Music, Mozart and Barth

Sermon elements from the service and additional information

Words of Hymn No. 68, Praise the Great and Famous in Hymns for Living
There are six distinct periods of serious musical presently identified. These are early or medieval music upto 1400 A.D., renaissance music from 1400 to 1650, baroque music from 1650 to 1780, classical music from 1780 to 1820, romantic music from 1820 to 1920 and modern music from 1920 until the present day. Today we hear examples from early, renaissance, baroque and classical music.
Plainsong or plainchant is an example of religious early music. There are two kinds of plainsong: there is Ambrosian chant and the greater Gregorian chant. Pope Gregory all but succeeded in the selection, listing and standardisation of Western plainsong. He collected three thousand items and these are still the officially held in the Roman Catholic Church. Plainsong has two places of origin, first in Jewish practice as found in the Psalms of David and secondly from Greek culture. Jewish practice used instrumentation but the experience of large organs in Greek arenas where early Christians perished made the music reluctant to use instrumentation. For a long time the Church strictly banned instrumentation and later from time to time various Popes would stress the need for audible words at the expense of the potential of music. Nevertheless there was a limited amount of development in the music due to the demands of singers.

Musical development led to the greater complexity of polyphony which was accepted in the Catholic Church as long as the words were clear. This change certainly happened to the Benedictine Monks of the Abbey Saint Maurice and Saint Maur, Clervaux, Luxembourg. But in the 19th century the Order returned to something more like its original state of practice, with considerable research finding music showing the original lines of melody. Nothing was found, however, from the time of Pope Gregory himself.

This piece is called Veni Sanctus Spiritus and the Benedictine Monks of the Abbey Saint Maurice and Saint Maur, Clervaux, Luxembourg sing it here not as a performance but as part of their worship. This lasts about five minutes. ///
That was called Veni Sanctus Spiritus sung in worship by the Benedictine Monks of the Abbey Saint Maurice and Saint Maur, Clervaux, Luxembourg. Next we move to polyphony and Allegri's Miserere. There is a story that after the experience of the Reformation the Roman Catholic cardinals were on the verge of banning polyphony and reinstituting plainsong, but they heard Miserere and changed their minds. This story sounds like a fable.

Gregorio Allegri was born in Rome in 1582 and died there in February 1652. He was a boy chorister and learnt composition; after his voice broke he became a tenor singer. As a beneficed priest he was a chorister and composer at the Cathedral of Fermo, but after publishing some motets and sacred concertos he returned to Rome as a singer in the chapel of Pope Urban the Eighth and becoming an important composer of church music until his death. He was buried at the papal choir burial place at Santa Maria, Vallicella.

Many of his compostions are in the archives at Vallicella, the library at Collegio Romano, the collection of the Papal Choir and in the Santini Library.

Allegri's Miserere is for nine voices in two choirs. Its text is Psalm 51 and it is sung once a year during Holy Week in the Pontifical Chapel. This recording was made in Merton Chapel, Oxford, as performed by the Tallis scholars. At the lay Leadership week in Hucklow this music was played in one of the group Vespers in the afternoon, but after only some minutes Arthur Long put his finger over the stop button. We shall hear it all, and it lasts over ten minutes. ///
The Papacy knew that the Miserere was an exceptional piece of music and increased its reputation by banning the music from leaving the Sistine Chapel where it was held. But in fact copies did circulate around Europe after one particular event. On a tour of Europe Mozart, then aged fourteen, heard a performance of the Miserere and was so inspired that that night he sat down and wrote it out from memory. Then he heard it again to check what he had written. The Pope was impressed with such an achievement, and awarded Mozart the Knight of the Golden Spur. Of course, the result was that versions of the piece were after then available. The eventual solution was to allow the music to be published.

So we come to Mozart himself, and his music, with initial commentary by Karl Barth.

Johann Chrysostomas Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was born at Salzburg in 1756 and died at Vienna in 1791. Like his sister he was a child prodigy in music, but such was society that he made it and she did not. So, Mozart's father, conducter and composer at the court of the Archbishop of Salzburg and teacher of harpsichord and violin, gave up his pupils and concentrated on his children. Mozart had no other teacher. When five he was composing minuets, when six he wrote his first piano concerto. With such ability the Mozart children went on tour, the first of many around Europe for the boy. Now, for when we mention Karl Barth's opinion, it is worth noting that Mozart did have failures. One was in Italy when he was seventeen: Produced in Milan in 1772, the opera Lucia Silla failed and Mozart never returned to Italy again. Mozart had great problems trying to get a court position in Munich and Paris, and the new Archbishop in Mozart's home base at Salzburg was jealous and this made difficulties for him elsewhere. So Mozart cut his links with the man, and eventually arrived at Vienna and married Constance Weber, not the first Weber girl he had been in love with. He was twenty six and she was eighteen, and there they befriended Haydn and Mozart met the young Beethoven. There he composed his greatest music, they had one son, and lived in some poverty, and in 1791 he received a commission from a wealthy nobleman called Count Walsegg for the Requiem Mass. He thought he was writing it for himself, and in fact he died that year of typhus and was put into an unmarked paupers grave.

