A brief note on the three greatest composers in western music
I have written before that if one wishes to appreciate and understand something of the sweep, beauty, and depth of western music, there are three composers to whom one must especially attend: Johann Sebastian Bach; Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart; and Ludwig van Beethoven. Together, they span the years from 1685-1827, about one hundred and fifty years that witnessed such magnificent achievements in serious music. By selecting these three men, I do not wish to exclude others, and surely not such towering geniuses as Palestrina, Thomas Tallis, Heinrich Schütz, Antonio Vivaldi, Joseph Haydn, Richard Wagner, to mention a few. What I am suggesting is that if a person listens attentively to considerable amounts of music from the hands of Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven, s/he will not only be hearing some of the finest music ever composed, but with thought, be able to discern much that forms the living heart of modern western civilization. I maintain that more than any other art, music reveals the Spirit and the spirit of the one composing. If we date the high point of western civilization from roughly 1600 to 1900 or even extending into the late phase, into the twentieth century, then the three aforementioned composers indeed stand out, and form excellent guides into the mind, the spirit, the life of modern western civilization. And for those with ears to hear, these three composers also offer, at least at times, guides on the soul’s journey into God, however understood, and beyond all understanding.
Rather than list compositions by these three men which I would most recommend, I leave it to each reader to discover works on their own—or, if you wish, ask me for personal recommendations. I wish to make a few broad generalizations to give you some perspective on these masters of western music.
Each of these three composers excelled in virtually every field of composition for which they wrote, and composed major works in those areas of composition. Still, I think it just to say that each of these three men is best understood in one or two genres of music at which he not only excelled, but in which he seems most to be at home, most himself, most able to put into music that which he longs to say. This is a bold claim, but it is based on years of listening, study, and thinking about serious music, and these mens’ compositions.
Bach’s genius and unsurpassed achievement is most seen in two highly recurring patterns of phenomena: his exceptional compositional skill that allowed him to be foremost in numerous genres of music; and above all, Bach’s solid and unashamed faith and joy in Jesus Christ. During Bach’s lifetime (1685-1750), Christian faith was already bleaching out and fading from the center of western consciousness. Most of the leading thinkers (and far more popular composers) had already become more secular-minded, often with little interest in the things of God. (For example, Descartes, whom can be called the father of modern philosophy, had already died by 1650; here the preoccupation with self takes a giant leap forward.) Bach was in this regard more of a throw-back to early modern western composers, such as Tallis, Palestrina, Byrd, and Schütz (born in 1585, a century before J S Bach). I think that a major reason Bach’s Cantatas were not given their due in his lifetime, or even for many years after their composition and performance at Lutheran church services, was their explicit religious content. As noted, by the early 18th century, Bach’s time, leading minds of western culture and popular tastes had largely left Christian faith (whether Catholic, Lutheran, or Protestant) behind on what Hegel would call “the dust heap of history.” As Hegel wrote c 1803 in his Phenomenology of the Spirit, “God is dead,” replaced by human consciousness (and consciousness of self) as the decisive center of existence; and that was already clear for the reader of Descartes’ Meditations (1641), with its famous declaration: Cogito ergo sum—I think, therefore I am. (Note the deliberate play on God’s self-revelation to Moses in the Book of Exodus, “I AM that I AM.”) Bach’s faith in the world-transcendent God—in the I AM incarnate in Jesus Christ—had experientially died and “decomposed” (as Nietzsche graphically phrased it) even as Bach composed such profoundly spiritual music pointing to, and embodying in sound, God and Christ.
