By Christina Capecchi
Looking back, the son that was born to Leopald and Anna Maria Mozart on a Tuesday evening in late January seemed to arrive with fully-formed symphonies bound up in his tiny body, waiting for ink and instrument. At age 3, the toddler nicknamed Wolfgangerl was identifying thirds on the clavier and by 5, he was composing music.
How tempting it must have been for Leopald, himself a musician, to look at his fair-skinned son with those wide, searching eyes and claim the credit. But the devout Catholic cast it upward, not inward. He believed his son’s musical genius had a divine origin, describing it to a friend as “a miracle, which God has allowed to see the light in Salzburg” and insisting on his paternal duty to share it and “let God have the honor.”
When Mozart was 14, he visited the Sistine Chapel and heard “Miserere Mei, Deus,” a haunting Tenebrae melody commissioned by the Vatican more than a century ago. It was performed once a year and forbidden to be transcribed or played elsewhere in order to preserve its mystery. Young Mozart, so the story goes, was so riveted by the music that he went home and wrote out the 12-minute song entirely by ear. That score eventually made its way into the hands of a British historian and into publication. When Pope Clement XIV heard what had happened, he met with Mozart. Rather than excommunicate the teen, the pontiff praised his talent – and lifted the longtime ban, allowing the song to be enjoyed widely.
Over the years Leopald often urged his boy to hold onto his Catholic faith. He once wrote to Anna Maria, on a trip with their 21-year-old son: “Is it necessary for me to ask whether Wolfgang is not perhaps getting a little lax about confession? God must come first! Young people do not like to hear about these things, I know, for I was once young myself.”
A year later, Mozart offered reassuring words in a letter to his father. “I have always had God before my eyes,” he wrote. “I know myself, and I have such a sense of religion that I shall never do anything which I would not do before the whole world.”
During this month of giving thanks, I’ve been thinking about Mozart’s desire to compose – which feels so distant and grand – and our own desire to create, to seek and celebrate beauty in the world. If we are truly grateful for an artistic gift – or any talent, for that matter – we honor it. To give thanks for creative ability is to guard and nurture it.
In St. John Paul II’s 1999 letter to artists – 6,361 words I have not fully mined, uncovering new insight each time I turn to them – the late pope made a connection between art and gratitude. “That is why artists,” he wrote, “the more conscious they are of their ‘gift,’ are led all the more to see themselves and the whole of creation with eyes able to contemplate and give thanks, and to raise to God a hymn of praise. This is the only way for them to come to a full understanding of themselves, their vocation and their mission.”
I recently interviewed a series of Catholic artists, all but one of whom quoted John Paul II, multiple pointing to his statement that “those who perceive in themselves this kind of divine spark which is the artistic vocation…feel at the same time the obligation not to waste it but to develop it, in order to put it at the service of their neighbor and of humanity as a whole.”
Gift and obligation, duty and desire. The work of our hands, the stamp of our hearts.
Christina Capecchi is a freelance writer from Inver Grove Heights, Minn., and editor of SisterStory.org, the official website of National Catholic Sisters Week.