Music as Witness to the Faith: Benedict on Beethoven and Pärt
Rev. Daniel B. Gallagher
October 12, 2010
Of all the speeches Pope Benedict XVI makes in his role as the Successor of Peter, those of the greatest cultural importance are also those that unfortunately get the least exposure.
His Holiness made one such speech on Friday, October 1st, following a concert given in his honor at the Vatican. Legendary conductor Neeme Järvi had just led the Orchestra and Choir of the Academy of Saint Cecilia in a program that included works by Franz Joseph Haydn (the "Surprise" Symphony), Arvo Pärt ("Cecilia, vergine romana"), and Ludwig van Beethoven (the "Choral Fantasy").
At the end of the concert, after thanking Mr. Järvi and the musicians, Benedict XVI delivered a short speech in which he made an interesting comparison between Arvo Pärt's tribute to Saint Cecilia and Beethoven's "Choral Symphony." He explained how the great symphonic works of the late classical and romantic periods represent a contest between human ingenuity and the creative forces of nature. By arranging sounds into a harmonious structure, works like the "Choral Fantasy" mirror the great symphony of the cosmos, especially when the human voice is introduced as a participation in this cosmic language.
The "Choral Fantasy" represents a lofty vision of art as the means by which we find our place in the world. After singing "when music's enchantment reigns, night and storm turn to light," Beethoven's chorus exhorts the audience to "accept joyfully the gifts of high art." Indeed, for Beethoven, art not only shines forth as a way of finding our place in the world, but as the very means of overcoming it.
This is quite different from the goal of Järvi's fellow countryman Arvo Pärt (1935- ). Pärt has long been associated with a form of musical minimalism called tintinnabuli ("little bells") that relies heavily on simple triads and tonal scales allowing each note to be heard clearly and distinctly. The music exudes a transparency and emotiveness that immediately draw the listener inwards and upwards.
A deeply spiritual man, Pärt sees a seamless connection between the sacred and "secular" genres which he compares to the meals served in Orthodox monasteries: the soup is not "done" until the "ingredients" of prayer and holy water have been added, making it a completely different soup. "You won't believe it until you taste it," he explains. "And the difference has nothing to do with the taste."
Based on a text from the Roman breviary, "Cecilia, vergine romana" ("Cecilia, a Roman Virgin") recounts the life and death of the Roman martyr as well as the transfer of her incorrupt body to the Basilica that now bears her name. Pärt, a devout Russian Orthodox Christian, prayed extensively at Cecilia's tomb in preparation for the debut of this piece in 2000. Pope Benedict noted how it can be distinguished from Beethoven's "Choral Fantasy" in that it "gives voice to an utterly different reality not of this natural world." With dynamic markings rarely rising above piano, the piece "bears witness to a faith in Christ that can be summarized in one word: 'martyr' (i.e., witness)."
Pope Benedict suggested that Cecilia's sufferings and Pärt's musical representation of them clearly reveal the purpose of faith within the cosmos: "amid the life-forces of nature that surround us and are within us, faith is a different power that responds to a profound word: a word rising up out of silence." Faith needs a deep, interior silence in order to hear and obey a voice that lies beyond the visible and the tangible. "This voice speaks through the phenomena of nature, since it is the very power that created and governs the universe."
The Holy Father's emphasis on through is deliberate, for Beethoven, unlike Pärt, believed the divine voice to speak in the phenomena of nature. The difference is subtle but essential. Beethoven saw the human spirit as engaged in a battle with fickle fortune. God enters the picture, but only as the "divine spark" (the Götterfunken, as we hear in the Ninth Symphony) that allows us to face opposition and achieve the common brotherhood of man through our own efforts.
Franz Grillparzer expressed it well in his funeral oration for the famed composer, describing Beethoven as an artist "who traversed all" and "comprehended everything," but who ultimately "fled the world because he did not find ... a weapon with which to resist it."
Pope Benedict reminds us that in faith we find such a weapon. Yet to arm ourselves, we have to stand disarmed in the presence of God. By listening to his voice in silence, humility, and obedience, we are led to "a place that art itself is unable to reach on its own accord." According to Benedict, authentic faith is manifested in the smallest acts of love, which are the "most beautiful work of art" we can imagine.
Listening to great music undoubtedly places us on the right path, but only by works of charity is "life itself made a song: an anticipation of that symphony which we shall all sing together in paradise."