The heart of Johann Sebastian Bach’s musical output is clearly to be found in his enormous number of church Cantatas, of which about two-thirds are thought to be extant today. These roughly 200 compositions, when recorded, fill about 70-80 CD’s of music. In my opinion, if there are two enormous mountains of creative genius in the arts of our civilization, they would be the plays of Shakespeare and the Cantatas of J.S. Bach. This does not mean that Bach does not have many other masterful compositions, some of which excel individual Cantatas by a long distance: the St. Matthew and St. John Passions; the Mass in b minor; the orchestral suites, the Brandenburg concertos, the harpsichord and violin concertos; the Well-Tempered Clavier and so many other polished keyboard works; works for solo violin, cello, and other chamber compositions; and so on and on. It is in the Cantatas, however, taken as a collection, and experienced individually, with special attention to the finest compositions, that one sees in an overview and in detail the sweeping genius and the vibrant faith of J S Bach. Truly to hear some of these cantatas movements is to have one’s soul lifted up into the presence of God. Such is the power and art of Bach’s musical genius in expressing his solid faith.
The living center of Mozart’s output is, I deem, two-fold: it is in his 27 piano concertos, and in the more mature works among his roughly 20 dramatic compositions for stage—usually called “operas,” many of which are rarely performed now. Nearly all of the 27 piano concerti, and perhaps 7 or so of the operas, serve to give one appreciation for, and insight into, the musical mind of Mozart. Now, whereas Bach’s motives seem ever to be the communication of his faith and joy in Christ with as much technical skill as his highly developed German mastery permits, Mozart’s goal is different. Of every serious composer I have ever heard, I would maintain that Mozart has the most acutely developed sense of the beautiful in music; his aesthetic sense is acute, and highly developed, and it clearly guides his compositions. Mozart is not primarily interested in communicating faith in God in sound; rather, Mozart reveals the beautiful, or Beauty itself, which he may well have interpreted as the divine, but we leave that for a fuller study of Mozart. Listen to the slow, inner movements of Mozart’s piano concertos, and one is often brought to tears, or nearly so, by the sheer, simple beauty of his melodies, and the exquisite, tender manner in which he presents and develops their beauty. He requires musicians with a delicate touch, and who have a cultivated sense of the beautiful; Bach requires in his instrumental works performers with highly developed technical skills.
Beethoven would have been a young man of twenty when the Mozart died. His music, and that of the great Joseph Haydn, formed and directed Beethoven’s early compositions. But Beethoven was no mere interpreter or imitator of anyone. He was a genius of the highest order in music, and his genius was not primarily or essentially lived out in faith or in a highly developed sense of the beautiful. Rather, Beethoven is the foremost genius (in my opinion) of self-expression in sound. In whatever he composed, Beethoven was revealing himself—not the divine, not Christ, not the Beautiful, but Beethoven himself. His compositions could be called the first and foremost example of egophany (self-revelation) in musical history. I classify his word as egophanic, not to be critical, but to be analytical, and to do justice to Beethoven, for whose compositional skills and achievements I have utmost respect. As befits his goal of self-expression, there are two genres that seem most typical and the best way to hear and to appreciate Beethoven: the 32 piano sonatas, which fairly span his entire period of composition, and his 9 symphonies, composed roughly from age thirty into his early fifties (about three years before his death in 1827). In general terms, Beethoven worked out his feelings and thoughts in the piano sonatas, and then could make them more public, and on a grander scale, in his symphonies. As I recall, unlike Bach or Mozart, Beethoven usually drafted his orchestral compositions at the keyboard, the instrument at which he clearly felt most at home—where he could be himself, express himself, work out his feelings and thoughts in sound.
There is one additional body of works from Beethoven that I must mention. If most of his music is primarily personal self-expression—well documented in the piano sonatas and symphonies—I find a profound degree of self-transcendence in his last and highly important set of string quartets. Composed in the last 2-3 years of his life, and in a period in which Beethoven suffered much from serious health problems, these quartets still express the mind and heart of Beethoven; but they also lead the attentive listener out of Beethoven, out of oneself as listener, into a realm beyond time and space, into eternal peace and beauty, to a degree rarely achieved in western music. Here Beethoven transcends and to an extent fulfills the promise of Beethoven, and does so with unexcelled compositional skill. Sensitive souls who actively enter into these last compositions by the great Beethoven rarely cease to praise their magnificent achievement. It is in the slow movements, especially, that I most hear the heart and mind of Beethoven in meditation—Beethoven alone with the Alone, or with his attentively listening friends, moving into the unknown depths of God.
