June 27, 2005
Gratuitous Musickal Posting (TM) - Part II
Yesterday, we had a special treat at church, namely the incorporation of Mozart's Missa Brevis in C, K. 259, into the service. In terms of doctrine and liturgy, there really isn't all that much difference between an Episcopal Eucharist and a Catholic Mass, so the various sections of the Mozart piece fit very well into the service. Indeed, I was left wishing we could do something like this much more often.
It was a pretty good performance, considering. The Sunrise Quartet joined our choir and organist. Apart from the fact that the violist was, at times, practically inaudible, they did a fine job. Our choir itself is not terribly distinguished - the male voices are rather weak and the women are dominated by a lead soprano who has a voice like Glinda, the Good Witch of the North, but they soldiered on gamely.
Our Rector did a very nice job of introducing Mozart's music by quoting Karl Barth, the major 20th Century theologian, on the subject:
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.....
I think there's a great deal in this. Mozart wrote this particular Mass when he was nineteen. It doesn't have the power of his more mature work. But it does carry that trust mentioned by Barth, the trust that the prayer for grace has, in fact, been answered.
A week or two ago, Lileks said something to the effect that Beethoven wrote the Music of the Spheres. This, if I may be blunt, is nonsense. Beethoven was first and last a creator of Music of the Ego. I don't mean this in a snide way, but rather just that his focus was the earthly Self. If you want the Music of the Spheres, the closest echo of Divine Thought itself, you must look to Johann Sebastian Bach, instead. Mozart, I think, falls somewhere in between - his is the music not of God himself, but of the reflection of God, the Divine Spark if you will, in Man.
Barth is responsible for the speculation that the angels might only play Bach when worshipping God but play Mozart when amongst themselves. I think this sometimes gets bent around to trivialize Mozart, to suggest that somehow he is less weighty and more frivolous, the producer merely of "happy sounds". But Barth himself didn't mean it that way:
[D]arkness, 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.
I'm pretty sure it's that vox humana that Barth had in mind for his off-duty angels. But he also remarked that "then also God the Lord is especially delighted to listen to them."
Well, I don't want to ramble too much about the metaphysics of spiritual music. As a practical matter, I can tell you that where Mozart's music soared and swooped, the more ordinary hymns we also sang - "Christ is Made The Sure Foundation", "Where Cross The Crowded Ways of Life" and "The Church's One Foundation", although solid, comfortable, and pious, trudged along earthbound. Even the Old Hundredth seemed flat in comparison. And the Ralph Vaughn Williams Antiphon that we got as the Offeratory Anthem sounded downright silly. I'm pretty sure the angels don't bother much with him.