Pope Emeritus Benedict’s Favorite Music

Here are some of Benedict’s favorite pieces. Enjoy and be moved as Benedict himself was listening to them.

(photo: Register Files)

In age dominated by what I call the heresy of ugliness, the popes have pointed us toward beauty.  Music moves the soul in unrivaled fashion, giving expression to a full range of emotions, intellectual harmony, and our desire for transcendence. It is a sacramental expression of what resides within us, from the lowest to the highest.

Pope Emeritus has a great love for classical music, especially for Mozart. Pope Francis, on the other hand, has expressed his great love of tango, which he says “comes from deep within me.” He has shared the names some of his favorite tango composers and in a previous article I posted some video selections of their pieces. This difference in musical taste provides a fitting image of the different sensibilities and styles of the two popes: the serene and even sublime transcendence of the classical versus the turbulent passion of the people’s dance.

In Pope Emeritus Benedict’s recent interview book, The Last Testament, he lists some of his favorite classical pieces. I’ll provide links to some of them below, but first want to give some background.

In a previous interview, also with Peter Seewald, Salt of the Earth, Benedict describes Mozart’s role in his childhood:

You are a great lover of Mozart.

Yes! Although we moved around a very great deal in my childhood, the family basically always remained in the area between the Inn and the Salzach. And the largest and most important and best parts of my youth I spent in Traunstein, which very much reflects the influence of Salzburg. You might say that there Mozart thoroughly penetrated our souls, and his music still touches me very deeply, because it is so luminous and yet at the same time so deep. His music is by no means just entertainment; it contains the whole tragedy of human existence (47).

Benedict played Mozart on piano throughout his life, and continues to do so in retirement. At least as of a couple of years ago, Archbishop Gänswein, who remains his secretary, stated: “In the last few weeks he has resumed playing the piano more often—mostly Mozart but also other pieces that come into his mind and which he plays from memory.”

Ratzinger gave a lecture to Communion and Liberation on beauty, “The Feeling of Things, the Contemplation of Beauty,” which should be required reading for all. In it he describes a powerful moment in his life, listening to Bach:

The encounter with the beautiful can become the wound of the arrow that strikes the heart and in this way opens our eyes, so that later, from this experience, we take the criteria for judgement and can correctly evaluate the arguments. For me an unforgettable experience was the Bach concert that Leonard Bernstein conducted in Munich after the sudden death of Karl Richter. I was sitting next to the Lutheran Bishop Hanselmann. When the last note of one of the great Thomas-Kantor-Cantatas triumphantly faded away, we looked at each other spontaneously and right then we said: "Anyone who has heard this, knows that the faith is true". The music had such an extraordinary force of reality that we realized, no longer by deduction, but by the impact on our hearts, that it could not have originated from nothingness, but could only have come to be through the power of the Truth that became real in the composer's inspiration.

This is a powerful reminder to us of the spiritual impact of music, which cannot be overlooked in the liturgy (see Ratzinger, The Spirit of the Liturgy for more on this connection). It can be both positive and negative (the latter of which is only too common).

Pope Benedict described a similar reaction to Mozart, while joining others in commemorating the composer’s 250th birthday:

When in our home parish of Traunstein on feast days a Mass by Mozart resounded, for me, a little country boy, it seemed as if heaven stood open. In the front, in the sanctuary, columns of incense had formed in which the sunlight was broken; at the altar the sacred action took place of which we knew that heaven opened for us. And from the choir sounded music that could only come from heaven; music in which was revealed to us the jubilation of the angels over the beauty of God. . . . I have to say that something like this happens to me still when I listen to Mozart. Mozart is pure inspiration — or at least I feel it so. Each tone is correct and could not be different. The message is simply present. . . . The joy that Mozart gives us, and I feel this anew in every encounter with him, is not due to the omission of a part of reality; it is an expression of a higher perception of the whole, something I can only call inspiration out of which his compositions seem to flow naturally.

Now back to The Last Testament. Benedict makes a practical point, which should help us both in our reading of books and appreciation of music. Asked if he listens to music while writing, he replies: “I would find it a disturbance. Either music or writing.”  This reminds of a professor who asked us not to listen to any music while reading St. Thomas for homework. I pushed back, but he told me that I would be doing a disservice both to St. Thomas and Mozart to divide my attention between them. It proved to be excellent advice and I would encourage others to take it up: read in silence and when listening to classical music, do exactly that.  

Benedict is asked further:

What are your favorite pieces by Mozart?

There is a clarinet quintet that I really life. Then the Coronation Mass, of course. The Requiem I’ve particularly enjoyed. It was the first concert I heard in my life, in Salzburg. Then Eine Kleine Nachtmusik. We tried to play that on the piano as a duet when we were children. The Magic Flute, naturally, and of the operas I would still say Don Giovanni.

One or two favorite pieces by Johann Sebastian Bach?

Yes, Bach—the B Minor Mass is particularly dear to me. I’ve asked my brother for a new recording of it for Christmas. Then the St. Matthew Passion of course.

Here are links to some of Benedict’s favorite pieces. Enjoy and hopefully be moved as Benedict himself was listening to them.

Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet:

Mozart’s Coronation Mass:

Bach’s Mass in B Minor (the best Protestant-written, Catholic Mass setting and my favorite piece of music):