Mozart Questioned

Mozart Questioned posted in Eleison Comments on June 2, 2018

After issue # 550 of these “Comments” highly praised Mozart (Jan 27, 2018), a reader wrote privately to say that he had a problem with the famous composer: Mozart was an enthusiastic Freemason, he completed in the second half of his life no major work for the Catholic Church, and his operas treat of man-woman relations and of morality in a very casual manner. Now music is so important in people’s souls that this reader’s objections deserve to be answered in public, so that people who do not yet know Mozart may be encouraged – obviously not forced – to make of him the music of their leisure moments. So let us highlight some principles for each of the reader’s three objections.

That Mozart was a Freemason raises a most important principle: the artist and his art are not separate, but they are distinct. What makes the moral goodness of the artist as a person is not the same as what makes the artistic goodness of the artefacts that he produces (Summa Theologiae, 1a 2ae, Q57, Art. 3). Thus Picasso was a personal scoundrel, but his art, purely as art, is brilliant, whereas countless Victorian painters may have been personally very moral, but their paintings are as dull as ditch-water. Thus Masonry certainly entered into some of Mozart’s later music, notably the “Magic Flute,” but the music stands on its own feet, and it certainly owes its beauty not to Masonry’s war on God, but to Mozart’s Catholic parents and his early upbringing in the highly Catholic Austria of the Empress Maria-Theresa.

That, secondly, the mature Mozart never completed another major work for the Church is true insofar as the C Minor Mass and the Requiem are unfinished, but how often those two works are played, and with what religious effect! Also, is there any piece of music so often played or sung in Catholic churches and chapels as Mozart’s “Ave Verum Corpus”? And if we distinguish music implicitly from explicitly Catholic, can anyone deny that Mozart, like Shakespeare, is a tremendous carrier of Catholic values, in Mozart’s case the values of harmony, order, beauty and joy for countless listeners? And are not these great artists, implicitly and by heritage Catholic, a mercy of God to enable post-Catholics to enjoy Catholic values without realising it? If post-Catholics did realise it, would they not repudiate those values like the arrant liberals presently “de-constructing” Shakespeare in the so-called “universities” and no doubt Mozart in the “music conservatories”? In fact, can today’s liberal actors and musicians get anywhere near the heart of Shakespeare or Mozart? What does that say about that heart? Not liberal!

And thirdly, that some of Mozart’s operas are in part so light-hearted as to have incurred the scorn of Beethoven – “Never could I write such frivolous operas,” he said – leaves out of view the serious part of the same operas. Alongside Zerlina’s flirting are the flames of Don Giovanni’s damnation, alongside the Count’s philandering is his sincere apology to his suffering Countess; alongside the Seraglio is the highlighting of forgiveness. Real life in a fallen world is both comic and serious. See how at the beginning of “Don Giovanni,” Mozart combines musically a duellist’s duel and death with the burbling panic of Don Giovanni’s rabbit-servant, Leporello. Surely Mozart, like Shakespeare, “saw life steadily and saw it whole,” as Matthew Arnold said of Sophocles.

However, one side of Mozart does remain that of a naughty boy (cf. the film “Amadeus”), and he is an integral part of a Christendom already decadent at the end of the 18th century. But, when compared with the downfall of music ever since, is his music not almost angelic, without its being so far removed from our own times that it can seem inaccessible? Any man harms his soul by getting used to listening to music which is trash, with little or no intrinsic value of melody, harmony or rhythm. He will not usually harm his soul by getting used to Mozart, on the contrary.

Kyrie eleison.

Broadstairs Mozart

Broadstairs Mozart posted in Eleison Comments on January 27, 2018

Between 18h00 on Friday evening, February 23, and mid-day, Sunday, February 25, there will be held at Queen of Martyrs House in Broadstairs a modest musical weekend featuring exclusively music of the famous Austrian composer of the late 18th century, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756–1791). Why music, when the same time and effort could be spent on something more directly religious? And why Mozart in particular?

