Sunday, 17 July 2011

Mozart; Traces of Transcendence

W. A. Mozart: Unfinished portrait by Lange 1782

I've been re-reading Hans Kung's little book, Mozart; Traces of Transcendence at the same time as I've been teaching a module on Worship for York St John's University. I first read the Hans Kung book years ago and was quite disappointed by it.  I thought perhaps I had missed something in it so I decided to give it another go. But try as I might, once again, I couldn't find the depth of understanding of music I was hoping to discover. Yes, it sets the phenomenon that was Mozart against his historical, political and religious background and (for my taste) tries to squeeze the work of Mozart into theological shapes that suit the writer's understanding of the Mass but were probably not entirely in the mind of Mozart himself. But the reason the book disappointed me was that Kung either portrays music as a vehicle for concepts carried by tradition and words, or he tips over into a slightly mysterious and emotional approach to music which makes grand claims about bliss, transcendence and universal appeal.  True, he acknowledges that 'The music of this incomparable composer is accessible to anyone who is open to it. It really does not need words.' But his entire discussion of Mozart's motivation and achievement in composing religious music is based around the history and content of texts and theological concepts.

All this has set me wondering. One of the students on the module I've been teaching chose to give a presentation on why he percieves music as a distraction from worship rather than an aid to it. His main argument centred around the fact that music often obscures our hearing of texts and therefore our apprehending and understanding of the concepts and emotions they carry. In a way, both Kung and my very thoughtful student seem to have taken the same approach to the place of music in worship and I would say that they have fallen into the same trap.

Music is not principally a medium for carrying words or for communicating the same concepts that texts express. It is not some kind of parallel or alternative way of communicating the same thing. To say it with words and play it in music does not help us say the same thing twice over. Music is a 'language' or, I would prefer to say, a means of communicating that stands in its own right and operates on its own terms. It conveys truth in a complex manner and in a different way from language. It has an intelligence which is quite separate from language and linear, reasoned thought. And the reason we reach for all the superlatives to speak about composers like Mozart and Bach - sublime, transcendent, universal, divine - is that they were masters of the means of communication that is music.

Why do Mozart's Agnus Deis move us? Not, I think, because of his theological understanding of the sins of the world and the reconciliation and peace brought about by the cross but because, as he himself tells us, 'I never lie down at night without reflecting, young as I am, that I may not live to see another day.' Why do his Dies Iraes have power to warn and terrify? Listen to the darkest parts of Don Giovanni and you will begin to perceive the strength of the wrath of God when it is pitted against evil. Why does his music point us toward things transcendent? Listen to the final chord of the (incomplete) Lacrimosa; it conjures up hope by being the obverse of the final chord of Purcell's Dido's Lament which conveys utter despair. Of course, it communicates a feeling of hope per se, but I can only find a reason for that hope by contrasting it with music that does the opposite; to say that is hopeful because the composer is 'thinking of eternity' does it an injustice.  Ultimately, I think you can only respond to Mozart's music as music: any religious or theological insight (cognitive or affective) that emerges is most clearly grasped through parallels and contrasts with other music or with Mozart's own music. I once played the double bass for a performance which sought to portray the crucifixion and resurrection. A lady asked my fellow performer, a pianist, 'Did you think of God as you were playing?' 'No, madam,' he said, 'There are about 15,000 notes in the piece we have just played. I mostly thought about getting them all in the right order.' Yet the music elicited stories of deaths and suffering and inexplicable experiences of the presence of God from other members of the audience in ways that showed that many in the room had thought about or experienced again things they identified as death and God-found-through-death.        

Mozart once said he did not trust people who were not religious; clearly he was a person of faith and someone who had an experiential relationship rather than a scholarly relationship with the Roman Catholic faith of his time (and, to be fair, Kung does make this point.) He strove for truth in his music. I am not sure that the words or the marriage of the music with the words are at all the point. Perhaps I am a purist when it comes to music in worship. I have no objection at all (unlike my student) to music being used as a vehicle for texts. It helps us interpret them, it beautifies them, it comments on them, it fixes them in our memories and it enables us to join in and and participate by singing or listening. But the real point of music is that it has the potential to communicate truth in and of itself. Let's avoid being sentimental about it, however! Bad or inappropriate music does this badly or not at all and even sublime music can only reach falteringly for penultimate truth, just as sublime words or visual images do. For the purposes of worship, we ought to let music speak for itself from time to time and strive for standards that are appropriate to our setting, neither over reaching our abilities nor settling for the lowest common denominator. And if we can't do this, an absence of music enables text, word and silence to speak.        

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