National Catholic Reporter
Mozart: Catholic, Master Mason, favorite of the Pope
September 1, 2006
By JOHN L. ALLEN JR.
In a poll of 20th century Christian personalities as to their favorite composer. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart would probably win in a landslide.
Protestant theologian Karl Barth once said that when he arrived in Heaven he would seek out Mozart, a Catholic ahead of Luther or Calvin -- for the ultra-Protestant Barth, perhaps the highest compliment imaginable. Liberal Swiss Catholic theologian Hans Küng wrote a paean to Mozart titled “Traces of Transcendence,” and his more conservative Swiss counterpart Hans Urs von Balthasas said Mozart’s music evokes the risen Christ. Jesuit Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini uses Mozart in morning prayer. Now hobbled with the early stages of Parkinson’s disease, Martini likes to listen to Mozart on an iPod when he walks, claiming the music keeps him on an even keel.
Most famously, of course, Pope Benedict XVI is a passionate Mozart fan.
“His music is by no means just entertainment; it contains the whole tragedy of human existence,” the pope said in a 1996 interview. Then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger said that Mozart “thoroughly penetrated” his soul as he was growing up in the 1920s and ’30s in rural Bavaria, near Salzburg, Austria, Mozart’s birthplace. Benedict tries to get in a few minutes at the keyboard every day, usually playing Mozart.
While all this lends a special Catholic resonance to the 250th anniversary of Mozart’s birth this year, it has served to resurrect an old canard about Mozart -- specifically, the question of his membership in the Freemasons, and whether that calls into question his Catholic credentials.
The debate recently resurfaced in Europe, in the wake of a prominent cardinal’s denial -- later chalked up to a misunderstanding -- that Mozart was ever a Mason at all.
Founded in the early 18th century, although with earlier historical roots, Freemasonry is a fraternal association that draws upon esoteric symbolism and mythology to foster Enlightenment ideals such as egalitarianism. As Masonry developed, it became a deep rival of the Catholic church, triggering condemnations from a series of popes.
The antipathy is by no means relic of a bygone age. In 1983, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith reiterated: “Faithful who enroll in Masonic associations are in a state of grave sin and may not receive Holy Communion.”
One understands, therefore, why links between the pope’s favorite composer and the Masons make some Catholics nervous.
Debate over what Mozart’s Masonry reveals, if anything, about his attitudes toward the Catholic church is at least two centuries old. In late July, Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna, Austria, gave the issue a new lease on life in an interview with L’Avvenire, the official newspaper of the Italian bishops’ conference. The paper quoted Schönborn as denying that Mozart was a Mason, saying that reports of his membership “are without foundation.”
“To prove the point,” Schönborn said, “there’s the fact that the composer came from a Catholic family that belonged to ordinary society, conformed to and defined by a religious life.”
The statement left many scratching their heads, since it’s a matter of established historical fact that Mozart was initiated into a Masonic lodge in Vienna at the age of 28, and eventually became a Master Mason.
Moreover, Mozart persuaded his father, Leopold, to become a Mason, and perhaps his friend Joseph Haydn. He wrote a substantial body of music for the lodges and for various Masonic ceremonies and functions, for example his famous Masonic funeral service. The last piece he finished before his death was K.623, “The Little Masonic Canata.”
In fact, a Schönborn spokesperson told NCR Aug. 22 that the cardinal had been misquoted.
“He said that all historians are of the opinion that Mozart was a Mason. There is much evidence for this,” Erich Leitenberger said.
“But at the same time it is necessary to understand that Freemasonry in the 18th century was a completely different thing from [that of] the 19th or 20th centuries. There was no problem to be a deeply convinced Catholic and a Mason at the same time, as is illustrated by the examples of many priests, abbots, etc. [who were Masons] in the late 18th century.”
In other words, according to Leitenberger, Schönborn’s position is that Mozart was a Mason, but he was fully Catholic too.
Put that way, the Austrian cardinal seems on the same page with Mozart specialists contacted by NCR, who insisted that the composer himself saw no contradiction between his two allegiances.
“Mozart was a sincere Mason, but he never in any sense abandoned the Catholic church,” said Robert Spaethling, a German scholar who edited a 2000 collection of the composer’s correspondence titled Mozart’s Letters, Mozart’s Life.
“We should not try to put a wedge between these aspects of his personality,” Spaethling said.
“Catholicism represented the tradition he grew up in, which he had no reason to reject, and never did. Masonry was about the pride he felt in himself, his assertion of himself as an equal to the inherited status of the aristocracy,” he said.
Robert Levin of Harvard University agreed. A concert pianist and harpsichordist, Levin recently finished an arrangement of Mozart’s “C Minor Mass,” making it liturgically complete for the first time. He hopes to arrange a performance at the Vatican.
Whatever tensions may exist between Masons and Catholics, Levin said, “Individuals, and artists in particular, often can be more nuanced than the officials positions.
“I find it very, very hard to believe that the fervor and expressiveness of the music Mozart wrote for the church, such as the ‘C Minor Mass’ or the ‘Requiem,’ is just the equivalent of an opera composer making a good pitch for his libretto,” Levin said.
Levin said Mozart’s spirituality shines through his more than 60 pieces of church music.
“Mozart’s Catholicism is a powerful, affirmative force, without being subject to the ‘stick’ of terror, threatening eternal damnation to those who didn’t believe,” Levin said. “It’s overwhelmingly music of tenderness, empathy, and at times of grandeur.”
How to reconcile this Catholic piety with Mozart’s Masonry, which seemed to challenge all systems of authority, including clericalism?
One approach is to recall that in the premodern period, criticism of individual churchmen or of ecclesiastical systems by Catholics often had little to do with one’s faith. Perhaps the best glimpse of this comes in a 1771 letter to his father after Mozart had a falling out with the prince-archbishop of Salzburg, Hieronymus Colloredo, who among other indignities insisted on lodging him with household servants.
Noting that “I hate the archbishop to insanity,” Mozart wrote: “Always remember, as we do, that or Mufti [Colloredo] is an idiot, but that God is compassionate, merciful and loving.”
Levin said there should be no scandal about Benedict’s passion for this Masonic composer.
“Mozart himself would be thrilled,” Levin said. “His Holiness is not doing anything controversial in listening to Mozart. He’ll be a better pope if he does!”
John L. Allen Jr. is NCR’s senior correspondent. His e-mail address is [email protected]