403 - Barth and Mozart

Barth and Mozart
By Theodore A. Gill

"Mightn't we get farther in understanding Barth in system and method if we began to think of him as fundamentally an artist-or at least more an artist than a scientist? As such, he would be a theologian composer of Mozartean rank. And he would belong exactly to Mozart's classical school of style."

MANY have heard that Karl Barth once mused that the angels in heaven undoubtedly sang Bach carefully in public. But when they went home, they sang Mozart for fun-and that the dear Lord especially liked to listen to them then.1 Fewer will know the tart gloss added by one of Mozart's most recent biographers, Wolfgang Hildesheimer. He visualized "a pretty picture: I see God, like Rembrandt's Saul enjoying the music of David's harp, lost in the thought that one ought perhaps to have done something for this divine musician during his earthly life."2

Many will also remember that before Barth turned to each day's tasks-writing, teaching, preaching, counseling, correcting, leading a resistance-he listened every morning for at least a half hour to the music of Mozart. Though Barth would cock a bushy eyebrow at the expression, we can say he listened to Mozart religiously. He knew all the music backwards and forwards, the keys, the themes, the movements, the libretti, the best interpreters, the great performances. He knew Mozart's Köchel listings as well as he did the classification of his own Dogmatik.

It is a well-known passion, shared, as perhaps fewer will remember, with Soren Kierkegaard, who wanted to start a Copenhagen sect to revere Mozart, not just above all others, but exclusively.3 Typically, of course, SK then backtracked, calling such reverence "adolescent," leaving us in a tangle of two truths. He did it again when, after lathering


Theodore A. Gill is Professor of Philosophy and Religion, John Jay College, City University of New York. Former Editor of The Christian Century, scriptwriter for a film on Bonhoeffer, editor of John Donne's sermons, Dr. Gill in recent years has been writing and lecturing on the relation of religion and the arts. This address, it may be noted, followed an "All Mozart Concert" as the conclusion of the "Karl Barth Centennial Symposium" on the campus of Princeton Theological Seminary, April 10-12, 1986.

1 Karl Barth, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (trans. C. K. Pott, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986), p. 23. This is a slim but valuable volume of 60 pages, gathering under one cover all the various comments which Barth made over the years regarding Mozart and his music. The Foreword is by John Updike.
2 Wolfgang Hildesheimer, Mozart (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1982), p. 15.
3 Soren Kierkegaard, Either-Or (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1944), p. 38.


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himself at great length over the fascination, subtlety, power, and intricacy of Mozart's Don Giovanni, he put all matters aesthetic at the bottom of his scale, below the ethical and the religious. I am encouraged to know that Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in a little-noted passage in his prison letters, suggests that Kierkegaard may have been wrong about that. Anyway, in other ways, Barth outgrew Kierkegaard, but not in his regard for the Salzburg prodigy.

So how are we to account for this persistent affinity? Is it a marginal quirk, an idiosyncracy good for a change of pace in this otherwise serious colloquy? Is it an amusing sidelight, a fascinating drollerie? The Mozart biographer quoted above, in fact, lists Barth among the "enthusiasts" for whom the critic has completely controllable appreciation. How wonderful to live in a scholarly world so vivid and vital that enthusiasts and their enthusiasm can be thus dismissed! Think of what a difference it might make if we could smuggle some of that bubble and fizz into serious theology.

I

In the present case, Barth's enthusiasm for Mozart's music will not be so trivialized. Whatever it may tell us about Mozart, the conviction here is that this enthusiasm is a too-little used index to the whole Barthian theology. We are not now simply adding to the humanity of the great. theologian, as if that needed to be done anyway: he of the whole soul, family loyalties, open hospitality, rangy curiosity, instant sympathies, with his pipe and his beer, his risky affection, his riding, his rambling, his Grünewald, and his Mozart. We are, instead, wondering here about what clue to the thought there may be in his favorite music.

