Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Mozart, Justice and the Church

The world of music and faith celebrates the 250th birthday of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart during 2006.

Everyone concedes that the man was a musical genius from childhood.

Recently, I heard his Solemn Vespers presented by a church choir in honor of his birth. More importantly, at least for me, the presentation established the power of this particular piece of music as it relates to the mission of the people of God as understood by the composer.

I suppose the church has battled with itself from the beginning about the role of faith and people of faith in establishing justice and fairness in its area of influence. Solemn Vespers gets right at this struggle, while offering a clear challenge straight from the words of scripture to those who hear its amazing and powerful score.

The lyrics combine passages from Psalms 110-113, 117 and concludes with the grandeur of the Magnificat, Mary's song concerning the coming birth of her child, Jesus.

The words drive home the composer's point about the prominence of compassion and justice in the mind and acts of God. The call of its message is very clear to those who seek God in life.

Psalm 110 establishes the power and majesty of God and conveys the same to God's chosen one, the King of Israel.

Psalm 111 speaks of the works of God "in the council of the just." God's "justice continues from generation to generation." God is a "merciful and gracious Lord."

Psalm 112 speaks of those who follow this God. Justice, mercy, compassion, sympathy, sharing--all are sung as qualities of God's people. "He disperses, he gives to the poor; his justice endures from generation to generation. . . .The wicked will see, and be angered, he will gnash with his teeth, and waste away. The desire of the wicked shall perish."

Psalm 113 reminds that there is no God like this God. "Who is like our God, who dwells on high and yet considers the lowly. . .? Lifting up the needy from the dust, and raising the poor from the dung heap, so that he may place him with the princes of his people." As the choir sang, I thought of the prayers I have heard so often at the Central Dallas Church about a God who "sits high, but looks low."

Psalm 117 provides a brief refrain concerning the "loving kindness" of God.

Solemn Vespers concludes with the powerful Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55). Mary's status as a poor, young woman who finds herself pregnant and unmarried, provides the social and personal context for her praise. Mercy and strength are prominent themes here.

"He has shown the strength of his arm; he has scattered the proud, even the arrogant in heart.

"He has deposed the mighty from their seats, and exalted the humble.

"The hungry he has filled with good things, the rich he has sent empty away."

The music swept me away. The words, sung in Latin as I followed the English translation, centered me again.

Somehow the church easily loses its way. It has always been the case.

Well over 200 years ago a musical genius who knew well the message and the values of his Creator provided a timeless reminder of what matters most in life.


Jeff Goolsby said...

It might be a stretch to suggest Mozart was interested in issues of poverty and social justice. He was born into privilege and destined for prestige. His father was a famous musician, and because of his own extraordinary genius, he had toured Europe playing for kings, emperors, and popes, all before his tenth birthday. In Salzburg, where the Solemn Vespers was composed, he was busy churning out music for use in the church service, not to mention the symphonies, operas, and string music. Mozart travelled in elite circles. He had an on-going disagreement with the bishop of Salzburg - mainly a personality conflict - and left for Vienna in 1780 where he really blossomed in the last years of his life. The Solemn Vespers was composed for a specific function and a specific liturgy. Interpret the Biblical texts however you like, but trying to apply an arbitrary and hidden motivation to Mozart's composition is irresponsible.

Jeff Goolsby

Larry James said...

Jeff, you misunderstand my intention here. The fact that Mozart wasn't really concerned about the values of scripture is not only beside the point, it makes my point about the enduring truth "hidden in plain sight" throughout the Bible. No matter what Mozart thought, he had enough sense to string together several key texts that establish clearly God's commitment to justice being established in the world. There is no other way to read the message of Solemn Vespers. Forget the amazing music, and it is largely unforgettable actually--the message is very, very clear. The church has always found ways--as did the Bishops and Kings of Mozart's own day--to ignore and deny the truth God keeps pressing on us. The Kingdom of God is about justice and fairness on the earth--as Jesus taught us to pray.

I am sorry if my intentions about what Mozart did or did not believe were not clearer.

Anonymous said...

You are one deep dude.

Anonymous said...

Jeff, in what sense is the motivation "arbitrary"? The text is fairly straightforward, and the whole piece seems to be built around the ideas that Larry illuminates. As a grad student in choral conducting, you should know that art does not equal artist, and vice versa. Regardless of what Mozart thought (something that you cannot understand simply because of his birth), Larry makes a strong point that this piece exemplifies the line of thinking that is central to Christianity: that God's love is extended to all of us, and that God expects us to work for justice in this world.