Remembering Mozart

I seem to remember reading somewhere that if you were to stretch along a continuum all the notes Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart ever produced, at least a billion miles would be needed to cover the distance. Whoever wrote that had no doubt been a keen and appreciative student of Mozart’s music, but clearly knew nothing about arithmetic. For even if it were true that the young Wolfgang, who began composing his six-thousand plus works at age five, had spent every day of his short life (he died penniless at age thirty-five) tossing off pieces of incomparable genius, the poor man would still have needed hundreds of equally prolific years in order to reach an output of such galactic proportions.

But, of course, it isn’t really a question of how much music Mozart finally left us that matters. Do we esteem the novels of the late Andrew Greeley or Tom Clancy because they wrote so many? All that paper may serve as a tribute to the logging industry that felled the trees to make the books, but that is hardly a reason for anyone to actually go out and read them. As for Mozart, it is a question of the stunning sublimity of the music he made that succeeds, even now, in beguiling listeners the world over. Music that will be judged, long after the last rapper has fallen blessedly silent, an imperishable monument to the human spirit. There was something simply miraculous about the music of Mozart, emitting the purest and most limpid sounds ever to strike the ear of man.

Even his enemies will concede the point. Antonio Salieri, for example, the official court composer, whose own work was completely overshadowed by Mozart, on seeing for the first time a sheaf of his music, was reduced to a state of blithering amazement and near despair. “It was beyond belief,” he confessed, observing the notes as they seemed to take effortless flight into realms not of this world, summoning, as it were, the voice of God himself. “I was staring through the cage of those meticulous ink strokes at an absolute beauty,” he exclaimed.

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What was his secret? Where were the hidden springs to account for so singular and stupendous a river that just kept rushing on? I don’t mean the technical brilliance, which undeniably dazzles audiences everywhere, both then and now. I mean, rather, a certain certitude or intuition of the heart that, very deep down, fired the vision that kept the creative juices going?

Was there, I want to say, some primal truth on which every strand of his music would finally converge, a truth whose essential validity sustained him in the face of so much adversity and grief? For Mozart’s life was far from being outwardly serene. His was an exceedingly careworn life. Not only were there continuous bouts of illness, but misfortunes of every sort, including struggles against villainous rivals, corrupt churchmen and, as always, the wolf of penury baying for blood.

And yet, for all that the accumulated pain and darkness might have conspired to crush his spirit, Mozart dared to believe in some mysterious something, the benign existence of which would triumphantly vanquish circumstance forever. What was it?

It was, in a word, God. Every note of Mozart’s music is a soaring testimony to the living God, to the Being whose cascading beauties may be found on every line of symphony, opera, concerto, chamber, and song. “God is ever before my eyes,” he writes to tell his father, and so the latter must not worry, must not imagine a single untoward thing happening to unhinge him. “I realize his omnipotence and I fear his anger; but I also recognize his love, his compassion, and his tenderness towards his creatures. He will never forsake his own… Thus all will be well,” he writes, sounding the always-greater aspect of divine hope, “and I must be happy and contented.”

It is hugely significant to recall here that, notwithstanding all the difficulties and struggles that came crashing down upon Mozart’s life, he never for a single moment doubted the sheer goodness of God, with whom he remained on terms of the most intimate and childlike trust and affection right to the very end. Indeed, the night before Mozart died he had written out in his own hand that, “God is not a God of the dead but of the living.” And given his lively sense of hope, he had every expectation of seeing and being embraced by the arms of God on the other side of death.

Surely it was this blessed absence of doubt—the corrosions of which so characterize the modern and post-modern world (where, as Karl Marx would famously put it, “everything solid melts into thin air”)—that so elevates him above other men. If it is true, as Chesterton tells us, that angels can fly because they take themselves lightly, then maybe that is why the music of Mozart remains so luminously clear and light. With him, the joy and gladness of a universe redeemed by the Blood of Christ will manage, over and over, to outstrip the misery and sin of a fallen race that would, in turning away from God, divest itself of the grace of music.

“When I hear Mozart,” exclaims a character in a novel whom the critic Jacques Barzun quotes with great approval in one of his essays, “I want to throw open the windows.” And not only those windows that open onto the pavement and the patio of the neighbor next door, though it is good that he too might be bathed in beauty. But the windows of one’s own soul; they especially need to be thrown open to allow the deepest longings of the self to awaken to the voice of that Other, who graciously comes to bestow his love. Plato surely knew this when, in the Phaedrus, he describes the human encounter with beauty as a kind of seizure, painful yet salutary, in which the soul finds itself suddenly transported to another world. Because, having long ago lost contact with the Golden City, and thus the wholeness that had once been so natural to him when living amid the blissful precincts of paradise, he yearns once again to set out in search of it.  And in the course of his wanderings, his constant peregrinations, what else is music for if not to help signpost the way?

“When men have a longing so great that it surpasses human nature,” writes Nicholas Cabasilas, the fourteenth century Eastern Church theologian, “it is the Bridegroom himself who has wounded them. Into their lives he has sent a ray of his beauty. The size of the wound is evidence of the arrow, and the longing points to the one who has shot the arrow.”

We have all need of such wounds inflicted by beauty. And Mozart is a very special arrow indeed, aimed at the heart of all those who allow themselves, through the medium of his music, to hear the strains of another world. Hearing his music, declared Karl Barth, who so revered Mozart that he began each day with one or another of his recordings, the soul is at once “transported to the threshold of a world which in sunlight and storm, by day and by night, is a good and ordered world.”   Immersed in the music of such a world, he added, is to be “blessed with courage, with tempo, with purity, with peace.”

Whoever listens to the seraphic sounds of Mozart, it is said, can never merely speak of it; rather he is reduced to a kind of rhapsodic stammer before the ineffability of the thing itself. As if one were to eavesdrop upon the music of the heavenly spheres, the choirs of angels.  Or as if from a tiny spot on the map of Europe, the cosmos itself had suddenly burst into song. And there he is, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, transcribing all the notes. “He just does it,” said Barth, “precisely in that humility in which he himself is, so to speak, only the instrument with which he allows us to hear what he hears: what surges at him from God’s creation, what raises in him, and what must proceed from him.”

More than two centuries separate us from his life and his death. And, more than ever, the impacted genius of the man moves us to give thanks to God for the gift of a music so full of light and laughter, of joy and hope. Music in which, to quote the concluding line of one of his unquestioned masterpieces, The Magic Flute, “The rays of the sun drive out the night.”

Editor’s note: Above is an image of the Mozart statue in the Burggarten in central Vienna.

  • Regis Martin

    Regis Martin is Professor of Theology and Faculty Associate with the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at the Franciscan University of Steubenville. He earned a licentiate and a doctorate in sacred theology from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome. Martin is the author of a number of books, including Still Point: Loss, Longing, and Our Search for God (2012) and The Beggar’s Banquet (Emmaus Road). His most recent book, published by Scepter, is called Looking for Lazarus: A Preview of the Resurrection.

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