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Dieter Schnebel: Spiritual Music Today

Perkins School of Theology and Meadows School of the Arts, Southern Methodist University, PO Box 750133, Dallas, TX 75275–0133, USA
Religions 2017, 8(9), 185;
Original submission received: 8 August 2017 / Accepted: 8 September 2017 / Published: 11 September 2017
(This article belongs to the Special Issue Music: Its Theologies and Spiritualities—A Global Perspective)


This article presents an annotated English translation of the composer-theologian Dieter Schnebel’s seminal essay exploring music’s spiritual capacities. Speaking explicitly from his time and place, Schnebel considers compositional questions arising from the most advanced new music of European modernism. The approach is driven by insights derived from Marxist critical theory and the “new theology” associated with Bonhoeffer, Bultmann, and others. Acknowledging the secularized, religionless society Bonhoeffer had predicted in 1944, Schnebel argues that an authentic geistliche Musik has always been one driven by a secularizing dynamic, pressing beyond the walls of the church to engage a broken world of injustice and suffering. For him, the experimental avant-garde is fertile ground, since a music of the Spirit is a new, non-conformist music engaged in renewal. A translator’s introduction analyzes briefly the major components of Schnebel’s thought.

1. Introduction

On 31 March 1967, now over a half century ago, a German conference on contemporary church music meeting in Kassel programmed an address entitled Geistliche Musik in der neuen Zeit (Spiritual Music in Modern Times). The speaker was Dieter Schnebel (b. 1930), trained in theology and musicology at Tübingen, parish minister, teacher of religion, and composer associated with the experimental Darmstadt circle. Under the revised title Geistliche Musik heute, the text appeared immediately in an issue of Musik und Kirche devoted to questions of sacred music and modernity, then again in collections of Schnebel’s writings from 1972 and 1993 (Schnebel 19671; Schnebel 1972, pp. 420–30; Schnebel 1993, pp. 238–55). Still in 2004, a fascinating interview with the composer returns to its points (Gröhn 2006, pp. 233–53), and when Schnebel himself wrote a compact retrospective of his compositional output in 2008, he chose to call it Geistliche Musik—gestern und heute. Ein Werdegang (Spiritual Music—Yesterday and Today. A Career), an unmistakable allusion to the earlier essay (Schnebel 2008).
The intellectual commitments that inform Schnebel’s views (and his music) are neither routine nor monolithic. Shaped by the dialectical materialism of Theodor Adorno and Ernst Bloch, by the theologies of Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and by the provocative aesthetics of the post-war New Music scene, he insists on a musical theology that embraces the plight of a secularized, fragmented social order, moving unapologetically between the concerns of the modern German Confessing Church on the one hand and the aims of avant-garde composition on the other.
A relatively brief introduction is not the place to undertake anything like a comprehensive exploration of the ideas that inform Spiritual Music Today. A few observations by way of outline seem in order nevertheless. One useful point of departure is a remark made much after the fact in 1983, when Schnebel reflected revealingly on the remarkable constellation of influences that had come to inform his worldview:
There have been times in my life when I have had difficulty connecting, intellectually and morally, the life of an avant-garde artist with that of a theologian who teaches daily religion classes and repeatedly sermonizes, particularly since these two existences ran more or less parallel to each other. Schooled particularly in the “critical theory” of Adorno, I had the feeling that the extremist, nuanced position I represented artistically and intellectually did not mesh straightforwardly with what the church calls simply “faith”.2
The unease with competing allegiances evident here translates, in the essay, into an unwillingness to reach simple conclusions, a refusal to accept that contemporary theology and contemporary composition have nothing important to say to each other. On the contrary, Schnebel strives to weave precisely these incongruent “existences,” as he calls them, into a coherent theology of contemporary geistliche Musik, that is, of an authentically new music proceeding from the Spirit. In Christian terms, it is not too much to say that he aims to propose the outlines of a musical pneumatology.
The questions Schnebel wants to engage arise at the knotty intersections of the sacred and the secular, the traditional and the innovative, the theological and the musical. What does it mean to speak of music’s spiritual or sacred parameters? Is a real sacred music even possible in an anxiety-ridden society traumatized by conflict and divided by competing political systems, a society for which the notion of God seems ever more antiquated and ever less relevant? What role does a music “of the Spirit” play in such an environment? What are the responsibilities of the composer? Of the listener? Schnebel responds to these queries more nearly with challenges than with answers, challenges formulated through the lens of place and time, marshalling the insights of contemporary cultural criticism, social theory, theology, musical analysis, and aesthetics.
It is difficult to overestimate the decisive influence on Schnebel’s theology exercised by the philosopher-musician Theodor Adorno, and further, by the whole circle of intellectuals around the so-called Frankfurt School of Marxist critical theory for which Adorno was a leading voice. Indeed, Schnebel penned his lecture-turned-article at the height of the brief but intense personal friendship with Adorno initiated in 1964 and ending with the latter’s death in 1969 (Nauck 2001, pp. 128–29). Some twenty-seven years Schnebel’s senior, Adorno had been a composition pupil of Alban Berg, sharing with the younger man an intimate knowledge of and regard for the progressive music of the Schoenberg circle. The key roles played particularly by Mahler and Webern in Spiritual Music Today witness this common interest. Further, and more fundamentally, it is reasonable to see reflected in Schnebel’s views Adorno’s overriding attentiveness to human suffering and oppression, as well as the social theorist’s typically guarded optimism that the human lot could be improved through remediated cultural institutions. Adorno’s disdain for what he famously called “the culture industry” makes itself heard in Schnebel’s work, too, in the latter’s condemnation of geistliche Musik as a locus for conformism, and in the insight that music of the Spirit must serve as an “impulse” rather than an excuse to acquiesce to the utilitarian forces of mechanical entertainment.
