Music: Faith in Music

I recently saw the movie Copying Beethoven. There are very few good films about composers. This is not one of them, although it has the compensation of its “electrifying music,” as advertised by the quote from the Seattle Times review on the DVD jacket cover, as if the music had been written for the movie. The film is marred by the conceit that Beethoven’s copyist was a beautiful, aspiring female composer. Do we really need women’s liberation to understand Beethoven?

Yet the movie had its redeeming moment, which came when Beethoven, played by the excellent Ed Harris, turned to his copyist and said “The vibrations in the air are the breath of God speaking to man’s soul. Music is the language of God. We musicians are as close to God as men can be. We hear his voice. We read his lips. We give birth to the children of God who sing his praise. That’s what musicians are. And if we’re not that, we’re nothing.”

I am unaware of Beethoven having said exactly this, but he did write to Archduke Rudolph something similar about the artistic vocation: “There is nothing higher than to approach the Godhead more nearly than other mortals and by means of that contact to spread the rays of the Godhead through the human race.” Art, in other words, has a hieratic purpose: to make the transcendent perceptible. The Catholic Church agrees with Beethoven that music is uniquely endowed to do this. In Sacrosanctum Concilium the Vatican Council taught, “The musical tradition of the universal Church is a treasure of inestimable value, greater even than that of any other art.”

Pope Benedict XVI also shares this view. In 1985, then—Cardinal Ratzinger wrote, “Whether it is Bach or Mozart that we hear in church, we have a sense in either case of what Gloria Dei, the glory of God, means. The mystery of infinite beauty is there and enables us to experience the presence of God more truly and vividly than in many sermons.” How does this happen? Probing even deeper, Cardinal Ratzinger went on to say: “Faith becoming music is part of the process of the word becoming flesh. . . When the word becomes music, there is involved on the one hand perceptible illustration, incarnation or taking on flesh, attraction of pre-rational powers, a drawing upon the hidden resonance of creation, a discovery of the song which lies at the basis of all things. And so this becoming music is itself the very turning point in the movement: it involves not only the word becoming flesh, but simultaneously the flesh becoming spirit.”

From where does the inspiration come to create music at this exalted level? Cardinal Ratzinger answered, “The Holy Spirit is love, and it is he who produces the singing. . . . The Holy Spirit leads us to the Logos, and he leads us to a music that serves the Logos as a sign of the sursum corda, the lifting up of the human heart.” That is exactly it, even if not every inspired composer could put it in those words—though I have heard Catholic artists like Carl Rani do that very thing. Even a composer as vaguely religious as Jean Sibelius said, “The essence of man’s being is his striving after God. It [composition] is brought to life by means of the Logos, the divine in art.” And as if echoing Beethoven, he declared, “That is the only thing that really has significance.”

Copying Beethoven impelled me to listen again to the Ninth Symphony, which, as always, overwhelmed. How, I wondered, after playing this work for so many years, could I once again be riveted, with tears welling up in my eyes? Art that can keep reproducing an effect at this level is truly great. Epiphanic moments charged with emotion can disappear quickly and irretrievably. Anyone acquainted with the evanescent product of Romanticism knows its passing thrills. However, that is not the case here. The undergirding structure gives it durability. Inspiration is not enough without the requisite architecture to sustain it. As the supreme tonal architect, Beethoven had this gift as have few others. It can be heard in his Missa Solemnis as well.

But others have achieved this level of greatness. Revisiting Beethoven brought to mind two special composers who also fulfilled the vocation of music as Beethoven and Benedict XVI described it.

If you are surprised that I place Beethoven’s older contemporary, Luigi Cherubini (1760-1842), in this category, don’t be. In 1817, Beethoven named Cherubini the greatest living composer, next to himself. All of Cherubini’s Masses are inspired, as is his Requiem in C minor, which Beethoven thought superior to Mozart’s Requiem. You might start with the Coronation Mass, written for Charles X, a stunning masterpiece. It begins with a poignantly beautiful Kyrie. Unlike Beethoven, who chose to portray God’s overwhelming power in the Gloria of his Missa Solemnis, Cherubini uses this movement to depict God’s exultant joy streaming radiantly forth, as well as man’s response to it. The Laudamus Te is breathtaking in its beauty and exhilaration. In the Credo, Cherubini, like Beethoven, emphasizes the act of faith itself with recurring cries of “credo” throughout the entire movement. He also stresses the centrality of Christ’s resurrection and ascension by building to an enormous climax at the Et resurrexit and then repeating the process with another climax at the Et exspecto resurrectionem to engulf man in Christ’s salvific act. It is hard to overstate the magnificence of this Mass, but this is also true of his great Missa Solemnis in D minor. (Any Ricardo Muti recording serves Cherubini’s works well.)

Faith is supposed to be able to move mountains. If mountains can be thought of in terms of sound, Anton Bruckner’s faith moved them. His monumental compositions are a musical Alps, and in listening to them, as when viewing the Alps, one can only stand in awe. The spirit in which he wrote all his works was signified by what he said of his magnificent Te Deum: “When God finally calls me and asks ‘What have you done with the talent I gave you, my lad?,’ I will present to him the score of my Te Deum and I hope he will judge me mercifully.” Eugen Jochum, one of the great Bruckner conductors of recent times, spoke of whatever local Austrian influences may have shaped Bruckner’s music: “Behind that, however, as the background to all his music, lie a piety and a mystical personal relationship to God known otherwise in European music only to Bach.”

At the head of the scores to his three Masses, Bruckner wrote the dedication “O.A.M.D.G.”—omnia ad majorem Dei gloriam (all to the greater glory of God). All three works are sublime. Start with the F minor Mass, a volcanic eruption of faith—truly heaven-storming, an undisputed masterpiece, and rightly known as the greatest Mass since Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis. One example: I know of no other Credo that depicts the Resurrection more powerfully. The Et resurrexit is Christ rising in sound. It is overwhelming. The same motif returns at the Et exspecto, making it musically as clear as can be that it is in Christ’s resurrection we are to share. Deutsche Grammophon has reissued Jochum’s magnificent recordings of Bruckner’s three Masses, made over the space of a decade (1963-1972) with the Bavarian Radio Chorus and Orchestra on two mid-priced CDs [44 7409-2].

In a non-liturgical way, Bruckner’s 9th Symphony achieves the same overwhelming sense of God’s presence and grandeur. A profound spiritual communion takes place in it soli Deo gloria, as Bruckner wrote on the score’s manuscript. This is art serving its highest hieratic purpose. Get the performance on the Profil label (PH 04058) with the Stuttgart Radio Symphony Orchestra, which Gunter Wand called “one of the most memorable in my life.” You will be gripped and shaken to the roots of your being by it. It is in many ways a shattering experience. As I said in my initial review of this recording last year, few things I have heard or experienced in my life have brought me closer to the awesome sense that God, in all His majesty and power, is very near than has the music in this performance.

There are more such works, but not the space in which to tell you about them. As I understand it, the new online edition of Crisis will afford me all the room I need to urge you to listen to them. However, start here.

Robert R. Reilly

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Robert R. Reilly is the author of The Closing of the Muslim Mind (ISI Books). He is writing a book on the natural law argument against homosexual marriage for Ignatius Press.

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