Pearls grow in oysters to soothe irritation; the high art of the West grew pearl-like in Christendom around an abrasion it could not heal: the refusal of mere humans to place all their hopes upon the promise of life after death. Christianity made Europe by offering the kingdom of heaven to barbarian invaders, while allowing them to keep their tribal culture. The high art of the West gave these rude men a presentiment of the kingdom of heaven and formed an authentic Christian culture opposed to pagan holdovers.
Pope Benedict XVI understands the power of high art as well as any man alive. At the center of his concerns are the musicians and the Jews (See last week’s Spengler, The pope, the musicians and the Jews). If the Jew converts the Christian’s inner pagan, as Franz Rosenzweig said, the musician gives him a foretaste of heaven. The beautiful, within the Catholic “theology of aesthetics,” forms the earthly visage of the unearthly good. Yet the good is not quite the same as the beautiful. High culture betrayed the interests of the Church almost upon its birth during the late 15th century, and again during the classical German period. On both occasions the Church responded time and again by clipping the angels’ wings.
The tragedy of Christendom’s encounter with the Jews has no end of telling, but nearly untold is the sad tale of betrayal and distrust between the Church and its musicians. These two tragic stories conjoined at the Benedictine Abbey of Maria-Laach in 1933, where the custodians of ecclesiastical music in Germany hailed Adolf Hitler as the savior of Germany. The same churchmen who earlier had rejected the classical style music in favor of a specious version of the religious music of the Middle Ages also embraced Hitler’s sham medievalism. Europe’s musicians and Europe’s Jews perished together, for the same. Later I will return to this tale, but first it is necessary to explain why music is a burning issue for Benedict XVI and his Church.
For the new pope, sacred music does not merely put the communicant in the right mood. Music, he believes, in a sense, becomes the communion, as he told Church musicians 20 years ago:
Faith becoming music is part of the process of the word becoming flesh …When the word becomes music, there is involved on the one hand perceptible illustration, incarnation or taking on flesh, attraction of pre-rational powers, a drawing upon the hidden resonance of creation, a discovery of the song which lies at the basis of all things. And so this becoming music is itself the very turning point in the movement: it involves not only the word becoming flesh, but simultaneously the flesh becoming spirit. 
These are the words of a mystic, of a fisher of souls. His predecessor was that too, but more inclined to catch-and-release. John Paul II bestrode the stage like a rock star, chanting to youthful crowds, “Woo-hoo-woo! John Paul II, he loves you!” He shared a stage with Bob Dylan as well as “walk on the wild side” rocker Lou Reed. Benedict XVI has radically different views. Citing the same speech:
… Rock music seeks release through liberation from the personality and its responsibility … [it is] among the anarchic ideas of freedom which today  predominate more openly in the West than in the East. But that is precisely why rock music is so completely antithetical to the Christian concept of redemption and freedom, indeed its exact opposite. Hence music of this type must be excluded from the Church on principle, and not merely for aesthetic reasons, or because of restorative crankiness or historical inflexibility.
Classical music, he conceded, has “been forced back on all fronts into the position of a mere subculture.” But even in the Western world we should not be frightened by the term “subculture.” In the cultural crisis we are currently experiencing, new cultural purification and unification can break forth only from islands of spiritual composure.
As Benedict, then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, warned in 1996, “we may have to give up the notion of a popular Church” (see Ratzinger’s Mustard Seed, April 5, 2005). Benedict hopes for “a sacred music [that] bequeaths joy and a higher type of ecstasy which does not extinguish personality, but unites and thus liberates,” and for musicians who “will ask: how can that be accomplished?”
John Paul II erred woefully in fishing for young converts with the net of pop culture. For all his personal magnetism, his long reign left the faithful in rebellion against the standards of the Church, unable to replace aging clergy and beset by clerical scandals arising from general tolerance of aberrant behavior. The permissive message of rock music from the beginning has been, “If it feels good, do it,” and it should be no surprise that a church that relies on feel-good music finds itself with clergy who take the message to bed.
Once there were great musicians who composed the music Benedict requires, but the Church spurned them. In 1820 Beethoven finished Missa Solemnis as an exemplar of what he called “true Church music,” doubtless the best Catholic composition of the 19th century. His biographer, Anton Schindler, describes Beethoven writing the fugue of the Credo,
… singing, yelling, stamping his feet … The door opened and Beethoven stood before us, his features distorted to the point of inspiring terror. He looked as though he had just engaged in a life and death struggle with the whole army of contrapuntists, his everlasting enemies.
The “contrapuntists” in this case were the composers sanctioned by Church authorities, who discouraged its performance in churches until after Vatican II. Along with Beethoven’s spurned offering upon the altar the Church suppressed the orchestral masses of Mozart, Franz Joseph Haydn, and Franz Peter Schubert. As a result, the 19th century gave us Gioacchino Rossini’s Stabat Mater, Giuseppe Verdi’s Manzoni Requiem (perhaps the least sacred of all settings off the liturgy), Gabriel Faure’s Requiem, a few pieces by Anton Bruckner – a poverty of Church music compared to the inexpressible riches of the century before.
