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Mozart: Catholic, Master Mason, favorite of the pope

National Catholic Reporter, Sept 1, 2006 by John L. Allen, Jr.

In a poll of 20th century Christian personalities as to their favorite composer, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart would probably win in a landslide.

Protestant theologian Karl Barth once said that when he arrived in Heaven he would seek out Mozart, a Catholic, ahead of Luther or Calvin--for the ultra-Protestant Barth, perhaps the highest compliment imaginable. Liberal Swiss Catholic theologian Hans Kung wrote a paean to Mozart titled "Traces of Transcendence," and his more conservative Swiss counterpart Hans Urs von Balthasar said Mozart's music evokes the risen Christ. Jesuit Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini uses Mozart in morning prayer. Now hobbled with the early stages of Parkinson's disease, Martini likes to listen to Mozart on an iPod when he walks, claiming the music keeps him on an even keel.

Most famously, of course, Pope Benedict XVI is a passionate Mozart fan.

"His music is by no means just entertainment; it contains the whole tragedy of human existence," the pope said in a 1996 interview. Then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger said that Mozart "thoroughly penetrated" his soul as he was growing up in the 1920s and '30s in rural Bavaria, near Salzburg, Austria, Mozart's birthplace. Benedict tries to get in a few minutes at the keyboard every day, usually playing Mozart.

While all this lends a special Catholic resonance to the 250th anniversary of Mozart's birth this year, it has served to resurrect an old canard about Mozart--specifically, the question of his membership in the Freemasons, and whether that calls into question his Catholic credentials.

The debate recently resurfaced in Europe, in the wake of a prominent cardinal's denial--later chalked up to a misunderstanding--that Mozart was ever a Mason at all.

Founded in the early 18th century, although with earlier historical roots, Freemasonry is a fraternal association that draws upon esoteric symbolism and mythology to foster Enlightenment ideals such as egalitarianism. As Masonry developed, it became a deep rival of the Catholic church, triggering condemnations from a series of popes.

This antipathy is by no means a relic of a bygone age. In 1983, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith reiterated: "Faithful who enroll in Masonic associations are in a state of grave sin and may not receive Holy Communion."

One understands, therefore, why links between the pope's favorite composer and the Masons make some Catholics nervous.

Debate over what Mozart's Masonry reveals, if anything, about his attitudes toward the Catholic church is at least two centuries old. In late July, Cardinal Christoph Schonborn of Vienna, Austria, gave the issue a new lease on life in an interview with L'Avvenire, the official newspaper of the Italian bishops' conference. The paper quoted Schonborn as denying that Mozart was a Mason, saying that reports of his membership "are without foundation."

"To prove the point," Schonborn said, "there's the fact that the composer came from a Catholic family that belonged to ordinary society, conformed to and defined by a religious life."

The statement left many scratching their heads, since it's a matter of established historical fact that Mozart was initiated into a Masonic lodge in Vienna at the age of 28, and eventually became a Master Mason.

Moreover, Mozart persuaded his father, Leopold, to become a Mason, and perhaps his friend Joseph Haydn. He wrote a substantial body of music for the lodges and for various Masonic ceremonies and functions, for example his famous Masonic funeral service. The last piece he finished before his death was K.623, "The Little Masonic Cantata."

In fact, a Schonborn spokesperson told NCR Aug. 22 that the cardinal had been misquoted.

"He said that all historians are of the opinion that Mozart was a Mason. There is much evidence for this," Erich Leitenberger said.

"But at the same time it is necessary to understand that Freemasonry in the 18th century was a completely different thing from [that of] the 19th or 20th centuries. There was no problem to be a deeply convinced Catholic and a Mason at the same time, as is illustrated by the examples of many priests, abbots, etc. [who were Masons] in the late 18th century."

In other words, according to Leitenberger, Schonborn's position is that Mozart was a Mason, but he was fully Catholic too.

Put that way, the Austrian cardinal seems on the same page with Mozart specialists contacted by NCR, who insisted that the composer himself saw no contradiction between his two allegiances.

"Mozart was a sincere Mason, but he never in any sense abandoned the Catholic church," said Robert Spaethling, a German scholar who edited a 2000 collection of the composer's correspondence titled Mozart's Letters, Mozart's Life.

"We should not try to put a wedge between these aspects of his personality," Spaethling said.

"Catholicism represented the tradition he grew up in, which he had no reason to reject, and never did. Masonry was about the pride he felt in himself, his assertion of himself as an equal to the inherited status of the aristocracy," he said.


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