Music and Truth

Author: Benedict XVI

Music and Truth

Benedict XVI

Benedict XVI thanks two institutions in Krakow for honouring him

On 4 July [2015] in Castel Gandolfo, Benedict XVI received an honorary doctorate from the Pontifical University of John Paul II of Krakow and from the Academy of Music of Krakow. Making an exception to his decision not to receive honorary awards, he accepted the proposal made on 1 January 2015 — from the rectors of the two institutions and from Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz, Archbishop of Krakow and Chancellor of the University — as a tribute to John Paul II. The following are extensive excerpts from the speech given by the Pope emeritus for the occasion.

I grew up in Salzburg, thus I was marked by the great tradition of this city. It goes without saying that Sunday Masses, accompanied by choir and orchestra, were an integral part of our experience of faith in the celebration of the Liturgy. I still retain an indelible impression of how, for example, as soon as the opening notes of Mozart’s Messa dell’incoronazione sounded, the sky seemed to open and one would feel the Lord’s presence most profoundly. Alongside this experience, however, the new reality of the Liturgical Movement had started, introduced in particular by one of our chaplains who was later to become vice-regent and then rector of the Major Seminary in Freising.

Then during my studies in Munich, I became increasingly involved in the Liturgical Movement in a very practical way, through the lessons of Professor Pascher, one of the most important liturgical experts at the Council, and especially through the liturgical life of the seminary community. Thus, little by little, the tension became perceptible between the participatio actuosa consistent with the liturgy and the solemn music which enhanced the sacred action, although I was not yet acutely aware of it.

In the Constitution on the Liturgy of the Second Vatican Council, it is very clearly written: “The treasure of sacred music is to be preserved and cultivated with great care” (n. 114). Indeed, this text highlights that the participatio actuosa of all the faithful in the sacred action is a fundamental part of the liturgy. The relationship which was still harmonious in the Constitution later, in applying the Council’s recommendations, often developed into a dramatically tense relationship. Important circles in the Liturgical Movement held that in the future for great choral works and even for sacred orchestral works, there would be room only in concert halls, not in the liturgy, where there would only be room for the hymns and common prayer of the faithful.

On the other hand there was dismay over the cultural impoverishment of the Church, which would necessarily arise from this. How could the two things be reconciled? How could the Council’s provisions be implemented fully? These questions were being asked me and many other faithful, by simple people as well as by those with theological training.

At this point perhaps it is fair to ask the basic question: What, in fact, is music? Where does it come from and to what does it aspire? I think that one can identify three “places” from which music flows.

One of its primary wellsprings is the experience of love. When people are seized by love, another dimension of being opens to them, a new magnitude and scope of reality. It also impels them to express themselves in a new way. Poetry, song and music in general arise from being struck in this way, from this opening to a new dimension of life. A second origin of music is the experience of sadness, being touched by death, by sorrow and by the abyss of existence. In this case too, new dimensions open up in the opposite direction, new dimensions of reality which can no longer find answers in words alone.

Finally, music’s third place of origin is the encounter with the divine, which from the very beginning is a part of what defines humanity. More important still, is that it is here that are present the wholly other and the wholly great which inspire in mankind new forms of expression. Perhaps one could state that in fact even in the other two spheres — love and death — the divine mystery touches us and, in this sense, it is that being touched by God which is the overall origin of music. I find it moving to observe how, for example in the Psalms, singing is no longer enough for man, and all instruments are needed: the music hidden in creation, its mysterious language, is reawakened. With the Psalter, in which the two motives of love and death work, we find ourselves directly at the origin of the music of the Church of God. One might say that the quality of music depends on the purity and greatness of the encounter with the divine, with the experience of love and of pain. The purer and truer the experience, the purer and greater will be the music which is born and develops from it.

At this point I would like to express a thought which in recent times has come to my mind more and more, as various cultures and religions have begun relating to each other. In the most diverse cultures and religions there is great literature, great architecture, great painting and great sculpture. And music too is present everywhere. 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 up to Mozart, Beethoven and Bruckner. The music of the West is something unique, which has no equal in other cultures. This should make us think.

Of course Western music goes far beyond the religious and ecclesial realm. Nevertheless, its deepest source can be found in the liturgy in the encounter with God. In the works of Bach, for whom the glory of God ultimately represented the aim of all music, this is quite evident. 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.

I feel that this 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. On the other hand, however, it is also clear that it cannot disappear from the liturgy and that its presence can be a completely special means of participating in the sacred celebration, in the mystery of faith.

If we think about the liturgy celebrated by St John Paul II on every continent, we see the entire range of the possible expressions of faith in the liturgical celebration. We also see that the great music of the Western tradition is not extraneous to the liturgy, but is born and grows from it and in this way it continually contributes to giving new form to it. We do not know the future of our culture and of sacred music, but one thing is clear: where an encounter really occurs with the living God who comes to us in Christ, there too arises and grows the response, whose beauty springs from truth itself.

L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
7-14 August 2015, page 16

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