Whatever else it may have been, the Church never has been stupid. It takes drastic measures for a reason. No single action has stained the reputation of the Church more darkly than the Spanish Inquisition and the 1492 expulsion of the Jews from Spain, yet (as I argued in No one Expects the Spanish Inquisition, June 22, 2004), the action was not irrational. With Jews came access to the Hebrew scriptures and then Protestantism, and with Protestantism came religious wars that nearly destroyed France during the 16th century and killed over half the population of German-speaking Europe during the 17th century. Spain suppressed Protestantism at the outset and avoided a cataclysmic civil war, until 1936, that is.
Nor did the Church scourge the musicians arbitrarily. Napoleon stabled horses in cathedrals, and his imperial ambition – barely checked by the combined power of England, Germany and Russia – would have ruined the Church. The Church saw not the Mozart of Adrienne von Speyr’s beatific vision, but the Freemason and portrayer of libertines. In 1786, Mozart offered The Marriage of Figaro, an operatic adaption of Beaumarchais’ vicious satire of the French nobility. Two years before the French revolution the cast of Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni broke character during the second act finale and to a martial accompaniment together sang, “Viva la liberta!” (“Long live liberty!”). Two years after the French Revolution had broken out Mozart composed The Magic Flute, a Freemasonic opera portraying a secular cult of wisdom.
Mozart was of course a Catholic who composed luminous music for the Church, although with his two most important works, the C Minor Mass and D Minor Requiem, his sympathies lay with the new secular order. That much the Church might have forgiven, but what it could not abide about Mozart was a quality he shared with Shakespeare and Goethe: as an author he stood in place of God. Heinrich Heine commented that there are no minor characters in the works of either poet, because any figure becomes a major character the moment the author, like God, turns his attention to him. Mozart is not the God, but a god.
Mozart is the master of divine ambiguity. We do not know whether to laugh or cry at Don Giovanni’s murderous escapades. We do not know what set of emotions with which to respond to a concerto movement; a merry interlude will become ominous, or plaintive, or exalting at a flicker of Mozart’s Olympian eyebrows. Good and evil, reverence and impiety, devotion and sacrilege, solemnity and hilarity, in short, all the attributes of human life present themselves at once. In the second act finale of Don Giovanni, we hear Giovanni toast women and wine while his spurned mistress Elvira begs him to acknowledge her suffering and his servant Leporello comments on his master’s hard heart – all clearly expressed as individuals, yet simultaneous and unified in Mozart’s trio. He gives us all of humanity, good, evil and indifferent.
It is well for Benedict XVI to think of the angels in heaven playing Mozart for their own enjoyment, as he has said, but it is just as easy to imagine the devils in hell doing the same thing. In the afterlife, Mozart would be composing for both of them, and would have them singing together in e-chorus, precisely as he did at Prague in 1787. If Christ returned to earth, men would crucify him again, and if Mozart – the real Mozart, not the vacuous child of Adrienne von Speyr’s seances – were to return to earth, the Church once again would put him on the index of prohibited works. Now that Mozart is two centuries dead he is safe for canonization. “The beginnings of great sacred music necessarily lie in reverence, in receptivity, and in that humility which is prepared to serve and to minister while partaking of already existing greatness,” wrote Benedict XVI in 1985. Mozart would have not understood the question.
When the Church suppressed the classical composers after the Napoleonic Wars, it turned against its musicians for the second time. In 1555 the Church considered banning the contrapuntal style of ecclesiastical music, one of the glories of the High Renaissance, on the grounds that the interplay of voices gave too little weight to the religious text. Pope Marcellus II instructed the papal choir that music should be composed “in a suitable manner, with properly modulated voices, so that everything could both be heard and properly understood.” The popular story is false that Palestina’s Missa Pape Marcelli dissuaded the Church from prohibiting counterpoint, but the intervention sent a chill into the Church’s musicians.
What we today recognize as Western music had appeared suddenly just a century before. Johannes Tinctorus, the founder of modern music theory, remarked in 1470 that the only music worth listening to had been written during the preceding 40 years. Modern ears recoil, however, at the music of the 1430’s, but listen gratefully to the composers of the 1480’s and onward, for example the Flemish master Josquin Desprez. The music of the early 15th century looks backward to the Middle Ages while the music of the late 15th century looks forward to us.