It would be a mistake to be very fancy about what attracted Barth to Mozart. Barth never was. It was the way Mozart sounded; Barth loved the sound of Mozart's music. It is as simple as that. It is Wagner's music that is said "to sound better than it is." Mozart's music always sounds as good as it is. Beauty is in that bone, and Barth loved the beauty: the arresting, available lyricism to capture you, and the subtle, ingenious invention to keep you. Mozart doesn't argue with you. He doesn't try to prove anything. You don't have to learn a new vocabulary to get him. He sings as does Kierkegaard's poet, one sharing the bird's problem, which is a mouth so shaped that everything, sorrow and all, comes out as soaring song. Mozart's music justifies itself. Such delight does not need defense. It needs only to be doted on. And Barth did.

He was very careful not to let this devotion blur the silhouette of his theology. He said he was "certainly not inclined to confuse or identify the history of salvation with any part of the history of art. But the golden sounds and melodies of Mozart's music have from early times spoken to me not as gospel but as parables of the realm of God's free grace as revealed in the gospel-and they do so again with great spontaneity and directness." Of course he would say it that way. The integrity of the


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system requires such limitations. Nothing joins Christ as special revelation. And since the general revelation is so questionable, it does nothing any honor to list it there.

My own disappointment is that I do not find in Barth any indication that he ever considered the category of common grace as a lodging place for his admiration for Mozart's music, and for other appreciations and affections. It would have seemed a natural for Karl Barth. Common grace avoids the whole touchy area of revelation and redemption. It is the teaching that a lavishly loving God adorns the world with much that has nothing at all to do with our salvation, but everything to do with our satisfaction. The music of Mozart, if seen as part of God's common grace, would have no connection with natural revelation, no connection with Heilsgeschichte. It would, instead, be part of God's initiative (a very Barthian emphasis), the free gift of a loving God, imaginatively careful for God's world and God's people. Maybe I've just missed it. I'll have to consult my Barthian friends (their tribe does not increase, alas), the kind who know very well what Dogmatik IV/2 means, but are a little shaky on John 3:16. Meanwhile, I keep common grace as a live option for myself, a category full of the very things that make this world worth saving and eternal life of continuing interest.

And with a now not so secret delight, I remember noting as I left Barth's study on a first visit those portraits of Calvin and of Mozart hanging over the adjacent doors. He has written of them: "There are probably very few theological study rooms in which pictures of Calvin and Mozart are to be seen hanging next to each other and at the same height." What he does not write is what he said when he noticed how taken I was with the juxtaposition. "My special revelation," he smiled, looking at Calvin. "And my general revelation," he said, as he beamed at Mozart. Was he smiling because it was a joke? Or because he knew something we didn't?

There is another reason for Barth's attraction to Mozart, one that Barth would not have permitted, and would have snorted at my insisting. I think these are twin peaks, and at the altitude of their creating there are not many other peaks around. I think that genius recognized genius in a way that the rest of us can only guess at. Greatness recognizes greatness. Karl Barth and Paul Tillich, whose centennial birthday also falls in this year, did not meet for decades but took pot shots at each other regularly. Then, not long before both died, the two old men met in Basel, and the reports are that it was a love-feast; no more scoring debating points, just two crumpling giants delighting in each other's observations, interpretations, contrivances; at home, comfortable in the same rarified atmosphere.

Reinhold Niebuhr once corroborated this for me when he explained, with some rue, that the reason Karl Barth "was somewhat irresponsible in his politics" was that he was a genius, "and therefore so far out ahead of the rest of us that we can't ride beside him, box him in, discipline him;


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such a phenomenon is simply alone in a wide-open field, we can't ever catch up, he goes where he wants and nobody can head him off or even get close enough to call him back."

But it does not have to be lonely out in those thinly populated spaces. There is a communion of the most glittering spirits, and Mozart was the one for Barth. Or, to turn my special metaphor upside down, deep does indeed call unto deep.

II

There is, it seems to me, an even more special reason for the compatibility of Mozart and Barth. It is a far less obvious reason ... except, perhaps, to me. I have developed its basis elsewhere, so I will only summarize here.

