Homer’s Odyssey in Music

By Leon Botstein

Written for the concert Mythology: Homer’s Odyssey in Music, performed on Nov 10, 1995 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

Today’s revival of Odysseus by Max Bruch (1838-1920) brings back a work whose popularity was once extraordinary. The work was premiered in 1873. By the end of 1875 it had received over forty-two performances, an incredible statistic given the character of late nineteenth-century concert life. In 1893, when Max Bruch was awarded an honorary doctorate from Cambridge University, the celebratory concert opened with an excerpt from this work. It was the only one of Bruch’s works represented at a concert chosen to honor the composer.

Perhaps the most important single vindication Bruch received concerning the value of this composition was the fact that Johannes Brahms chose to conduct the work himself in 1875 at the last concert of his career as music Director of the Society of the Friends of Music in Vienna. By the mid-1870s Bruch had already found himself compared more than periodically to Brahms as a close second . The decision by Brahms to devote the entire concert to this choral-orchestral work was high praise indeed.

As Bruch’s modern biographer, Christopher Fifield, notes, the popularity of Odysseus lasted until the First World War. It did not survive the understandable and extensive anti-German campaign in England (where Bruch had worked and developed a significant following) during and after the war years. Furthermore, in Germany in the context of the Weimar Republic, the work was perhaps too reminiscent of the imperialist enthusiasms of the 1870s; too straightforward and sentimental; too detached from modernism. Not surprisingly, the archenemy of musical modernism during the 1920s, Hans Pfitzner, was one of Bruch’s leading posthumous advocates. In this sense, Bruch had the misfortune of living too long. In postwar Germany he became a visible and convenient contemporary symbol of an older generation’s error-filled ways.

This issue of Dialogues & Extensions reprints the extensive description and analysis written by the eminent musicologist and critic Hermann Kretzschmar, whose 1887 guide book to the concert repertoire was among the first and most successful efforts in that genre. Kretzschmar’s analysis, written more than a decade after the premiere of Bruch’s Odysseus, is equivocal yet admiring. It is clear that Bruch and his best music had already suffered from a shift in expectations regarding what constituted “great” music. If it had been Bruch’s intention to write large-scale choral and orchestral works using a musical vocabulary that could rival the Wagnerian achievement, he clearly failed. When Kretzschmar noted that Bruch’s music in Odysseus, despite its evident quality, did not shift its character in relationship to the ancient Greek subject matter (i.e. from Bruch’s earlier settings of Nordic materials), he was pointing to a perceived failure on the part of Bruch to connect non-musical and musical materials in a way that could bring about something new in music. The embrace of the tradition of classical antiquity as subject matter seemed to promise more.

Why was this shift in Germany during the 1870s to the world of ancient Greece significant? First, the success of Wagner had been so great that there were those who wished for a counterweight. Although Brahms had produced many great choral works, one large-scale work (the German Requiem), as well as a less successful cantata (Rinaldo), it was clear that the leading antipode of Wagner would remain active outside of the realm of dramatic music. He would continue to focus on instrumental forms, small choral works, symphonic music, and the song. Max Bruch, however, had made his career in the 1860s with some large-scale dramatic oratorios, as well as a large number of sacred choral pieces. Furthermore, he had written three operas, including one on the subject on which Felix Mendelssohn had worked at the end of his life, the Loreley. If one wanted to find an alternative to the Wagnerian within the framework of the traditions of musical classicism and early romanticism (e.g., Mendelssohn and Schumann), the hope lay in the work of Max Bruch.

The second reason is reflected in the fact that following the immediate success of Odysseus, Bruch went on to write an Achilles and a Leonidas. These efforts mirrored a romance with ancient Greece that flourished in the wake of Germany’s unification and its successive defeats of Austria and France. In the early 1870s, in the eyes of its subjects, Imperial Germany seemed poised to take the place in modern history occupied by the Greece of antiquity. Antiquity was perhaps the only subject matter that could rival the nationalism evident in the Nordic and Germanic subject matter of Wagner’s music dramas.

