Theologians and their composers

When I was a teenager I would often go on extended walks with a piece of classical music playing on my walkman (remember those?). That doesn’t happen much these days – there are a lot more distractions inhibiting me from, say, getting lost for hours inside a Wagner opera while making myself an easy target for a mugging.

Recently Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry uncorked an old debate by claiming the superiority of Beethoven to Mozart, and lamenting that while a lot of modern theologians appreciate the latter, the same is not true for the former. This reminded me that I had not listened to an entire Beethoven piece in quite some time. So I uploaded his String Quartet Op.131 in C sharp minor onto my ipod and went for an evening stroll.

The quartet is one of Beethoven’s last works.  The usual four movement template is eschewed in favor of seven movements that meld into each other, with sonata form featured in only the last movement. The heart of the piece is the fourth movement – a long, mellow theme-and-variations where Beethoven shows just how plastic form can be in his hands. It’s a very difficult, abstract piece that, aside from the intensity of the first and last movements, suggests little of the stereotypical image of Beethoven the Romantic.

Beethoven’s music stands more on its sheer inventiveness and expressivity than on gracefulness and form. And that is what Gobry hangs his case for Ludwig’s superiority on:

No, Mozart is not the greatest. Mozart is not the greatest, because for all his attempts to move beyond, all his pathos, he remains the classical composer par excellence. Mozart is the Parthenon. Mozart represents art understood as submission to, and fulfillment of, form.

No. This is not the full truth of art. The full truth of art must have as its primary impulse the expression of human subjectivity (an expression of subjectivity which only through its embrace of itself can then point to universality), even as it incorporates, uses, and in its fullness, transcends, aesthetic rules. And here we are talking about Beethoven. Mozart expressed the fullness of humanity within the classical rules. Beethoven expressed the fullness of humanity by transcending (through incorporating) the classical rules.

I am, I admit, more fond of Mozart than Beethoven, but that is largely for a reason which is secondary to this debate: Mozart was an opera composer. Sure, Beethoven had Fidelio, but he wasn’t committed to wedding music and the stage in the way Mozart was. Opera, oratorios, ballet – these things are near and dear to me.

Or maybe it isn’t secondary. I tend to prefer the idea of the artist as a maker of sublime things to that of the artist as self-expressive. Objectivity over subjectivity etc., and an emphasis on order and harmony – emotions may be high in an opera or ballet production, but there is always something apollonian in the careful co-ordination, perfection of technique and attention to detail required here. People are absorbed into their roles – it is almost liturgical.

I wonder whether the possible theological ‘discounting’ of Beethoven is a side effect of how Beethoven is one of the first artists where great art becomes linked with revolutionary ideas, and the art itself takes on a sort of salvific character – I’m looking at the 9th in particular. It isn’t music that is about to get down on its knees. Then again, Mozart’s Die Zauberflote is pretty heavy on the masonic imagery, so maybe I’m barking up the wrong tree.

One question: how much does the music (or art more generally) that a theologian appreciates inform us about their theology?

About Josh W

A Catholic. Likes to write stuff and draw pictures.
This entry was posted in Catholicism, fragments of culture and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Theologians and their composers

  1. jubilare says:

    It’s possible that music appreciation is tied to theology, but I think it more likely to be tied to personality and perception. Admittedly, though, I know very little in this field.

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