A Music Theologian Engages with Pope Francis’ Favorite Music: An Interview with Dirk von der Horst
In December I finally got around to reading the papal interview, and I was very intrigued by the section in which he talked about his favorite music. I didn’t know the pieces he mentioned, though, and I found myself wondering how his musical tastes were reflected in his theology, or vice versa. I immediately thought of asking my friend Dirk, who wrote his dissertation on early modern English musical treatments of David’s lament over Jonathan and the historicity of gay theology. He graciously agreed to be interviewed on the topic for the blog, and to answer any followup questions in the comments.
What’s a music theologian, you ask? Well, so did I:
So, you’re a theologian of music: what does that mean, exactly?
The first task of a theologian of music is to recognize the integrity and relative autonomy of musical ways of making meaning. Often, theology treats music as “a servant of the Word,” an understanding which reduces the richness of the concept of logos in the Gospel of John to mere verbal expression. If we think of logos as including the idea of pattern and not simply speech, music can be a manifestation of the Word, and not simply “serve” it. And if we look at the extent to which anxiety about music not serving the Word is a manifestation of concerns about the mind/body relationship, taking music seriously on its own terms is a way of resisting the dualisms that keep creeping back into Western spirituality. In this regard, I’m not so much a theologian of music, but a queer/feminist theologian who uses music to bring Word to flesh.
I’m especially interested in how music actively shapes and reshapes possibilities of Biblical interpretation – in this regard, my interest in music’s power to signify on its own terms meets up with a very Protestant Bibliocentricism. But I’m not simply interested in how music can reflect the Biblical text; I want to hear how it can make the text say something new, how different musical approaches to the same Biblical text make clear how opposed political and religious ideologies can find justification in the same Biblical text, how music can go against the grain of a Biblical insight and even resist it. It is precisely because music can make meaning in its own ways that it can be a partner to the most verbal and narrative dimensions of the Word, and not simply a servant to them.
Finally, theology of music involves an ethical critique of music itself. Just as language can be used to express helpful and hurtful messages, so can music. One of the great philosophers of music, Theodor Adorno (1903-1969), explored various ways in which music mediated dehumanizing ideologies. I’ve noticed a backlash against his thought in the last ten years, and most contemporary theologians of music seem eager to distance themselves from his Marxism and negative dialectics. Adorno, however, was as critical of secular reason as he was of religious justifications of oppression. There’s still room for a musico-religious engagement with Adorno’s legacy. And from a Biblical perspective, the explicit denunciation of liturgical music as covering up injustice in Amos 5:21-24 and the more metaphorical critique of musical sound devoid of love in 1 Corinthians 13:1-3 mandate that a spirituality of music not be divorced from struggles for a just society and the beloved community.
How did you end up in that field? Are you a musician or composer yourself?
I started playing violin when I was seven and switched to viola in high school. In high school, I composed incidental music for productions of the plays “The Zoo Story” and “The Elephant Man.” I was very much drawn to composition in high school and took some classes in college, but it wasn’t an interest that I was able to sustain with the necessary devotion to do it as my life work. I’m not sure why that’s the case. I majored in viola performance in college, still unsure of where I wanted my life to go. College was also the time that I moved from having a life-long interest in religion to actively participating in religious communities – first with a Mennonite church, then moving to a United Methodist congregation. I later moved over to the Quakers, which is my worship community now.
Early in my college years, I read the radical feminist theology of Mary Daly, came out as a gay man, and became active in Latin American solidarity groups, which challenged my pacifism. These three developments spurred me to reflect deeply on my religious commitments and that reflection was the beginning of my theological career. I had a hard time integrating music into my theological reflections until I came across the musicological work of Susan McClary and Carl Dahlhaus, who gave me the conceptual tools to put my religious and musical interests together. After college, I stopped playing the viola and have not composed; once I got involved in political activism, I found the world of classical musicians alienating. It seemed cut off from the struggles and suffering of the world, and I had trouble seeing its relevance. I also craved more explicit conceptual engagement with music than I found in the practice room. Again, Adorno and McClary were really the main voices that helped me link my political and conceptual passions with my love for music. I should stress that even as I found the world of classical music alienating, it’s something I can’t imagine not being in my life. My main interaction with music at this point is as a listener. When the opportunity arises, I still teach beginning violin or viola, which is a real joy.
What else informs your theology?