Ideas and techniques that European composers had been groping toward for centuries took shape in a remarkably short period of time. What accounts for this? There are many possible reasons. One of the most important can be viewed by the casual visitor to the public exhibits of the Vatican Library in Rome this month. On display is a remarkable manuscript containing ancient Greek treatises on music, owned by the future Pope Marcellus II, including extracts of Aristoxenus, a student of Aristotle. Half a millennium before Christ, Aristoxenus already had enunciated the fundamental idea that underlies Western music: the harmonic intervals govern the movement of melody through time. Harmony, that is, existed as the guiding principle of horizontal melody before composers thought in terms of vertical harmony. That is what makes it possible integrate the vertical flow of melody and the horizontal ordering of harmonies, and to blend two or more melodies in counterpoint. And that is what distinguishes the music of Josquin in the late 15th century from composers a generation older. Plainchant adapted itself to the prose texts of scripture; the new counterpoint required text cut into measures, for only by ordering time into discrete intervals could musicians reconcile the demands of melodic flow and vertical harmony.
In 1453 Constantinople fell to the Turks and the arrival in Europe of Greek refugees carrying with them a treasure of Greek works followed, including many not yet known to Western Europeans. The Renaissance of classical learning gave birth to the integration of space in painting and the integration of harmony in music. The individual stood in the place of God and set the world in perspective and played in the garden of universal harmonies.
At the turn of the 16th century, the composer exercised a new and awesome power, drawing, as Benedict XVI observed, upon pre-conscious powers of the mind. In music as in visual arts the creative individual became master as well as servant. To make sense of the revolution in the arts and its influence upon religion, above all the individualism of the Reformers, would require a treatise, but the connection was not lost upon the Church. It suppressed not only theological inquiry but also musical composition.
As in the case of the Inquisition, the actions of the Church appear as tragic rather than foolish or malicious. The same musical style that exalted the faith could wallow in sensuality. The same composers wrote sacred motets and ribald madrigals. Mozart’s Don Giovanni at least gets dragged to hell, but Monteverdi’s Nero gets his Poppea after murdering his wife, the philosopher Seneca, and various other worthies. His 1643 opera concludes with a gorgeous duet between Nero and his paramour celebrating their lust.
Power over nature is good, but it is not the good, for evil men can use this power for evil purposes; the case comes to mind of the physicist Werner Heisenberg attempting to build a nuclear weapon for Hitler. In some fashion music also involves a power over nature, or at least knowledge of nature’s potential in the form of harmonies. I am not a scientist, but I am prepared to believe Einstein’s claim that the beauty of nature reveals itself in harmony. In music, the capacity to move men by evoking their pre-conscious powers is good, but it is not the good.
Of all the Catholic writers, J R R Tolkien understood this point perhaps the best. His high-Elven master smith Feanor created the Silmarils, three jewels of astonishing beauty, and went to war when they were stolen. His defect was exceeding pride in the work of his hands. The tragedy of the Elves to some extent is the tragedy of the artists. Ultimately it is the virtues of the humble Hobbits rather than the magnificence of the Elves that will prevail. Music, like science, offers mere potential for good; the good is sui generis. For art to serve the good, the artist must first be good. Benedict XVI, as noted, stated that “reverence, receptivity and humility” characterize the musician whose art exalts rather than confuses the listener. Religion can engage art as its servant only after it has converted the artist.
Whence comes the good? The Biblical notion that human suffering moves the creator of heaven and earth, such that this creator cannot help but attend to the cry of the widow and fatherless, the ugly and the crippled, appears orthogonal to the Greek concept of beauty and harmony. It is a crude, shocking, baseless claim which, for better or worse, is far and away the most influential idea in human history.
As Franz Rosenzweig observed, the Jews who first reported this idea as a revelation remained committed to it because their hope flowed in their veins with their blood. The promise of revelation to the Jews lies in the continuity of Abraham’s family, not eternal life. The Catholic Church relied upon the great cathedrals, frescoes and motets to convert the inner pagan of its flock, but it could not convert the artists themselves. European high culture only could end in tragedy. Wagner’s Wotan comes to mind, building his fortress of Valhalla with the hired labor of giants who demanded a price – eternal youth – that Wotan could not pay.
When it turned upon the artists of the 18th-century classic, the Church set in motion a tragedy with frightful consequences. Rejecting the operatic style in sacred music, the Church as a corrective reached back to the plainchant of the low Middle Ages. Its musical doctrine formed part of a broader effort to recreate a tranquil Age of Faith undisturbed by the storms of secular modernism. But no such age ever had existed, and the plainchant of the 19th century was not a revival but a fabrication. The modernists merely proposed to invent the future, but the Church did worse: it invented the past. The final act of the tragedy played out when the Benedictine monks of Maria-Laach welcomed Hitler in 1933.
To be continued.
 Address to the XVIII International Church Music Congress in Rome, November 17, 1985, translated as “Liturgy in Church Music” in Sacred Music, Vol 112 No 4 (Winter 1985). I have not found this seminal statement on the web.