The Mozart of Theology and His Favorite Composer

the mozart of theology and his favorite composer

Austria’s president honored Pope Benedict XVI on the final day of his visit to the “Alp Republic” on September 9, 2022 with Mozart music in the Vienna Concert House. 

While it is true that Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was born in the Austrian city of Salzburg in 1756, that is not why his music was played for the pope. In fact, there have been few cultural events that Benedict XVI attended as pope in which a piece of Mozart has not been performed. That is because it is well known that Mozart is the pope’s favorite composer. Consider what Pope Benedict himself contributed to a book collecting fifty-eight testimonies for the 250th anniversary of the composer’s birth in 2006:

When in our home parish of Traunstein on feast days a Mass by Mozart resounded, for me, a little country boy, it seemed as if heaven stood open. In the front, in the sanctuary, columns of incense had formed in which the sunlight was broken; at the altar the sacred action took place of which we knew that heaven opened for us. And from the choir sounded music that could only come from heaven; music in which was revealed to us the jubilation of the angels over the beauty of God . . . I have to say that something like this happens to me still when I listen to Mozart. Mozart is pure inspiration—or at least I feel it so. Each tone is correct and could not be different. The message is simply present . . .The joy that Mozart gives us, and I feel this anew in every encounter with him, is not due to the omission of a part of reality; it is an expression of a higher perception of the whole, something I can only call inspiration out of which his compositions seem to flow naturally.

Contemplation of Beauty

Music for the pope was much more than mere entertainment. He possessed a profound sense of aesthetics that went beyond the sensual experience. Influenced by the great theological aesthete Hans Urs von Balthasar, the Holy Father often reflected upon the importance of beauty and harmony for the faith and, especially, for expressing faith in the liturgy.

“The encounter with the beautiful can become the wound of the arrow that strikes the heart and in this way opens our eyes, so that later, from this experience, we take the criteria for judgment and can correctly evaluate the arguments,” he wrote as a cardinal in August 2002 in a remarkable message directed to a meeting of the Communion and Liberation Movement in Rimini, Italy, and dedicated to the “contemplation of beauty.”

In the same text, he recalled an experience he had after listening to a Bach concert conducted in Munich by Leonard Bernstein. He was sitting next to the Lutheran Bishop Johannes Hanselmann.

When the last note of one of the great Thomas-Kantor-Cantatas triumphantly faded away, we looked at each other spontaneously and right then we said: “Anyone who has heard this, knows that the faith is true.” The music had such an extraordinary force of reality that we realized, no longer by deduction, but by the impact on our hearts, that it could not have originated from nothingness, but could only have come to be through the power of the Truth that became real in the composer’s inspiration.

How can music be so powerful? As rationally organized sound of human voice and instruments, with its dynamics of tension and relaxation, music establishes a somewhat mysterious link between the emotional experiences of human life and the interplay or “concert” (from Latin “concertare,” meaning “engaging in contest”!) of melodies, harmonies, timbres, volume, and tempo that can move us deeply; a connection that deeply puzzled the ancient Greeks and continues to be studied in music psychology. When combined with a message or text, this emotive power takes on a specific meaning, with the sacred playing a prominent role in the whole history of music.

Since his childhood, Joseph Ratzinger learned to appreciate music that “had a bigger and bigger role in our family life,” as he recounted in the 1996 book-length interview “Salt of the Earth.” His brother Georg eventually became the director of Regensburger Domspatzen (“The Cathedral Sparrows of Regensburg”), perhaps Germany’s most prestigious boys choir, and remained in this position for thirty years. Joseph, for his part, learned the piano and continued to play it still in some free moments in the midst of his heavy workload as pope.

But how did Mozart become his favorite composer? Ratzinger himself revealed the secret in the same interview. Having spent most of his youth in Traunstein, he recalled that this Bavarian town “very much reflects the influence of Salzburg. You might say that there Mozart thoroughly penetrated our souls, and his music still touches me profoundly, because it is so luminous and yet at the same time so deep. His music is by no means just entertainment; it contains the whole tragedy of human existence.”

Pope Benedict’s sensitivity for the beauty in music and art as much as his special affection for Mozart’s style correlated not only with his own well-rounded language, but also with the intellectual architecture of his theological writings, which are characterized by a high degree of perfection, with a rare combination of simplicity, clarity, depth, and both logical and persuasive power.

Fittingly, Cologne Cardinal Joachim Meisner, who passed away in , called Pope Benedict the “Mozart of Theology.” Cardinal Meisner explained this epithet in a homily that he gave on the occasion of Pope Benedict’s eightieth birthday (2007) in St. Hedwig’s Cathedral in Berlin:

Pope Benedict XVI has the gift of pointing out to people the sanctifying message of the Gospel in its beauty, fascination and harmony, so much so that he is called the “Mozart among the theologians.” His theology is not only true and good, it is also beautiful. His words sound like music in the ears and hearts of people. He manages masterfully to transform the notes of the Gospel into thrilling music. That’s why the stream of pilgrims that flock to his audiences is growing every month.

Autumnal Clarinet

Pope Benedict loved music. Pope Benedict loved Mozart. But what of Mozart did Pope Benedict love most?