Wm. Paul McKane
18 November 2019
I do not know what my life would be like without the beauty and joy of magnificent music. Fortunately, recordings make so much great music available to one without leaving home, or in the car with playlists, and so on. I subscribe to Apple Music, and hence have access to millions of compositions and often as performed by various artists. One can also use YouTube, and listen and watch as some outstanding musicians share their art with us.
Again and again I return to certain compositions, including the set of Beethoven’s “Late String Quartets,” which number five or six, depending on how one counts the Great Fugue. These quartets constitute the bulk of Beethoven’s last compositions, composed the two years before he died (26 March 1827). For some reason, it is especially the slow movements that have most appealed to me. They bespeak a spirit at rest, after the turmoils of one’s earlier years are over. Here one does not hear the storms and outbursts of younger Beethoven, but soulful meditations composed by a man living on the edge of eternity. The listener is drawn with Beethoven into a realm that is not altogether of this world. And it is quiet bliss into which one enters. I truly thank God that Beethoven suffered as he did, and rose above his sufferings into sublime peace and transcendental love. How far Beethoven’s spirit advanced beyond the rage of the Eroica (Symphony #3 in E-flat, a truly revolutionary accomplishment) into the sublime language of the late Quartets.
As I listen to chamber music such as these string quartets, I often recall the words a fundamentalist preacher spoke to me one day in Iowa. The man was a farmer and a minister, who had attended college, and purportedly had a degree of education. One day when I mentioned the pleasure I take in chamber music, he asked me, “Why would you ever listen to chamber music?” He asked as if I were engaged in some truly bizarre activity, such as bungee jumping off a bridge with nothing but sharp boulders below. His question utterly puzzled me. How does one answer such a question? “Why do you love the ocean?” “Why do you enjoy viewing the greatest works of sculpture?” “Why would you ever read Shakespeare?” The questions are similar: If asked without a living appreciation of such beauty, the one asking is apparently dead (or numb) to the experience of beauty or truth in great works of art or nature. For me, such questions are incomprehensible. “Taste and see for yourself,” perhaps I should have said to him. But he would not have known how or where to begin in order to awaken his appreciation for such works of art. It requires hard work, and many are unwilling to make the effort to climb the mountain.
So much is lacking in American education. I wonder how many adults in Montana, where I live, would be willing to sit and listen to a late Beethoven Quartet, or to a Schubert Trio, or to a Brahms Piano Quartet, or a Bach Sonata for Violin and Harpsichord. Not many, I dare say. Many here think nothing of drinking beer even to the point of drunkenness, or of driving pick-up trucks speeding down a road, or of yelling themselves hoarse at some high school basketball game. But sitting still and listening to musicians perform some of the masterpieces of musical composition is probably beyond the limits of their imagination. They simply have not been exposed to such works, nor have they made the effort to discover them. As I just stated, so much is lacking in American education. We do not know or care to know how dead we are to so much beauty, or to works of philosophy, or to achievements of science. “Professing ourselves wise, we became fools.” Most sadly, education in America often means instruction, if not propagandizing and brain-washing; it rarely means inspiring a human being to seek the truth for himself or herself.
In reality, one must choose to educate his own mind, his own soul. There is no substitution for self-education, and its work requires a lifetime of devotion and hard work. As I reflect back on my years in high school, college, and graduate school, although I am truly thankful to a number of my teachers and professors for the learning they shared, I am also strongly aware that much of what I gained from formal education was done outside the classroom, through browsing library shelves of books, through listening intently to great music, from visiting museums, from sharing thoughts with fellow students, and so on. Formal education is at best a shell, a skeleton. If one is to flesh one’s learning, one must spend years educating oneself in the best that human minds and spirits have brought forth over time. And that requires a searching mind, and discipline, and one of the greatest of all gifts: a genuine love for learning, grounded in a humble awareness of one’s own ignorance, and need for right education. The day one thinks, “I am an educated man,” that day one’s true learning ceases. Learning is watered by the disturbing sense of one’s ignorance and shortcomings, not in pride in one’s accomplishments. “Seek and you will find,” not “Think that you have found, you have arrived.” As I see life: “Baby, you’ve just begun!”
