Culture, Music, Theology

Rudolf Otto on Music’s Ability to Portray the Transcendent

On Bach’s Mass in B Minor:

Its most mystical portion is the ‘Incarnatus’ in the ‘Credo’, and there the effect is due to the faint whispering, lingering sequence in the fugue structure, dying away pianissimo. The held breath and hushed sounds of the passage, its wierd cadences, sinking away in lessened thirds, its pauses and syncopations, and its rise and fall in astonishing semitones, which renders so well the sense of awe-struck wonder–all this serves to express the mysterium by way of intimation, rather than in forthright utterance. And by this means Bach attains his  aim here far better than in the ‘Sanctus’.

Rudolf Otto, John W. Harvey, trans., The Idea of the Holy (New York:  Oxford University Press, 1958), 70.

Where or where can we find theologians that have a grasp of what music is doing after the manner of Otto?

4 thoughts on “Rudolf Otto on Music’s Ability to Portray the Transcendent

  1. To be overly educated, particularly in Arts and Letters, is not a good thing. BTW, are there a couple of typos in the quote? ” . . .Back . . . fat better . . .”

  2. Thanks for that heads up, Jon. I made the necessary changes. Your comment, however, is more perplexing. I wouldn’t call Otto overly educated. Would you consider yourself to be overly educated?

  3. Hi, Van. Sarcasm does not translate well on the internet, I’m afraid. 🙂 It is apparent from Otto’s comments that he was very well versed in the music of Bach. To even mention something like “fugue structure” means that he was also musically literate in a general way. Of course, it’s difficult to tell from the translation exactly what he was saying in some ways. For example, could the term “lessening thirds” be translated as “diminished thirds” (a more common musical term)? I would guess so, based on the context; otherwise, “lessening thirds” does not make much sense.
    I’m not very familiar with the late-19th century German educational system (Gymnasium), but I’d be willing to bet that Otto already had a strong musical education by the time he went to University.

  4. Just listened to the Incarnatus – don’t have a score, but the “lessening thirds” might also be “lowered thirds” or “minor thirds.”
    What did Otto mean by “mysterium?”

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