Friday 8 December 2006

Karl Barth: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

For the past few years, Wipf & Stock Publishers have been producing attractive, affordable reprints of various out-of-print volumes by Karl Barth. They kindly sent me a couple of these reprints, one of which is:

Karl Barth, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, foreword by John Updike, with a new foreword by Paul Louis Metzger (1986; Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2003), 60 pp.

Barth’s devotion to Mozart is well known. He began each day listening to Mozart; he included Mozart in the Church Dogmatics; and he remarked: “if I ever get to heaven, I would first of all seek out Mozart and only then inquire after Augustine, St Thomas, Luther, Calvin, and Schleiermacher” (p. 16). In fact, towards the end of his life Barth even experienced his first and only mystical vision: a vision of Mozart gazing at him benignly from the stage during a concert. (Hans Urs von Balthasar was very impressed by this vision!)

In this little book – originally published in 1956 in celebration of the 200th anniversary of Mozart’s birth – Barth collected some of his various writings and addresses about his beloved Mozart. With wonderful hyperbole, he describes the musical uniqueness of Mozart, suggesting that Mozart’s “characteristic basic ‘sound’” might in fact be “the primal sound of music absolutely” – Mozart “struck this ‘tone’ in its timelessly valid form” (p. 28).

Theologically, too, Barth speaks of Mozart’s utter uniqueness: “In the case of Mozart, we must certainly assume that the dear Lord had a special, direct contact with him” (p. 26). His music “evidently comes from on high” (p. 33) – indeed, Barth “leaves open” the question “whether Mozart could possibly have been an angel” (p. 45).

Above all, it is the dialectical character of Mozart’s music that Barth admires. In this music, everything comes to expression: “heaven and earth, nature and man, comedy and tragedy, … the Virgin Mary and the demons” (p. 34). Mozart simply contains and includes all this within his music in perfect harmony. This harmony is not a matter of “balance” or “indifference” (like the balance of Schleiermacher’s system!) – it is “a glorious upsetting of the balance, a turning in which the light rises and the shadows fall …, in which the Yes rings louder than the ever-present No” (p. 55).

In all this, however, Mozart “does not wish to say anything: he just sings and sounds.” Unlike Bach, he has no doctrine or message, and thus “he does not force anything on the listener …; he simply leaves him free” (p. 37). This note of freedom is what most impresses Barth. “Mozart’s music always sounds unburdened, effortless, light. This is why it unburdens, releases, and liberates us” (p. 47).

As you can tell, this is a beautiful book, important for what it reveals both about Mozart and about Barth himself. But the book would also be well worth getting just for the brilliant foreword by John Updike. Updike rightly highlights the deep affinity between the music of Mozart and the theology of Barth: “Those who have not felt the difficulty of living have no need of Barthian theology; but then perhaps they also have no ear for music” (p. 12).


Jim said...

An excellent book indeed. Be sure to read the "Letter to Mozart".

Anonymous said...

Love the Updike quote about tin ears!

Michael Westmoreland-White, Ph.D. said...

Note to Jim West: I remember reading this book--while listening to Mozart and drinking beer!

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