Talking to the Dead: Mozart Edition

Since our choir is preparing to sing Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Krönungsmesse, K. 317, Coronation Mass, this Sunday (10 am, Saint Mark’s Episcopal Church, Berkeley), I am thinking about the conversations I have been having with the dead. Of course, as a historian this is far less unusual than it sounds. At the same time, I am struck by how dismissive most people are of the structures, institutions, processes and forces that have borne them forward and that continue to shape who they are and what they know. (And I am not thinking here only of my teenage sons, for whom, “you know, last Friday was so . . . well, you know, last week.” I am thinking of mature, highly educated, and innately curious adults — friends who listen to the BBC and NPR, who follow the news in several languages, and who vote Democratic only because there is no viable socialist alternative.) And I suspect that their reluctance to reflect personally on the dead, a reluctance bordering on hostility, may have something to do with fears they entertain over what they might discover there, or, more importantly, what they might discover about themselves.


You are cordially invited to attend Music Memorial Sunday on May 17 at 10:00 a.m. at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church.The…

Posted by St. Mark’s Episcopal Church on Saturday, May 2, 2015

We know what we know because of the place and the way we are embedded in time and space, here and now. Twenty years, even ten or five, in one direction or the other and everything changes. By its very nature, all experience is solipsistic. For this reason, much as preoccupation with the future induces hope, so preoccupation with the past — with the dead — tends to induce melancholia. The dead have been deprived for all eternity of experiencing our time-space horizon. And, yet, I am (and we are) the future in which they hoped, not only in general terms, but concretely, actually, we are that future.

It was with this in mind that the Jewish mystic Walter Benjamin noted, shortly before his own death, how

The past carries with it a temporal index by which it is referred to redemption. There is a secret agreement between past generations and the present one. Our coming was expected on earth. Like every generation that preceded us, we have been endowed with a weak Messianic power, a power to which the past has a claim. That claim cannot be settled cheaply (“Theses on the Philosophy of History,” Illuminations, 254).

Of course, Benjamin was a materialist, a communist. So what is Benjamin doing with this talk about “Messianic power”?

But, as I was saying a moment ago, I suspect that our reluctance to attend too closely, too intimately, with the dead may have something to do with the fears we entertain over what we might discover there, not least about ourselves.

Mozart’s Mass was composed and performed at an interesting historical moment. Written during the twilight of the Hapsburg Empire (a mere twenty months before the death of Maria Theresa), it invoked a world extravagantly sensuous, buried deep under the baroque folds of protocol, superstition, mystery, and faith, when bodily disposition and attitude were expected to perfectly reflect the disposition and attitude of the religious practitioner’s heart and soul: lush, full, and yet carefully fitted. And, indeed, this was precisely the function the Coronation Mass served in the early to mid-19th century, feeding the insatiable appetite of German speaking romantics for times and places lost to the rush of time. And, to this degree, it plays into the melancholia whose fixation on lost and irretrievable objects arrests the development of the mourner. It therefore deserves some comment that the Mass would become so popular in the nineteenth century among those looking ahead at their coronations to expand their powers and dominions over the course of their reigns.

For these hopeful monarchs, no doubt, invocation of a past blessed and sanctified by this Holy Sacrament was among the ways Crown and Cross could most effectively subdue subjects terribly anxious about the rapidly changing state of their world. Would it not be pleasant if that world would stop changing, would retreat, and fix upon this single glorious moment, the Holy Sacrifice taking place upon the Holy Alter wholly outside of time?

There is, of course, much sin in this hope, this wedding between Crown and Cross, this anticipation of future dominion. And, yet, surely we can appreciate with what anxiety those attending this Holy Mass might have experienced the prayers Wolfgang Amadeus put to music. Would it not be pleasant to call a halt to all of the catastrophes cascading across the face of our planet? Would it not be good to block them all out in the reenactment of this sacred rite?

And, then, I remember what is really being memorialized here: the death of a Palestinian Jew at the hands of Empire. Are we the future to which this memorial now lays claim?