Why music? Because music is a gift of God to the world He created, an expression of the harmony which He planted at the centre of His universe, to which all living members of that universe respond, not only angels and human beings but even animals and plants in their own way. As for plants, Colorado researchers in the USA once built four boxes with identical light, air, humidity, soil and plants in all four, and they piped into three of them Gregorian chant or classical music or Rock, while the fourth they left in silence. With the Rock the plant grew but withered, with the chant it flourished, with classical music and silence the result was in between. As for animals, many a cowherd pipes into his cow-stalls at milking time tranquil music to increase the flow of milk, just as supermarkets pipe in tranquil music to increase buying by the human customers. Surprising? It is God that has made us, and not we ourselves (Ps. IC, 3), we are His creatures with the harmonious part that He designed for us to play in His universe as a whole.

For human beings, music is the supreme God-given language of access to that harmony of God, even if, like Brahms, one believes in no God. Music is therefore natural to human beings, and has a huge moral influence on them, for good or bad. As Mother Church resorts to chant and polyphony to lift souls towards Heaven, so the Devil uses Rock and all kinds of modern music to cast souls down to Hell. “Tell me what your music is, and I will tell you who you are,” goes the saying. Nearly every man has some music in him, and woe to him if he does not – Shakespeare says (Merchant of Venice, V, 1) –

“The man that hath no music in himself

Is fit for treasons, stratagems and spoils . . .

Let no such man be trusted. Mark the music.”

One could say that the man that has no music in him is untrustworthy because he is out of tune with God.

And the modern world is out of tune with God, which corresponds to the wretched noise which so often today passes for music, and yet which people love, because music is so natural to man and goes so deep in his soul. And this ugly noise is what is in the soul of countless people around us, and through them it can only bear on ourselves, and bear us away from God, if we let it do so. The question is religious after all. Anything deep-down human bears on God, and music is certainly deep-down human.

On the other hand Mozart belonged to a much saner world than ours, and his music corresponds to a special moment of harmony and equilibrium between the old order and modern emotivity. Mozart is the musicians’ musician. Here are a few of the testimonies from famous musicians – Tchaikovsky said, “I find consolation and rest in Mozart’s music. In it he gives expression to that joy of life which was part of his sane and wholesome temperament.” Schubert said, “What a picture of a better world you have given us, O Mozart!” Gounod said, “Mozart, prodigal Heaven gave thee everything, grace and strength, abundance and moderation, perfect equilibrium.” Brahms said, “It is a real pleasure to see music so bright and spontaneous expressed with corresponding ease and grace.”

Mozart wrote all kinds of music, but outstanding are his operas and piano concertos. In Broadstairs we cannot manage the operas, but John Sullivan who played half of the Beethoven sonatas here in 2016 can easily manage a similar feat with Mozart’s piano concertos and sonatas. Let us know if you plan to come, so that we may have an idea of numbers. No tickets to buy. Mozart is priceless!

Kyrie eleison.

Hammerklavier Sonata

Hammerklavier Sonata posted in Eleison Comments on September 12, 2009

Music, history and theology are closely intertwined, because there is only one God and all men were created by him to go to him. History relates their actions amongst one another according as they go to him or not, while music expresses the harmony or disharmony in their souls as they make their history towards him or not. The music of Beethoven (1770–1827), taken as dividing into three Periods, is a clear illustration.

His First Period containing the relatively tranquil works of his masterly apprenticeship to Mozart (1756–1791) and Haydn (1732–1809), corresponds to the last years of pre-Revolutionary Europe. The Second Period containing most of the glorious and heroic works for which Beethoven is best known and loved, corresponds to the French Revolution’s spreading of upheavals and wars throughout Europe and beyond. The Third Period containing profound but somehow puzzling masterpieces, corresponds to Europe’s attempting after the Congress of Vienna (1815) to re-construct the old pre-Revolutionary order on post-Revolutionary foundations – a puzzle indeed.