A second nexus of ideas originates in the theologies of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Karl Barth, and Rudolf Bultmann. Much after the fact, Schnebel recalled that he had written an essay “more strongly informed by Barth and particularly Bonhoeffer” (Gröhn 2006, p. 236). Further, it is no coincidence that the Bultmann pupils Ernst Käsemann, Günther Bornkamm, and Herbert Braun come in for citation alongside Barth and Bonhoeffer.3 To varying degrees, all these theologians reflect the priorities of the German Bekennende Kirche or Confessing Church, the Protestant alliance springing from opposition to the religious policies of the Hitler regime. (Schnebel expressly cites its formational document, the Theological Declaration of Barmen, in his essay.) Gisela Nauck reads Schnebel’s perspective through the lens of those priorities, which she distills in
the notions of secularization [Säkularisierung] and demythologization [Entmythologisierung]. In order to be the church—that is, in order to arrive at the essence of the Christian religion in the historic figure of Jesus Christ, the church must take upon itself the conditions of the world. It must cast off all the encrusted legends about God and church. Theologically, both notions aspire to a dialectal thinking about God, free of fetish and fundamentalist elements, with the messianic essence of the Passion and Resurrection at its center. In that Jesus offered up his life, he precipitated the new world he had proclaimed. This is an event that, in the process of its transmission, is anchored in perpetual renewal. Musically, this way of thinking suggested to Schnebel that only a music of the avant-garde, with its essential commitments to renewal and change, can be a truly spiritual music.4
The linked concepts of secularization and demythologization are essential to the theology of Rudolf Bultmann, but also to Adorno’s critical theory.5 For Bultmann, a “demythologized” proclamation of the Gospel is one emancipated from a way of speaking that assumes, as the ancient texts do, an enchanted or magical world of spirits. An existential interpretation of the Biblical truths is necessary to introduce the Gospel into the secularized world of reason and science. For Adorno, the casting off of myth is tantamount to the rejection of an uncritical, supposedly objective way of apprehending reality itself. To “demythologize” in Adorno’s sense means to remediate the social conditions that hold the human consciousness captive.
The interpretation of both theologian and social theorist—indeed, the structure of the term itself, whether in German or English translation—assumes a state in need of undoing (“ent-” or “de-”), a liberating positive acting upon an imprisoning negative. On the theological plane, it is possible to say that an entmythologisierte condition is an essentially eschatological one. Schnebel, who adopts neither Bultmann’s nor Adorno’s perspective straightforwardly, nevertheless seems to strike overtones of both in his assertion below that “the sphere of the spiritual is one saturated with constant renewal, one could almost say with demythologization.” For “the radical Lutheran theologian Schnebel, indebted to historical and dialectical materialism” (Metzger 1967, cited in Nauck 2001, p. 169), music and theology are bound together as twin demythologizing forces—that is to say, forces of renewal and liberation that render the Gospel palpable to (again, Schnebel below) “the stage of history in which we find ourselves.”
To the notions of secularization and demythologization should be added a third idea that surfaces repeatedly in the essay: the critique of ecclesial language Schnebel prizes in Bonhoeffer’s theology. In short, the “tak[ing] upon itself the conditions of the world” means the church’s need to jettison antiquated ways of speaking that shroud the Messiah-event in hallowed terms—in myth. The world must be engaged in its secularized reality. Translated into compositional technique, this implies for Schnebel both the unapologetic embrace of radically new musical dialects and a critical, deconstructive approach to text setting. Such approaches are framed not in terms of abstract musical “progress,” but rather as the capacity for a real Spirit-possessed music to absorb the human condition of suffering. In exploring the question “What is a contemporary spiritual music?”, two modern scholars have likewise suggested that such music “cannot be understood, as some critics suggest, as the Emperor’s new clothes but as a response to post-Enlightenment secularization” (Sholl and van Maas 2017, p. 2). This is both an adequate description of the issues as Schnebel perceives them and the key to the common dynamism governing the spiritual and the musical: both, Schnebel writes, “strive outward toward freedom.”
Whatever reception Schnebel’s thinking has enjoyed in the German-speaking orbit, his work has not yet penetrated Anglophone discourse, a situation the present translation seeks to correct. In recent years, a growing interest has attached to the religious and spiritual dimensions of modernist art music: the singular figure of Olivier Messiaen has received perhaps the most intense attention in this regard, but also the thought and musical works of (among others) Pärt, Penderecki, Stockhausen, Ligeti, Cage, and Ives have been and continue to be subjected to examinations aiming to uncover qualities we may term “theological” in the broadest sense.6
Certainly, Dieter Schnebel and his concerns belong in this burgeoning conversation. Perhaps the most consequential word in Spiritual Music Today is “today”, that is, 1967. Schnebel does not propose a systematic theology of spiritual music but rather crafts his perspective as a response to existing social circumstances as he understands them. As with any reader of Adorno, the illusion of objective thought hovering somehow above the fray of history is not at issue here. From subsequent interviews with the composer, it is clear that Schnebel would revise parts of the argument were he to have written it later: the mistrust of “religion” evident already in the first part of the 1967 essay—what he calls the “brimborium” of ecclesial behavior—has moderated in recent years (Gröhn 2006, pp. 238–39; Schnebel 2005, pp. 54–58). But as a coming to terms with the spiritual in music from the perspective of secular modernism’s upheavals, Schnebel’s voice has something enduring to say to our own time’s struggle with similar questions.

2. Dieter Schnebel: Spiritual Music Today

The dilemma of all spiritual as well as all politically “engaged” music: to express the supposed content by the selection of a title or a text set to music, but not by the actual music, because mere notes are neither Catholic nor communist.
