Contemplata aliis Tradere

A meagre contribution to the mission and work of the Order of Preachers: my reflections, thoughts, ideas and the occasional rant on matters mainly theological, philosophical and ecclesiastical, drawn primarily from my reading and experience of life and the world. Striving to be always Catholic, firmly Christian and essentially Dominican, flavoured with dashes of Von Balthasar.

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A son of the English Province of the Order of Friars Preachers (Dominicans); born in Malaysia but have lived in the USA, Singapore, the UK & the Philippines for varying durations. A pilgrim and way-farer, a searcher for Truth on the journey of Life... "Wherever the Catholic sun doth shine, There’s always laughter and good red wine. At least I’ve always found it so. Benedicamus Domino!" - Hilaire Belloc

Friday, January 27, 2006

Celebrating Mozart

Ever since my boyhood when I first watched the movie 'Amadeus', I have been entranced by the music and genius of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Indeed, it was my discovery of Mozart's music that began my life-long passion for classical music and having meandered along musical paths from Gregorian chant to Philip Glass, I still find myself returning to Mozart, my first musical love. And I am not alone in this fascination with Mozart; most people noted when Cardinal Ratzinger was elected to the See of Peter that he was a keen musician (and lover of cats) and delighted in Mozart.

As this Holy Father said in the book-length interview published in 1997 in English as 'Salt of the Earth': "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." Indeed, a fascination with Mozart unites a variety of theologians - not that I would count myself a part of their constellation! Mozart is admired by Kierkegaard, Hans Kung, Von Balthasar and Karl Barth, to name a few.

Barth, the classical Swiss-Reformed dogmatician was such an ardent lover of Mozart's music that he said that "if I ever get to heaven, I would first of all seek out Mozart and only then inquire after Augustine and Thomas, Luther...". Even more interestingly, Barth said in a letter that "it may be that when the angels go about their task of praising God, they play only Bach. I am sure, however, that when they are together en famille, they play Mozart and that then too our dear Lord listens with special pleasure." This is a wonderful image and it was matched by the mystic Adrienne von Speyr who had such an influence on Balthasar. She had a vision of Mozart in which she told Balthasar that, "There is a dialogue between Mozart and the good Lord which is like the purest prayer, and this whole dialogue is made up of music alone."

This reminds me again of the play and movie, 'Amadeus' wherein Salieri is amazed by Mozart's music which he thinks is so perfect that it is as if God spoke through it but he is appalled that such a bawdy buffoon should be the Lord's instrument. It is widely agreed that the caricature of Mozart in 'Amadeus' is an inaccurate dramatization and yet we are rightly amazed and ought to be humbled that the Lord deigns to use any of us, mere sinful creatures, as instruments of His grace and moreover allows us, by acts of art and creativity, to share in His divine creativity. But of course we should recognize that in Mozart there is a special talent which he was given by God and used so fruitfully to invoke the beauty of He who is Beauty. As the Theologian of Beauty, Hans Urs von Balthasar said of Mozart's music, it is an "inexplicable miracle of beauty."

As I write this I am listening to the ineffably beautiful 'Et incarnatus est' movement from Mozart's Mass in C minor (K427) which is among my favourite from the Mozartian oeuvre. Who can fail to see in such sublime music the prayer of Wolfgang Amadeus in which he rejoices in the incarnation of the Lord and enters into a dialogue of the soul with the Eternal Word, who is clothed in Beauty?

Some people think of Mozart as somewhat saccharine, lacking in the angst of later musical styles, perhaps even juvenile in comparison to the more mature Beethoven or Mahler. But it is essentially this joy and beauty in Mozart that Balthasar considers as revelatory of the Trinitarian life. Having expounded on the interplay between rhythm, harmony and melody as a musical analogy of the Trinitarian relationship, Balthasar writes that in Mozart "the sharp corners of earthly (or all too earthly) realism are everywhere toned down by the knowledge that all things are reconciled and saved." As such, he also says that, "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."

As such, the musician Mark Freer, writing in 'Communio (Spring 2005)' notes: "To enter into this heavenly concert [of Mozartian music] is a real contemplation, as we are caught up in the divine joy. It is not an exaggeration to speak of a mystical ecstasy." And in this state of contemplation as we truly listen to and savour the music of Mozart, we too can be caught up in God's joy and catch a glimpse of heaven.

To quote from Pope Benedict XVI's encyclical, 'Deus Caritas Est': "Contact with the visible manifestations of God's love can awaken within us a feeling of joy born of the experience of being loved" (para. 17). Taken in our current context, which I hope His Holiness will forgive me for doing, we can perhaps adduce that contact with audible manifestations of God's love can also arouse in us a feeling of joy, confidence in Christ's victory over evil, and an experience of God's love, as Mozart so clearly does for popes, theologians and lay Christians down the centuries.

As we remember the genius of Mozart today, on his 250th birthday, let us revel again in his music and in so doing, render to God a prayer, seek Him out and offer intercession for the eternal repose of the soul of our brother in Christ, Wolfgang Amadeus.

Revised on eve of 27 Jan 2006


Anonymous Tim Smith said...

Great reflection. Thanks, and God bless all the Dominicans on the Feast of St. Thomas. One point... Barth was Swiss Refermed, not Lutheran. Learned this with my mother's milk at the Presby-Reformed Princeton Seminary!

4:43 pm  
Blogger Br Lawrence, O.P. said...

Mea culpa. Thank you for that and your kind comment. I have made the necessary correction.

God bless.

12:09 am  
Blogger Orlando Furioso said...

We should not so quickly dismiss the portrayal of Mozart in Amedeus. God's gifts are just that, gifts. I only mention this because my favorite movie, Andrei Rublev (directed by Andrei Tarkovsky) meditates on this point aboyut the artist and God's light shining through him regardless of his merit.

9:25 pm  
Blogger Br Lawrence, O.P. said...

Indeed, hence my comment that one need not be amazed that the Lord uses sinful creatures and that His grace and gifts can and do shine through us, frail as we are.

However, I believe that biographers of Mozart and other such experts have noted that Peter Shaffer's portrayal of Mozart and his Salieri vs Mozart drama is just that - a dramatic device. As a reviewer notes: "Shaffer's Mozart is an inspired but scatalogical buffoon" and he remain's Shaffer's creation. I recall that some Mozartians hold that the film 'Amadeus' damaged Mozart's image, exploding a myth of him as a childish, drunken buffoon. The only good thing said to have come out of the play and film is that it exposed Mozart's sublime music, which speaks for itself, to a wider audience.

Quite apart from Shaffer's portrayal of Mozart, the biographer Robert Gutman said Mozart was "affectionate and generous ... an austere moralist of vital force, incisiveness, and with strength of purpose."

I am sure many others can be found to uphold this view or one that is similarly in contradiction to Shaffer's.

Finally, to quote from 'The Guardian': "The disproportionate influence in modern times of Peter Shaffer's brilliant but misleading fictionalisation Amadeus, both as a play and as a film, has imprisoned the composer in the Madame Tussaud's of the popular imagination as a curious chimera, half-god, half-beast. This creature, first created by Pushkin in 1830 in Mozart and Salieri, was a near madman, "an immortal genius inside a buffoon's, an idle hooligan's, skull", whose writing of his own requiem and alleged death by poison at the hands of a musical rival was as unnatural as his weird personality. The superficial appeal of these tall stories is obvious, but even as myths they tend to disappoint."

So, it is not I who 'dismiss' Shaffer's depiction of Mozart but his historians and biographers.

Thank you.

2:38 am  

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