I’d say the theologians to whom I’m most indebted are the Roman Catholic feminists Rosemary Radford Ruether and Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza. They both combine a deep sensitivity to the dynamics of historical change and relativity with firm ethical commitments to contemporary social struggles and what we now call an intersectional approach to feminism. They also provide good tools for thinking of the Bible as an important resource, but not an exclusivist one. I’ve had a long interest in religious pluralism and comparative approaches – Buddhist meditation in particular has been a source that has shifted some of my assumptions about how theology should work. For example, its non-dual approach to thought exposed the sterility of the theism/atheism debate for me a long time ago: Buddhist thought sees every opposition as a kind of illusion – in this light it just makes no sense to argue in the terms set out by attacks on and defenses of the existence of God. I can relax into the paradoxes of faith without getting too worked up over logical rabbit holes. The relational thought of the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber and the lesbian Episcopal priest Carter Heyward has also been a major strand in my theological work; Heyward in particular has a vibrancy that is unrivaled.
Of late, I’ve renewed my love for the thought of H. Richard Niebuhr, who shares Ruether’s and Schüssler Fiorenza’s emphasis on historical change, but does so with a more explicitly theocentric focus typical of the Reformed Protestant tradition. He also anticipated many developments in religion-science debates – such as the development of neurotheology – and he’s my main inspiration in some of my newer interests in theological engagement with science. Francis mentions his love of Michel de Certeau, and there’s some similar emphases on historicism in his thought as there is in the writers I’m drawn to.
At the end of the section of the papal interview titled “Must we be optimistic?” Pope Francis talks about hope in the context of Hebrews 11, Paul’s letter to the Romans, and… the first riddle of Puccini’s opera “Turandot.” As a theologian of music, how do you read that musical piece in this context? Can you connect the dots for us between those three texts?
We have to go back to the papal interview itself to see the thread he uses to weave these three texts together. He precedes the discussion of hope with a lengthy discussion of how we discern God, not in an “empirical eureka,” but in a spiritual sensitivity to God as initiating processes. So, the entire Epistle to the Hebrews, especially the eleventh chapter, describes how faith is inextricable from the processes of history, and the changes of history. It opens with a statement of radical historical change, “In times past, God spoke in fragmentary and varied ways to our ancestors through the prophets, in these final days God has spoken to us through the Only Begotten.” (Heb. 1:1 – Priests for Equality translation). The eleventh chapter continues this line of thought by narrating the concrete history of faith. Romans speaks to the challenges to hope in the present – nakedness, persecution, sword – and holds out in a hope for a redeemed world that will make those challenges seem like nothing. So, to speak of hope is intrinsically related to any kind of spiritual discernment because Biblical faith is always faith in a historical process with deep interrelations between past, present, and future.
Francis and the interviewer hone in on the riddle from Turandot and the interviewer even recounts the lines:
At that moment I recalled more or less by heart the verses of the riddle of the princess in that opera, to which the solution is hope:
“In the gloomy night flies an iridescent ghost.
It rises and opens its wings
on the infinite black humanity.
The whole world invokes it
and the whole world implores it.
But the ghost disappears with the dawn
to be reborn in the heart.
And every night it is born
and every day it dies!”
What I want to suggest for a moment is that the fact that Francis remembers a riddle from an opera is significant because music teaches us so much about ways we can experience interconnections between past, present, and future. Music compresses processes of expectation and recollection so that we have models of large scale change, but we can experience them over the course of anywhere from five minutes to five hours. So, it’s not just significant that the riddle in Turandot gives an especially poetic expression of what it’s like to hope, but it embeds that expression in a specific musical structuring of time that models a particular way of moving through time.
Here is a performance of the riddle scene with Placido Domingo:
But the riddle in Turandot is part of a larger plot. As much as I love the opera, the Turandot example is extremely problematic in this context. The plot of Turandot is that of Calaf, an unknown prince, who solves various riddles and wins the hand of Queen Turandot – who has those suitors who can not solve the riddles executed. Turandot, however, makes the riddles a condition of courtship to memorialize the violation of a previous queen, who was abducted, probably raped, and killed. The opera spells out the defeat of a strategy of women’s solidarity through the triumph of what Adrienne Rich called “compulsory heterosexuality.” Hope in the context of the opera erases what the Catholic political theologian Johann Baptist Metz called “dangerous memory,” the memorialization of suffering that keeps us asking critical questions and looking for deeper forms of solidarity.
Turandot narrates the story of her predecessor in the aria “In questa reggia” before Calaf solves the riddles.
In the next section, “Art and Creativity”, Pope Francis identifies Mozart as one of his favorite composers, “of course,” and particularly praises the “Et incarnatus est” from his Mass in C minor. Tell us about that piece.