Heinz-Klaus Metzger (to whom this essay is dedicated)
The notion of spiritual music, already problematic in itself, has become thoroughly questionable in the context of contemporary culture. If someone today were to write J.j. (Jesu juva) or OAMGD (omnia ad majorem Dei gloriam) at the beginning or end of a completed musical work, it would have an obsolete feel, and a dedication like that of Bruckner for his Ninth [Symphony] would be absolutely impossible.7 Such dedications exist nevertheless, pointing the music to the higher glory of God. A Deo Gratias marks the close of Stockhausen’s Gruppen.8 Also, Krzysztof Penderecki, “asked why he, the experimental musician, had set a Passion text to music,” answered, “I am Catholic” (Stuckenschmidt 1966, p. 152).9 No matter how honestly they are meant, such remarks leave a bad taste, a bit like Rilke’s Geschichten vom Lieben Gott.10
This is not a bad thing, since music collectively carries the stigma of the painful and the old-fashioned. Ceremonial music, with dressed-up people, has been stylized for a very long time. The external features of most instruments suggest a fossilized charm, and there is something antiquated about a solo performance or an ensemble giving its best. Spiritual music has been affected, since, in the fairly widespread, secularized conditions at present, whoever speaks about God in a thoughtful way already begins to smell of the Salvation Army. The fact that, despite this, spiritual music (or music with a spiritual subject) exerts a certain fascination is attributable less to its content than to the archaism and reverent nature of its subject matter. It has an aesthetic appeal similar to that of monuments like old fortresses, castles, and cathedrals, marvelous because of their lack of subjectivity. In Beckett’s Endgame, one of the dissociated characters says, concerning questions that have been posed millions of times, “I love the old questions,” and then enthusiastically, “Ah the old questions, the old answers, there’s nothing like them” (Beckett 1963, p. 255).11
Spiritual music, which once concerned itself with making the Spirit present, is today more nearly defined by the spirit of the past, or more precisely, by that spirit’s particular realm (which, by the way, does not mean that all is lost, especially since the Spirit moves where it wills, certainly able to express itself in old forms). But it is fatal when music is granted a dignity on account of its subject matter that it cannot so easily derive from itself. More than a few new works live on this and get a positive reception.
The fact that, in the present circumstances, spiritual music has about itself predominantly the “old effect” discussed above is due to a process in which music called “spiritual” has participated since its beginnings, namely that of secularization. As is well known, the spiritual songs of the Middle Ages were sung by the laity [den Nicht-Geistlichen, den Laien]. Such songs were conceded as exceptions in order to grant the laity a certain participation in the liturgy shaped by the clergy [Geistlichen]. Musically, these unaffected [kunstlos gesungenen] folk songs constituted secular enclaves within the strict speech-song [Sprechgesang] of the Gregorian repertory, which of course had already been infiltrated by secular polyphony.
The Reformation aimed at the priesthood of all believers and therefore sought to involve the congregation in the service on a regular basis. Consequently, these secularized [profanisierten] liturgical songs were adopted to provide an engaged congregation with corresponding music. In the first collections of congregational song in the style of secular music, these are called “spiritual” [“geistlich”] (Walther’s Wittenberger Geistliches Gesangbüchlein, Rhau’s Neue deutsche geistliche Gesänge).12 Later pieces that import secular forms into church music carry similar appellations, such as Heinrich Schütz’s Kleine geistliche Konzerte and the Geistliche Chormusik.13 Such a notion of the spiritual at the same time implies the secular, of course not simply the sanctification of the latter, but rather expression by contemporary means, a making-present through current language.
Because spiritual content is manifested in secular form, sacred music presses outward from the church. Since the classical period at latest, perhaps already since Bach’s Passions, spiritual works have been just as often (if not more) intended for the concert hall and its increasingly secular public as for a sacred space. The turn of spiritual music toward the secular finally proceeded so far that its criteria dissolved and the forms developed from such music largely disappeared. Where such forms were preserved (for example, in the Mass Ordinary), their effect was that of remains from a long since faded time, approached more nearly out of archeological interest. It is not by accident that Stravinsky stylized his Mass in an antique language, and even Webern’s and Pousseur’s settings of Latin sacred texts preserve something of the archaic in their canonic style.14
But certain other works that followed the trend toward the secular found forms devoid of spiritual specifics. Already Bruckner’s work dedicated “to [my] dear God” was a symphony, and without words. Mahler’s Second and Eighth Symphonies, the spiritual programs of which are recognizable by the texts, strike deep into the secular sphere and even lose themselves in it.15 The Second Symphony joins a pious folk song [from Des Knaben Wunderhorn] to Klopstock’s Auferstehn, ja auferstehn wirst du, a product of Enlightenment thinking and hardly intended for the traditional church.16 The Eighth proceeds from the ancient Pentecost hymn Veni creator spiritus to the Gnostic pantheism of the conclusion to [Goethe’s] Faust II.
In his Violin Concerto, Berg wholly integrates Bach’s chorale Es ist genug as a spiritual element in a secularized Requiem.17 Ligeti takes precisely the opposite approach in his Requiem. He does not follow Berg by integrating a spiritually engaged element almost to the point of making it disappear, but rather, he adopts that element as if it had never been spiritually invested in the first place. As such, it becomes the departure point for a composition that transforms a seemingly neutral text content into music and therefore spiritualizes it in a secular context.18 Webern’s work is autonomous music, no longer dependent upon a verbal cantus firmus. The texts in his late works and those from Des Knaben Wunderhorn are, as with Mahler, remarkably ambiguous blends of Spirit and non-Spirit.19 The spiritual character that is nevertheless inseparable from almost all of Webern’s music expresses itself as an aura, or it comes from within, from the constructive features of the music.
