From Heavenly Harmony
At Play in the House of the Lord
by Ken Myers
In anticipation of the Mozart bicentennial celebration in 1956, Karl Barth was invited by a Swiss newspaper to write "A Letter of Thanks to Mozart." Initially skeptical of the assignment, Barth obliged the editors with a brief epistle in the spirit of Mozartian playfulness. The correspondence closed with a much-cited speculation: "It may be that when the angels go about their task of praising God, they play only Bach. I am sure, however, that when they are together en famille, they play Mozart and that then too our Lord listens with special pleasure."
The music of Mozart, second only to that of J. S. Bach, has inspired the most enthusiastic recognition of spiritual qualities, although the distinction made in Barth's scenario captures an important difference in the kind of spiritual quality felt in the two composers' repertoires. While the music of each captures a sense of transcendent order, Mozart's work is typically heard in terms of a more domestic, earthly, and human scale. In Mozart's acoustic world, the light triumphs over the darkness with lightness—that is, deftness, not triviality—which makes his musical spaces seem friendlier than those described by Bach. Childlike joy is rarely ascribed to Bach's compositions, as it so often is to Mozart's, though Bach jokes and plays and dances not infrequently. In Mozart, the goodness of Creation is often warmly evoked. Bach seems to suggest the goodness of the Creator himself, at once awful and personal.
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Ken Myers is the host and producer of the Mars Hill Audio Journal. Formerly an arts editor with National Public Radio, he also served as editor of Eternity, the Evangelical monthly magazine, and This World, the quarterly predecessor to First Things. He also serves as music director at All Saints Anglican Church in Ivy, Virginia. He is a contributing editor for Touchstone.
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