When Mozart died only the first movement, the Requiem and Kyrie had been completed and Constance, his widow, afraid that the advance had to be returned, asked the court composer to complete the score but he refused. Franz Sussmayer, a pupil of Mozart, completed the piece. We'll hear the Benedictus which Mozart had composed in its essentials and Sussmayer filled in the detail.
[Karl Barth on Mozart]
We hear now Benedictus from Mozart's Requiem which lasts about five minutes or so.///
Anybody will tell you that to summarise Karl Barth's thinking is to take up an impossible task. Not only do we have to take account of what he wrote in his enormous output of theological work, particularly his The Epistle to the Romans and the unfinished 8000 pages long Church Dogmatics, but we also have to take account of his style. It took him pages and pages of penetrating analysis of contrasting statements to say what others might say within a passage, and he was controversial: in speech he took on those he saw as opponents with some venom.

Barth, not a Roman Catholic, on the basis of his later work was described by Pope Pius XII as the greatest theologian since Thomas Aquinas. He turned against the liberalism of the nineteenth century. His viewpoint provided a way of opposing the corruption of the German Church during the time of Hitler, being one of those supporting the defiant German Confessing Church.

His view was that one must distinguish between religion and theology. Religion is man's search for God, which he saw as peripheral and wrong-headed. Theology instead is God-talk, but not any old theology; theology was simply the human response to the Word of God already established. This Word was in Christ, and that is where you find the decisive act of God.

This to us is highly dogmatic (and even possibly irrelevant), but he wasn't a fundamentalist. In fact, he was a part of the liberal theological debate. He also was not a fundamentalist because he made a distinction between the words in the Bible about the Word and the Word being Christ. The Bible comes to light as an event; it is not human thoughts about God, but right divine thoughts about men. But he indeed was narrow: he said that you cannot argue about revelation; you can only proclaim it. So God had made himself known, and even when humans responded it was not their own response as such but they were working within the orbit of the divine.

Well, Unitarianism is based on a complete rejection of this viewpoint. It certainly does see religion and culture as important; and in my view this is what is distinctive about the Unitarian tradition. Unitarians and some Christian liberals, as disbelievers in one revelation and as believers in progressive revelation, or alternatively in human striving, are quite opposite to the Barthian view. We are more like one who Barth was opposed to, namely Paul Tillich, who said that what is ultimately important is our God (though perhaps that is to take Tillich too far).

I'd like to move the argument on using my own personal history. Just this last week I borrowed from the library Bishop Geoffrey Paul's A Pattern of Faith, a recently published book compiled after his death which reproduces his lectures given in Hull City Hall during Lent 1981. Now, these lectures were first recorded on tape and they formed a six week course for my Anglican confirmation at University in 1984.

The very first lecture went straight into what the bishop called Jesus Christ, The Way In and then to the Resurrection event as one attempt to prove the man's uniqueness. Now I actually agree with his starting point as a starting point, as it is of the Christian faith and Church, but my disagreement is with the Resurrection as a proof of uniqueness; in fact that was my view at my confirmation which is why I was rather hesitant about going through with it.

As well as agreeing with the bishop's priority of argument I also have to confess disagreement with some Unitarians (and others) who just treat Jesus as some sort of nice figure of history concerned with human goodness and have not tackled the Resurrection claims. Now, that says more about me than about other people and it is my personal baggage. But I do think that the view of God anyone has should affect the view of the Resurrection; and the Resurrection event as understood should inform the person's view of God.

All this rather lets me appreciate the approach of Karl Barth: he goes straight to what he considers is the Word of God, and to those liberals who try to do it another way he says "no". And I also appreciate the views of theologians like Bonhoeffer for whom God was disappearing, Paul Van Buren with his The Secular Meaning of the Gospel and Harvey Cox with The Secular City, all of whom were Barthian influenced because they stressed that the God who reveals himself is today somehow more absent.

But because I find no uniqueness of Christ my post-Christian theology tells me that I do not expect to find a God. As Barth effectively says if he has not come to me then I may as well either give up or wait. I can do nothing else; if I am not in receipt of God I waste my time trying to reach him.

