“The Serious Business of Heaven”

Series: Window on the World

by Phil Ryken February 2, 1997

This has been a weekend of Schubertiade. Friday, January 31, was the bicentennial of the birth of the Austrian composer Franz Schubert (1797-1828). It was impossible to go to a classical concert in Philadelphia this weekend without hearing Schubert. Our own Dr. Samuel Hsu accompanied two of his sonatas for violin. Elsewhere, Schubert was being played by the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Curtis Institute, the Philadelphia Chamber Ensemble and in various restaurants around Rittenhouse Square. The 1700 block of Latimer Street has even been renamed “Schubert Alley.”

I celebrated Schubert’s birth with an evening of music at the Church of the Holy Trinity on Rittenhouse Square. The program featured a pleasing variety of piano solos, chamber music and lieder, including both the instrumental and vocal versions of Schubert’s famous “Trout Quintet” (Piano Quintet in A major, D. 667, Die Forelle; Die Forelle, D. 500). The concert closed with an audience performance of Schubert’s short Mass No. 2 in G major (D.167).

The celebration will continue throughout the year, and there will be plenty of Schubert to play. Although he died at the age of 31, his total musical output exceeds that of Mozart and Beethoven combined. Two hundred years after his birth, Schubert will receive fresh acclaim as a composer of the first rank.

Schubert’s compositions have something to teach us about the joy of music in the Christian life. C. S. Lewis once observed that “joy is the serious business of heaven” (Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer, London, Geoffrey Bles, 1963, p. 122). If Lewis is right, then one way to prepare for our eternal occupation is to play and listen to music. It is in music, most of all, that the soul anticipates the joy of life with God.

Schubert himself was not always joyful. For the last decade of his life he suffered from the debilitating effects of syphilis. The misery of his illness is captured in a letter he wrote to a friend in 1824:

In a word, I feel myself to be the most unhappy and wretched creature in the world. Imagine a man whose health will never be right again, and who, in sheer despair over this, ever makes things worse and worse, instead of better; imagine a man, I say, whose most brilliant hopes have perished, to whom the felicity of love and friendship have nothing to offer but pain.

It seems unlikely that Schubert ever took his sufferings to the Lord. He was not known for his godliness, and he rarely acknowledged that his musical gifts came from God. Although he wrote many works to be performed in church, Schubert’s real passion was reserved for secular songs, for opera and for orchestra music. A friend once wrote to him, “Credo in unum Deum”—“I believe in one God.” But then he admitted, “I know very well that you do not.” Schubert’s attitude toward Jesus Christ is perhaps summed up in his condescending words about one of his brothers: “He probably still keeps crawling to the Cross.”

If Schubert did not praise God for his music, many others have done so. His first teacher said, “If I wished to instruct him in anything fresh, he already knew it. Consequently I gave him no actual tuition but merely conversed with him and watched him with silent astonishment.” When he went to the imperial court in Vienna as a choir boy, one of his teachers exclaimed, “He has learnt everything from God, that lad.” Beethoven was given some of Schubert’s songs to study while he was on his deathbed. He was so moved that he said, “Truly in Schubert there is a divine spark.”

Wolfgang Sawallisch—the conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra—said much the same thing on Friday night. He tried to explain Schubert’s “gentle musical power,” the almost “magical” quality of his music. But Sawallisch was unable to account for Schubert’s gift, unless perhaps the lines on his musical score had fallen “down from the heavens.”

Beautiful music is always a gift from God. God himself conducted the first choir in the universe, when the morning stars sang together and all the angels shouted for joy (Job 38:7). The Bible is careful to record the name of the first great musician in human history: Jubal; he was the father of all who play the harp and flute (Gen. 4:21). Music is part of God’s common grace, one of the blessings he has poured out on humanity in general, through men and women such as Franz Schubert.

I said at the beginning that this has been a weekend of Schubertiade. Schubertiade are concerts which began during Schubert’s lifetime when friends would gather in his home to sing, dance, read poetry and perform new music. They were occasions of joy and celebration.

It is good for Christians to celebrate Schubertiade. Enjoying music is one of the best ways to practice “the serious business of heaven.” But when we play or listen to Schubert we are not simply praising the gift of his music, we are praising the Giver of all good gifts. Proper Schubertiade are celebrations of the God who has made us music-makers. This is why, when the Bible refers to music, it speaks most often of music to the Lord, or to our God (e.g. Ps. 27:6, 147:7). Music is properly offered in praise to God. It should always be listened to or played to his glory.

There was glory—and joy—in the Schubert music we sang on Friday night. The Kyrie was hushed, contemplative: “Lord, have mercy. Lord, have mercy.” But then the orchestra leaped and skipped into the Gloria, with the choir rushing to keep pace: “Gloria in excelsis Deo!” “Glory to God in the highest!”

(The biographical information in this essay primarily comes from the article “Franz Peter Schubert” in Grove’s Musical Dictionary. The help of Dr. Samuel Hsu, Professor of Music at Philadelphia College of the Bible and elder at Tenth Presbyterian Church, has been invaluable.)

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