Karl Barth’s Letter to Mozart . . . Courage, Tempo, and Peace

My dear Conductor and Court Composer:
Someone got the curious idea of inviting me and a few others to write a “letter of thanks to Mozart” for his newspaper. At first I shook my head and even looked at the wastebasket. But if there is anything which has to do with you, I can say “No” only in the rarest cases. And did you not also write more than one somewhat funny letter during your lifetime? So, why not? They certainly know more there where you dwell now, unimpeded by time and space, about each other and about us than do we ourselves down here. Thus I actually do not doubt that you have known for a long time how grateful I have been to you almost all my life and always will remain. Nevertheless why shouldn’t you read this in black and white?

Two excuses have to be made first. Number one: I am one of those Protestants of whom you are supposed to have said once that we were unable to understand properly the meaning of Agnus Dei, qui talus peccata mundi. Pardon me, probably you are now better informed on that. However, I do not want to bother you with theology. Believe it or not, I actually dreamed of you last week. Here is the dream: I had to examine you (why, I don’t even understand, myself). I knew that under no circumstances would you be allowed to fail the examination. I asked you about the meaning of “dogmatics” and “dogma,” by pointing in the most friendly way to your Masses, which I like especially. But to my great regret I got not the least answer from you!! Don’t you think we’d better give this point a blessed rest?

The second excuse is far more complicated. I have learned that you could enjoy only the praise of connoisseurs, even in your childhood. As you know, there are not only musicians but also musicologists on this earth. You yourself were both. I am neither the one nor the other. I play no instrument nor do I have the faintest idea about the theory of harmony, let alone the mysteries of “counterpoint.” Those very musicologists disturbed me deeply whose books I tried to decipher when I drew up an address for the recent celebration of your two hundredth birthday. By the way, I cannot help thinking that if I were young and had to start this kind of studying I would clash with a few of your most outstanding theoretical interpreters in the same way that I did with my theological masters forty years ago. But be that as it may, how can I, under these circumstances, thank you as a connoisseur? In other words, how can I make you happy?

To my relief, I have also read that you sometimes made music for hours and hours for very lowly people. This you did only because you somehow had the feeling that they were pleased to listen to you. In this way, with a repeatedly delighted ear and heart I have heard and still hear you play. I myself am so utterly naive that I cannot tell in which of the thirty-four periods of your life, according to the classification of Wyzewa and Saint-Foix, you are nearest to my heart. Surely, surely, you began to become really great, let’s say, about 1785. But I hope I won’t hurt your feelings (or will I?) in confessing the following: It has been and always will be impossible for me to listen without deep emotion not only to Don Giovanni and to your last symphonies, to the Magic Flute and the Requiem but no less to the “Hafiner” Serenade and the Eleventh Divertimento, etc. Actually, I am deeply moved even by Bastien and Bastienne! Consequently, you are interesting and dear to me much earlier than the moment when you can be praised as the “pioneer” of Beethoven!

What I owe you, frankly, is this: whenever I listen to your music I feel led to the threshold of a world which is good and well ordered, in sunshine and thunderstorm, by day and by night. Thus you have repeatedly given me, a human being of the twentieth century, courage (not haughtiness!), tempo (not exaggerated tempo!), purity (not boring purity!) and peace (not complacent peace !). If he really digests your musical dialectics he can be young and become old, he can work and relax, he can be happy and depressed; in short, he can live. You know now, far better than I, that much more is necessary for that purpose than the very best music. But there is music which helps men to this end (ex post and only incidentally!) and other music which cannot help toward it. Your music helps. This I have experienced all my life (I am going to be seventy years old and if you were living you would dwell in our midst as a patriarch of two hundred years!). Moreover, I am convinced that our century, which is becoming more and more obscure, especially needs your help. For both these reasons I am grateful to you that you have lived, that you wanted to make and did make pure music in the few decades of your life, and that you still live in your music. Please believe me that many, many ears and hearts, scholarly and unscholarly, just as my own, still like to hear you for ever and ever – not only in the year of your jubilee.

I have only a hazy feeling about the music played there where you now dwell. I once formulated my surmise about that as follows: whether the angels play only Bach in praising God I am not quite sure; I am sure, however, that en famille they play Mozart and that then also God the Lord is especially delighted to listen to them. Well, this alternative may be wrong. Besides, you know that better than I do, anyhow. I mention this only in order to hint metaphorically at my meaning.
And so, with all my heart,

[From Barth’s Mozart Festival Address, “Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart”]
Mozart’s center is not like that of the great theologian Schleiermacher, identical with balance, neutralization and finally indifference. What happened in this center is rather a splendid annulment of balance, a turn in the strength of which the light rises and the shadow winks but does not disappear; happiness outdistances sorrow without extinguishing it and the “Yes” rings stronger than the still-existing “No.”

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One Response to Karl Barth’s Letter to Mozart . . . Courage, Tempo, and Peace

  1. Pingback: Auditory Cheesecake? | Billy and Dad's Music Emporium

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