As Beethoven’s Third Symphony, the “Eroica” (1805), by first giving full expression to his heroic humanism of a new world, was the pivotal work between the First and Second Periods, so his 28th Piano Sonata, the “Hammerklavier” (1817), was the pivotal work between the Second and Third Periods. It is a huge piece, lofty, aloof, admirable, yet strangely inhuman . . .The first movement opens with a resounding fanfare to be followed by a wealth of ideas in the Exposition, a climactic struggle in the Development, a varied Recapitulation and an again heroic Coda, features all typical of the Second Period, yet we are in a different world: the harmonies are cool, not to say cold, while the melodic line is rarely warm or lyrical. The brief second movement is hardly more friendly: a stabbing quasi-Scherzo, a rumbling quasi-Trio. The third movement, Beethoven’s longest slow movement of all, is a profound and almost unrelieved lament, in which moments of consolation merely highlight the prevailing mood as of a resigned hopelessness.

A pensive introduction is needed to make the transition to the Sonata’s last movement, normally swift and uplifting, but in this case swift and grim: a jagged main theme is worked over, slowed down, turned back to front and upside down in successively ungainly episodes of a three-part fugue. To the slow movement’s raw grief is responding raw energy in a musical struggle more brutal than musical, with the exception again of one brief melodic interlude. As in the “Grosse Fuge” string quartet movement, Beethoven is here foreshadowing modern music. “It is magnificent,” the French General might have said, “but it is not music.”

Beethoven himself climbed down from this Mount Everest of piano sonatas to compose in his last ten years some more glorious masterpieces, notably the Ninth Symphony, but they are all somehow overcast. The hero’s uninhibited exultation of the Second Period is a thing mostly of the past. It is as though Beethoven had firstly basked in the godly old order, secondly stridden forth to conquer his human independence, but thirdly been driven to ask: What has it all meant? What does it mean to make oneself independent of God? The horrors of modern “music”are the answer, foreshadowed in the “Hammerklavier.” Without God, both history and music die.

Kyrie eleison.

Heroic Harmonies

Heroic Harmonies posted in Eleison Comments on February 7, 2009

Just before the media uproar of the last two weeks a dear friend asked me to write about any piece of music that I especially liked. It would have to be a piece by Beethoven (1770 – 1827). Then I might single out the first movement of his Third Symphony, known as the “Eroica,” or Heroic Symphony.

Really the whole symphony is heroic. It is the musical portrait of a hero, originally Napoleon, until Beethoven learned that from First Consul of the French Republic he had made himself into an old-style Emperor of the French Empire, whereupon Beethoven ripped out the dedication page to Napoleon and dedicated the symphony instead to a hero. But the music remained unchanged: the revolutionary expression of Beethoven’s ardent hopes for a heroic new age of mankind to emerge from a tired old order of kings and cardinals.

It was however that old order, as expressed by Haydn (1732 – 1809) and Mozart (1756 – 1791) in particular, that gave to Beethoven the musical structures within which to shape and contain his dramatic new emotions. The first movement of the “Eroica” was unprecedentedly long in Beethoven’s own day – over 600 bars, lasting in performance anywhere around a quarter of an hour. Yet from first bar to last, the varied wealth and dynamic force of the musical ideas owe their tight unity and overarching control to the classical sonata form which Beethoven had inherited from the 18th century: Exposition, Development and Recapitulation (ABA), with a Coda mighty enough (innovation of Beethoven) to balance the Development (ABAC).

Leaping into action with two E flat major chords, the hero strides forth with his main theme, the first subject, built solidly out of that chord. The theme goes to war. A valiant re-statement precedes several new ideas of varying rhythms, keys and moods until moments of calm come with the classically more quiet second subject. But war soon returns, with off-beat rhythms and violent struggle, culminating in six hammering chords in two-time cutting right across the movement’s three-time. A few vigorous bars close the Exposition.

Upheavals and calm alternate for the rest of the movement. Notable in the Development is the most tremendous upheaval of all, culminating in a threefold shattering discord of F major with E natural in the brass, out of which mouth of the lion comes the honey of a brand-new lyrical melody, but still striding! Notable in the Coda is the fourfold repetition of the hero’s triumphant main theme, climaxing with inexorable logic in a blaze of glory. Lord, grant us heroes of the Faith, heroes both tender and valiant, heroes of the Church!

Kyrie eleison.