I remember the first piece of music I ever thought was beautiful – not interesting, or catchy, or even inspiring. No, I mean beautiful. Really beautiful. It’s true that the piece was interesting, that it did catch my attention, and that it endlessly inspired me. But it was also beautiful, which was more than the sum of its other qualities.
It was Mozart’s Requiem in D minor (K. 626).
And I thought it made the whole universe comprehensible.
It described to me the exact contours of my agony. To be in pain, always in pain, and to understand with increasing clarity that it would not end. (Such was, and is, my agony.) The Requiem grasped and unfolded the internal shroud: the inexorable cadence, rising to a sublime chorused cry; the counterpointed notes and verses, speaking in two (and three, and four, and more) antithetical voices; the sudden moments of coalesced peace, or desperation, strings all thrumming as one; the sharp and disconcerting joy, brazen and resolute. All this – all this – fingered the tender outlines of my wounds.
But it was more.
I felt neither joy nor peace, at least when I first heard and loved the music, but the Requiem is filled with both. Even as it recalls musical themes established in mournful darkness, the whole movement soars to spaces well beyond grief. Consider, for example, the Hostias:
Though it begins much like the Introitus, it cannot help but display the confidence of its prayer – like incense that cannot help but rise as it burns.
It’s still not the happiest piece of music that ever astounded ears. I think now of The Marriage of Figaro, or of Bach’s concertos. Or an improvisation in Louis Armstrong’s capable hands. Or even the vital energy of a young Michael Jackson out-singing his brothers as he moved with them in tandem.
It is not even, in fact, Mozart’s work. Elements and themes are his, but the vast majority of the Requiem Mass remained unwritten at his death. Subsequent completion by several hands (contemporary and not) has left us with an impressive and uneven amalgamation of several musical minds. Nevertheless, the Requiem remains immensely popular and even loved – and, in a pale imitation of Scripture, it seems that endless redactions cannot kill its fascination.
So the beauty of Mozart’s Requiem is three-fold: it describes what I understand; it educates in what I do not; and it out-bounds even its original intent. It accomplishes this both with words and without, forming its listener in multiple concomitant keys.
That beauty can educate at all – instead of affirming what is already-felt or already-believed – means that it is inherently linked with the truth. Hans Urs von Balthasar would insist that a thing is only really beautiful inasmuch as the truth inheres in it, and he would insist that we love the beautiful inasmuch as the good inheres in it. He would insist – most of all – that I do not decide what is beautiful. He would insist that my perception of the beauty in Mozart’s Requiem is not, in fact, my royal bequeathal unto a bereft or blank entity. It is the opposite: to say that something is beautiful is to admit that it already was so before I heard or saw it. That is to say, beauty is not about me; it first must escape my grasp, my very ability to say what it is, and then I can love it as really beautiful.
This is why, as stated before, beauty must be unnecessary. If it inheres in me as a thing to be possessed, if it can be approached as a link in a long chain of consequent empirical statements, then it ceases to be what it is: superfluous, and therefore sublime. This is perhaps something like what Balthasar means when he insists that beauty must be accompanied by wonder, since only wonder can admire and embrace without controlling the outcome.
Beauty cannot really be described. Especially for Balthasar. This is why he exhausts himself in seven volumes but never really outdistances his original statements about gestalt (form) and splendor. He says that beauty has form – and this, in a certain respect, means it has intelligibility – and he says that Christ is the form of beauty. So he describes Christ, but Christ is mystery. (This is what makes beauty splendid) Thus, Balthasar must eventually cloak himself in the darkness of mystery, like his beloved poet Charles Péguy and the veil of Night.
But if beauty cannot really be described, what good is it? If the only theological “system” that can account for beauty is Balthasar’s non-system, a theological account that proceeds with the thematic recollection of a complicated musical piece – where themes fade only to be recollected in mutated form later – then has it ceased to be theo-logical? We must wonder why, in the wake of Balthasar, the return to aesthetics has emerged as an unfortunate return to precocious sentimentalism. We must wonder why, in the wake of the Theological Aesthetics, authors have followed his logic to its fullest ends – and accused him of heresy.
Balthasar’s genius theological reinvigoration has led to intense confusion.
This is because he was absolutely right about what theology had become, but wrong about a very key element of theology’s past.
Just as I was right and wrong about Mozart’s Requiem.
More on this to come.