Schoenberg’s most significant spiritual work, A Survivor from Warsaw, and similarly, Stockhausen’s Gesang der Jünglinge, consume their Biblical texts.20 A world that has become a fiery furnace smothers the Word, or at least deforms it. This concerns spiritual music and its medium, the verbum Dei, to a particularly high degree. In a secularizing guise that is already nearly unrecognizable anyway, now spiritual music loses its characteristic speech. In certain recent works the words of the text are hardly intelligible, or hidden and unclear.21 Also, text can appear merely sporadically, really only in the negative. Spiritual music that moved out into the world itself became secular; we might even say that it delivered itself up to the world. No restoration will save it. Rather, such music can bear witness to its truth only by suffering the same fate as the secular music into which it divested itself—musica crucis.
If spiritual music thus presses toward secularization, such a tendency originates with its genuine intention: to grant space to the Spirit that wants to move out into the world so as to make itself understood in contemporary language. The pull toward the world derives from the essence of music. Adorno writes in his Fragment über Musik und Sprache,
The language of music is quite different from the language of intentionality. It contains a theological dimension. What it has to say is simultaneously revealed and concealed. Its Idea is the divine Nature which has been given shape. It is demythologized prayer.
Accordingly, music itself is of divine origin, and at the same time, the seeds of secularization are placed within it. There seems to be a really right relationship when the spiritual joins itself to music.
The occurrence of the Spirit is formally the process of being seized or moved [Ergriffenwerden], which transforms into motion and presses toward communication: illumination that continues to give out its light and allows communication to succeed. This process does not ally itself with any particular form, and where one arises, it is discarded. This applies to music, the language of which, according to Adorno, is defined by intention, “but only intermediate ones.” Its meaning denies the fixed and the interchangeable; music is without words. “Music points to true language in the sense that content is apparent in it” (Adorno 1998, p. 2). This is the actual Pentecost.
Significantly, the earliest spiritual music had a doxological character. Music accrued to a content that, as a spontaneous outburst of praise, usually eluded a linguistic conception. Perhaps the formulaic essence of doxology developed early, and music satisfied the need as a more adequate expression over the insufficiency of language. In this way, the Gloria of music established its own realm, and where the spiritual content found appropriate expression in language, namely in prayer and proclamation, musical setting entered the picture only with hesitation. Tones for reading and psalmody are more nearly rhetorical stylizations than real music. Prayer took on a musical guise more likely as lament or as a sigh of the creation, as in the Leisen of the Middle Ages. Proclamation and teaching resisted musical setting most tenaciously. Pure speech content could be set to music only when musica reservata had developed speech-like music into a language of the affections. Such a musical anointing did not exactly make a sacrament of the verbum Dei, but rather it gave it a worldly luster. Every sort of stile rappresentativo (not only the style properly identified by this term) lends the Word a theatrical sense.
Music can join easily with the spiritual because both resist fixed meaning. Of course this is true for different reasons. Spiritual content wants to elude a fixed conception because otherwise it would forfeit its characteristic element of movement and could become false to its dynamism. But musical content per se cannot bring about a determined meaning either, and when such a meaning is imposed on it—say, by the addition of a text—the musical content liberates itself of this meaning. Even the most exact musical clarification could always mean something else. In that the spiritual unites with wordless music to mollify the inhibiting effect of linguistic determinism, it sows the seed of its dissolution. If the spiritual really matures in music, it loses its own essence insofar as is possible and submerges itself in the musical.
Admittedly, such a self-divesting does not appear strange to the Spirit, since in any case it always finds new (and entirely secular) hypostases, whereby the Spirit obviously presses to the transgressing of boundaries. Already among the early Christians, certain members of the community were suspicious of excessively spiritual phenomena like glossolalia [as in I Corinthians 14], since they tended to justify themselves or to go too far. In the liaison of the spiritual with music, praise became jubilus, prayer became lament or cry, and proclamation became drama. In the end, the musical had seized all instances of the spiritual and baptized them into the secular realm, because music’s demythologizing character infects even the spiritual components.
In such an ambiguous form, the secular aspect can easily conceal the spiritual content. The music that grows from this profits. The Reformation professed allegiance to the secular exterior of music as a necessity, as it strove to hallow secular essence generally. The chorales that at first made their way into and later even consumed the liturgy were musically not recognizable as such: rather, they were folk songs according to their melodic substance. Their secular guise rationalized the truth that spiritual tones, too, were woven merely from a material essence (namely, music) and not from a spiritual one. The secular tunes that suited the outward striving Spirit did not then in any way concern the content. It was degenerate [heruntergekommene] folk music like that of the Salvation Army or nationalist songs that first jeopardized this content, even made it unenjoyable. The unthinking union of profane music with spiritual texts led down a completely blind alley, as music was lost in the interstice between church song and folk song.
That which one has since attempted to introduce in its place—consumerist music, for instance, which has slipped into the role of the older folk music—has hardly been helpful. The old tunes that now are effective on account of their age remain as if their music were spiritual in the first place. The secular melodies of long ago have acquired a second, supposedly spiritual nature. Art music in the church that conjures up the ancient songs or forms in order thus to present itself as musica sacra is no less a pretense. Petrification kills the Spirit. Great spiritual music has always endeavored to loose itself from that law of liturgical music which permitted only an enhancement of the text, although one has tried over and over again to anchor such music in divine worship.
Since the Renaissance, and latently even earlier, music has tended to take on an independent essence, and church music has in no way remained immune to this tendency. On the contrary, church music has more nearly supported such a tendency in order to develop its tonal materials. Once music reached an autonomous state, the content of spiritual music organized according to this aesthetic soon appeared incidental, foreign, and wholly imposed from without. Integrated into the music’s mechanics of autonomy, the content was absorbed. Of course, the content thus engaged the musical substance, so that the latter would become spiritual by way of its construction. This substance per se would hardly be recognizable, however, particularly since the musical exterior [Gestalt] would present itself as thoroughly secular. The spiritual element, which in order to express itself had to find a way into a self-secularizing music, disappears in it.
