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Benedict and Mozart on True Happiness | Monsignor Daniel B. Gallagher | September 23, 2011 | Ignatius Insight

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Delivered on the eve of a highly touted visit to the United Kingdom last year, most of the world failed to notice a short speech Pope Benedict XVI gave following a performance of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's Requiem at Castel Gandolfo. The Pontiff hailed the piece as an "elevated expression of genuine Christian faith" in which "everything is in perfect harmony; every note, every musical phrase is just so and cannot be otherwise." He reminisced about being overcome with "mozart'sche Heiterkeit" ("Mozartian serenity") every time he heard a Mozart Mass performed at his childhood parish. He marveled at Mozart's ability to fill even the most somber passages with a hope and joy that can only come from God's grace and a lively faith. Music, the pope claimed, was Mozart's way of making transparent the "illuminated response to divine Love, even when human life is torn apart by suffering and death."

The Holy Father has never kept his fondness for Mozart a secret. During a 1996 interview with Peter Seewald, the then-Cardinal Ratzinger explained that it was Mozart's unparalleled combination of luminosity and depth that first touched him as a boy in Traunstein. The glorious sound, combined with the sight and smell of incense gently rising to heaven, made manifest "the jubilation of the angels over the beauty of God."

A comment like this reveals not only the Holy Father's childlike faith, but his highly refined aesthetic sense that convinces him of the life to come. He considers music an authentic expression of reason, but a reason open to the depth of human emotion and the height of divine transcendence. He has recalled on numerous occasions hearing Leonard Bernstein conduct a program of Bach cantatas in Munich, after which both he and his neighbor (a Lutheran bishop) were immediately struck by the same certitude that the faith is true. "The music had such an extraordinary force of reality that we realized, no longer by deduction, but by the impact on our hearts, that it could not have originated from nothingness, but could only have come to be through the power of Truth that became real in the composer's inspiration."

In fact, music is one of the most direct ways of accessing Benedict XVI's thought on reason, both human and divine, as well as the relation between the two. Our openness to the beauty and order of the world allows us to "discover that what is 'reasonable' extends far beyond what mathematics can calculate, logic can deduce and scientific experimentation can demonstrate." If we fail to catch sight of the breadth of human reason or logos, we fall short of appreciating the breadth of divine reason or Logos – a Logos which, in both cases, is "creative and capable of self-communication, precisely as reason." Music is a privileged forum in which the human and divine logos come to meet.

The pope's comments following the performance were essentially an invitation to allow the music to speak for itself. It is only a slight exaggeration to claim that just as there is no need to know Shakespeare to know his plays, so there is no need to know Mozart to know his music. The greatness of a true masterpiece stands on its own. Program notes help to refine one's appreciation of the Requiem, but if your heart has not fluttered by the time the developing D minor Introit begins to hover around its dominant major at the fifth bar, it is unlikely you will ever appreciate the piece no matter how much you know about the composer. Jerrold Levinson is right when he says that we do not need to study the score ahead of time since "we miss nothing crucial by staying ... in the moment" by "following the development of events in real time."

Such "real time" is essential when listening to the Requiem since the piece has been needlessly veiled by mystery and intrigue that have nothing to do with its internal meaning. We know Mozart began to work on the piece earnestly after returning from Prague to Vienna in mid-September of 1791. He was interrupted several times by other pressing obligations, including Die Zauberflöte, which premiered on October 1st. Although it is true that the Requiem was commissioned anonymously, the masked figure appearing in Mozart's doorway in Miloš Forman's cinematographic adaption of Peter Shaffer's play is the result of pure dramatic license. If there was any masked figure, it certainly was not Antonio Salieri who, despite his rivalry with Mozart, remained on friendly terms with him until the end. The anonymous commissioner was in fact Count Franz von Walsegg, a mediocre musician and accomplished plagiarist, who wished to pass Mozart's Requiem off as his own in memory of his wife, Countess Anna von Walsegg.

Furthermore, money was neither Mozart's sole nor perhaps his primary motive for accepting the commission. It is true that he had his share of financial woes, but the situation began to improve towards the end of his life. Upon returning to Vienna from Prague in 1791, he was delighted to learn that he had been appointed Kapellmeister at Saint Stephen's Cathedral, a position which allowed him to indulge a long latent passion for sacred music. This was the primary motive for accepting the anonymous commission. The liberal reforms of Emperor Joseph II led to a wider scope of the type of music deemed suitable for church ceremonies, giving Mozart freedom to remold the text and music of the Requiem according to his ever-fecund imagination – a fecundity nourished by faith and a fascination with the afterlife.

