Karl Barth, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Eerdmans, 1986)

Originally Appeared in The Green Man Review.

John Updike, who writes the foreword to this book, is of course the widely known American author of fiction, poems, plays, and literary criticism, famous for his Rabbit tetralogy.

The author Karl Barth (pronounced “bart”) was the socially outspoken Swiss Reformed theologian famous as one of the founders (along with Martin Niemoeller) of the partially underground “Confessing Church” which opposed the national socialist Christianity created by the Nazi Party. He is also known for founding the school of Protestant theology known as neo-orthodoxy, which influenced Reinhold Niebuhr, Emil Brunner, and continues to impact modern Western theologians in general.

Mozart certainly needs no introduction. He did, however, need a biography as fascinating as this one.

Barth’s is an uncommon biography in that it is not merely a biography but also an enamored testimonial, an open letter to the composer in the unquiet “mighty echo” of his repose, a more complex and detailed biographical article, and a summarizing festival address. The whole is amazingly brief, un-technical and therefore accessible, and is concisely placed in the context of Barth’s thinking as a modern religious philosopher by John Updike, a writer with Barthian affinities of his own.

One generally separates the biographical from what is an analysis of and commentary on a life’s artistic work. This small tome is both. Indeed, Barth tries to separate Mozart from what are really assumptions about his music. Then he goes on to talk about each with an incandescent lucidity.

Barth’s “Letter of Thanks to Mozart” is self-conscious and intentionally not academic. Barth stays away from musicological analysis throughout the work. Perhaps it is precisely because Barth does not dissect but rather exults in Mozart that he has become the source of some of the most memorable quotations on the composer and his music.

Barth concedes the possibility, asserted by so many of Mozart’s biographers and analysts, that the musical style remains within the conventions of an age. But far from being confined, Barth speculates, this may be exactly the expression of Mozart’s genius, that precisely in his virtuosity as perpetual pupil he was “an absolute master,” that the genius of what is, with some searching difficulty, treated as “Mozartean” is exactly the self-imposed limits of the “musical currents of his time.” Barth argues that the work of others is exactly what “spurred” the composer.

The author looks at Mozart’s childhood both in terms of its brevity, obliged as the composer was by father and natural talent to be a prodigy at work, and in terms of the creative play and playful creativity evinced throughout Mozart’s also abbreviated adult life. Barth grapples with the common reference to Mozart as “childlike” and finally affirms the designation as apropos, but in another “higher sense of the word” best not forgotten “lest we think and say something foolish.” Play, says Barth, is “lofty … requires mastery.”

Still, Mozart’s life, as described by the author, is tragicomic. Just as Natalie Goldberg said she’s never known a writer to be made happy by writing professionally, Barth concedes that Mozart could never be called happy even though his work gave so much joy to others. He could never be said to truly love, either, except music.

Barth finds in Mozart an affirmation of life in the context of God’s absolute otherness: “Whenever I listen to you I am transported to the threshold of a world in which sunlight and storm, by day and by night, is a good and ordered world.” In Mozart, says Barth, we find a divine comedy in the midst of pain and suffering in which “one can live.”

It is not only in the language of religious philosophy that Barth extols Mozart. He also treats him as the purveyor of an almost if not always specifically religious enthusiasm. Certainly the volume is replete with insights that might otherwise be lacking were Barth not a theologian and not, as Updike asserts, specifically Karl Barth. “Whoever has discovered Mozart even to a small degree,” says the author, “and then tries to speak about him falls quickly into what seems like rapturous stammering.”

Barth argues that Mozart’s miracle in music is neither a doctrinal “message” like Bach’s, nor a “personal confession” in the style of Beethoven. Instead, it is universal because it is objective rather than impressionistic. And so Barth grapples with the question of how this universality of Mozart’s music is possible in contrast with the composer’s narrow training and experience,

The author consciously chooses to depart from the “ecstatic stammer” which was all that could be managed by the composers of Mozart’s time, and many of those in ours. Still, while eschewing questions of whether Mozart is some kind of musical angel, he does venerate the composer with similarly pious, if metaphorical, language: “it may be that … the angels play only Bach … I am sure, however, when they are together en famille they play Mozart….”

One further note: I was thrilled at the account of little Mozart slipping on a smooth floor. He was caught as he fell by the young Marie Antoinette and promptly proposed marriage. Impetuous, innocent, and delightful!

This work is somewhat scarce now but is also a treasure worth hunting. I found a number of copies at American Book Exchange.

For more information on Karl Barth, one might consult The Center for Barth Studies or this collection of links.

The Centaurian, a website dedicated to John Updike, is here.

The Mozart Project is an excellent resource, and other intriguingly idiosyncratic Mozart sites are here and here.

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