I think that art and religion are up to exactly the same thing: the re-presentation of primal visions. The visions I speak of are not necessarily visual, though they can be. They are hunches, notions, perceptions, bliks about what really is, about ultimate whences and withers, about how things stand with us and between us and all the rest.

We are form-giving animals, we people, and so those who have strong visions, urgent hunches, give shape to those inklings so the visionaries can see them more clearly themselves, and so they can show them, even offer them, to others.4 Back when everything and everybody was newer, no one tried to categorize these representations. Some were in drawings on cave ceilings, some were in little female figurines, some were no doubt in dances and chants, some were in stories told and interpreted, some were in the manners and morals fostered. But all were equally responses to re- presentations of the originative vision.

Then, some of these re-presentations came to be called art, and some were called religion. And, as far as I can see, the main criterion for the distinction was in the materiel used in the representations.

When public shape was given to aboriginal notion in notes or colors or sounds or gestures or short lines, on canvas or paper or stage, or in wood, ceramics, or stone-the re-presenting activity was called art. And when the re-presentation was in doctrine, liturgy, ethics, institution, it was called religion. But in either case, these two, these siblings, art and religion, are up to the same thing: giving available form to individual vision. These are Siamese twins, art and religion. They have their separate personae, but they share vital functions and would be completely severed only at great risk to both.

This is a most un-Barthian conjecture, I know. I suspect that Karl Barth would be appalled by the direction I take. Which is why I amplify


4 Some of what I mean is caught by the no-nonsense biographer of Mozart, seeking to de-mystify his appeal. Mozart's music doesn't "emerge" from anywhere. It is made, as all art is made, "in the interaction of unconscious ideas and conscious methodology." Hildesheimer, op. cit., P. 9.


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(I hope not to distortion) any whisper I find wraithing through his own work-any echo that even hints that I am not being a faithless student. As, for instance, this response on a Swiss radio talk-show in Mozart's bicentennial year, 1956: "I heard a harmony, the same one apparently that Mozart heard first-not a harmony he composed but one that he, too, heard." And the harmony the composer heard two hundred years before was in total harmony with the one that Barth heard. One eventuated in a great music, the other in a mighty system and a political involvement. But symphony, opera, Dogmatik, and resistance are all shapes composed to give presence to that primal harmony heard by two different re-presenters, working in different media.

I am not sure that there is confirmation for my thesis in this further desideration, but the fact is that the only two even remotely quasimystical experiences Barth ever records for himself are not in what we would call the religious field, but in the aesthetic. On the same radio talk-show, Barth suddenly launches an account of what sounds like a born-again event. "I must have been five or six years old at the time.... One day, my father was playing something by Mozart. I can still picture the scene. He began a couple of bars from The Magic Flute ('Tamino mine, what happiness'-'Tamino mein, oh, welch ein Glück'). They went right through me and into me. I don't know how, and I thought, 'He's the one!'" (or, 'That's it!' 'Der ist's!').

And in that fruitful Mozart bicentennial year, there was this. In a concert Barth attended, Carla Haskill was the piano soloist in Mozart's F Major Concerto, and "I even had a sudden vision of [Mozart] standing there in front of the piano, so clear I almost began to cry." Sixty-five years after "He's the one," there he was. Nothing could be less characteristic of Barth. But those are his own reports, and they are both in the arts world.

III

Let me go on reconnoitering other considerations that relate Barth and Mozart in less obvious, more conjectural ways. When I first met Barth's writing in seminary, the part that shocked me most is just what seems to me most obvious today. We discovered in an apologetics class that Karl Barth was against apologetics! You weren't to waste an instant or an erg on trying to prove, defend, or even support the Christian claims. Just state them, insist them, witness to them, respond to them, act on them, but no explanations, no proofs-let the chips fall where they may. And, as a terrible warning to the dismayed, there was the awful fate of Emil Brunner, defenestrated when he flirted with a vestigial function for apologetics.