The C-minor mass is an unfinished work, which Mozart composed in 1784 to celebrate his engagement. You can hear the “Et incarnatus est” here:
Mozart does something very different in his setting of this text than do the Renaissance composers I’m more at home with. Where they stop playing with intricate polyphonic textures to set the words “et incarnatus est et homo factus est” in a more declamatory style, Mozart plays with a lot of polyphony. For an example of the contrast, listen to the Credo from the Missa Pastores quidnam vidistis by Clement non Papa (1510/15-1555/6).
Both Mozart and Clement non Papa are able to achieve breathtakingly beautiful results in their music, but what “et incarnatus est” means is something different in each case. In Clement’s case, incarnation is a moment where movement slows down, becomes more solid. But what’s intriguing about this moment in Mozart’s setting is the way it envisions the incarnation as an ongoing process – the text is clearly in the plain past tense, but Mozart’s music lingers on this phrase and makes it go on and on and on, and repeats it. So, in contrast to Clement, in Mozart’s case, incarnation is a moment where movement keeps flowing.
Historically, there have been moments where churches have tried to force choices between one kind of music and another, but one thing that’s nice about reflecting on music now is that these different versions don’t make us rush to choose between one meaning and another in the same way that trying to hammer down a doctrine in language tends to do. In this sense, musical engagement with religious texts can teach us the kind of suppleness in relation to doctrine that Francis gestures toward in his discussion of the church as a field hospital. Both musical versions affirm the same doctrine – but they do something very different with it according to the conventions and culture with which they affirm it.
Francis says, the music of the “et incarnatus est” “lifts you to God!” I hear the music moving in the other direction – it is more a sensation of the Spirit wafting down to meet us.
He also says, “But I cannot think about his music; I have to listen to it.” What do you think he means by that?
I have a few very different reactions to that statement, so I’ll unpack some ranges of meaning implicit in it – but I won’t pretend to know what Francis means by it. And – I should admit that I keep finding myself defaulting to hearing the statement in relation to music in general, whereas Francis is specifically referencing Mozart. So, that’s a layer I’d want to think about further.
First, it strikes me as a queer sentiment. This response should strike readers as strange – that’s part of the nature of the concept “queer,” which has as much to do with ways of transgressing normalcy as it does with sexual identities. Still, my response here isn’t suggesting that Francis is queer, but rather that there’s an opening in his response for deep dialogue with queer perspectives. My reaction here comes out of conversations within musicology and music theory: two of my teachers have had a particularly strong impact on my thinking here. The music theorist Fred Maus has done an exemplary job of showing how certain kinds of “thinking about” music have to do with maintaining a masculine subjectivity through control over music. In his analysis of music theorists’ rhetoric he finds underlying and connected misogynistic and erotophobic assumptions. Instead of letting oneself be seduced and overpowered by music, music theorists have found ways of perceiving music in ways that emphasize the ability to be the master of the sounds that one finds seductive. In a complementary perspective, Suzanne Cusick describes a lesbian relation with music as one in which refusing the kind of control over music that music theorists often seek manifests a way of being that is an escape from the entire patriarchal system exerts control over women’s lives.
The kind of straight masculinity that Maus and Cusick resist is also a very secular subjectivity. Just as musicologists and music theorists find ways to avoid the kind of openness to musical sensuality that motivates their work, that kind of closing off to openness is definitive of secular identity: the Catholic philosopher Charles Taylor makes a basic distinction between a traditional “porous” self and a secular “bounded” self in his analysis of modern secularism. Recently, the musicologist Karol Berger has made the secular commitments of much music history and theory explicit in his study of the transition from Bach, whom Berger sees as representative of a theological mindset, and Mozart, whom he sees as a representative of the modernity of the bounded self. Francis’s exclamation that Mozart’s music “lifts him to God” resists the narrative Berger wants to tell, and I’m happy to see that resistance. So, in both in relation to sexual and spiritual experience, I hear the bracketing of “thinking” in relation to listening as a kind of maintaining openness.
Of course, musical experience is different than other kinds of experience, and listening engages us in a different way than thinking does. Music’s ability to reach into an ineffable dimension is one of its greatest pleasures. There’s a way that deep listening brings us into a kind of insight that can underlie the things we can say about music technically, but shifts our perception so profoundly that we’re aware of how inadequate language can be when trying to explain what is going on in the music and our experience of it. This aspect of music is key to the connection of music and spirituality. The “Et incarnatus est” manifests this aspect of music superbly.
