After he left the papacy, Benedict XVI declined receiving any honorary academic degrees. But recently he made an exception. He accepted an invitation from the Academy of Music in Krakow in Poland. This was the school of his old friend and predecessor, Pope Wojtyla, who, as we recall, loved to sing. In the course of these ceremonies at Pope Benedict’s residence in the Vatican, he gave a brief but profound talk on “music and truth,” in which he asked the question: “What is music?” As if to remind us of Benedict’s own capacity to answer this very question, L’Osservatore Romano shows a photo of Benedict, in white cassock, seated at his piano obviously playing some piece of classical music. We also might recall, as the philosopher Leo Strauss used to insist, that “What is?” questions stand at the heart of the mind’s relation to reality. We long to know what things are. We need to think them through.
The issue that Benedict addressed was whether the music in the West was different and, if so, why. I want to approach the comments of Benedict through some reflections that the French philosopher, Pierre Manent, recently made in his Seeing Things Politically about “What is the West?” Basically, the issue comes down to the question of whether anything unique is found about the western intellectual heritage that is not just “western” but also universal. That is to say, “Are all cultures the same so that all cultures are relatively equal?” When sorted out, this is the classic issue of relativism and historicism, namely the assumption that no objective truth can be found in things. No “universal” culture exists. All is relative to time and place. Hence, we cannot address the question of the “truth” or lack of it that is found in any culture, religion, or country.
“The Greeks clearly conceived of a radically different way to say what a human being is other than telling stories,” Manent wrote. “The Greeks taught us that, rather than telling stories, it is possible to consider the being of things, the being of humans; it is possible to theorein, to look at what is with the eye of the mind.” This understanding of the capacity to know recalls what Benedict said in his “Regensburg Lecture” about the importance of Paul being called precisely to Macedonia, to the Greeks, the home of the philosophers. As a basis for dealing with all subsequent cultures and religions on a common basis, it was important first to establish the relation of Christian revelation to mind as understood by the Greeks. Such thought was understood not as “Greek mind” but as mind as such. The truths contained in both philosophy and revelation could be coherently related.
“What,” we might ask, “does this reflection have to do with music?” Benedict begins his response by recalling his youth when he would attend the great German Masses in the Churches of Salzburg, those of Mozart, Bach, Handel, Bruckner, and Beethoven. (Robert Reilly, in his Surprised by Beauty, discusses in more detail the question of sacred music and reminds us that much sacred music has been written in recent decades). Benedict cites especially Mozart’s Missa della incarnazione. Benedict points out that the Council never intended to minimize such glorious church music. He betrays a touch of annoyance at those liturgists who insisted that these great concert Masses were fit only for the concert hall and not for Mass as they were intended, that is, at actual celebrated Masses with a congregation.
It is at this point that Benedict asks himself: “What, in fact, is music?” We are again reminded of the clarity of this pope’s mind. “Where does (music) come from? And to what does it aspire?” We listen to music of various kinds, but we seldom ask about its nature, its source or purpose. Benedict suggests three places from which music “flows.” The first is the “experience of love.” People are “seized” by love. When this happens, they begin to see “another dimension” of reality. “Poetry, song, and music in general arise from being struck…from this opening to a new dimension of life.”
Aristotle had said that when a lover of the flute hears its sound, he stops everything to listen to it. He is struck by it. Love is not content with its own happening but wants to manifest itself, sing of it.
The second source of music is “sadness.” On the page of L’Osservatore Romano on which the photo of Benedict at the piano is shown, there is also a printed sheet of music which contains the notes of the famous medieval hymn by Jacapone di Todi, the very poignant Dies Irae, music often sung in the old funeral rites. Such music we often find also in spirituals and western music when words are not sufficient to express one’s sorrow or sadness. I think of Johnny Cash’s “Sunday Morning Comin’ Down” or the Seldom Scene’s “The Ballad of the Rebel Soldier.”
The third source of music is “the encounter with the divine which from the very beginning is part of what defines humanity.” This kind of music indicates a new experience for man. It is the encounter with the “wholly other.” This encounter inspires our kind to a new height and form of “expression.” Indeed, Benedict suspects that in songs of love and sadness we already find intimations of music addressed to God. These experiences in song are not themselves complete without sensing the divine presence in our loves and sorrows. This sense of God is, then, the “overall origin of music.” Benedict in particular points to the Psalms as examples of song and music at its best. “The quality of music depends on the purity and greatness of the encounter with the divine, with the experience of love and pain.”
Benedict has clearly been thinking of these things. He has been thinking of music in relation to the way differing cultures are now aware of and encounter each other. This reflection is what brings us back to the Manent remarks on “What is the West?” In most cultures, we have literature, sculpture, painting, architecture, and music. “In no other cultural environment, however, does the greatness of music equal that born in the sphere of the Christian faith, from Palestrina to Bach, from Handel to Mozart, Beethoven and Bruckner. The music of the West is something unique, which has no equal in other cultures. That should make us think.” What is it about this music that makes it different? I believe there are millions of Chinese students studying western classical music.
Benedict acknowledges that there is more than sacred music in the West. But the “deepest” source of the uniqueness of Western music is found in the liturgy, “in the encounter with God.” Benedict adds: “In the works of Bach, for whom this glory of God ultimately represented the aim of all music, this is quite evident.” Benedict’s conclusion parallels the end of Benedict’s great work, Jesus of Nazareth, a book that examined whether any other plausible understanding of Scripture could be possible except that Christ was who He said He was. “The great and pure response of Western music was developed in the encounter with a God who, in the liturgy, is rendered present to us in Jesus Christ.”
To conclude, Benedict adds a surprising conclusion: “I feel that music is a demonstration of the truth of Christianity. Wherever such a response develops, there has been an encounter with Truth, with the true Creator of the world. For this reason great sacred music is a reality of theological rank and of permanent significance for the faith of the whole of Christianity, even if it is by no means necessary that it be performed always and everywhere.” It remains a way to participate in the celebration of the “mystery of faith.” The fact is that most Christians are deprived of the beauty of the music in the liturgical context that Benedict so poignantly and beautifully describes.
Where such music is present, there is the West. But it is not just the geographic West. It is the locus of reason and music whose root is the divine, in the Missa della incarnazione. Beauty and truth are what attract all men to sing to the glory of God, both in their loves and in their sadnesses. “What is the West?” “What is music?’—these intimately related questions are resolved in the reality of who is Jesus Christ, in the realization that the Incarnation happened amongst us. It is about this that we sing in the liturgy.
James V. Schall, S.J., who served as a professor at Georgetown University for thirty-five years, is one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. His most recent book isThe Classical Moment: Selected Essays on Knowledge and Its Pleasures(St. Augustine Press, 2014).