Pope Benedict XVI has passed away at the age of 95, leaving behind a legacy of deep Catholic thought that gave rise to a multitude of influential religious writings and monastic musings. He was a man of many talents and a polyglot who was fluent in German, English, Spanish, Italian, and French, and proficient in Portuguese and Greek, Hebrew and Latin. There is also, however, a universal language of which Pope Benedict XVI was a life-long student and lover: music.
The pope’s piano
While he rarely performed in public, Pope Benedict XVI was a pianist who played for his own enjoyment. According to the Catholic Education Research Center his preferred instrument was an old brandless piano that he acquired shortly after his ordination, while he was still an educator at the College of Philosophy and Theology in Freising, in the 1950s.
Even as the pontiff, he never relinquished this old instrument, even going so far as to suggest he liked playing on it better than the high-quality Stienway in the papal palace at Castel Gandolfo. This was as much due to his own humility as it was his preference, for he acknowledged that his piano playing was hardly professional-grade. His brother, Msgr. Georg Ratzinger, a professional musician, once explained why Pope Benedict XVI never sought to install a grand piano in the Vatican:
“There’s talk of getting one for the Vatican too, but my brother says it’s not worth it. For one thing he doesn’t have much time, and also he gauges his own abilities realistically. For his own playing, his old piano is good enough.”
Msgr. Ratzinger admitted that he was not sure how much time Pope Benedict XVI could devote to his music, but he did note that he often saw the piano’s lid open and Mozart’s piano sonatas strewn about. According to the National Catholic Register, Mozart was Pope Benedict XVI’s all-time favorite composer, with J.S. Bach was not far behind.
Pope Benedict XVI once described one of his early encounters with the music of Mozart, while attending a Mass penned by the great composer. He described Mozart’s treatment of the Mass as “music that could only come from heaven; music in which was revealed to us the jubilation of the angels over the beauty of God.” He added:
“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.”
In a separate interview, also provided by the NCR, Pope Benedict XVI was asked to name off a few of his favorite pieces by these two prolific composers, and he was happy to provide the titles.
On the Mozart side, he noted that the Clarinet Quintet, Coronation Mass, and Requiem Mass stand as some of his favorites, with the Requiem Mass being the first concert Pope Benedict XVI ever attended. He also listed art songs like Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, as well as operas like The Magic Flute and Don Giovanni.
On the Bach side, Pope Benedict XVI went purely liturgical, citing the composer’s Mass in B minor and, of course, St. Matthew’s Passion.
In remembrance of the passing of this great leader of the Catholic faith, we have arranged a playlist that includes all of the selections Pope Benedict XVI named as his favorites. It is said that Pope Benedict XVI particularly liked to listen to Mozart while reading the works of St. Thomas Aquinas, so break out your Summa Theologica and experience the music as Pope Benedict XVI did, surrounded by the beauty of Catholic thought and sacred music all at once, for old time’s sake.