By my present lights, this is now an irreproachable attitude, an unarguable teaching. In the arts, you do not prove anything either. You cannot really defend. You cannot argue an artwork to the greatness you claim for it. You show it, and it has its own effect, makes its own claim. You let the chips fall where they may. You cannot prove that any


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artwork is interesting, commanding, true, or wonderful. You simply present it, and it must approve itself. This is true whether the composition is a piano quartet by Mozart, or a theological statement by Barth. In either case, the work stands on its own, packs its own wallop, or doesn't. Barth, in that genius empyrean I spoke of before, is attracted there by Mozart as fellow practitioner up against the same assignments with the same possibilities and limitations. Let us say it plain: in at least this part of his teaching, Barth's frame of mind is quintessentially aesthetic. Which may sound a little less bizarre to some, if I whisper that Barth's theology is presented for approval and response, not just by preaching it., but by embodied patterns of ethical obedience.

There is much else of the aesthetic in Barth's work, all of which helps account for his extraordinary attachment to, even identification with the artist, Mozart. The fecundity of his images, for instance. And the humor, so grounded in the sense of proportion and congruence, and the facility for off-center invention, all so fundamental to art itself. And there is Barth's artistic use of doctrine; his almost coloristic use of doctrine. As an artist will use a particular hue or shade to make a desired emphasis or to balance a composition, or a composer will change the key or feature another instrument to make a musical point, so Barth brings on doctrine in a painterly, compositional way. Does the divine initiative need to be highlighted on this part of the staff? Then the Virgin Birth is notated there, as just the color, the key, the instrument to give discernible, accurate form to the controlling vision. Gynecological issues are simply not involved, any more than a chemical analysis of a painter's pigments is necessary to establish the truth and power of an oil painting. Artistic truth is integrity, coherence: the truth, the necessity of every part of the composition, to every other part, to the whole. Artistic truth is the coinherence of every part of the creation with every other part. Artistic truth means no false notes, no meretricious additions, no truckling to trends, every part generated and justified only by the requirements of the whole. By which measure, no works are truer than that of Mozart and Barth, alike again in this, their massive integrity.

Or again, in another part of the system, think. of the eschatology: the images, the visions, the poetry, all justified in the service of the form being given the hope, and the shape being fashioned for the promise ... all true because they are appropriate to and required by the great structure designed to give public presence to the Christian hunch about forever.

IV

But let me end this scratch list of subterranean connections between Mozart and Barth with what may be the most problematic of my suggestions, but is to me the most promising. I've offered it before, but there has been no vulgar crush of people demanding that they be allowed to do the research and the imagining it would take to assess its possibilities. So let me just state it again, baldly.


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Stripped of deferential approach, my effrontery shows at once. You see, I don't think that Barth knew what he was doing-or at least, he didn't know how he was doing what he was doing. I mean that he thought he was perfecting a science of theology, and I don't think he was doing that at all.

Mightn't we get farther in understanding Barth in system and method if we began to think of him as fundamentally an artist--or at least more an artist than a scientist? As such, he would be a theologian-composer of Mozartean rank. And he would belong exactly to Mozart's classical school or style. I think Barth simply mistook the regularities and formalisms of classical form for the systems and rigors of science. They do share an orderliness and a discipline, but they are worlds apart.

I hazard that we would track Barth's theology more fruitfully if we stopped looking for Q.E.D. logic, and watched out for the quite different logic of, say, sonata-form: first theme, second theme, exposition and development, recapitulation, and coda, ad lib. And where, in the development, the musician uses counterpoint, changes in harmony, key, rhythm to keep the movement interesting, the theological composer uses references to the same theme in older treatments, arguments with contemporaries, surprising implications, ethical consequences, all to the same end, developing the themes while sustaining interest. No wonder, the affinity we celebrate, as Barth did always, may be in more ways than he knew.