Now, to what shall I turn my attention? There is so much lacking in my knowledge of truth and appreciation of beauty, how shall I begin? Who or what can guide me on the quest out of relative darkness into a greater light, into a deeper and fuller vision of the whole of reality? What little steps shall I now take on this journey of a thousand years?
—Wm. P. McKane
3 August 2019
Several people have said to me recently, “Priests do not retire.” I cannot speak justly for diocesan priests, because I am not one, but for my part, I think that parish priests can and do retire, and in many cases, deservedly so. I am happy for a retiring diocesan priest who served his parishioners for years, who proclaimed Christ faithfully in word and deed, who truly dedicated himself to “the care of souls,” that is, to the spiritual well-being of his parishioners. Such priests—and bishops—deserve to retire, and to continue to serve in a pastoral role if and when they wish to do so. Such service is optional after retirement, and how much one does, and the kinds of work, would depend on the individual priest’s willingness, interests, and health. That they continue assisting with some pastoral duties is not required, but their own personal choice—with the permission of the local bishop, of course.
But I am not a diocesan priest, but a Benedictine monk, who was selected for ordination to the priesthood by my Abbot to serve our monastic community and, at times, to assist others who are linked to our monastery. A Benedictine monastic, male or female, has one primary goal: to seek God with all of one’s resources, with the grace of God, until death. The work of seeking God does not end, and from this task, one does not retire. For those monks who are also ordained as priests, there is always a tension, if not a contradiction, between the life of a monk and active priestly ministry. Normally, the monk seeks God within the walls of the monastery. With my Abbot’s permission, I temporarily served as a Navy Chaplain with Marines and Sailors during the Gulf War because of emergency need. Later he asked me to assist in a parish a few miles from our monastery. Then with his permission, I served as a parish priest in the Midwest, and in 2009 I returned to serve temporarily in parishes in my home state of Montana. I serve here only with the permission of my Abbot, to whom I belong as a monk, and with the permission of Bishop Michael. Whether or not a bishop permits me to function as a priest in his diocese after retirement is his decision.
As of early this year my Abbot granted me permission to remain living outside of the monastic walls, at least “for the duration.” He has the authority to call me back to St. Anselm’s Abbey at any time, and for any reason. As I retire from active pastoral duty, my monastic calling and vows must return to the fore: to give my energies to seeking the presence of the living God. This search requires many hours of solitude, profound peace, contemplative prayer, and nourishing study. Having been formed as a Benedictine monk of St. Anselm’s Abbey (Washington, DC), and having lived the life for years in our monastery, I have a good sense of what is required of me. It will necessitate making considerable changes as I retire from active ministry on 1 July: it will take time and prayer for me to know how best to live as a faithful Benedictine monk.
To help me adjust to returning to the life of a Benedictine, I will in effect be taking a sabbatical, and not be available for pastoral substitute work at least for some time. I must also limit social invitations, as befits a more contemplative lifestyle. The best way to contact me, should you wish to do so, is by email. My iPhone will be turned off much of the time, as required for silence. Furthermore, I have planned day trips to areas in Montana in the summer months to exercise my dogs and me, and to see more of beautiful Montana then active life has permitted. I will also spend time with my brother in Utah, make a quiet retreat on the Oregon coast in the fall, and then visit my sister and her husband in San Diego over the Christmas holidays. I have not seen my family for several years.
