Beethoven > Mozart

We need more theologians who love Beethoven. (We need more theologians who love Led Zeppelin!)

I love Mozart. Truly. He had access to the Forms. However…

We have many theologians who love Mozart. Balthasar and Barth connected (in part) on their shared love of Mozart as the greatest composer in history. Ratzinger, as is well known, is a devotee of Mozart. All good.

But, but, but.

No, Mozart is not the greatest. Mozart is not the greatest, because for all his attempts to move beyond, all his pathos, he remains the classical composer par excellence. Mozart is the Parthenon. Mozart represents art understood as submission to, and fulfillment of, form.

No. This is not the full truth of art. The full truth of art must have as its primary impulse the expression of human subjectivity (an expression of subjectivity which only through its embrace of itself can then point to universality), even as it incorporates, uses, and in its fullness, transcends, aesthetic rules. And here we are talking about Beethoven. Mozart expressed the fullness of humanity within the classical rules. Beethoven expressed the fullness of humanity by transcending (through incorporating) the classical rules.

Beethoven is not afraid of being off-balance. Mozart raises the mind to contemplation, Beethoven grabs you by the throat. Mozart is Aquinas, wonderful Aquinas, building angelic cathedrals. Beethoven is Paul, frustratingly unsystematic, cajoling, browbeating, repudiating, pleading, ordering, crying on the page.

Balthasar said we had too much “sitting theology” and we need more “kneeling theology.” Too right. But we need more living theology, more working theology, in the Genesis sense, in the apostolic sense. The Orthodox are also right to point out that the Fathers were bishops, who did not spend their days either writing treatises or in contemplative prayer, but looking at bank ledgers, counseling souls, cajoling political leaders, dealing with oversized egos and petty disputes, “presiding in love” with all the heartache that implies.

We need, in other words, Appasionnata theology, we need Hymn to Joy theology, we need 5th and 6th symphony theology.


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  • Jeff

    Mozart is Aquinas, Beethoven is Paul…and they both kneel and tremble before the Blessed Trinity and J.S. Bach.

  • Mozart is not the greatest because he died too young. Had lived another twenty years he would have been the greatest. I agree it would be great if more theologians loved Beethoven as they do Mozart (I’m surprised they don’t) but I think you’re being silly with Led Zeppelin. Bach is probably the greatest of them all. Where I disagree is with how you value aesthetics. It’s not that Beethoven is greater because he is subjective in his art or because he is off balance. Neither of those makes art greater or lesser. They are just different approaches. Greatness comes from how well you create and how well your vision is represented aesthetically. We are still under the guiding force of Romanticism, so off balance appears to the general person to be of greater aesthetic quality. If and when we return to a neo-classical zeitgeist, Beethoven might appear to be ugly, or I should say uglier. Is Dante’s Divine Comedy any lesser because of its balance and interconnectiveness and rational form? I would argue that Dante is closer to Mozart than Beethoven. And then perhaps one could say that Shakespeare might be closer to Beethoven than Mozart, though perhaps that’s arguable. Dante and Shakespeare, as Mozart and Beethoven, have different approaches. it’s not the approaches that make them greater or lesser.

    • Part of the problem is the tendency in some branches of modern theology (mainly Balthasarian) to elevate beauty to an absolute transcendental, on par with One, True, Good.

      First order transcendentals (unity, truth, goodness) inhere in the object. Its very participation in God’s act of existence necessitates that it be one, true, and good. These are absolute participations.

      Beauty, however, is a second-order transcendental. It depends on an observing subject. It depends on a point of view. It is the manifestation of the first-order transcendental of goodness to a mind perceiving it. Beauty is what we call a good that we recognize. And, because we are finite minds, none of us can recognize every beauty.

      So, noting that a number of prominent theologians all like Mozart simply tells us that they all recognize the same kind of beauty. It doesn’t tell us much more. Noting that none of them like Beethoven at all (which has not, AFAIK, been asserted) would tell us more: that they are all blind to a certain kind of beauty. So art can be diagnostic of how homogeneous theologians’ perceptions of The Good are, and where there are gaps that could be filled. But shared favorites tells us much less than shared insensitivities.

      As to Zeppelin, well, their lyrics are certainly silly at best – often profane and vicious. But as far as integrating traditions of blues and rock and folk, there is a real musical genius there. For example, the bass line to “Ramble On”, a very silly song, has the ability to haunt one’s dreams. But only if one is already sensitive to the beauty of blues, folk, and rock music, and if one is willing to ignore the lyrics.

