The composer whose name dominated the field of the secular oratorio for a long time is Max Bruch. By the time he turned to the oratorio, he had already demonstrated his talent for powerful and brilliant portrayals in the cantata. Frithjof and Schön Ellen will be mentioned for a long time to come in connection with works that sing best about freedom and homeland. Among contemporary composers with a higher education, Bruch is the most popular force by his very nature. His gift of being able to present simple thoughts at a point that makes them ignite is amazing. This folksy trait is also expressed in the clear, straight and definite form of his melodies. In this, he is directly reminiscent of C.M. v. Weber. However, contrary to the latter's Freischütz, Bruch’s works do not combine a deeply romantic spirit with folk music. Over time, his imagination retreated increasingly into the contrasts of extreme simplicity and overwhelming pomp; his works and his undeniably powerful talent did not deepen. The selection and handling of the texts weighs even more heavily on the value and effect of Bruch’s oratorios than does this fact. They are picture sequences, held together by a title, by the name of a hero; a poetic goal in the larger sense–developments surrounding a main character, a main event–take second place to the musical purpose.
The first of Bruch’s oratorios was Odysseus, the fourth Achilles. While the era of Heinrich Voss has passed in Germany, musical souls among us who possess a classical education have certainly demonstrated a friendly interest in Bruch's oratorios which are based on Homeric protagonists. Recently, Hellenism brought forth a Prelier, an Anselm Feuerbach, in German art. In music, in particular, Hellenism has become the father of the musical drama; it inspired Handel to compose one of the most cheerful oratorios; Gluck created some of his best in the Greek spirit. Yet Bruch's oratorios do not reveal Hellenism's inspiring power. Not even a special and inherent tone distinguishes them from the composer's works that are situated on Nordic soil. It is left to an agglomeration of beautiful musical ideas to capture the listener's interest in Bruch's Greek oratorios.
Odysseus, which passed through the concert halls of most major music cities in Germany and England, sometimes more than once, from 1873 on, is based on a clever libretto by R.W. Graff. The scenes that recall Homer's epic are divided into two parts. The first covers the time of Odysseus' greatest danger; the second covers his rescue and return home.
The first scene shows "Odysseus on the island of Calypso." Hermes, the messenger of the gods, has appeared and is told by the nymphs where Calypso and Odysseus are staying. Only at the end of this message does Bruch make a transition to the proper form of the recitativo, specifically the chorus recitativo. The major part of the movement is handled melodically and structured as a beautiful three-part women's chorus. The second part follows the first faithfully; only the third, a harmonic filler, is less attractive. But the cheerful grace of his melodies makes this chorus of nymphs one of the most charming movements of the oratorio. At the end, the scene changes: The lonely Odysseus sings of his lamentation and his loneliness in a movement whose overall tone of solemn resignation, a tone that formally dominates some turns of the melody, is reminiscent of Bruch's beautiful song "Biterolf Outside of Akkon's Camp." Hermes now steps up to the poor man and promises him, on behalf of Zeus, that he will return home. The Olympians, as often as they occur in Bruch's oratorios, are not handled with musical care. The sound of a trumpet is the only thing which makes Hermes' appearance seem unusual. But very prettily, the composer has the orchestra start a lively motif at the words: "So pull down the ship," which awakens the feelings of joyful, lively travel. It continues to accompany Odysseus into the next scene, on his way into the underworld. The images of the oars' rhythm, the waves and the moving ship recur frequently in the oratorio, in different versions.
The second scene of the oratorio, "Odysseus in the Underworld," will disappoint those who expect a demonic impression similar to the one achieved by Gluck in the related scene involving the Furies in his Orpheus. Bruch did not focus his imagination on a primary image; instead, along with the librettist, he sought to make the scene appealing by changing appearances. One after the other, they all step out of the chorus's shadow: children, brides, young men; Teiresias appears, after him Odysseus' mother; the earthy sounds of the hero's companions are mixed in with the voices of the departed. It is a scene which in its own way demands imaginative genius of the first order, a combination of Schumann's and Berlioz' talent. Among the individual parts which Bruch effectively emphasized, the use of the first chorus of shades is particularly noteworthy. The sudden G-sharp after the D major, the pp after the ff is a Monteverdian idea. The best thing, however, the composer gained from the scene, is the orchestral lament that uses this pain-filled motif. The third scene, "Odysseus and the Sirens," is tilled with soft, yearning songs that bring together soloists and choruses of women's voices. They are peculiarly calm, but develop an unusual beauty of sound. The composer merely hints at the effects of the seductive melodies on Odysseus' feelings. The chorus of Odysseus' companions, which precedes and follows the music of the sirens, is both more beautiful and more penetrating. The melody which starts with the words, "Now sing, sirens, the magical song," a march tune brought to a higher level, is one of the tone ideas peculiar to Bruch. At first glance, the "Sea Storm," the last scene in the first part, and the "Feast of the Phaeacians," are the oratorio's most brilliant numbers. The former uses all the means at its command to depict the turbulence of the elements in their deafening effect, and is a counterpart to the thunderstorm in Haydn's Seasons, to the image of the collapse of the tower that Rubinstein evokes in the Tower of Babel, and to the portrayal of the night of expulsion in Liszt's Elisabeth. It also shares a wealth of individual episodes with these musical paintings; lightning, in particular, is something to which Bruch has given much thought. The plaintive voice of Odysseus rising from the all-encompassing gray of the weather, his "Woe is me" with the grand song tone, is very touching. The appearance of Leukothea offers a second soothing point of rest, even though her figure never comes into its own. The most beautiful part of the scene is its ending: "Pour, Athena, sweet sleep onto his eyes." Here, everything comes together to yield a greater effect: the architectural place it assumes, the internal content of the ending's main theme and its truly Bruchian character. Salamis and the composer's other cantatas offer a wealth of such melodies, rich yet extremely simple, based on diatonic harmonies and marked by principal intervals.
