By and large, the five hundredth anniversary of the Reformation hasn’t passed very happily. Based on my observations, day-to-day relationships between Protestants and Catholics seem worse than ever. Well, not ever, obviously. We’re a long way off from a second St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre, and nobody’s nailing anything to any doors. But people I know have raised the question if those of different confessional traditions even can truly be friends.
Perhaps for this reason, this year I’ve found myself thinking often about a strange little German novel from the 1950s, Bach and the Heavenly Choir. Though its author, Johannes Rüber, seems to have had a fairly lengthy career in his native Germany, the book itself didn’t make much of a splash when it arrived in English. (Curiously, one place it was reviewed at the time was, as it happens, Commonweal.) And as far as I know, it’s the only one of his books ever to be translated.
The novel itself is constructed around a fairly improbable scenario: What if a pope were to canonize Bach, or try to? The fictional Pope Gregory, a French abbot plucked from total obscurity to become pope, is a man of good character whose papacy is largely undistinguished. He disappoints friends and foes alike by his general inaction; he doesn’t offer opinions to the press, take stands on issues of the day, push forward candidates for canonization, or publish encyclicals. He spends his time in prayer, playing the violin, and thinking about Bach. And when he’s pushed by one of his cardinals to canonize somebody, well, Gregory suddenly has an idea.
Bach and the Heavenly Choir is a naïve book. The Vatican politics are somehow both too heavy-handed and not heavy-handed enough—Gregory becomes pope in part to shut out an American cardinal, but all actual Vatican conflicts seem to come down to the quirks of characters’ personalities, with little of substance seeming to be at stake. A scene where Gregory feels regret over the poor but doesn’t seem to think he has standing to help them makes me cringe—surely a man so preoccupied by aesthetics could, after all, work at least a little toward other ends. And when he’s asked to produce Bach’s miracles, Gregory replies that Bach’s music is itself a miracle. A pope concerned with the experience of beauty over almost everything else is sweet enough to encounter on the page, but in reality, he would be a sort of monster. And while Rüber raises some rote objections—what about the poor, or people who died in concentration camps, and so on—he’s not interested enough in them to investigate them fully.