In an interview to a Swiss Press Agency, his brother Msgr. Georg Ratzinger once disclosed this secret, and now we know that there are two pieces that Benedict XVI especially enjoyed: the Clarinet Concerto and the Clarinet Quintet, both by the great Austrian genius. Both pieces were completed toward the end of Mozart’s life and are therefore considered “late works,” although Mozart died when only thirty-five years old. Particularly the Clarinet Concerto (K 622), finished only months before his death in 1791, is commonly characterized as “autumnal.” It is written in A major, comprises the traditional three movements (Allegro, Adagio, Rondo Allegro), and indulges in exquisite interplay between the strings, the woodwind instruments, and the solo clarinet.

The first movement begins with a playful Mozartian theme, simple and original. In the development, we find some more complex harmonic turns and reflexive moments, but the movement ends as light-footed as it started. The second movement (in D major, not in the minor mode that would have been more common) is particularly beautiful, conveying a homey atmosphere, created by several charming third parallels, which give room to artistic but not overly exuberant melodic escapades for the solo instrument. The third movement, once more in A major, presents a restrainedly joyful Rondo with less repetition than one would expect but more development. The Clarinet Concerto was the last concerto Mozart wrote. It premiered in Prague on October 16, 1791, only seven weeks before Mozart’s death. The clarinetist was Anton Stadler, a friend of the composer during his last ten years, for whom it was written.

While the Clarinet Concerto is quite well-known and popular, Pope Benedict’s second favorite, the Clarinet Quintet (K 581), has received less attention, perhaps because chamber music in general is more of an acquired taste. It was written earlier than the concerto, in 1789 (finished on September 29). It is remarkable that a musical piece of such calm and harmony was coincident with the uproar of the French Revolution. The Quintet includes two violins, a viola, a cello, and the solo clarinet. Written in the same key as the concerto (A major), it is likewise dedicated to Anton Stadler. The first of the four movements (Allegro) consists of a very lyric development, the melody flowing in the faster parts between violins and clarinet, passed on from one to the other. Some articulate pizzicato arpeggios in the cello part during quieter sections create a very particular effect.

The second movement (Larghetto), which resembles the second movement of the Clarinet Concerto, is written in the same key (D major), though with a less catchy theme. The end is marked by a chromatic scale that dissolves into a harmonic close. The A major third movement constitutes a minuet with two inserted trios, the first played by the strings only, the second dominated by the clarinet in the style of a Viennese Ländler (waltz). The fourth movement (Allegro) includes five variations of the initial theme with some significant changes of tempo and mood, returning finally after several slower sections back to a lively conclusion with another variation of the initial theme.

Paradise Heard

Why did Pope Benedict fall in love with precisely these two compositions? We can only speculate. They certainly count among Mozart’s finest works and show the splendor of an accomplished composition brought to a high level of perfection.

It is significant that both pieces are for the clarinet and the only ones that Mozart wrote explicitly for this instrument (except perhaps the Kegelstatt Trio of 1786). The clarinet, through its mellow yet clear timbre as a single-reed instrument, evokes a touch of melancholy but not as much as the double-reed oboe; it, therefore, gives itself equally to light-hearted scales and jumps that are characteristic of the uplifting spirit of Mozart’s style. Transparency and brilliance, the perfection in form, and the natural flow of beautiful melodic lines are what give Mozart’s music that classical balance in which one can see the splendor of God reflected.

In a fine exegesis of Psalm 47:8, contained in his book A New Song for the Lord, Joseph Ratzinger considers music an art that can lead to an encounter with God, for it “challenges the highest faculties of man. Man corresponds to God’s greatness only when he gives his answer, in the measure of his capacity, the full dignity of the beautiful, the height of true ‘art.’” And this seems to explain why Pope Benedict thought of paradise when he listened to the composer from Salzburg. Music “has the capacity for taking one beyond oneself to the Creator of all harmony, inspiring within one resonances which are, as it were, in tune with the beauty and truth of God—with that reality which no human wisdom, no philosophy can ever express,” said the Holy Father in 2007; “this is also what Schubert meant when he said of a minuet by Mozart: ‘It is as though choirs of angels were taking part with their song.’”

Beauty Crucified

Joseph Ratzinger’s appreciation for beauty was by no means blind optimism. In fact, he remarked that the “wounds of humanity” do not justify a flight into irrational aestheticism, closing our eyes before the often-difficult reality of life. In his Rimini-2002 reflection he said that Christ is recognized by the Church both as the “fairest of men” (see Psalm 45:3) and the disfigured one, during his passion:

Whoever believes in God, in the God who manifested himself, precisely in the altered appearance of Christ crucified as love “to the end” (John 13:1), knows that beauty is truth and truth beauty; but in the suffering Christ he also learns that the beauty of truth also embraces offense, pain, and even the dark mystery of death, and that this can only be found in accepting suffering, not in ignoring it.

And he continued: “The icon of the crucified Christ, however . . . imposes a condition: that we let ourselves be wounded by him, and that we believe in the Love who can risk setting aside his external beauty to proclaim, in this way, the truth of the beautiful.” We have reason to believe that the Mozart of Theology is now contemplating the glorified wounds of the risen Christ and joins the angels in praise before the One of whose truth, goodness, and beauty Mozart’s harmonies have been capable messengers.

Editorial Note: An earlier version of this article was published by the National Catholic Register in two parts on September 18, 2022 and April 8, 2023 and is reproduced here with gratitude for their permission. More information about the two pieces discussed above can be found here and here with recordings included.