In the world of New Music, spiritual music has found itself in the same isolation as other sorts of music and now has really landed in a tight spot, because its content (hidden in any case) has interested the decidedly secular auditors of New Music only marginally, and believers have rejected the music itself. This all-around dilemma reveals the tension inherent in the notion of spiritual music: that both the spiritual and the musical strive outward toward freedom, the one as an emanation of the Spirit that stretches out over the secular sphere, the other as emancipation from its theological origin.
The object of spiritual music is that of theology and it can only be determined from the perspective of the latter. What has transpired with theology is similar to the situation of musica sacra. In a letter from Dietrich Bonhoeffer [of 30 April 1944 to Eberhard Bethge], we read:
The age when we could tell people [what Christianity is] with words—whether with theological or with pious words—is past, as is the age of inwardness and of conscience, and that means the age of religion altogether. We are now approaching a completely religionless age.
The situation Bonhoeffer has so precisely diagnosed is the result of a comprehensive process of secularization, reflected by a parallel process in music. It, perhaps, has its theological roots in the messianic abolition of oppression through Jesus, in the Pauline doctrine of freedom, or in the halfway heretical theology of the Spirit of Joachim de Fiore through Lessing, which saw the advent of a third kingdom of the Spirit (after that of the Father and the Son) in which religion is inapplicable.22
Because it is necessary, even theologically necessary, the secularization process is not to be opposed by the church in a reactionary way. [In a further letter of 8 June 1944 to Bethge] Bonhoeffer finds “the attack by Christian apologetics on the world’s coming of age as, first of all, pointless, second, ignoble, and, third, un-Christian. Pointless,” so he maintains, “because it appears to me like trying to put a person who has become an adult back into puberty. … Un-Christian—because it confuses Christ with a particular stage of human religiousness, namely, with a human law” (Bonhoeffer 2015, p. 418).
In view of the stage of history in which we find ourselves, the only valid attitude is one of solidarity with secular humanity. For the sake of comprehensibility, it is best to discard religious language. Bonhoeffer’s aversion to religiosity, which goes much further than that of Barth, notes this exactly. [In his first letter to Bethge cited above,] Bonhoeffer is “reluctant to name the name of God to religious people,” because to him this “somehow … doesn’t ring true” and he appears “a bit dishonest” to himself. Also, he falls silent when faced with religious terminology, because he “then … clam[s] up almost completely and feel[s] uncomfortable and in a sweat.” The problem, then, is: “How do we talk about God—without religion? … How do we speak (or perhaps we can no longer even ‘speak’ the way we used to) in a ‘worldly’ way about ‘God’?” (Bonhoeffer 2015, pp. 355–56). According to Bonhoeffer [in another letter of 8 July 1944], we are dealing with “the worldly interpretation of biblical concepts” (Bonhoeffer 2015, p. 446).
Theology, then, becomes marginalized on account of having secularized itself to this degree, a position grounded in the very object of theology itself. Bonhoeffer further [in a letter of 16 July 1944, again to Bethge]:
God consents to be pushed out of the world and onto the cross; God is weak and powerless in the world and in precisely this way, and only so, is at our side and helps us. Matt. 8:17 [“This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah, ‘He took our infirmities and bore our diseases.’” (RSV)] makes it quite clear that Christ helps us not by virtue of his omnipotence but rather by virtue of his weakness and suffering!…Human religiosity directs people in need to the power of God in the world, God as deus ex machina. The Bible directs people toward the powerlessness and the suffering of God.
One can pursue theology only as theologia crucis, which implies a willingness to surrender oneself.
Insofar as theology takes upon itself the secularization that buffets it, liberation from ecclesiastical language becomes the actual task. The newer theology has embraced this, admittedly at the price of alienation from traditional congregational piety. Therefore, the “worldly interpretation of biblical concepts” demanded by Bonhoeffer has been attempted recently, to the extent that the notion of God has been demythologized. The christocentric core of dialectical theology has been revitalized in the process. The proclamation and life of Christ as the center of revelation has come back into view. That view is now a very historical (that is, secular) one that has endeavored to see the Christ of faith precisely in this way. A Christ became visible who simply “did what was necessary in the present moment and placed his purpose rather than his person in the center of his preaching” (Käsemann 1960, p. 211), whose honor and messianic essence are grounded not in entitlement, but rather only “in his word and deed and the direct nature of his historical appearance” (Bornkamm 1960, p. 163).
That which Jesus says and does seeks to engage people. The same goes for the biblical texts that witness to him or develop his intentions. An example from Herbert Braun “of how [biblical] texts integrate their intent,” that is, how they wish to move [the reader] directly:
The Jesus of the synoptics (in essence the historical Jesus) makes no distinctions between the pious and the impious, between the just and the unjust. He does not assume two classes of people. And he claims that God does likewise. This is the position of Jesus with people whom we today call traitors, the unchurched, easy women: God does likewise. Does this say something to us? Does this air of discipline and unbounded goodness help us to live more easily, to find new pleasure and joy in life? This question: “Can I live more fittingly this way?”—this is the basic question of faith. Only from this perspective do I understand Jesus of Nazareth properly.
Somewhat further on, Braun writes:
The New Testament is written so that those who hear it make its content their own and pass it on, so that they “profess” [“bekennen”], as the terminology of the New Testament itself puts it. But of course to profess does not mean the recitation of reverent formulae. Rather, it means to make something one’s own in understanding and then to pass it on in such a way that the hearer notices that one is speaking here about life, joy, the very foundation of things, about something he can really stand up for.
Braun sees spiritual phenomena here in a secular way. Belief and profession mean that one has the Spirit and lives out of it.
