- Mozart’s Mass in C Minor: Becoming the Music and Relating to God
Recently, a friend, whom I’ll call Jon Walter James, sent me some notes he had written during several months of listening to Mozart’s Great Mass in C Minor (1783). He tried, he told me, to be honest in writing what he really did hear, not what he thought he ought to hear, and honest in recording what was happening to him as he listened, particularly with respect to what he called his spiritual life.
I have since listened repeatedly to the Ferdinand Grossman and Ferenc Fricsay recordings1 of the Mass with Jon’s comments in mind. The more I listen the more I realize that Jon’s hearing the Mass is itself a mode of spiritual discipline. His journal is also a spiritual exercise, for it celebrates and repeats by enacting in a different form what happens as he listens.
Jon is not a theologian or a music critic, and perhaps for that reason there is something fresh and arresting in his notes. On condition that his name be withheld, he has given me permission to reproduce in this article his notes on the first two movements so that readers may think both about this kind of spiritual exercise and about the particular spirituality that Jon’s listening is.
Following the excerpts are two commentaries on his comments. They are my effort to celebrate and repeat by enacting in still another form what happens when Jon listens. The first commentary takes up a general feature of Jon’s notes, namely two striking—and difficult—statements: “I become the music,” and “my hearing is itself my relation to God.” Opening up these challenging phrases begins with thinking about relatedness on a lower level—the relations of musical sounds to one another—and goes to thinking about Jon’s phrase, “hearing is relation,” as a concrete, specific example of what Martin Buber struggles to convey in a wider context when he unfolds what he famously calls the I-Thou relation.
My second commentary dwells on some particular passages in Jon’s journal and describes some moments in the music whose import his remarks seem to capture. [End Page 100]
From Jon’s Journal: Two Modes of Being with God
Being Related to “Kyrie”—Being Forgiven
“I seriously love this music. I want to say that I love it so much that I become it; all of me is related to it. One of the things going on when I become this music is that I am marching with a fated tread. With somber inevitability, I am moving toward the judgment of God. But ‘I’ is off the mark. A chorus is singing, ‘Lord, have mercy.’ It is the plea of a group, and I am in the group. It is ‘we’ who are the music and ‘we’ who are inevitably moving toward divine judgment. The choral sounds are those of a collective liability, and more of facing a divine sentencing than of either sorrow for wrongdoing or anxiety about castigation.
“The sense of impending judgment comes from being negatively related to the Ultimate in general, not from specific occasions of unjustly harming fellow human beings. But ‘negatively related’ seems wrong. When in these sounds ‘we’ are asking for mercy (‘eleison’), contact with God is already affirmative. Entreating eleison is already a healing of the relation. Yet the God-us malaise is also real. There is a line between our negative relation with God and the healing of this rift, yet . . . when I am included in the ‘we’ that are the music, I am located simultaneously on both sides of this line. I am at once here, where impending judgment and separation are real, and there, where healing is real. I cannot say that the music brought me into the relation. The music just is my relation to God.
“The music marches; we are marching. But from where? To where? Since the whence and whither are not distinct from the march itself, the rift and the healing of the rift are both within the march itself. The music is somber; the sense of total...