V

It is compatibility of vision that seals this Mozart-Barth union. They are both theologians of the Great Nevertheless. They both know very well that the troublessness of life is all true. Nevertheless, it is all worthwhile. Yes, we do mess up. Nevertheless, we are loved. Yes, we do get lost, but we are found. Dark themes enter the music, but they never prevail. Heavy passages give truth, texture to the music, but they are always subsumed in the glorious affirmation of the whole, in the excitement, grace, humor, serenity, and wholeness that dominate.5

Our heroes both saw the slug in the heart of the rose, but neither lost his delight in the flower. Both acknowledge Nay; both affirm the Yea. Mozart called his Don Giovanni a drama giocosa. Not a tragedy, not a comedy, but a drama giocosa: a serious important play full of fun, a passionate story alive with glee. We can go out where we came in, with a shared primal vision, life and world as drama giocosa, re-presented by two masters, one in classical music, the other in classical Christian teaching.

VI

Where is the like of this Karl Barth to come from again? And not just he, but his whole generation of titans? They were all my teachers and my


5 Barth, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, p. 34.


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friends, and I do not see their ilk among us or on the way. Who among us or in sight will have a centennial celebrated in due time, and if one does, what are the chances that someone will then lecture on that theologian's passion for a great artist?

Today, we nourish our theological sprouts in other soils for other harvests. Alongside the classic curriculum, we proliferate courses which get our young teaching elders ready to achieve practical professional success, ready to dissect the suppurating social anatomy, to penetrate the rank swamps inside other selves and the glittering mysteries inside my self, to bend the free, occasional spontaneities of honest prayer into crutch-like disciplines. We go along as students settle for the familiar, the obvious, the popular, the easy in the available arts, and avoid the complex, the mysterious, the demanding, stretching, hurting, the complicated and complicating excitement in great art.

So, of course, from this puddling mess (a puddle is something that isn't going anywhere, isn't it?), we will not soon raise up a majesterial teacher who is so at home in the arts that he can almost off-handedly reject the idea that Raphael is the graphic equivalent of Mozart, and pick instead the Botticelli in Basel's museum, especially the figures' eyes-as did Barth.6 Nor will we find a theologian prone to hold forth on the strong lines between Michelangelo and Beethoven, while pounding out (with extra notes and missing notes and unflagging zeal) the Hammerklavier Sonata on his Bösendorfer-as did Emil Brunner. And whence, again, a Christian thinker able to sponsor a new painterly movement (the abstract expressionists, in this case), and be accepted in the whole arts world as an arbiter and interpreter extraordinaire-as did Paul Tillich? And what prophets will next thrash and exult and grumble so distinctively in the whole heap of the literary arts-as did the Niebuhrs: Richard, Reinhold, and Hulda? And who will again play four-hand Schubert with his students, and lead them in singing Josquin des Pres. on the dunes beside the clandestine seminary, and fret about the Vatican Pieta, and find a Picasso in a Spanish flea market, and, when a Resistance student jailed by the Nazis is finally released, rush him to a performance of Mozart's Don Giovanni-as did young Dietrich Bonhoeffer?

All of these honed their taste on the arts. These are those whose judgment was refined in the arts; whose invention was quickened and diversified by the arts; who learned ingenuity, discipline, excellence, imagination, proportion, balance, and grace from the arts.

And even they are not our whole challenging, daunting, intriguing lineage. Dare we go on forgetting that Calvin was a literary artist of the first Order, who didn't write just the Institutes, but on irony in Seneca (which is pretty artful), and who somehow sparked a Milton and a Rembrandt and a Genevan Psalter which is one of the ignored glories of our legacy. And what about Luther, who practically created the


6 Barth, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, p. 59.


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Germanies' literary language, and ignited a Bach and a Dürer, and himself wrote poetry and sang powerfully-as did another Reformed feisty, macho father, the Züricher, Ulrich Zwingli.

Wouldn't Mozart be surprised by where we have come out? Wouldn't Barth have a question or two about all of this? Well, I'm a little surprised, too. But with not a tithe of the surprise for which we can turn to those supreme exegetes and artists: Mozart and Barth.