Encountering God in Music

I would like to begin this month’s talk about ‘Encountering God…in music’ by offering you a little of my own faith story.

It was the last music lesson of the term before we broke up for Christmas 1960. I was 13 years old. The music teacher, Mr Matthews, decided we would talk about church-going and church choirs. I was surprised how many of my class-mates went to church and were involved in church choirs.

Encouraged by the discussion, on 1st January 1961, I took myself off to my local church in time for the evening service. It was a service of nine lessons and carols.

Within two years I was confirmed, serving on the altar and then as church sacristan. Sometimes, whilst I was preparing for a service or polishing the silver, the church organist would come in to practice. My favourite piece was the Bach toccata and fügue. It thundered around the church building and brought me a sense of the awesome presence of God.
The organist’s name was Mr Matthews, my one time music teacher.

Musical tastes are, of course, entirely personal. In choosing pieces of music to support my talks since February I have taken a risk. Perhaps my choice of music would not have been yours and perhaps it has not enhanced your experience of the themes we have explored together.

Each of you, I suggest, draws some inspiration from music. Perhaps it lifts you up and even reminds you of the presence of God. You may even go as far as to say that some music is inspired by God; after all, God is the creator of all things. But could you go as far as to say that God actually makes himself present through the medium of music: that his grace is poured out through music?

This was the theory held by two eminent 20th century theologians: Karl Barth and Hans Küng. One was a Protestant layman and the other a catholic priest. When it comes to things theological, they differed widely in their opinions, but in this one instance, at least, they were of a common mind.

It was however, a common mind about one composer in particular: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Karl Barth was a prolific writer and, I must confess, that much of what he wrote goes way over my head. Barth is like wedding cake, a little bit goes a long way. In the middle of his multi-volume publication called Church Dogmatics, he takes a bizarre turn, and for three pages, waxes lyrical about how God used Mozart as a conduit of his grace, to make God present to us: even ministering to us through his music. It was Barth who said that whilst the angels might praise God to the music of Bach, when they get together, they play Mozart!

The other theologian, Hans Küng, picked this up and in a book called Mozart: traces of transcendence, he examines Barth’s theory: in particular listening to Mozart’s so-called Coronation Mass, which was actually written for Easter Day (first performance was probably on April 4th 1779).

Now what I find encouraging about this is that from what we know about Mozart, he was a very human being. He had all kinds of faults and failings. He could be rude, crude and had an impish sense of humour. He mixed with the wrong company. He drank too much. He was typical of his eighteen century times, but if one listens carefully to his Coronation Mass one can hear his theology. For example, his Kyrie, Lord have mercy. The first time round it sounds like a plea for mercy, but the second time it has the confidence of one who trusts in the mercy of God: It sounds more like: “Lord, you are merciful – and we are forgiven”. Listen now to the Kyrie……..

In the creed from the same composition, we are left with not doubt that Jesus died but, hey, this is Easter Day and there is hardly a breath before he comes in with all the joy and glory of the resurrection.

The question before is this. Does music, on occasion, do more than inspire us to think about God or to pray to God (like hymn singing can do)? Or does the transcendent God, who makes himself present and intimate to us in holy places, in everyday life, make himself present to us in music?

We have long recognised that God reveals himself in the written word: in the holy scriptures (the subject of next month’s talk), but, here we hold an open disposition to the possibility that God reveals something of himself though music.

Perhaps, as Hans Küng says, such traces of transcendence may be “perceptible only to those who want to hear them”. Perhaps we have to want God to make himself present to us in music. Here we come back to something I suggested in my first talk: that we need a disposition of openness to the possibility of encountering God in whatever circumstances we find ourselves.

Discovering something new about Mozart was not my primary consideration here. I am concerned, chiefly, with encouraging us to discover something about God and how he reveals himself through humanity: through his creation. If, through listening to Mozart’s music, we can catch a glimpse of the transcendent God, then Küng’s point is well made. If that has been our experience we may like to ask ourselves to what extent has that experience depended upon the composer of such bliss-generating compositions.

We may conclude that the fragile humanity of Mozart has nothing to do with it, that he was an earthenware vessel which contained, and from which was poured, sublime ability. Or we may conclude (and I think Barth would agree with me) that it is the very fragility of Mozart, combined with the desire of God to reveal himself to us, which has produced such a phenomenon. In other words, the broken humanity of Mozart is an intrinsic part of the revelation: that it is a partnership between that humanity and the God who is revealed. If we have difficulty accepting that such a specimen of humanity could be such a vehicle of bliss we might do well to look at other characters in our history, including other composers, and consider how God has used them, warts and all.

We might marvel at God’s goodness in using such fragile creatures such as you and me as a way of revealing something of himself, but can we go one step further and hold that it is our very creatureliness that is necessary for God to reveal himself so? If we can, then we open up the possibility that we too, can be used, by God, for his purpose of revelation!

“Whoa there, Raymond!” I hear you cry! “I am not worthy! I am not worthy!” No, neither am I, but God has given you and me gifts and those gifts have a purpose. We, too, are called to make God known. Each of us, uniquely gifted, is called to co-operate with God in the working out of his purpose. How he will do that will depend upon the particular ‘voice’ he has given us and the song he wishes to sing through us.

Mozart’s fourth Christian name was ‘Theophilus’ (a name given to him at his baptism by his Godfather). Mozart changed it to the Latin rendering of the same name, ‘Amadeus’, which means ‘Beloved of God.’

‘Beloved of God’. It is a name we each carry. It is a name to remember when we are over-conscious of our brokenness; of our foolishness and when we lose sight of our self-worth. It is a name we could call each other to remind us of what is really important. To be ‘beloved of God’ means that our humanity is fused, irrevocably, with what is revealed of God through us. In this we may conclude that not only is the transcendent God revealed through Mozart’s compositions but through, and because of, the man himself. If the transcendent God can reveal himself through Mozart he can reveal himself through you and through me. We can test out this theory by reflecting on the people we know: on what we notice about their gifts, skills, and personal qualities and what they reveal to us of God. Remember from last month that ‘noticing’ is what a contemplative does. Who do you know who, through their gifts, skills, talents, or personal qualities make God present to you? Who, through their very fragile humanity or brokenness, makes God present to you?

The only question left for us is this: “What song, what sublime composition, does God want to sing through you and me?” Whatever it is you can be sure that it is a love song: a song from God to his beloved people: to the ‘Amadeus’ the Beloved of God. It is a song of forgiveness: a song victory. It is a song of real life!

God wants to sing his song in you and in me, and through you and me, so that the whole world will resound with its melodic phrases: This is God’s story; this is his song. The transcendent God, high and majestic and lifted up, took upon himself human flesh that he might sing his song in us.
Christ, The Eternal Song, makes his home in earthen vessels like you and me; and if the vessel shatters let it be due to the vibrations of the Lord’s song, sung, in and through us!

We end, as we have on previous occasions, with a little time for reflection. During this time I will play the Laudate Dominum, O praise ye the Lord: a setting of psalm 117, from Mozart’s Solemn Vespers. (4.5minutes).