If we use this new theology to help define the notion of the spiritual, at first we are directed to “Jesus Christ [as] the one Word of God” [in the Theological Declaration of Barmen 1934, §8.11] (Barth 2013). Jesus of Nazareth, who lived and proclaimed in nuce a new life and even a new world, is the authoritative event: seen and professed by the congregation as Jesus Christ, who suffers and rises again, who therefore brings about this newness because he surrenders himself. But this decisive event has a more far-reaching effect in that it engages people and confronts them again and again, due to the power of the Spirit that it contains. In this sense, insofar as Jesus the Messiah is himself the Spirit, in that he continually manifests himself, he likewise supplies the ingredient for the climate that reforms the notion of the spiritual. But the messianic Spirit as enduring process—an always fresh making-present of Jesus Christ—contains an opposition within itself, located at a single fixed point, radiating from the historical Jesus, from the Fixed altogether. The Spirit abandons the word that became formula, the word that had made itself into a fetish. It brushes off fixed forms like husks and leaves them behind, empty. Therefore, the sphere of the spiritual is one saturated with constant renewal, one could almost say with demythologization. However, the direction of the Spirit aims into the world, so that the Messianic event of Jesus of Nazareth impresses itself upon that world. It is this field that the Spirit seeks to infiltrate, a Spirit that renders itself similar [to its surroundings] on the exterior, but transforms from the inside out. A secularization that never confronts the world—because it is obligated to its A and Ω—is a peculiar property of the Spirit.
Spiritual music as such—so to speak, a music that makes itself a medium of the Spirit—accordingly would be a music in which, again, so to speak, the Messiah happens. This is of course no more demonstrable than faith itself, the spiritual existence of the human being. Nevertheless, one would stand to expect from spiritual music that messianic impulses might dwell in it, in a music specifically of the New Testament, of the history of Jesus Christ.
Here we should not too quickly pass over the notion of service. One should expect of spiritual music exactly the same thing, especially since Jesus’ service as manifested in the model of foot-washing is so shocking. The service to the congregation demanded again and again of spiritual music, reinterpreted from a conformist viewpoint as an adaptation to what already is, usually results in “helping the congregation to achieve an extremely flattering experience of itself,” as Clytus Gottwald once put it (Gottwald 1966, p. 47). Such an approach then excludes “the corrective of proclamation” which “contains the will to change what is” (Gottwald 1966, p. 47). Only where spiritual music’s service also serves as an impulse is it legitimate. It can achieve this when, for example, it musically alienates words that have become empty, making them into something unusual, which one then considers in a new way. The wildly angular melodies of Webern’s songs unlock the sense of Latin formulations and give the content back its disturbing character. In such service to the word, this character is placed in the simmering messianic condition, and, itself already full of dynamism, it becomes dynamic for a congregation prepared to render the service of hearing.
The spiritual quality of Webern’s music, by the way, is also found in the renunciation of pomp, the sphere of humility, and a truly Franciscan poverty. This is accomplished through a limiting of means to the necessary, also by an extremely sparse orchestration in which sometimes only a pair of clarinets, a fiddling violin, and a guitar make music—a music, so to speak, for the entrance of the lowly Messiah Jesus into Jerusalem. Naturally, such poverty is in no way a requirement of spiritual music: particularly, a music that seeks to praise the heavenly Jerusalem would have to develop its riches. Near the end of the second movement of Mahler’s Lied von der Erde, at the words Sonne der Liebe [“sun of love”], the music brightens indescribably from its otherwise dim and reserved state, then immediately falls back into its former tone. There, one discovers a utopian luster in the notion of love, in this text intended as a thoroughly secular concept. This passage, hardly conceived as spiritual music, nevertheless points to what the latter can do: it can reveal the messianic.23 Any music that achieves this should be called spiritual, no matter how it presents itself.
Freedom, as a sign of the Spirit, demands, in any case, that we guard against limitations too hastily applied. But we should expect of a Christian spiritual music (a music that seeks to take on the essence of Jesus the Messiah) that it be collectively a music of the Passion, so to speak. What Adorno once demanded of all contemporary art—that it be shot through with the experiences of Auschwitz and Majdanek—is the first criterion for spiritual music. Bonhoeffer formulated an aesthetic law of musica sacra in his dictum that the Church can sing in Gregorian style only when it simultaneously cries out for the Jews and the Communists. Such music becomes spiritual only when it comes down on the side of the victim. Here the shape of the cross will register and the music becomes a musica crucis.
The character of spiritual music’s content has formal consequences. The Spirit as an event of making-present requires new forms of expression according to context. Therefore, spiritual music is to be conceived as new music. Indeed, constant renewal is its form, which Stockhausen correctly recognized (Stockhausen 1964, p. 249). (Admittedly, the thing that Stockhausen called Webern’s maxim—“the same things always differently”—should not be claimed exactly as a spiritual phenomenon, although the spiritual certainly can manifest itself in this way.)
In any case, spiritual music as new music must engage with the questions of modern composition, and such questions are particularly complex in the case of texted music. First, one should not simply take the ancient words of Biblical texts, frequently still in Latin, as material to be given a musical setting without reflection, as if one were dealing with something objective and timeless. The Biblical texts are themselves emanations of the making-present process of the Spirit (of course distinguished in the New Testament by the relatively close proximity to the Spirit’s source). They therefore do not permit one to hide behind them. Rather, they require the sort of translation that spiritual music can undertake musically: this is their “hermeneutical problem.”
Whether the text is Biblical, liturgical, or otherwise, in old, less old, or new form (whereby the old texts carry a particular nexus of problems due to the past that clings to them), the difficulties are further complicated by recent thinking. At least since Stockhausen’s Gesang der Jünglinge, language is no longer simply set to music but rather composed according to its elements. The phonemes rather than the sense of the text constitute the point of departure, and the material of speech becomes like music, joined together with music. On the other hand, one regards speech acts themselves, which are acoustic processes structured in particular ways, as music. In this way, pure speech can be brought into music as melody. Thus, speech can be transformed into music, and music can dissolve into speech.