      • Excellent point Roki. You taught me something today. One hole I think you have in your logic, and that is that the theologians are blind to Beethoven. It could be they understand Beethoven’s art and reject it. Or don’t hold it to the same level as Mozart.
        Anyway, I didn’t mean to say that Led Zep was terrible music. I like much of their work myself, but I don’t think anyone could be serious in holding them up to Mozart or Beethoven. They are not in that league. I never noticed that bass line in Ramble On. Thanks. 🙂

        • Well, here we get into the tricky dynamic of comparative evaluation of works of art and artists’ bodies of work.

          On the one hand, I don’t think it’s all that useful to say “Mozart is better than Beethoven,” or “Beethoven is better than Mozart,” because we are not God and all of us are incapable of truly comprehending all that is good and beautiful in their works. We are not, ultimately, competent judges, so it comes down to saying more about the judge than it does about the art or the artist.

          On the other hand, we really can say that Mozart and Beethoven have more musical complexity or depth or just plain more that is good about their music than, say, Salieri or my own feeble attempts at musical composition. We can acknowledge that there really is more good to be perceived in great works of art than in poor ones. So there is a certain objectivity to appreciating beauty.

          So I would say that someone who rejects Beethoven cannot really understand his work. I have no problem with someone preferring Mozart to Beethoven; but I do think it’s impossible to really know an artwork without acknowledging what is good in it. Even Salieri, even my own musical compositions, have good in them; it is just less good, and goods that are lesser, than Mozart and Beethoven.

          BTW, I didn’t take you as denigrating LZ. Rock ‘n’ roll is an entirely different genre from classical, which seeks mostly different and mostly lesser goods than classical. I don’t know how much good direct comparison of LZ to Beethoven would produce. But then, I’m not a music critic.

      • claycosse

        Roki, you are wrong about Ramble On’s lyrics, my brother. The lyrics are based on The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien called LOTR “fundamentally religious and Catholic.” Hence, by simple syllogism, Ramble On is “fundamentally religious and Catholic,” not silly! The gauntlet has been thrown down!

        In seriousness, Zeppelin is my favorite, but the guys dabbled (is that too kind) in devil worship and the occult. It’s kind of funny (not for their souls) that they’d do so while producing beautiful music, which is really a participation (if unwitting) in what is good–order, beauty, etc.

        I’m interested in the ontological (am I using that word correctly) differences between “popular” music like rock, the blues, jazz, etc. and classical. Would someone expound?

        • The difference between classical and popular music, well…

          ‘Twas in the darkest depths of Mordor,
          I met a [music] so fair
          But Gollum, the evil one,
          crept up and slipped away with huh-her, huh-her, huh-her…

          Seriously, though: I’m not the right person to expound on such differences. I don’t have the musical education. But I am also interested in what others have to say about the different goods and values of the different genres of music.

  • Nicholas Haggin

    I was about to accept your assertion that “Mozart represents art understood as submission to, and fulfillment of, form,” but on further reflection I don’t know that I can. At the end of his life he transcended the rules, too, especially in _Die Zauberflöte_ and the _Requiem_; Beethoven just did it more prominently and longer.

    • Nicholas Haggin

      I suppose I should also disclose my own biases: as a callow teenager I rejected Mozart in favor of Beethoven, and then as I became less callow I realized the injustice I had done to Mozart, and started listening to him more frequently. Eventually I learned to love them both, each for different reasons.

      I’ve been listening to more Beethoven lately: Kleiber’s 5th and 7th, and Alfred Brendel’s 1970s recording of the late piano sonatas. Beethoven showed us worlds of music in Op 111 that no one has ever tried to explore again.

  • claycosse

    Where have you been? Been missing my daily dose of inebriation.

  • Jamesthelast

    Debussy > Beethoven. :p

    How about Bruckner? He dedicated his 9th symphony to God.

  • Christopher Wojdak

    Bach > both of those chumps.

  • Of course each generation stood on the prior generation’s shoulders. And yes, getting past the forms is essential:

  • Pascal, you’ll have to check this out at The Imaginative Conservative, where the claim is made that Beethoven stole the “Ode to Joy” melody and possibly even the arrangement from Mozart. It seems very credible as I listen side by side.