. (p. 426)

The last conversation to be transcribed took place on the telephone between Barth and his life-long friend Eduard Thurneysen on the evening before Barth died. Thurneysen jotted down what he remembered Barth had said to him:

Yes, the world is dark! Only let us not lose heart! Never! . . . Let us not lose hope for all human beings, for the whole world of the nations! God will not allow us to fall, not one single one of us, nor all of us together! Es wird regiert! (p. 562)

These were, in effect, Barth’s last words on earth, summing up the work and convictions

Michael Dodaro said...

You asked why Barth might write a letter to Mozart, which is a question to which I can't find an authoritative answer. Barth's appreciation for Mozart is an interesting contrast to something I read in Bonhoeffer that is disparaging to singers who let their voices be heard above the congregational singing. I like to think that for Barth the intellectual Mozart represented ontology of a different order than could be expressed in theological abstractions.

Ray said...

"Just as the left wanted relevance without substance, so the right wanted substance without relevance..."

Interesting observation. The more conservative evangelical and fundamentalist churches criticize theological liberals for their social gospel. Those of us on the right are criticized for not having enough soup kitchens and concentrating more on hellfire and brimstone.

I have been pondering more lately on just what is worship. What does it look like? What does it sound like? It is clear from how Scribe describes her Orthodox church that her experience is vastly different than mine. Yet, we both claim to be worshipping God on Sunday mornings. Her experience is liturgical, mine is not.

The conservative Evangelical will say that the Catholic or Orthodox service is just rote repetition. We theologically conservative Evangelicals are accused of focusing strictly on doctrine with little application to relevance or congregational participation.

No answers, just questions.