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Busoni’s Opera: Catholics Could Use More Dispute

A theological dispute between Catholic and Protestant students in a tavern in Wittenberg? It happens in the second scene of the German opera Doktor Faust by Ferruccio Busoni (1866–1924), complex figure of German-Italian musician, pianist, composer, and writer, “the most extraordinary performer that piano literature has had” (G. Cattaneo, Esperienze intellettuali del primo Novecento, Mondadori 1968, p. 142).

Composed between 1916 and 1924, Doktor Faust is an ambitious score, the result of intense work. Left unfinished, it was then completed by Busoni’s pupil Philipp Jarnach and performed in Dresden on May 21, 1925.

The composer is not wrong when, on July 23, 1921, he writes to his wife: “This very moment I have finished scoring the student scene; it is, perhaps, technically the most perfect piece I have done in an opera. (At the same time very lively.)” (F. Busoni, Letters to his wife, London, Arnold, 1938, p. 302). In fact, we are facing a Scherzo for voices and instruments — the scherzo is a musical form, usually not very large, lively and imaginative — virtuosic and most brilliant as regards music, masterful as regards theatricality.

With Faust present, the students discuss, more or less lightly, Plato’s doctrine on ideas; theologians, jurists, and scientists dispute and then ask for Faust’s opinion. “What says the Master?” Faust replies, “No thing is proven and no thing is provable.” He starts talking about Martin Luther, “that great Protestant,” but is interrupted by a general dispute between Catholic and Protestant students, that from philosophical becomes religious: “The words of a man who deserves the stake.” “He was a hero and a holy man.” “He was a boaster.” “And a heretic.” “He was for all of us the new Redeemer; he was an upright and German man!” “Bah! Our Lord and Savior was a Jew, not a German man!” “You Romanists are worse than unbelievers.” “Were you in Spain, you’d long ago been burnt.” “And you, burnt out you are: you’re dust and ashes!” “To Hell with you, with fire and brimstone. He’s a heretic and boaster. To the devil!” “To Hell with you, with fire and brimstone! Holy man and hero. Yes, an upright and German man. And our new-born Redeemer! To Hell-fire!”

Amused, Faust good-naturedly calms everyone down and says: “Come, come, friends, on the nature of Hell-fire and the Devil why be quarreling? The words I would have quoted will reconcile you. He said that wine and woman and song, these three things are to be counted as reasonable comforts, conceded by Providence; to these may be added the tender strains and the jubilant numbers of our divine music!”

The musical contrast well represents the resumption of the dispute between the Protestant and the Catholic choruses, who are fierce: “Hail to woman!” “Hail to music!” “Martin Luther for ever!” “For ever in Hell-fire!” We get the point where the hymns of the two parties intertwine: on music that is a parody of sacred polyphony, Catholics intone an odd and licentious Te Deum: Te Deum laudamus, qui fecisti vinum. Te Dominum glorificamus qui feminam creavisti. Dum puellas adoramus, te eiscum exultamus. Circulate pocula in sæculorum sæcula! The Protestants reply, in a rigorous and academic style, with the most famous hymn composed by Luther: Einfeste Burg ist unser Gott, einstarke Wehr und Waffen! (A safe stronghold our God is still, a trusty shield and weapon), and “leave the stage in indignation, at the goose-step, with right rands raised” — a dark omen but not so peregrine, given the double thread that binds Hitler to the German heresiarch, as Francesco Agnoli so well observed here.

Following the conclusion of the Second Vatican Council (1963–65) and its optimism — rather naïve — toward the present-day world, the dispute gives way to dialogue, the colloquium, a Latin word never used in the modern sense of meeting people, and changes into dialogus, a word that doesn’t exist in Scripture. As if Our Lord Jesus Christ, about to return to His Father, had entrusted to his disciples — with all due respect to some Jesuit, who would claim the voice of the Divine Master recorded at least on a magnetic tape to know for sure what are the ipsissima verba Iesu — the duty of dialoguing and conversing, instead of the momentous and holy charge of going into the whole world and preaching the Gospel to all creation (cfr. Mk. 16:15).

Thus, a scene like the one depicted in Busoni’s opera seems so close to backward-looking archeologism and far from worldly mimicry. And to think that “in earlier times,” Jürgen Moltmann, 93-year-old Lutheran theologian, writes, “people complained about the quarrelsomeness of theologians, the rabies theologorum. Today theologians are peaceful and tolerant. Theology has become a harmless business.”

The following words by Moltmann, clear and significantly traced out on the 500th anniversary of the Lutheran infection spreading, seem written for that dispute among students in a Wittenberg tavern: “We must learn to say Yes and No again. A dispute can reveal more of the truth than a tolerant dialogue. What we need is a culture of dispute, a cultivated dispute with determination and respect. Why? Because of the truth! Without a profession of faith, theology is devoid of value, and theological dialog degenerates into a mere exchange of opinions” (The unfinished Reformation, in Theology Today, 74:1, April 2017, pp. 10–21).

Those saddened by people who don’t feel, with Romano Amerio, that “the equation between the Church’s duty to evangelize the world with a duty to dialogue with the world … is supported neither by the Scripture nor the dictionary” (Iota Unum: A Study of Changes in the Catholic Church in the XXth Century, Sarto House, 1996, p. 347) might be consoled with Busoni’s opera.

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