In the minds of many, the two greatest theologians of the twentieth century were the Protestant Karl Barth and the Catholic Hans Urs von Balthasar.
For many years they lived and worked in the same city: Basel, Switzerland. They shared a profound respect for one another. Balthasar’s book on Barth’s theology was considered by Barth himself the finest study of his thought.
They also shared a passion for music and, in particular, the music of Mozart. Protestant and Catholic, their esteem for Mozart bordered on saintly veneration. Barth famously opined that, though the angels before the throne of God undoubtedly played Bach, when they were en famille Mozart’s was the music of choice.
Each delighted in all that Mozart created; but each had a special fondness for that divine comedy, The Magic Flute. Here is von Balthasar:
All the forms — from naive and gloomy ardor via heroic, lyrical yearning, to the passionate love of children, and the love of humanity that rises up to noble renunciation — combine (redeemed, affirmed, and justified) to form a “world theater,” the quintessence of which is the music of love itself.
And here is Barth:
The Mozartean “center” is not like that of the great theologian Schleiermacher — a matter of balance, neutrality, and, finally, indifference. What occurs in Mozart is rather a glorious upsetting of the balance, a turning in which the light rises and the shadows fall, though without disappearing, in which joy overtakes sorrow without extinguishing it, in which the Yea rings louder than the ever-present Nay.
Recently, a friend generously gave me CDs of all Mozart’s Sacred Music. Though a lover of Mozart, the wealth of his early Masses, composed while in the service of the Archbishop of Salzburg, has been a revelation to me.
I heard for the first time, with astonishment, the Waisenhausmesse — all the more astonishing as the creation of a twelve year old! But astonishment gave way to awe in hearing the opening bars of the Kyrie.
Now, I confess, with Barth, that “I do not play an instrument, and haven’t the vaguest idea of the theory of harmony or the mysteries of counterpoint.”
Yet those first measures evoked, to my ears at least, the great unfinished Requiem, anguished over twenty-three years later.
And I remembered the lines from T.S. Eliot’s East Coker. “In my beginning is my end ….. In my end is my beginning.” For Wolfgang, beloved of God; for each of us.
A blessed Holy Week.