As several of you have truly said, I will need to be retired for a while to learn how to handle the changes well. Having worked full time since my student days, and having been busy serving in active priestly ministry since 1991, retirement will require major adjustments, as it does for everyone. Some folks have asked if I will be “bored.” My response is: “Are you serious? I have many interests and hobbies.” More fundamentally, retirement permits one to strive for peace in solitude and silence, as befits a Benedictine. In truth, retirement is a graced time for anyone to seek God; that is our human calling. Furthermore, writing would be a more suitable way to continue ministering to the faithful, as it requires solitude. The LORD will guide me to assist in pastoral duties, such as funerals, at the right time, if it is appropriate to do so. In all things, peace: “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.” Know that you will be with me in my heart and prayer. I will treasure the years we have spent together in this passing light.
—Fr. Wm. Paul McKane, OSB (Benedictine monk of St. Anselm’s Abbey)
In writing these brief meditation-memos, I have usually avoided including much personal material, although I use some of my life-experiences to illustrate more general points in homilies. On this occasion I reverse the process: discussion of my vocations may be too difficult for some to hear in homilies, so I sketch it out here, rather than in a homily. My purpose is to explain to parishioners something few apparently understand, because of lack of experience with Benedictines monks (men and women): the nature of the monastic vocation is strongly different from the call to be a priest in the Church. If this memo fails to clarify my vocational situation for you, let me know and I shall write a longer version and post it on our website.
We all have multiple vocations from God, not just one. To focus on a single vocation is naive and misleading. Our foremost and common vocation is to become what we have been created to be: happy, virtuous, fulfilled, engaged human beings, who find our ultimate completion in God alone. Furthermore, some have a calling as men, some as women. Most human beings find considerable personal fulfillment in being married and raising loving children. Furthermore, our natural abilities and interests point to having other vocations. In my case, I have long been interested in learning and in teaching; in music, photography, literature; in philosophy and in spiritual life. We also share the vocation to be men and women in Christ Jesus, and to live out this calling as faithful Catholics.
I have two additional vocations which have been highly significant in my life: I have been called by Christ and by a Benedictine community to live as a monk until death; and my abbot chose me to serve, at least at times, as a priest for the community, and in the larger church. Repeatedly I have learned that even life-time Catholics do not understand the monastic vocation; many consider it invalid, escapist, or inhuman. The essence of the Benedictine monastic calling is to seek God in community. We take three vows: obedience to the Rule of St. Benedict and to our abbot; stability of life as a monk until death; and a life of ongoing conversion to Christ. To seek God means that one truly trusts and acts as though “my happiness is in You alone.” Monks forsake marriage, family life, property. The vocation of priests is to serve parish families, helping to lead people to God. Priests keep their earthly families, are attached to place, may inherit and own property. In brief, whereas monks are called to seek God in prayer and study, Catholic priests are called to active ministry. They are very different and even conflicting vocations. Every monk who is a priest knows well the conflict, and seeks to find the right balance in his life.
Let me be practical. I entered St. Anselm’s Abbey in 1982 to seek God. With chaplains needed for the Gulf War, I entered the Navy in 1991, and since then, have been a fully-engaged parish priest. My life as a Benedictine monk was not negated, but was at least partially suspended. Active ministry has left much less time for study and contemplation. As I approach retirement from active ministry, my monastic vocation returns to the fore. My abbot has chosen to restore my status as an active member of our monastery. As such, I am obligated to spend generous hours in prayer, study, and meditation every day, as well as do some manual work. Most of the monks of our monastery share in some pastoral ministry, including writing, teaching, preaching, care of the sick, and so on.
When I retire on 1 July, I will no longer be a parish priest, nor am I a diocesan priest. I will return to full-time status as a Benedictine monk. I may on occasion preach in public, or offer a Mass, but my main form of teaching and preaching will take the form of writing. To write, I must meditate and study. To these ends, I will considerably reduce my social life, as Benedictine monks live a life of relative seclusion from the world, from business, from socializing. I am not leaving the planet, but please understand if I decline opportunities to socialize or to minister in public. Please understand: I am not a diocesan priest, but a man who vowed himself to seek God in prayer, study, and contemplation. This vocation requires large amounts of time in solitude. With the help of God, I will live out my Benedictine vocation until death.
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