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Barth on Mozart

by Howard Schomer

Mr. Jones is pastor of the Buerneville and Monte Rio Community churches in California. This article appeared in the Christian Century, March 21-28, 1984, p. 309. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


 (Reprinted from the July 18, 1956, issue)

Geneva. June 23.

Yesterday evening an event in every way unique and of the utmost charm took place in the graceful auditorium of the University of Geneva. Professor Karl Barth of the University of Basel lectured for forty minutes -- in conjunction with the performance of a “Salzburg Divertissement” by the brilliant Geneva student orchestra -- on the astonishing “freedom” of Mozart.

Those who have known the renowned Basel professor only as the re-creator or a vast system of orthodox and dogmatic theology have no doubt been amazed at his active contribution to the bicentennial of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Barth recently published a little volume in German in which he renders homage to the “secret of Mozart.” His appearance in Geneva last evening was a rare occasion, for nowadays he does not often leave his Basel classroom and desk. He came, amid the festival which Geneva is dedicating to the memory and the art of Mozart, to declare in his delightful French his lifelong passion for the composer whose work has been termed by some, less careful theologically than Barth, a true miracle.

Many who listened to the joyful Karl Barth of last evening, prophetic Swiss German adversary of Hitler from the very inception of National Socialism, recalled his last appearance in this same university hall some ten years ago. They remember the shock with which the audience then heard this ever-surprising Christian thinker as he affirmed: “What the Germans, prostrate amid their ruined cities, now need most is not schoolmasters, such as we in Switzerland, from Zurich to Geneva, are quite ready to send them. What the Germans now need is friends.

Karl Barth was no less refreshing yesterday as he deftly described the total receptivity and objectivity of the artist he loves, to whose music he listens daily. He rejoiced that in Mozart’s music “the sun shines, but without burning or weighing upon the earth” and “the earth also stays in its place, remains itself, without feeling that it must therefore rise in titanic revolt against the heavens.” He bowed before an art in which “the laugh is never without tears, tears are never unrelieved by laughter.” He honored Mozart who, though Roman Catholic and yet a Freemason, was utterly free of all institutional deformations, whether ecclesiastical or political. He confessed the reality and the peace he finds in an art which embraces nature, man and God, which is as true to life as it is to death.

One of our famous contemporaries once asked Karl Barth whether the inexplicable Mozart were not perhaps an angel. Last evening Barth reached out, in gratitude and respect, toward the ultimate mystery of Mozart, working alternately on the Requiem and the Magic Flute as the shadows of early death visibly closed in about him, but the great theologian did not attempt by some intellectual incision to penetrate the great musician’s uttermost secret. It was not with heavy solemnity but rather with not unmischievous good humor that Karl Barth concluded his homage to Mozart, the bicentennaire. He confided to the audience his very personal estimate of several of the world’s favorite composers:

‘Bach? Profondément respectable! Beethoven? Hautement admirable! Tel autre, ou tel autre? Plus ou moins remarquable! Mozart? Aimable!”

For the audience privileged to be at the University of Geneva last evening there will ever remain a bond between the celebration and the gratitude recently expressed to Karl Barth throughout the theological world on the occasion of his own 70th birthday. It will remember the words in which Barth summed up the grandeur of the Austrian composer: “Mozart teaches us the sovereignty of the true servant.”


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