Now, a lot of this relates to the argument about where we find value from, particularly ethical and creative value. A strong viewpoint suggests that value must come from outside ourselves: God is the great guarantor. Those of us who have no such God, so the argument goes, swish around and are dealing with an ultimately valueless and pointless world. So many liberals who disagree with Barth still end up finding a God who gives fixed value to life, but then Barth would say that this needs revelation. Now, that makes logical sense: if value comes from outside, if theology must precede ethics, then Barth's approach has validity.

I disagree however with the value argument. Instead, value can be handled on the secular pluralist level. We can ask if what something does has a function, and if it does, then, by individual preference or consensus, if it has value. This is the level I operate at, so in fact when I talk about God I am using God-talk in a secular sense. I am using a word and nothing else: it is very subjective and I am talking about human self-pointing. So whilst I accept much of the theological argument of Barth, by not accepting the related ethical argument I find a new way to talk about value and the meanings of the word God. I also, as a post-Christian find a different way to consider the influence of Jesus, but that is another story.

So although it would certainly have been dismissed by Karl Barth out of hand, I in fact agree with the Unitarian approach which begins with the world and allows a total breadth of meaning to be given to the word God. In doing this, incidentally, I think Unitarianism precludes itself as a body from believing in revelation, a view not shared by those who call themselves Christian Unitarians and think theism is essential.

But back to Karl Barth's narrowness. Another Karl, Karl Marx, used to say that the capitalist system creates a false consciousness and stops people seeing the truth about the system. So we question how Marx himself was so able to break through and supposedly see the truth himself. He didn't of course. Similarly we may ask was Barth especially chosen to point out the narrow path of revelation whilst other theologians just flapped around in error? At this point we come to how Barth regarded Mozart: it tells us so much about how he approached theology.

You heard the reading: Mozart, though not much of a Christian, has a place in theology: his music not entertainment for the Christian but food and drink, and he knows about creation which praises its master. Barth who listened to Mozart's music night after night on record had a vision of him at a concert in 1956 and so he was stuck on Mozart. Well, in the end, John Bowden, himself a theologian, states this:

It is disturbing to find someone who loves the music of one composer as deeply as this and yet in so exclusive a way. A good deal of Mozart one might well want to live with continually - but all Mozart and nothing else? Is not the best of Haydn, for example, very much better than the least inspired of Mozart, and on Barth's argument does not he too have a message, albeit with a much more limited range? And what about all composers, from early music to the present day? Are there not voices and messages to be heard there as well? (Bowden, Karl Barth: Theologian, 1983).

Well, the answer, of course, is yes, and we see in Barth's attitude to Mozart his attitude to theology and why he so opposed other views. In fact Barth is just as subjective in his approach to theology as anyone else, and his approach to music and Mozart illustrates the point perfectly. Perhaps if we begin in the pluralist camp, and just appreciate music, we can take the broader view and then give music and life value. There are more truths to heaven and earth than meet the eye.
Well, clearly Mozart is not the be all and end all of music; just as legitimate theology is not limited to Barth's. Music is can be very good from many a source. We now go back from classical music to baroque music and a portion of the British opera Dido and Aeneas by Purcell: secular music which comes up in quality to any religious music - and there is a message there.

In more modern times Vaughan Williams and Holst in trying to produce an authentic English music turned to the achievements of Purcell for inspiration. Born in 1659 and died in 1695, Purcell became organist and composer in the localities of the Chapel Royal and Westminster Abbey and particularly he composed church music and music for plays. Dido and Aeneas was his only opera performed at Josias Priest's boarding school for young gentlewomen in Chelsea. The libretto, from a poet laureate Naham Tate, is the story of Queen Dido who falls for Aeneas. Witches plot the failure of the relationship and a sorceress disguised as the god Jupiter tells Aeneas that he must return to save ruined Troy. He reluctantly agrees, but when Queen Dido argues against this he decides to stay. However, the damage done, she spurns him and he leaves for Troy. Dido sings a farewell song and then herself dies. This song is what we hear now: Victoria De Los Angeles singing the solo with the Ambrosian singers and the English Chamber Orchestra. Act III is called The Ships, over ten minutes long, consisting mostly of the farewell song.///
That was Victoria De Los Angeles with the Ambrosian singers and the English Chamber Orchestra singing Act III of Dido and Aeneas. A concluding prayer now adapted from the eighth service of Orders of Worship.
[Final prayer]


Adrian Worsfold

Pluralist - Liberal and Thoughtful