When the Angels Sing Along

What Pope Benedict hears when he listens to — or performs — his favorite compositions by Bach and Mozart. By Father Andreas Kramarz, LC.

Pope Benedict loves music. Pope Benedict loves Mozart. But what of Mozart does Pope Benedict love most?

A little while ago, his brother Msgr. Georg Ratzinger disclosed this secret in an interview to a Swiss Press Agency and now we know that there are two pieces that Benedict XVI especially enjoys: the Clarinet Concerto and the Clarinet Quintet, both by the great Austrian genius.

Both pieces were completed toward the end of Mozart’s life and are therefore considered “late works,” although Mozart died when only 35 years old. Particularly the Clarinet Concerto (K 622), finished only months before his death in 1791, is commonly characterized as “autumnal.” It is written in A major, comprises the traditional three movements (Allegro, Adagio, Rondo Allegro), and indulges in exquisite interplay between the strings, the woodwind instruments and the solo clarinet.

The first movement begins with a playful Mozartian theme, simple and original. In the development we find some more complex harmonic turns and reflexive moments, but the movement ends as light-footed as it started. The second movement (in D major, not in the minor mode that would have been expected) is a particularly beautiful sound painting that conveys a homey atmosphere, created by several charming third parallels, which give room to artistic but not overly exuberant melodic escapades for the solo instrument.

The third movement, once more in A major, presents a restrainedly joyful Rondo with less repetition than you would expect but more development.

The Clarinet Concerto was the last concerto Mozart wrote. It premiered in Prague on Oct. 16, 1791, only seven weeks before Mozart’s death. The clarinetist was Anton Stadler, a friend of the composer during his last 10 years, for whom it was written.

While the Clarinet Concerto is quite well-known and popular, Pope Benedict’s second favorite, the Clarinet Quintet (K 581), has received less attention, because chamber music in general is an acquired taste. It was written earlier than the concerto, in 1789 (finished on Sept. 29). It is remarkable that a musical piece of such calm and harmony was coincident with the uproar of the French Revolution.

The Quintet includes two violins, a viola, a cello and the solo clarinet. Written in the same key as the concerto (A major), it is likewise dedicated to Anton Stadler.

The first of the four movements (Allegro) consists of a very lyric development, the melody flowing in the faster parts between violins and clarinet, passed on from one to the other. Some articulate pizzicato arpeggios in the cello part during quieter sections create a very particular effect.

The second movement (Larghetto), which resembles the second movement of the Clarinet Concerto, is also written in the same key (D major), though with a less catchy theme. The end is marked by a chromatic scale that dissolves into a harmonic close. The A major third movement constitutes a minuet with two inserted trios, the first played by the strings only, the second dominated by the clarinet in the style of a Viennese Ländler (waltz). The fourth movement (Allegro) includes five variations of the initial theme with some significant changes of tempo and mood, returning finally after several slower sections back to a lively conclusion with another variation of the initial theme.

Paradise Heard

Why did the Pope fall in love with precisely these two compositions? We can only speculate. They certainly count among Mozart’s finest works and show the splendor of an accomplished composition brought to a high level of perfection.

It is significant that both pieces are for the clarinet and the only ones that Mozart wrote explicitly for this instrument (except perhaps the Kegelstatt Trio of 1786).

The clarinet, through its mellow yet clear timbre, evokes a touch of melancholy but not as much as the oboe; it therefore gives itself equally to light-hearted scales and jumps that are characteristic of the uplifting spirit of Mozart’s style.

Transparency and brilliance, the perfection in form and the natural flow of beautiful melodic lines, are what give Mozart’s music that classical balance in which one can see the splendor of God reflected. That’s why Pope Benedict thinks of paradise when he listens to the composer from Salzburg.

“Music possesses the capacity to point beyond itself to the Creator of all harmony and to produce in us resonances by which we swing ourselves, so to speak, into the beauty and truth of God that no human wisdom and no philosophy can ever put into words,” said the Holy Father in 2007. “This is what Schubert tried to express when he mentioned of a minuet by Mozart that it seemed to him ‘that the angels are singing along.’”

Legionary Father Andreas Kramarz is music director at the Legionaries’ Novitiate and College of Humanities

in Cheshire, Connecticut.

In Advent, we await the coming of Jesus at Christmastime.

What Is Advent Anyway?

EXPLAINER: Advent is a season in the Church’s life intended to renew the experience of waiting and longing for the Messiah.