From a very different angle, the statement makes me somewhat nervous because there is so much misperception among people that music is something we experience in a way that bypasses cultural conditioning and the discursive aspects of experience. The canard “music is the universal language” often is a short-hand way of expressing the illusion that musical experience is strictly extra-linguistic and not culturally conditioned. A wide body of ethnomusicology and many studies in music perception have laid that idea to rest – there is absolutely no way we experience music unmediated by cultural and linguistic conditioning.
A contrast between a lot of classical music and Gospel will provide one blunt example of the fact that we always experience music through cultural and discursive lenses. Classical music often works with the idea of the return to the tonic, moving back to the home key, which creates a sense of stability. But in Gospel music, the return to the tonic would signify a let-down, rather than stability. If you want to hear the contrast, a good example of “returning to the tonic” is Cat Stevens’ “Morning Has Broken,” in which he sings melody twice in the tonic key, moves to another key, and returns to the tonic for the fourth verse. What you want to listen for is the chord that gives a feeling of stability right before the final verse in the home key:
In contrast, listen to Gospel singer Hezekiah Walker keep going to higher keys (whenever he says “take me a little bit higher”), where the idea is to illustrate being lifted without going back down.
In classical music, the return to the tonic creates a kind of closure that gets us to a sense that the music itself is a self-contained world like a Platonic form to be contemplated; in Gospel music the continual pressing upward emphasizes redemption as going to heaven, of which the musical experience gives the singers and hearers a foretaste.
There’s one example of how sounds don’t just mean something by virtue of being sounds, but need various conventions for us to make sense of them. Of course, the raw experience of music is valuable, but the rawness of such experience is in some important ways illusory. Because of the power of this illusion, when “listening” and “thinking” are placed in such stark opposition, there’s a real danger of reinforcing some bad assumptions about how music works.
So, that one little sentence has many layers.
What might you infer about his theology, based on the music and performances that he mentions here?
It’s hard to just get a list of musical pieces and composers and infer something about someone’s theology because a list of pieces tells me nothing about the listening strategies someone brings to those pieces. The same instance of music can mean very different things to people depending on what their listening habits will clue them into. A very blunt example: I was listening to Mahler at a friend’s house when his roommate walked in and said, “Oh, you’re relaxing.” Here the strategy is simply to follow an expectation that classical music is relaxing – amply attested to by oodles of recordings of classical music compilations for the purpose of inducing relaxation – and Mahler equals relaxing. Now, “relaxing” is the last thing on my mind when I listen to Mahler. The musicologist Raymond Knapp, who describes a movement from Mahler’s Second Symphony as an analogue to the psychological horror movie, Sybil, hears Mahler on even more distressing terms than I do. So, the statement that Mahler’s music was “relaxing” revealed a completely different listening strategy than the one I was bringing to it.
The differences can also happen at different registers; for example, one listener paying more attention to harmony may get a completely different sense of what’s happening in music than another listener who is focusing on what happens rhythmically. So, it’s impossible for me to infer much about Francis’s theology from a list of works, though his inclusion of performers does help limit the range of possibilities. I could analyze the works he mentions in their historical context or unpack my reactions to them, but that would tell me nothing about what theological messages Francis is drawing from them. Readers can draw their own theological conclusions from the music by listening to the various examples he mentions:
Clara Haskil playing a Mozart piano sonata:
Furtwängler conducting the first movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.
Here’s Christa Ludwig singing “Erbarme dich, Jesu” from Bach’s St. Matthew Passion – I chose a performance along the lines of the performances Francis mentions elsewhere:
But, one thing that stands out is that he talks exclusively about music from the era of what we used to call “common practice tonality” – European music written between 1700 and 1900. Music in the nineteenth century, especially, often fostered a kind of contemplative practice that fits well with the contemplative emphasis in the interview. The classical music tradition is my home base, as well – it’s what I was raised on and what I gravitated to as a child. What I would suggest, however, is that the classical music tradition has a narrative and way of forming subjectivity that can be idolatrous in its own way. I’ve had to spend many years unlearning an affirmation of Arnold Schoenberg’s notions of musical progress as a practical object of faith. So, when I hear Francis speak of the arts, I hear a kind of narrowness of reference. To be sure, there’s tremendous depth in the classical tradition and I affirm that, but there’s a danger of falling into a “Christ of Culture” approach if that tradition isn’t relativized by other forms of musicking.
Given what he likes, what pieces or performances might you suggest to him that he might like, that he might not normally encounter?
The music he describes all falls in the notion of “serious” music, a prominent element of the nineteenth-century classical tradition that sets the basic parameters of his musical experience. If I were to recommend one new composer along these lines, it would be the contemporary Estonian composer Arvo Pärt. Here’s his setting of Psalm 130:
There’s a small gem by Brahms, the Intermezzo Op. 119 #3, that has always suggested to me the kind of freedom that I anticipate as a quality of redemption. It’s very gentle, somewhat playful, and very non-aggressive:
What music might you suggest that would complement, challenge, or invite him to stretch theologically?