Part of the reason that Odysseus, Bruch’s finest secular choral work, has fallen into oblivion despite its virtues is because the genre on which Bruch staked his claim against Wagner turned out to be a genre without a future. Bruch became the late nineteenth-century master of the secular oratorio–an unstaged dramatic form requiring large forces. Key to the success of these forces were amateur choruses, well-schooled singers who were members of the thousands of choral societies and clubs that dotted the landscape of English- and German-speaking Europe (and, for that matter, America, where this work was also popular). The nineteenth-century choral tradition was a participatory world of amateurs. Choral singing was among the most significant pastimes of the educated middle class. Its strength as a social and musical phenomenon was sufficiently great to influence the sort of music written by Schubert, Schumann, Mendelssohn, and Brahms. Odysseus was the logical successor to Mendelssohn’s St. Paul and Elijah and Schumann’s Das Paradies und die Peri.

With the decline of musical amateurism at the beginning of the twentieth century, the popularity of large-scale secular choral music declined. Not only did the repertoire suffer, but by the early twentieth century the composers who wrote such music became tarnished by an association with a smug middle-class complacency identified with late nineteenth-century society. After the carnage of the First World War, both Mendelssohn and Bruch were seen as emblematic of sentimentality and artificiality. They were relics of a world of facades and pretensions to culture that masked an ugly and corrupt interior. The imperial Hellenism of the late nineteenth century became as suspect as the monumental historicism of late nineteenth-century architecture visible in Paris, Vienna, Berlin, and London.

The modernist Austrian architect Josef Frank once remarked that it should come as no surprise that during the late nineteenth century, banks liked to have their buildings built in a neoclassical style. The Corinthian or Doric columns and the harmonious monumentality of nineteenth-century neoclassicism were designed to camouflage and dress up the ugliness and evil associated with modern capitalism. The dubious ethics associated with banking, including the wiping out of unwitting small investors or the calling in of mortgages of hard-working people caught in the web of fluctuating business cycles were sanitized by the symbolism of neoclassicism. Banking took on a nobility associated with the Delphic oracle and the rational philosophical wisdom of the ancients.

No doubt in the 1920s a young generation applied the same sort of critique to the libretto and music of Odysseus. But it is not at all clear what this kind of critique tells us today, more than a century after the work’s premiere and several generations after the “new objectivity” of the 1920s. We forget that the 1870s under Wilhelm I should not be confused with the world of his totally reprehensible grandson Wilhelm II at the fin de siècle. Perhaps if Wilhelm I’s son, the more liberal and decent Friedrich IIIl, had not been confined by incompetent medical care to a brief reign in 1888, European history might have taken a better turn. The culture of the late nineteenth-century middle class in Europe and England was not only about educated hypocrisy and superficiality. Bruch’s Odysseus was in a form that made it an all-too-easy target of contempt and cynicism.

Max Bruch’s music in Odysseus, “an agglomeration of beautiful musical ideas,” as Kretzschmar put it, was designed to forge an immediate connection between performers and audience. The accessibility of the music and its structural clarity were intentional. The celebration of Homer was precisely that which Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer later pilloried in The Dialectic of Enlightenment. For Bruch’s generation, Homer plausibly represented a tradition that contained a seemingly inexhaustible but relevant source of wisdom and greatness–an alternative to the mystical unreality of Wagnerian music drama. Hellenism of the late nineteenth century was an extension of the idealization of the Enlightenment, reason, and revival of classical antiquity associated with the mid-eighteenth century. At stake for Max Bruch and for his audience were notions of beauty, goodness, humanism, and heroism of a more admirable and comprehensible sort. There was nothing in Bruch that Max Nordau, the author of a famous book entitled Degeneration (published in 1892), would have called decadent and destructive.

No doubt the sentiments behind Bruch’s use of the Homeric subject matter easily can deteriorate and slide into clichés. But if Bruch’s achievement can fall prey to the accusation of over-simplification, Wagner’s work can be accused of lending itself all too readily to murky and megalomaniacal illusions of profundity. In the final analysis, what this ASO performance should accomplish is the recreation of a work enthusiastically embraced by discerning performers and listeners for nearly half a century. It was one of the finest works written by a composer whose craft and talent were remarkable, earning him a secure place in music history.

After the famous G-Minor Violin Concerto, Odysseus was Bruch’s most successful work. Wagnerian expectations need to be set aside. Free from the prejudices of early modernist criticism, we can encounter in this work a richness of musical invention, a powerful sense of drama, and a moving late-romantic evocation of the traditions of Handel and Mendelssohn. It is one of the many works in the overlooked genre of secular choral music of the late nineteenth century that demands a rehearing.