Hearing Harmony in Dissonance: Karl Barth on the Music of Mozart

These are troubling times in which we live. From the depressing state of American politics to the disconcerting international tensions, it would be easy to become cynical and pessimistic. Although we who are Christians may give lip service to the providence of God 41holvoysplin governing world affairs, we (and I speak first and foremost of myself!) can sometimes fall prey to a kind of ‘practical atheism’ evident in the fear and trepidation with which we speak and act. Objective observers might almost conclude that instead believing that our lives are being directed by the loving and faithful God revealed in Jesus Christ, we have actually resigned ourselves to a rather bleak future!

During his discussion of evil in CD III/3, Karl Barth pauses in an intriguing excursus to reflect on the music of Mozart. It is of course no secret that Barth was an ardent admirer of Mozart, making frequent reference to him in his work. When I had the opportunity to visit his final home and workplace in Basel (now the Karl Barth archive), Barth’s love of Mozart was further impressed upon me by the prominence of the famous composer’s portrait in his study (notably placed on the same level as his portrait of Calvin) as well as the location of a collection of books on Mozart that, among all of the works in his library, Barth had purposefully situated for easiest access. It has been said, not incorrectly in my opinion, that Barth wrote theology in the same way that Mozart wrote music.

Regarding the thorny question of the problem of evil in relation to the providence of God over creation, Barth finds great insight and hope in Mozart’s compositions. Although not waxing exegetical, Barth invites us to see the world (or rather hear the world) through the unparalleled ears of Mozart:

I must again revert to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Why is it that this man is so incomparable? Why is it that for the receptive, he has produced in almost every bar he conceived and composed a type of music for which “beautiful” is not a fitting epithet: music which for the true Christian is not mere entertainment, enjoyment or edification but food and drink; music full of comfort and counsel for his needs; music which is never a slave to its technique nor sentimental but always “moving,” free and liberating because wise, strong and sovereign? Why is it possible to hold that Mozart has a place in theology, especially in the doctrine of creation and also in eschatology, although he was not a father of the Church, does not seem to have been a particularly active Christian, and was a Roman Catholic, apparently leading what might appear to us a rather frivolous existence when not occupied in his work?

It is possible to give him this position because he knew something about creation in its total goodness that neither the real fathers of the Church nor our Reformers, neither the orthodox nor Liberals, neither the exponents of natural theology nor those heavily armed with the “Word of God,” and certainly not the Existentialists, nor indeed any other great musicians before and after him, either know or can express and maintain
as he did. In this respect he was pure in heart, far transcending both optimists and pessimists. 1756–1791! This was the time when God was under attack for the Lisbon earthquake, and theologians and other well-meaning folk were hard put to it to defend mozartHim. In face of the problem of theodicy, Mozart had the peace of God which far transcends all the critical or speculative reason that praises and reproves. This problem lay behind him. Why then concern himself with it?

He had heard, and causes those who have ears to hear, even today, what we shall not see until the end of time—the whole context of providence. As though in the light of this end, he heard the harmony of creation to which the shadow also belongs but in which the shadow is not darkness, deficiency is not defeat, sadness cannot become despair, trouble cannot degenerate into tragedy and infinite melancholy is not ultimately forced to claim undisputed sway. Thus the cheerfulness in this harmony is not without its limits. But the light shines all the more brightly because it breaks forth from the shadow. The sweetness is also bitter and cannot therefore cloy. Life does not fear death but knows it well. Et lux perpetua lucet (sic!) eis—even the dead of Lisbon. Mozart saw this light no more than we do, but he heard the whole world of creation enveloped by this light.

Hence it was fundamentally in order that he should not hear a middle or neutral note, but the positive far more strongly than the negative. He heard the negative only in and with the positive. Yet in their inequality he heard them both together, as, for example, in the Symphony in G-minor of 1788. He never heard only the one in abstraction. He heard concretely, and therefore his compositions were and are total music. Hearing creation unresentfully and impartially, he did not produce merely his own music but that of creation, its twofold and yet harmonious praise of God…

I make this interposition here, before turning to chaos, because in the music of Mozart—and I wonder whether the same can be said of any other works before or after—we have clear and convincing proof that it is a slander on creation to charge it with a share in chaos because it includes a Yes and a No, as though orientated to God on the one side and nothingness on the other. Mozart causes us to hear that even on the latter side, and therefore in its totality, creation praises its Master and is therefore perfect. Here on the threshold of our problem—and it is no small achievement—Mozart has created order for those who have ears to hear, and he has done it better than any scientific deduction could. This is the point which I wish to make.[1]

There is so much here to make the heart burst that it is difficult to know how to conclude this post, so I will simply say this. As Barth hears it, Mozart’s music leads us to confidently live in the sure expectation that however dark the darkness, the light will break through and will not be overcome. Mozart’s music tells us that however loud the ‘No’ of evil may sound to us, it can never drown out the unequivocal and ultimate ‘Yes’ that God pronounces over the world in Christ. Mozart’s music exemplifies how the dissonance that makes us cringe in the present, far from destroying the beauty we crave, will in the end be caught up into the divine symphony and, under the direction of the Master Composer, will be woven as a harmonious counterpoint into the most unimaginably glorious melody ever conceived.

So as we continue to root our faith and hope ultimately in the Word of God, we may perhaps benefit as well, as did Barth, from giving ear to the music of Mozart. Speaking from personal experience, I can testify that listening to Mozart can raise our spirits and lighten our hearts, filling us with a bit of radiant joy with which to ward off the clouds of despair.


[1] Barth, K., Bromiley, G.W. & Torrance, T.F., 2004. Church dogmatics: The doctrine of creation, Part 3 3rd ed., London; New York: T&T Clark. pp.297-299.