Baptized as an infant, Wolfgang was raised by devout parents who took seriously the responsibility of passing the Catholic faith on to their children. Leopold Mozart chided Wolfgang whenever he sensed his son slacking in the practice of the sacraments, especially Penance. These warnings were particularly justified in the early stages of the Enlightenment, a time when divine revelation was doubted, ecclesial authority slighted, and human rationality exalted as the sole power necessary for unlocking the secrets of the universe. Endowed with an extraordinary perception of the "laws" of tonality, Mozart must have benefited greatly from his father's admonition, for he could easily have been persuaded that a natural, this-worldly, quasi-religion was equally as conducive to upright moral living as any religious doctrine. As it was, Mozart, unlike many of his contemporaries, found atheism an unappealing and unsophisticated position, to the point that he vowed never to befriend anyone who rejected religion and scornfully referred to Voltaire as that "ungodly arch-villain."

Anyone wishing to understand Mozart's faith must confront the thorny issue of his association with Freemasonry. The Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II, attracted to the Enlightenment ideals embraced by Freemasonry but wishing to monitor more closely the anti-rationalist tendencies of some Masons, consolidated the seven Viennese Masonic Lodges into three in 1785. This led Mozart to join a new lodge, the Zur Neugekrönten Hoffnung, for which he wrote several initiation hymns.

Cardinal Lorenzo Corsini was already advanced in years and failing in eyesight when elected to the chair of Peter, but as Pope Clement XII he took up the responsibility of protecting his flock from error with no less vigor. A Florentine, he was deeply troubled by the growing influence of a Lodge established in his native city with the help of Lord Charles Sackville, the son of the Duke of Dorset. In his constitution In Eminenti, the Pontiff astutely synthesized Freemason philosophy as being "content with a certain kind of "natural honor" (quadam contenti honestatis naturalis specie). In other words, all we need to know is apparent to us in the laws of nature, eliminating any need for divine revelation let alone any authority to interpret and safeguard it. His condemnation of Freemasonry included a severe admonition that the faithful were to "stay completely clear" of it (prorsus abstinere se debeant): to associate with Freemasons meant to incur an immediate excommunication that could only be lifted by the Holy See.

Perhaps Mozart was aware of this prohibition at the time he was inducted into the Zur Wohltätigkeit ("The Beneficence") in 1784. Nevertheless, we have few leads that would help us explain how he would have rationalized his involvement with Freemasonry as a practicing Catholic. It may simply have been the case that he saw how common it was for Catholics to join Lodges in Vienna, and the young, somewhat rebellious Mozart was eager to exercise his newfound independence from his family in the big city. His father Leopold attended one meeting but never went back.

The irony is that Wolfgang must have been attracted to Freemasonry because it seemed to accord with what he had learned in his Catholic upbringing. It must be kept in mind too that Freemasonry was not a homogenous phenomenon. Like several of his successors, Pope Clement XII primarily had in mind forms of Freemasonry that embraced occult practices and harbored animosity towards the Church. There is evidence that Mozart belonged to a lodge that enshrined the ideals of justice, peace, and brotherhood from a rational point of view. They seem to have been critical of religious abuses, but not hostile to religion. They championed the dignity of all regardless of social rank (hence Mozart's preference to make the lowborn the heroes and heroines of his operas). Mozart was also attracted to the role music played in Masonic gatherings of uniting the attendees in a spirit of brotherhood, goodwill, and peace. A good example is "in Diesen Heil'gen Hallen" from The Magic Flute in which Sarastro sings: "With friendship's kindness as our guide, the soul's made glad and satisfied."

On the other hand, it is precisely the specious character of Freemasonry that obliges the Church to forbid Catholics from becoming members. Although an explicit probation did not appear in the 1983 Code of Canon Law, it did in the 1917 version, in which we read that anyone who joins a Masonic sect or any society that "plots against the Church or legitimate civil authority" (canon 2335) incurs an ipso facto excommunication reserved to the Holy See. In November of 1983, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued a statement clarifying that this prohibition is indeed still in force.