For spiritual music, the aim of which, among other things, is to interpret spiritual content anew, reflection upon the function of music becomes a pressing concern. In a remarkable passage, Karl Barth writes of the angels:
The whole history of the Bible, while it intends to be and is real spatio-temporal history, has a constant bias towards the sphere where it cannot be verified by the ordinary analogies of world history but can be seen and grasped only imaginatively and represented in the form of poetry.
One might add, also in music. Art as spiritual complement or completion—this means that music can accomplish that which language of itself cannot: acoustic figuration, the act of symbolizing, a kind of sacramentalizing. In proclamation, which wants to console or encourage, this becomes something like dynamic speech-gesticulation; in prayer, it is more nearly the reserved, monotone, and musicalized language that shrinks from intoning or calling out; in praise, where speech is inadequate, it becomes a metamorphosis into music. In every case, the musical doubling of the textual content—the simultaneous transferring into musical speech—no longer suffices, if it ever did. Material-based composition, at which music has recently arrived, wants to advocate an approach to composition no longer from something given, but rather from processes of the musical material. This sort of composition tends to present the important point as a flow of the material. Concerning a recent composition [of mine, Glossolalie of 1959/60], Heinz-Klaus Metzger notes that its artistic position consists in “transferring the spiritual character of music to its technical complex,” nearly analogue to political content in other contexts (Metzger 1966, p. 27). Then, music itself would become a spiritual event, as at Pentecost.
The making-present brought about by the creator spiritus involves secularization, which of course does not dissolve into the world. It demands of spiritual music that it, like secular music, be conceived autonomously. It also asks something specific of spiritual music, namely, sensitivity to religious affectation, as expressed in Bonhoeffer’s idiosyncratic position against pious language. Because spiritual music finds its nature based on its derivation from the Spirit that presses outward “to the end of the earth” [“bis an das Ende der Erde”], it seeks to reach everyone and does not turn merely to a circle of believers.24 This demands of the new theology the “solidarity with the Godless” that has been asked for repeatedly. Respect and consideration demand the avoidance of language against which the other party is allergic. Wariness in this regard may be compared with the Old Testament reluctance to pronounce the name of God. Accordingly, it is incumbent upon spiritual music of the present to reflect upon how proclamation, prayer, and praise are possible today; and whether or not such forms rooted in divine service would need to be further developed, transformed, or surrendered in order to look for other forms, perhaps entirely secular ones. In any case, the spiritus absconditus does not tolerate a spiritual essence that pushes itself on others, if it ever had tolerated this at all. Musica sacra probably becomes sacred only when it conceals its holiness within itself.25
Considering all this, spiritual music has become extremely difficult to write. This is due not only to the isolation in which it finds itself together with New Music, but also to theological and compositional considerations. Also, we must meet the problem of language. The resulting issues will not go away by fleeing from them, but rather only when one takes them upon oneself. One must cast off the worrisome question of where one has come from and instead concentrate on the intention to write good music, which is always a truly new music. Because only great music deserves such a name, ad majorem Dei gloriam.

Conflicts of Interest

The author declares no conflict of interest.


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The companion essays in the issue are by the theologian Manfred Mezger (Geistliche Musik—in theologischer Sicht), the composer and conductor Clytus Gottwald (Neue Musik in der Kirche—Aspekte und Tendenzen), and the musicologist and church musician Gerhard Schumacher (Warum zeitgenössische geistliche Musik?).
Unless otherwise remarked, translations from the German sources are my own.
Schnebel’s reception of Barth remains largely unexplored. In the 1967 essay, it seems fair to perceive overtones of an admiration for Barth’s thesis that Christianity is (dynamic) faith rather than (static) religion. On the other hand, the composer found the theologian to be “a word man” possessed of a mere superficial admiration for Mozart: “I was never a proper Barthian. I also hold Bultmann in high regard. But my schoolmates, all these Barthians, smoked pipes and listened to Mozart. That was the Barth religion” (cited in Gröhn 2006, pp 237–38).
For another condensed, insightful assessment of Schnebel’s theological priorities, see (Pröpsting 2008, pp. 96–97).
(Gröhn 2006, pp. 118–25) has explored Schnebel’s adoption of the term Entmythologisierung in light of Bultmann’s as well as Jürgen Moltmann’s theology. While acknowledging the socio-political implications of the concept as worked out in Schnebel’s music, he does not pursue its import in Adorno’s philosophy. This is striking, since it is in relation to Adorno, not to Bultmann or his pupils, that Schnebel chooses to cite the notion of demythologization in Spiritual Music Today. (Dreher 2010, pp. 59–61) traces the term neither to Bultmann nor to Adorno, but rather to the New Testament theologian Hermann Strathmann, who used it as early as 1914.
The question of how Schnebel’s thought expresses itself in his music cannot be explored here. (Gröhn 2006) and especially (Nauck 2001) offer pertinent work-centered discussions. For a brief English-language analysis of how one of the composer’s works (the Choralvorspiele I/II) aspires to enact his theology of Spirit, see (Busch and Herchenroeder 2012, pp. 63–64).
Anton Bruckner worked on the unfinished Symphony No. 9 in D minor between 1887 and 1896. Its dedication is Dem lieben Gott (“to [my] dear God”).
Schnebel might have added that Igor Stravinsky had composed his Symphony of Psalms (1930) “to the glory of GOD”, some fifteen years before Karlheinz Stockhausen began work on his Gruppen for three orchestras and three conductors. In Stravinsky’s case, though, the dedication tends to abet the work’s neoclassicism, perhaps underscoring the “obsolete feel” Schnebel points out.
Penderecki composed his large-scale Passio et mors domini nostri Jesu Christi secundam Lucam between 1963 and 1966. Many of his views about society, religion, and music are developed in (Penderecki 1998).
