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The Pope Who Loved Mozart: In Memory of Pope Benedict XVI
A glimpse into the life of the late Pope Benedict XVI and his love for classical music
“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.” — Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI as Cardinal Ratzinger
Pope Benedict XVI, who passed away on December 31, 2022, greatly enjoyed listening to classical music. His favourite composer was Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who was born in 1756 in Salzburg, Austria. The first concert the late pontiff ever attended as a boy was a performance of Mozart’s beautifully moving Requiem in D Minor. He had the privilege of attending this concert in the very city of Mozart’s birth, Saltzburg, a memory he cherished for the rest of his life.1 Mozart wrote many pieces for religious use, including numerous Masses. As a young boy in Traunstein, Bavaria, young Joseph Ratzinger (the future Pope Benedict) loved hearing Mozart’s music at his parish on feast days. As he himself described it:
[I]t seemed as if heaven stood open…. 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…. 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.2
A child prodigy, Mozart composed his first piece at the age of five. While he played a variety of instruments throughout his life, Mozart was primarily known for his skill at the piano, a talent that Pope Benedict also possessed. The late pontiff owned an unbranded piano that he obtained shortly after his priestly ordination in 1951, and he took this piano with him to the Vatican when he became Pope. In his typical humble manner, Benedict preferred this old brandless piano to the Steinway baby grand that had been donated to the papal palace.
Monsignor Georg Ratzinger, Pope Benedict’s older brother, spoke of Benedict’s humility and love for the piano: “He knows himself that his playing is hardly of an elevated standard, but he enjoys it. And his desire to make music still finds its most beautiful outlet in Mozart.”3 Pope Benedict’s love for playing Mozart was lifelong; in an interview, he recalled trying to play Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik on the piano with his brother when they were children.4
Pope Benedict also enjoyed the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, a German Baroque composer. Like Mozart, Bach also wrote religious music and composed several Masses, despite being a Lutheran. Pope Benedict especially liked Bach’s Mass in B Minor and St. Matthew Passion, which is a choral and orchestral arrangement of St. Matthew’s account of Christ’s Passion.5 It seems that the late pontiff did not usually play Bach’s music on the piano, instead preferring Mozart when he sat down at the keys.
Below are excerpts from some of Pope Benedict’s favourite pieces by Mozart and Bach. May they elevate our souls as they did the late pontiff.
Rest in peace, Pope Benedict XVI, and pray for us!
“Kyrie Eleison” from Mozart’s Requiem in D Minor:
Eine Kleine Nachtmusik:
“Gloria” from Bach’s Mass in B Minor:
Final Chorus from Bach’s St. Matthew Passion:
R. Jared Staudt, “Pope Emeritus Benedict’s Favorite Music,” at National Catholic Register, 30 January 2017, at www.ncregister.com.
Mark Freer, “Pope Benedict XVI, Mozart and the Quest of Beauty,” at Catholic Education Resource Center, 2006, at www.catholiceducation.org.
Staudt, “Benedict’s Favorite Music.”