Max Bruch, Moses

by Christopher Fifield

Written for the concert Moses, performed on March 27, 2014 at Carnegie Hall.

Bruch born Jan 6, 1838 in Cologne, Germany; died Oct 2, 1920 in Friedenau, Germany
Moses composed in 1894–5; Premiered Jan 19, 1895 in Barmen, Germany
Approximate performance time: 2 hours
Instruments: 2 flutes, 2 oboes (1 doubling English horn), 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 French horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (cymbals, triangle), organ, harp, strings, chorus, and vocal soloists

Of one hundred published works by Max Bruch, the vast majority were for voice, from solo song to large-scale oratorio. In fact, it was this last genre upon which his reputation in Germany, England, and North America rested for most of his life, though of course it enjoyed nothing like the fame he posthumously earned with his first violin concerto (1868) and which (together with Kol nidrei and the Scottish Fantasy) endures to this day. There were periods in his long life of 82 years when Bruch earned his living as a conductor, either employed at the courts of Coblenz (1865–7) and Sondershausen (1867–70), or by the municipal authorities of cities such as Liverpool (1880–3) or Breslau (1883–90). Other years were spent as a freelance conductor (Berlin, 1878–80), a composer (1870–8), or as an eminent teacher of composition at Berlin’s Royal Academy of Arts from 1890 until his retirement in 1911. His appointment there at the age of 52 was largely thanks to his friends, the violinist and its director Joseph Joachim and the eminent musicologist and Bach expert Philipp Spitta. With the post went automatic membership of the Senate of the Academy and the title of professor. For Bruch, it was “a happy good fortune that, after a lifetime, I am now free of public opinion, the misery of the daily newspapers and the ordinary orchestral player,” and it also provided a much needed regular income to care for his wife and four children.

In the years immediately following his appointment to the Academy, Bruch composed in a flurry of activity. He produced songs, short choral works, a cello transcription of the Ave Maria Op. 61 from his earlier choral work Das Feuerkreuz Op. 52, the Swedish Dances for violin and piano Op. 63 (and their orchestral and two-piano versions), In Memoriam for violin and orchestra Op. 65, and the dramatic cantata Leonidas Op. 66 for the Vienna Male Voice Choral Society. Twenty years earlier, Bruch had forsaken the sacred oratorio for the secular, and this decade of the 1870s was a good time for him to make it his own. Hitherto the industrial revolution in Germany had spawned factories, whose more philanthropic owners formed choral societies from their work force, particularly after German unification. Instead of courts, factories became a place for performance as aristocrats lost their employer status to factory owners. Bruch worked in the industrial heartland of a unified Germany led by Bismarck. The first of his five secular oratorios was Odysseus Op. 41 in 1872 (performed by the ASO in 1995).

The oratorio, from the beginning of the seventeenth century to Mendelssohn, had been concerned exclusively with religious subject matter, and indeed oratorio can be defined as an extended setting of a religious text in an unstaged dramatic form. Though not requiring a scenic setting with costumes and action, Handel’s oratorios were conceived in dramatic terms and performed as a concert in theatres. In the mid-nineteenth century the oratorio was affected by the musical and political world around it. Liszt attempted a transfer of dramatic elements of the “music of the future” from his symphonic poems into his two oratorios, The Legend of St Elizabeth (1865) and Christus (1873), while Schumann had begun the move to the secular oratorio with Das Paradies und die Peri (1843, performed by the ASO in 2006) and the uncompleted Scenes from Goethe’s Faust (1844–53, performed by the ASO in 2010). The mood of unified Germany that followed the Franco-Prussian War was euphoric. Wagner had celebrated with his Kaisermarsch, Brahms with his Triumphlied Op. 55 (performed by the ASO in 1997), tauntingly described by Wagner as “Brahms running around wearing Handel’s Hallelujah wig,” while Bruch’s contribution was Das Lied vom deutschen Kaiser. The war reparations from the French created an economic boom. Nationalistic fervour was at its height, and wealth, leisure, and optimism created an atmosphere which encouraged social contact. Music was in demand for the increasing number of choral societies. It was also a period in German literature of the historical novel and historical retrospection (Felix Dahn and Georg Ebers). Bruch’s choral ballads and cantatas, such as Salamis, Normannenzug, Römische Leichenfeier, Frithjof, and Schön Ellen had already fired his imagination with the secular and heroic past, so it was only a matter of time before he turned to ancient Greece as a source for the larger-scale oratorios Odysseus and Achilles, to ancient Germany for Arminius with its theme of freedom and Gustav Adolf, while another was a setting of Schiller’s Das Lied von der Glocke, an allegorical poem on life. In 1895 he set episodes in the life of Moses as a political rather than a spiritual leader and called it a biblical oratorio with words from the Old Testament.

