Music as Witness to the Faith: Benedict on Beethoven and Pärt | Rev. Daniel B.
Gallagher | Ignatius Insight | October 12, 2010
Music as Witness to the Faith: Benedict on Beethoven and Pärt | Rev. Daniel B. Gallagher | Ignatius Insight | October 12, 2010
Of all the speeches Pope Benedict
XVI makes in his role as the Successor of Peter, those of the greatest cultural
importance are also those that unfortunately get the least exposure.
His Holiness made one such speech
on Friday, October 1st, following a concert given in his honor at the
Vatican. Legendary conductor Neeme Järvi had just led the Orchestra and Choir
of the Academy of Saint Cecilia in a program that included works by Franz
Joseph Haydn (the "Surprise" Symphony), Arvo Pärt ("Cecilia, vergine romana"),
and Ludwig van Beethoven (the "Choral Fantasy").
At the end of the concert, after
thanking Mr. Järvi and the musicians, Benedict XVI delivered a short speech in
which he made an interesting comparison between Arvo Pärt's tribute to Saint
Cecilia and Beethoven's "Choral Symphony." He explained how the great symphonic
works of the late classical and romantic periods represent a contest between
human ingenuity and the creative forces of nature. By arranging sounds into a
harmonious structure, works like the "Choral Fantasy" mirror the great symphony
of the cosmos, especially when the human voice is introduced as a participation
in this cosmic language.
The "Choral Fantasy" represents a
lofty vision of art as the means by which we find our place in the world. After
singing "when music's enchantment reigns, night and storm turn to light,"
Beethoven's chorus exhorts the audience to "accept joyfully the gifts of high
art." Indeed, for Beethoven, art not only shines forth as a way of finding our
place in the world, but as the very means of overcoming it.
is quite different from the goal of Järvi's fellow countryman Arvo Pärt (1935- ). Pärt
has long been associated with a form of musical minimalism called tintinnabuli
("little bells") that relies heavily on
simple triads and tonal scales allowing each note to be heard clearly and
distinctly. The music exudes a transparency and emotiveness that immediately
draw the listener inwards and upwards.
deeply spiritual man, Pärt sees a seamless connection between the sacred and
"secular" genres which he compares to the meals served in Orthodox monasteries:
the soup is not "done" until the "ingredients" of prayer and holy water have
been added, making it a completely different soup. "You won't believe it until
you taste it," he explains. "And the difference has nothing to do with the
on a text from the Roman breviary, "Cecilia, vergine romana" ("Cecilia, a Roman
Virgin") recounts the life and death of the Roman martyr as well as the
transfer of her incorrupt body to the Basilica that now bears her name. Pärt, a
devout Russian Orthodox Christian, prayed extensively at Cecilia's tomb in
preparation for the debut of this piece in 2000. Pope Benedict noted how it can
be distinguished from Beethoven's "Choral Fantasy" in that it "gives voice to
an utterly different reality not of this natural world." With dynamic markings
rarely rising above piano, the piece
"bears witness to a faith in Christ that can be summarized in one word:
'martyr' (i.e., witness)."
Benedict suggested that Cecilia's sufferings and Pärt's musical representation
of them clearly reveal the purpose of faith within the cosmos: "amid the
life-forces of nature that surround us and are within us, faith is a different
power that responds to a profound word: a word rising up out of silence." Faith
needs a deep, interior silence in order to hear and obey a voice that lies beyond
the visible and the tangible. "This voice
speaks through the phenomena of
nature, since it is the very power that created and governs the universe."
Holy Father's emphasis on through is
deliberate, for Beethoven, unlike Pärt, believed the divine voice to speak in
the phenomena of nature. The difference is
subtle but essential. Beethoven saw the human spirit as engaged in a battle
with fickle fortune. God enters the picture, but only as the "divine spark" (the
Götterfunken, as we hear in the
Ninth Symphony) that allows us to face opposition and achieve the common
brotherhood of man through our own efforts.
Grillparzer expressed it well in his funeral oration for the famed composer,
describing Beethoven as an artist "who traversed all" and "comprehended
everything," but who ultimately "fled the world because he did not find ... a
weapon with which to resist it."
Benedict reminds us that in faith we find such a weapon. Yet to arm ourselves,
we have to stand disarmed in the presence of God. By listening to his voice in
silence, humility, and obedience, we are led to "a place that art itself is
unable to reach on its own accord." According to Benedict, authentic faith is
manifested in the smallest acts of love, which are the "most beautiful work of
art" we can imagine.
to great music undoubtedly places us on the right path, but only by works of
charity is "life itself made a song: an anticipation of that symphony which we
shall all sing together in paradise."
Related IgnatiusInsight.com Articles, Excerpts, and Interviews:
Music and Spirituality: To the Tune of St. Thomas Aquinas | Fr. Basil Cole, O.P.
Music and Liturgy | Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger
The Virtue of Art and the Virtue of Religion | John Saward
Modern Art: Friend or Foe? | Joseph Pearce
Evangelizing With Love, Beauty and Reason | An Interview with Joseph Pearce
Prior to his assignment at the
Vatican Secretariat of State, Fr. Gallagher, a priest of the Diocese of Gaylord, taught philosophy and theology at
Sacred Heart Major Seminary. His recent articles have appeared in the Fellowship
of Catholic Scholars Quarterly, Sacred Architecture, Logia, and the Josephinum Journal of Theology.
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