Rainer Maria Rilke, whose writing often deals with the disconnect between an anxiety-ridden, secularized society and the idea of God, wrote the thirteen short stories of his Geschichten vom lieben Gott (Stories of God) in 1899. The original title was Vom lieben Gott und Anderes: an Grosse für Kinder erzählt (Of God and Other Matters: Told to Grownups for Children).
Samuel Beckett’s one-act play Endgame, originally written in French as Fin de partie, appeared in 1957. The play’s principal protagonist, Hamm, speaks the lines Schnebel cites.
Johann Walther’s Geystliches gesangk Buchleyn appeared first in 1524 with a preface by Luther, in essence the first Lutheran hymnal. Georg Rhau—publisher, theorist, composer, and like Walther a member of Luther’s circle,—was easily the most important publisher of Protestant materials during the early years of the Reformation. The anthology Newe deudsche geistliche Gesenge für die gemeinen Schulen was published at Wittenberg in 1544.
The two parts of the Kleine geistliche Konzerte appeared in 1636 and 1639 respectively as opp. 8 and 9 (SWV 282–305 and 306–337). The Musicalia ad chorum sacrum, das ist: Geistliche Chor-Music (SWV 369–397) appeared as op. 11 in 1648.
On the significance of “antique language” to Stravinsky’s music, see also note 8. Stravinsky intended the Mass (SATB and wind) for liturgical use, but in fact the work was premiered at the Teatro alla Scala, Milan, in 1948—a vivid example of “sacred music press[ing] outward from the church.” The Schoenberg and Adler pupil Anton Webern composed no Latin choral music, but Schnebel likely has in mind his 5 Canons nach lateinischen Texten op. 16 (1923/24), setting liturgical texts for the most part. The Belgian composer and Webern advocate Henri Pousseur set several Latin texts, including the Missa brevis of 1950, to which Schnebel perhaps refers.
Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 (so-called “Resurrection” in C minor and E-flat major) was composed from 1888 through 1894. The Symphony No. 8 (so-called “of a thousand,” E-flat major) was composed during the summers of 1906/07.
Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock is perhaps best known as the author of the enormous epic Der Messias. He exercised a profound influence in German literature of the later eighteenth century. Mahler had heard Klopstock’s Die Auferstehung (The Resurrection) in a setting by J. G. Beutler at the Hamburg funeral of Hans von Bülow and subsequently adopted portions of the poem for the last movement of his “Resurrection” Symphony No. 2.
Alban Berg composed his Violin Concerto in a concentrated period of four months in 1935 on a commission from the American violinist Louis Krasner. The work is dedicated to the memory “of an angel,” in this case Manon Gropius, the daughter of Alma Mahler and Walter Gropius who died at 18 of poliomyelitis—hence the concerto’s “Requiem” character. Berg ingeniously integrates J. S. Bach’s harmonization of the chorale Es ist genug from the cantata O Ewigkeit, du Donnerwort BWV 60. The first melodic phrase of the chorale forms the last segment of the dodecaphonic row on which the Violin Concerto is based.
György Ligeti’s Requiem, composed from 1963 through 1965, was still relatively new at the time of Schnebel’s 1967 lecture.
Des Knaben Wunderhorn, a collection of folk poetry published by Achim von Arnim and Clemens Brentano between 1805 and 1808, was a central source that fed German romanticism’s fascination with folklore. Mahler was particularly drawn to the Wunderhorn poetry and returned to it several times for musical setting.
In the wake of the atrocities of World War II, Arnold Schoenberg composed his brief but intense A Survivor from Warsaw op. 46 on an original libretto for narrator, male voices, and orchestra. The work dates from 1947 and incorporates the Shema Yisrael, reportedly sung by a group of Jews on their way to the gas chamber. Karlheinz Stockhausen’s astounding Gesang der Jünglinge (Song of the Youths), on the subject of Nebuchadnezzar’s fiery furnace as related in Daniel, was realized in 1955/56. In it, the composer for the first time integrates electronically produced sound with acoustically recorded sound, in this case a boy’s voice, in a work of total serialism. The notion of a “consumed” text is particularly apt here.
Schnebel well could have mentioned here a work like Ligeti’s Lux aeterna for 16-part choir (1966), which develops a densely canonic micropolyphony to obscure its traditional Latin text.
Joachim de Fiore (c. 1135–1202) posited the movement of history in three ages, each corresponding to one member of the Trinity. The coming “age of the Spirit” would achieve a relationship with God more direct than that of any previous era, hence transcending the literal parameters of language and obviating the traditional church. Schnebel holds to the view, popular since the nineteenth century, that Gotthold Ephraim Lessing had implicitly sanctioned Joachim’s tripartite conception in his own positing of a history in three ages, particularly in Lessing’s seminal essay Die Erziehung des Menschengeschlechts (The Education of Humankind) of 1780.
Mahler composed Das Lied von der Erde in 1908 and 1909 to texts drawn from Hans Bethge’s Die chinesische Flöte, a 1907 German translation of ancient Chinese poetry. The cited passage begins at rehearsal 18 (m. 128) of the second movement (Der Einsame im Herbst), where a memorable modulation from D minor to E-flat major (then back again) introduces the words “Sonne der Liebe, willst du nie mehr scheinen, um meine bittern Tränen mild aufzutrocknen?” (“Sun of love, will you never again shine, gently to dry my bitter tears?”). This is the emotional and musical high point of the movement. Schnebel’s “utopian luster in the notion of love” is unmistakably Wagnerian in tone here—one might think just as easily of Tristan und Isolde, Act II—and a striking example of the porous boundary between the secular and the sacred in matters of “spiritual” music.
Schnebel alludes to Acts 1:8: “But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth” (RSV).
This is an arresting notion most directly rooted in the instruction concerning prayer in Matthew 6:5–6: “And when you pray, you must not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by men. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (RSV).

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