So in the end, provided we steer clear of Masonry, there is nothing to prevent us from hearing a true expression of faith in Mozart's Requiem. The pope's brother Msgr. Georg Ratzinger was once asked if he was troubled by Mozart's involvement with Freemasonry. His reply: "it isn't for me to pass judgment on Mozart. He was a man with many difficulties arising from the period he lived in, and from the circumstances of his life. The issue of his Freemasonry disturbs me insofar as he was not only an ordinary member, but attained the rank of Master, and wanted to found his own lodge. Freemasonry was obviously fashionable at that time in Vienna. Certainly he hoped for material gain from his membership. Whether he reflected on the theological implications I don't know."

If he did not, he certainly reflected on the theological sense of the sacred music he had been yearning to compose by the time he wrote the Requiem. His genius consists not so much in breaking the strictures of traditional forms as in stretching those forms further than anyone stretched them before. He looked upon tonality and structure as horizons of new possibilities rather than as limitations. Others had tried to set the Requiem to music using the sonata form, but no one had exploited its possibilities so fully precisely by adhering to the form more closely. There are those who criticize Franz Xaver Süssmayr (1766-1803) – the composer primarily responsible for completing the unfinished piece – for repeating the musical ideas of the opening Requiem aeternam and Kyrie eleison in the final Lux aeterna and cum sanctis tuis, but I would like to think Mozart would have had it no other way, for it allows for a sublime melding of our human longing for "eternal rest" (requiem aeternam) with the divine reality of "eternal light" (lux aeterna). It offers a splendid parallel of our plea for "mercy" (kyrie eleison) with the firm conviction that God is indeed "merciful" (pius es). The transposition from D minor to B major heightens the conviction, as does the rich harmonic content of the Agnus Dei. This movement, which contrasts a "walking bass" line with soft and simple a cappella sections, makes a transition to the final Communion through an eerie chromatic deconstruction (requiem sempiternam) similar to the Dissonant Quartet. This modern bridge ends with the final two above-mentioned movements that honor Baroque sensibilities for musical symmetry.

What Pope Benedict wished to stress in his remarks after the Requiem performance is that the friendship alluded to by Sarastro in The Magic Flute is not some vague, abstract connection with the cosmos, but a truly human friendship with a person: Jesus Christ, the Logos, the "recapitulation" of all things in heaven and on earth (cf. Eph 1:9). This friendship with Jesus of Nazareth, the Word made flesh, radically distinguishes Christianity from Freemasonry, paganism, magic, witchcraft, and any occult practices that refuse to believe that God did, or even could, become man.

The hypostatic union is precisely what we hear in Mozart's masterpiece. The Requiem is genuinely human without giving up its "divinity." It instills in us a gentle resignation to the divine will in all things. It elevates, rather than denies, pain and suffering. The Holy Father references a letter written by Mozart to his dying father on April 4th, 1787, in which the composer broaches the sensitive topic of life's final phase. He writes: "For some years now, I have entered into such familiarity with this sincere and most dear friend of life (i.e., death), the image of which not only holds nothing terrifying, but on the contrary seems the most soothing and consoling of all things! And I thank my God for having given me the good fortune to have the opportunity to recognize in it the key to our happiness. I never go to bed without thinking that tomorrow I won't be here anymore. And still no one who knows me can ever say that I am sad or ever in a foul mood when I am in their company. And for this grace I thank my Creator every day, and I wish with all my heart the same for you."

The Pope remarked that these words witness a profound and simple faith that pervades every note of the Requiem. Whether listening to this glorious music or facing life's daily challenges, faith leads us to embrace the happenings of this world as God's gift. Faith elevates us above them and allows us to look serenely at death as the key to eternal happiness.

Such happiness is offered to each and every one of us, but you certainly will not find it at your local Masonic Lodge. You will definitely hear traces of it in a quality recording of the Requiem. Mozart worked extremely hard on this piece, unable to finish it before his untimely death in 1791. Hence it is not meant to be listened to while driving the car, washing the dishes, or working out. Rather, turn off the television, sit down, close your eyes, and just listen. Mozart and Benedict both guarantee that you will be much more prepared for a happy death if you do so than if you rush off to catch another episode of Glee.

Related IgnatiusInsight.com Articles, Excerpts, and Interviews:

Ignatius Insight Author Page for Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI | Ignatius Insight
Music as Witness to the Faith: Benedict on Beethoven and Pärt | Rev. Daniel B. Gallagher
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

Monsignor Daniel B. Gallagher is a priest of the Diocese of Gaylord. His recent publications appear in Sacred Architecture Journal (Spring 2011), Benedict XVI and Beauty in Sacred Art and Architecture (Four Courts Press, 2011), and Scruton's Aesthetics (Palgrave Macmillan, 2011; forthcoming).

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