Saturday, May 24, 2014

Bach, Mozart, Beethoven: Mirror, Mirror, On the Wall. Part 4 of 4.

On March 30, 2014, the Chancel Choir of Atlanta's Glenn Memorial United Methodist Church presented side-by-side performances of three lesser-known but superb Kyrie settings, by Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven. Dr. Steven Darsey, Director of Music, invited me to present a brief commentary preceding each setting, and then a brief, more general comparison of the three composers. This four-part entry is a reworking of those commentaries. My sincerest thanks to Dr. Darsey for his invitation and to the Chancel Choir and accompanying instruments for their compelling performances on that evening.

Three great composers: who is the greatest of them all? Let's consult the experts.

Leonard Bernstein, the renowned conductor and music educator: "Beethoven is—let's face it—the greatest composer who ever lived."1

Anthony Tommasini, music critic for the New York Times"The winner, the all-time great is...Bach."2

Karl Barth, the most influential Calvinist theologian of the twentieth century:
If I should ever get to heaven, I would first of all seek out Mozart, and only then inquire after Augustine, St. Thomas, Luther, Calvin....3
(Note that Barth would seek out Mozart not only before other composers, but even before his favorite theologians, including his beloved Calvin.)

From these three opinions I think we have to conclude that consulting experts is not the best approach. A better approach is to ask a better question: What are strengths and limitations of each composer? Then we can venture some comparisons.

  • The power of his stupendous craftsmanship
  • The universality of his appropriation of musical styles, from all over the musical world that was known to him
  • His religious dedication to his musical vocation
  • The sometimes overpowering density of his musical elaborations. Robert L. Marshall of Brandeis University has written: "Bach intimidates us as no other composer does."4
  • Lack of interest in opera or oratorio—though certainly Bach shows a flair for drama in his St. Matthew and St. John Passions.
  • Astounding universality of musical genres in which he composed, from opera to glass harmonica
  • An apparent effortlessness in his music, as if he were simply channeling the Muse of Music. Mozart insists in his letters that he worked hard at composing. Yet Constanze Mozart said that at times her husband composed music "as if he were writing a letter."5
  • Infallible stylistic elegance
  • Lack of compositions for solo organ, though himself an organist (What would Bach think!)
  • Little musical engagement with the depths of human turmoil and existential desperation
  • Courageous innovation in musical architecture, expression, and drama
  • Immediate and lasting influence on other composers
  • Accessibility to a wide audience of human ears and hearts while remaining elevated and elevating
  • Less than a master harmonist. Charles Rosen of Princeton University writes that Beethoven uses "the simplest elements of the tonal system as themes."6
  • Sometimes fraught with self-absorption

Back to Experts

John Eliot Gardiner, the British conductor, makes a comparison that I find worthy of reflection:
Beethoven tells us what a terrible struggle it is to transcend human frailties and to aspire to the Godhead.... Mozart shows us the kind of music we might hope to hear in heaven.... us the voice of God—in human form. He is the one who blazes a trail, showing us how to overcome our imperfections through the perfections of his music: to make divine things human and human things divine.7

Karl Barth writes a thank-you letter to Mozart—in heaven. Barth's tone is whimsical ("Didn't you yourself write more than one odd letter during your lifetime? Well, then, why not me?"):
How things stand with music there, where you now find yourself, I have only a faint premonition. The hunch I cherish in this regard I once formulated in this way: I am not absolutely sure whether the angels, when they are engaged in the praise of God, play only Bach. I am sure, however, that when they are among themselves they play Mozart, and that then, indeed, the dear God listens in with special pleasure. Well, you know about this better than I do. I mention it only to intimate figuratively what I mean. And so, truly yours, Karl Barth.8

A Personal Preference

I believe that all genius is cloud-capped. We who are not geniuses may scale the slopes. But how can we say who rises highest when we cannot reach or even glimpse the summits?

Yet we are, I think, fully entitled to our own first loves. And so thought the Danish Christian author Søren Kierkegaard. Writing in 1843, Kierkegaard expresses his views precisely, and they are my views also:
Mozart joins that little immortal band...whose names, whose works, time will not forget because eternity recollects them. ...It makes no difference, once one is in that little immortal band, whether one ranks highest or lowest...since all rank infinitely high, is...childish to argue about first and last place....
Yet I am still too much of a child.... I am infatuated...with Mozart, and I must have him rank in first place, whatever it costs.... I will beseech Mozart to forgive me that his music did not inspire me to great deeds, but instead has made me a fool who, because of him, lost what little sense I had....9
Why is Mozart my first love? Mozart's music does not urge messages of faith, as Bach's music does. Nor is it like Beethoven's music a confession of life.10 Mozart gladdens, uplifts, consoles, unburdens, restores, surprises, delights, refreshes. And I am in need of all these encouragements for keeping hope alive.


1. Leonard Bernstein, "The Greatest Composer Who Ever Lived," YouTube,, viewed May 24, 2014.
2. Anthony Tommasini, "The Greatest," New York Times, January 21, 2011.
3. Karl Barth, "Bekenntnis zu Mozart," Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (William B. Eerdmans, 1986), p.8; my translation.
4. Robert L. Marshall, "In Search of Bach," New York Review of Books, June 15, 2000.
5. Robert L. Marshall, Mozart Speaks: Views on Music, Musicians, and the World (Schirmer, 1991), p.30.
6. Charles Rosen, The Classical Style (W. W. Norton, 1997), p.389.
7. John Eliot Gardiner, Bach: Music in the Castle of Heaven (Alfred A. Knopf, 2013), p.558.
8. Karl Barth, "Dankbrief an Mozart," Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (Theologischer Verlag Zürich, 2006), p.13; my translation.
9. Søren Kierkegaard, Either/Or, tr. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong, alt. (Princeton University Press, 1987), pp.48–9.
10. See Hans Küng, Mozart: Traces of Transcendence, tr. John Bowden (William B. Eerdmans, 1993), p.21.


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