Is Beethoven greater than Mozart? When you’re dealing with the greatest of the great of any artistic medium, it’s impossible to say one is greater than another. It becomes a matter of preference. At the catholic blog, Inebriate Me, Pascal-Immanuel Goby wrote a post titled “Beethoven > Mozart.” The “>” symbol signifies “greater than.”
I like Goby’s blog, though it can be more philosophical than my tastes run in reading about Catholicism. But he’s got an interesting, out of the box, yet still traditional take on things. I like his perspective on economics and Catholicism. Most Catholic bloggers don’t understand economics, but Goby does. I never refer to him in my head as Goby. From writing literary essays I’m trained to use last names but the way I think of him is by the first half of his name, Pascal. He seems to share a number of things with the famous Pascal: an intellectual Catholicism and that he’s French. I know he lives in France, but he does write in English, so if he’s not French, then his parents were certainly Francophiles to name him Pascal.
In “Beethoven > Mozart” Goby wonders bemoans that theologians prefer Mozart as their favorite composer, while Goby clearly believes that Beethoven is the greatest. Why this this preference for Mozart over Beethoven. Here’s part of what he wrote:
We need more theologians who love Beethoven. (We need more theologians who love Led Zeppelin!)
I love Mozart. Truly. He had access to the Forms. However…
We have many theologians who love Mozart. Balthasar and Barth connected (in part) on their shared love of Mozart as the greatest composer in history. Ratzinger, as is well known, is a devotee of Mozart. All good.
But, but, but.
No, Mozart is not the greatest. Mozart is not the greatest, because for all his attempts to move beyond, all his pathos, he remains the classical composer par excellence. Mozart is the Parthenon. Mozart represents art understood as submission to, and fulfillment of, form.
No. This is not the full truth of art. The full truth of art must have as its primary impulse the expression of human subjectivity (an expression of subjectivity which only through its embrace of itself can then point to universality), even as it incorporates, uses, and in its fullness, transcends, aesthetic rules. And here we are talking about Beethoven. Mozart expressed the fullness of humanity within the classical rules. Beethoven expressed the fullness of humanity by transcending (through incorporating) the classical rules.
Beethoven is not afraid of being off-balance. Mozart raises the mind to contemplation, Beethoven grabs you by the throat. Mozart is Aquinas, wonderful Aquinas, building angelic cathedrals. Beethoven is Paul, frustratingly unsystematic, cajoling, browbeating, repudiating, pleading, ordering, crying on the page.
The comparison of Aquinas to Mozart, Beethoven to St. Paul is kind of apt. But I don’t see why that would make Beethoven greater than Mozart. Here’s my comment to his post.
Mozart is not the greatest because he died too young. Had lived another twenty years he would have been the greatest. I agree it would be great if more theologians loved Beethoven as they do Mozart (I'm surprised they don't) but I think you're being silly with Led Zeppelin. Bach is probably the greatest of them all. Where I disagree is with how you value aesthetics. It's not that Beethoven is greater because he is subjective in his art or because he is off balance. Neither of those makes art greater or lesser. They are just different approaches. Greatness comes from how well you create and how well your vision is represented aesthetically. We are still under the guiding force of Romanticism, so off balance appears to the general person to be of greater aesthetic quality. If and when we return to a neo-classical zeitgeist, Beethoven might appear to be ugly, or I should say uglier. Is Dante's Divine Comedy any lesser because of its balance and interconnectiveness and rational form? I would argue that Dante is closer to Mozart than Beethoven. And then perhaps one could say that Shakespeare might be closer to Beethoven than Mozart, though perhaps that's arguable. Dante and Shakespeare, as Mozart and Beethoven, have different approaches. It's not the approaches that make them greater or lesser.
Goby never replied to my comment; he usually does, but I sense he’s been busy lately. Another person replied to me and we had an interesting conversation about Led Zeppelin, so you can go over to check that out if you wish. Goby’s central thesis is that Christian theologians are too neo-classically oriented and lack the passion of Romanticism. He does end his post with this summation: “We need, in other words, Appasionnata theology, we need Hymn to Joy theology, we need 5th and 6th symphony theology.” The “Hymn to Joy” allusion is actually a reference to Beethoven’s concluding Ninth Symphony movement where Friedrich Schiller’s poem “Ode to Joy” is set in a choral. I’m sure people here know of it.
And just a few days after reading the Goby post, I came across in almost divine guided happenstance a post written by Stephen Klugewitz at The Imaginative Conservative, titled “Did Mozart Write the “Ode to Joy”?” Klugewitz’s claim is that Beethoven took the theme from Mozart.
Only a few pieces of music in the Western canon rival the fame of the “Ode to Joy” theme: the opening chords of Beethoven’s own Fifth Symphony, “Spring” from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries,” the first notes of Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, to name a few. The “Ode to Joy,” however, seems to stand above these, due to its hymn-like, sublime character and its elevated call to universal brotherhood. It will be forever associated with Beethoven’s name, and alone would ensure his legacy as one of the greatest composers—in the estimation of many, THE greatest composer—who ever lived.
The problem is that the “Ode to Joy” theme is not entirely Beethoven’s. He borrowed the main part of it from none other than Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
In 1775, at the age of nineteen, Mozart composed the “Misericordias Domini,” K. 222, a six-minute sacred work that is little recorded and seldom performed today, yet which constitutes a minor masterpiece. Mozart employs what became the germ of the “Ode to Joy” theme three times throughout the work
You can read the rest of Klugewitz’s thoughts there and here Mozart’s “Misericordias Domini” side by side to Beethoven’s fourth movement. Tell me if they sound similar. They do to my ear. What Klugewitz doesn’t show is that Beethoven was aware of this little known Mozart piece. It’s quite possible that it coincidental. But after listening side by side I tend to agree; I think Beethoven stole it! Even the arrangement is similar.
For Music Tuesday I offer Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy.” section of the fourth movement of his Ninth Symphony, here conducted by the late, great Leonard Bernstein. The actual “Ode to Joy” theme starts at about 3:50; the chorus stats at 7:55.