In spite of Bruch’s assertion made to Hermann Deiters in January 1873 that the sacred oratorio had no future after Mendelssohn, he opted for a work that would in dramatic terms continue directly on from Handel’s Israel in Egypt of 1739. The subject of Moses had been tackled by C.P.E. Bach (1775), Konradin Kreutzer (1814), Franz Lachner (1833), Eduard Grell (1838), Ludwig Drobisch (1839), Adolf Bernhard Marx (1841), Aloys Schmidt (1841), the Dutchman Anton Berlijn (1844), and Rudolf Thoma (1855). After 1870, Martin Blumner, Friedrich Kiel, Eduard Wilsing, and Ludwig Meinardus composed cantatas or oratorios on related events, while Anton Rubinstein’s Moses (1894) belonged more to the domain of spiritual opera than oratorio. Bruch first conceived the idea of his oratorio in 1889, but only began work after he was fully established in Berlin. He sought and received help in the initial stages from his friend and colleague Philipp Spitta, who, according to a letter written by Bruch to his publisher Simrock on June 24, 1894, “was preoccupied with oratorio matters throughout his life, was a true and all too invaluable adviser in the whole affair.…it is one of the greatest undertakings of my life and I have laid down the totality of my ability in this work.” Bruch saw Moses as the “only great representative and preserver of monotheism.” That was how he outlined the character to Spitta on December 17, 1893. By early January 1894, Ludwig Spitta (Philipp’s theologian brother) had accepted the task of forging a libretto for Bruch’s oratorio from his home in Hanover. The character of Moses was to be depicted as a caring but prophetic leader of the Israelites, a heroic warrior, and a disciple of God for whom his followers had the greatest respect. Many of these characteristics were in common with the heroes of his earlier secular works.

Moses was begun in the early months of 1894 and generated a constant flow of correspondence between the brothers Spitta and Bruch. The first occasion upon which Bruch actually met his librettist was at the graveside of his brother, for on April 13 Philipp died suddenly only a day after writing again to Bruch on the subject of Moses. Bruch was devastated. “I cannot tell you,” he wrote to Simrock on June 18, 1894, “how much I have lost in him.” For the rest of the year, Bruch and Ludwig Spitta resumed work on the oratorio and it was first performed under the composer’s direction on January 19, 1895 in Barmen, a former industrial metropolis in the region of Bergisches Land and now part of Wuppertal. Five performances took place in Germany during the following year at Bonn, Düsseldorf, Schwerin, Gotha, and Berlin, whereupon it virtually disappeared from the repertoire in spite of the composer’s own frequently expressed high opinion of it. The first American performance soon followed, given by the Oratorio Society of Baltimore, Maryland on February 6, 1896. However, Moses and indeed Bruch’s other secular oratorios now seem to have had something of a revival both in the recording studio (Das Lied von der Glocke, Odysseus (recorded by NDR-Hannover, Leon Botstein conducting [Koch]), Arminius one each, while of Moses alone three are available) and, since 1988, in public performance in the U.K. at London and Oxford; in Berlin, Germany; and in the USA at Greenville, South Carolina in a new English translation.