First, let me stress that as a Quaker and someone who identifies broadly with the Protestant tradition, I’m aware that an intra-Catholic conversation is a very different matter than an ecumenical conversation. As a non-Catholic, I respect the real limits as to how I can ask Francis to stretch theologically. Nevertheless, as a gay theologian, it’s clear to me that there’s still a gap between Francis’s willingness to listen to LGBT people and the current state of Catholic teaching on the matter. Where Francis’s listening will lead is an open question at this point, but there’s a real difference between treating LGBT people with sensitive pastoral care (which I think Francis is doing admirably) and learning from advances in queer theology (I have no idea where he is in relation to this step). For a Catholic lesbian-feminist perspective, I’d direct readers to Mary Hunt’s recent reflection on the papacy at Religion Dispatches.
So, I’ll continue with queer musicology, as I’ve already touched on some of its insights. Before I’d ask Francis to listen to any new music, I’d ask him to read Queering the Pitch: The New Gay and Lesbian Musicology, so he can get a sense of how our musical desires work, how we articulate our own needs, what we have to offer in insight to the conversation about music.
One advantage to starting with that book is to broaden a perspective on musical agency. I’ve already talked a bit about paying attention to what listeners do when they listen, and how that subverts the idea that the composer makes all of the meaning. Queer musicology has been one significant force in broadening our understanding of who makes musical meaning – it has drawn special attention to the roles of listeners and performers in music’s signifying processes. Francis gives both performers and composers their due in his interview – so in a way he’s already moved beyond the “works-centered” approach of classical music, which treats the “musical work,” the composer’s product, as paramount. Of course, one of the projects of queer musicology is to get composers out of the closet, so I’ll draw attention to one composer in particular here: Dame Ethyl Smyth (1858-1944): Her Mass in D, dedicated to her friend Pauline Trevelyan, was first performed in 1893. The Credo starts at minute 9:32 in this recording:
What I’d want to draw special attention to in Smyth’s handling of the et incarnatus est section is the way she makes the phrase blossom on the words “Maria virgine.” Heard in light of her lesbian desires and efforts for women’s suffrage, Smyth uses the text of the Credo to find an opportunity to emphasize the woman-centered perspective that informed all of her output. The musicologist Elizabeth Wood hears in the fugue in the et vitam venturi saeculi section a return to a way in which Smyth used fugues throughout her life to code lesbian desire. Wood postulates that by turning to a fugue in the expression of hope for future eternal life, Smyth may have been expressing a wish for reconciliation with her former lover Lisl Herzogenberg.
Keeping with the project of fighting the erasure of women’s voices from the historical record, I’ll also highlight a very different composer, Chiara Margarita Cozzolani (1602-1677), a Benedictine nun. Here’s her version of the “Dixit Dominus.”
Another direction in which I’d be interested to see Francis’s musical experience grow is in relation to music that more explicitly reflects the experiences of the Latin American poor that inspire much of Francis’s emphasis on social teachings.
When I was involved in Latin American solidarity efforts in college, one of the singers who was particularly popular was the Cuban singer-songwriter Silvio Rodriguez. I didn’t fully appreciate his music at the time, but his craft is solid and he carries a revolutionary ethic forward. One of his more popular songs is “Playa Giron”:
In this collaboration between Holly Near and the Peruvian group Inti-Illimani, two parts of my life come together as a lesbian icon sings with a Latin American group:
And I’ll close with a bit from music from a mass celebrating the spirituality of Brazil’s poor, a collaboration between Bishop Pedro Casaldaliga and the Brazilian musician Milton Nasciamento, the Missa dos Quilombos, recorded in Brazil in 1981:
Thank you very much, Dirk! This has been fascinating – you’ve really given us a lot of depth here. I’ve learned a lot, and I’m sure our readers have too.
Dirk von der Horst is a Visiting Scholar at Graduate Theological Union. He earned his doctorate in Theology, Ethics, and Culture from Claremont Graduate University. He is a co-editor of Voices of Feminist Liberation: Writings in Celebration of Rosemary Radford Ruether and contributed an essay on gender identity in relation to the music of Yes to Progressive Rock Reconsidered.
You can ask him more about the music in the papal interview and the other pieces he’s discussed by posting a comment here, and follow him on Twitter @DirkvonderHorst.
Crossposted from Gaudete Theology.