Now that Odysseus has been rescued from the greatest danger, the librettist casts a first glance at the hero's homeland. The fifth scene of the oratorio, the first of its second part, leads us to Odysseus' wife and portrays "Penelope's Mourning" in a two-part movement. The oratorio contains only two scenes that do not have chorus movements or ensemble forms, and both of them belong to Penelope. The one which will be considered first here begins with a recitativo movement in which the unhappy woman describes her hard lot: "First I lost my wonderful husband ... and now the storms have taken my son from me, too." This scene takes place in the morning. Penelope's first words greet the "brightly shining day" and the light which has awakened her from sleep. Bruch did not take advantage of the opportunity to illuminate the scene romantically, and limited himself to an image of Penelope's mood, without touching on the external background.
The singer herself remains primarily declamatory until the end of the recitativo; the instruments sing in her stead; their plaintive motif Adagio separates Penelope's individual sentences. The second part of the scene is a closed arioso. It begins as a formal prayer and, at the end, presents an extraordinary warmth of feeling. This part begins with the words, "O now think of" with which the mother asks the gods to rescue her son, and then recurs at, "Give him back to his mourning wife." Like Penelope's first scene, the other one also is one of the most rewarding and rich contributions of recent solo singing, and it is quite fitting that both are frequently selected by our altos for individual presentation in mixed concerts. This second Penelope scene occurs directly before the return of Odysseus. It shows "Penelope weaving a robe," again without any indication of the external situation. The music's power is focused exclusively on the noble and emphatic expression of longing and lamentation. At the main point of the movement, "O return, Odysseus, before my hands complete this garment," the melody is based on the same motif with which the instruments dominate the recitativo part of Penelope's first scene. Formally, this scene is based on the old pattern of the aria in three sections.
These two Penelope scenes are separated by the two most cheerful images of the oratorio: "Nausicäa and "The Feast of the Phaeacians." Nausicäa and her playmates are drawn with lively melodies that also invoke a tone of strength and resolution, characteristic for Bruch; young men happy to take up arms need not be ashamed of it. The orchestra's intermezzos develop the greatest charm in the introductory part of the scene. The speeches of Odysseus take on a beautiful, soft tone, once they are rendered in E flat major. The part with the words, "To embrace your knees," in particular, is excellent. The dialogue between him and Nausicäa ends in a two-part movement; its beginning contains one of the oratorio's most penetrating melodies, which also accurately illustrates the composer's specific style. Bruch repeatedly demonstrated his particular talent for such refrain motifs. This gift has enabled him to reproduce Homeric sentences with music that is understandable to the common man, without becoming trivial. The melody which introduces the closing part of the following scene, the "Feast of the Phaeacians" deserves particular mention in this connection: It returns at the end of the work, at the end of the last scene, to remind us that a similar dominant idea could have been incorporated into the oratorio from the beginning. The opening of the Phaeacian scene is a choral movement with a theme which, again, ideally illuminates Bruch's musical nature, externally and internally. As with the "Nausicäa" melodies, it displays the composer s tendency to speak with force, although the mood and the situation might require a milder tone. The high point of the scene is the "Song of the Rhapsodists." In melodical terms, it is actually a rather poor unison movement of men's voices, made grandiose by the string orchestra's Rameau-like giant pizzicato and charmingly enlivened by cheerful refrain motifs. At the end of this section, the part where Odysseus reveals himself offers a hint of sensitive insight. The simple, completely unexpected words: "It's me, Odysseus," are free of any theatrical pathos and must be considered one of the oratorio's deepest and most emotional effects.
In the scene of the "Return," the brief men's chorus with which the crew greets the break of dawn is fascinating. The last scene, the "Feast on Ithaca," is dominated by the external joyous sound of the choruses. The part that everyone is anxiously waiting for, the meeting of the spouses who have finally been reunited, is somewhat reticent musically. The orchestra's formal eighths motif appears to cast a glance back at the difficult times of sorrows. This instrumental theme, which appeals to everyone with Schumann-like familiarity, also forms the major part of the prelude which introduces the oratorio.
Special thanks to Gertrude Mathys President of TCA - Translation Company of America