Four chronological events from the life of Moses form the four parts of the oratorio. It begins with Moses as the spiritual leader of his people receiving the ten commandments on Mount Sinai. The second part deals with the worship of the golden calf by Aaron, depicting Moses in angry mood and rebuking his renegade people. Having arrived at Canaan’s borders, the third describes the report of the scouts sent out to reconnoitre the lie of the land, and after a further confrontation with Aaron and his followers, the warrior Moses leads his people into battle against the Amaleks. In the final part, Moses has brought the Israelites into the Promised Land and is now the respected leader of his people. It ends with his final blessing of his followers and his death.

There are three soloists: Moses (bass), Aaron (tenor), and the Angel of the Lord (soprano). The libretto is a mixture of paraphrase from the Old Testament and quotations from the Psalms. Although divided into 19 sections, Bruch used his established mix of both connected and separate numbers. Each soloist sings a variety of styles (recitative, arioso, and aria), with the chorus in the role of the people of Israel in four, five, or six-part homophonic or polyphonic part-writing and developed from Mendelssohn’s use of it in Elijah, choral recitative. No orchestral sections or complete numbers are extractable, though the Lobgesang (Hymn of Praise) was performed by itself at the Cologne Music Festival in the summer of 1895. Instrumental color, where appropriate, is provided by percussion, harp, cor anglais, or piccolo. The organ plays a prominent part, either as a solo instrument for recitatives or woven into the orchestral texture, but Bruch (consistent with his other compositions which include the organ) made provision for any absence of the instrument in the concert hall by scoring the parts for wind instruments as an alternative or ossia.

Simrock bought Moses for 15,000 marks even though Bruch had asked for 20,000 because “that very bad work” Gounod’s Redemption had earned more, but he was reminded by his publisher that for Elijah in 1846 Mendelssohn had received only 600 Friedrichs d’or (a Prussian gold coin in circulation 1741–1855). Bruch anticipated a success for the first performance. “Everything is going very well. The choir is very large (280 voices), secure, imposing and very well in tune. Organ excellent. Orchestra naturally not first class but fully adequate. The whole world is looking to the performance; I think we shall be happy.” The newspaper Barmer Zeitung acknowledged Bruch’s total inability and unwillingness to join the “modern free way of writing,” but nevertheless pointed out that

without the declamatory style and rich colors of Wagner’s orchestra, absolutely nothing can be composed today. Art lies purely in not losing the gathering of splendid material, the clear flow and healthy naturalness of expression, the beauty of sound and the ability to write for the voice. Purely a detail which many composers never learn and for which Bruch seeks his equal.

Perhaps this was the press producing the “stupid stuff” which Bruch dismissed out of hand, believing that “on the whole the work seems to have made a good and strong impression.” Moses was performed on May 7, 1896 to celebrate the centenary of the Royal Academy of the Arts in Berlin, and Bruch attributed its disappearance thereafter to this occasion, due to Joachim’s “unbelievable inability as a conductor of large choral forces,” a typical reaction from this ever-increasingly bitter, ungrateful, and inconsiderate man who could pour out such wonderful melodies.

“I could never have written Moses if a strong and deep feeling for God were not alive in me,” Bruch told Simrock. “Once in the lifetime of every deeply concerned artist it will happen that the best and innermost emotions of his soul can be announced to the world using the medium of his Art. I am little or nothing—I obey the spirit which is in me and moreover I seek seriously and conscientiously with the gifts which are loaned to me to develop them in any way possible. Thus Moses has proved to the world that I have not remained standing—for that is the greatest danger in old age.”

Dr. Christopher Fifield is a freelance conductor, music historian, lecturer, and broadcaster. He is Bruch’s sole biographer, the author of Max Bruch—His Life and Works.