Moses

by Leon Botstein

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

Bruch’s Moses is a powerful and beautiful oratorio, filled with drama, lyricism, intensity, and color. Its relative obscurity has many sources, not the least of which is the fact that the oratorio genre in which Bruch excelled—especially oratorios based on Old Testament subjects—was, by the time Bruch wrote Moses in 1895, considered to be old fashioned. The oratorio has since become, if not obsolete, then marginal. A few classic works such as Mendelssohn’s Elijah (1847) persist in the repertoire, but practically nothing from the vast and fine repertoire from the second half of the 19th century and even fewer from the 20th survives in active use. Amateur choral societies, like opera companies, stick to a small list of popular works that seems to begin and end with Handel’s Messiah (1741). In addition, owing to the extraordinary popularity of choral music in which amateurs could participate throughout England and German-speaking Europe during the 19th century, Bruch wrote an extraordinary number of fine oratorios, as Christopher Fifield points out in tonight’s concert notes. Moses is but one of several Bruch oratorios worthy of performance. Furthermore, although Max Bruch’s name is familiar, he is known for a few instrumental works—primarily the overplayed G minor Violin Concerto (1868) and Kol Nidre for cello (1881)—and not much else. The most important reason for our lack of familiarity with Moses lies in the brutal fact that it represents Bruch’s most ambitious foray into a 19th-century cultural conflict over the nature and character of music as a dramatic medium in which Max Bruch was distinctly on the losing side.

It is hard for modern listeners to imagine the depth of the divide between the adherents of Richard Wagner’s music, Wagner’s theories on drama, and his notion of music as a progressive force in history on the one hand, and Wagner’s opponents, who championed the legacy of classicism and early romanticism and what has come to be regarded as a more “conservative” approach to musical form and communication, on the other. Although by the time Moses was written Wagner had been dead for more than a decade, his influence was hardly on the wane. It was greater and more widespread than it had been during his lifetime. The most prominent living composer who opposed Wagnerian aesthetics during the early 1890s was Johannes Brahms. Though dismayed by Bruch’s decision to write this particular work, Brahms supported Bruch’s ambitious effort to revitalize a large-scale dramatic form that was not operatic or theatrical and which stood in explicit opposition to all things Wagnerian, particularly what they saw as the music drama framed by incessant leitmotifs continuously elaborated through chromaticism meandering over long stretches of time.

In the 1870s, the rage for Wagner had reached new heights from its already powerful beginnings in the 1850s. Brahms’s reaction in the 1870s to the rage for Wagner, especially among a younger generation that included Hugo Wolf and Gustav Mahler, was to turn his attention away from a nearly exclusive focus on chamber music towards writing large-scale symphonies. Bruch, after Brahms, was the next most prominent figure in the anti-Wagnerian camp, and an ally of Brahms. They had a mutual friend in the violinist and composer Joseph Joachim. Bruch chose to make his stand against Wagner with the oratorio. The thought was that, as with the symphony, music cast in a traditional manner, following models dating back to Mendelssohn and Handel, could remain the primary medium of an emotionally charged aesthetic experience for the concert going public, even when music was used to set words. In Bruch’s hands, the oratorio was not designed to become a “total work of art,” but rather to validate how music augments words and delivers a unique experience to listener and participant alike, distinctive in itself and explicitly evocative of a normative classical tradition of composition dating back to Bach. The aesthetic principle guiding the music-text relationship in Bruch’s oratorios derives in part from the art song, a genre brilliantly developed by the composers of Romanticism, from Schubert to Brahms.

That being said, the challenge represented by Wagner’s spectacular achievement left an indelible mark on Bruch’s music. In comparison to Moses, Bruch’s Odysseus (1872), his first successful attempt at the oratorio, (and one performed by Brahms in Vienna) is far more explicitly restrained in terms of drama and reminiscent of Mendelssohn and Schumann. Moses, in contrast, confronts Wagner explicitly with pseudo-Wagnerian means. Moses is quite operatic. The character of Moses is Bruch’s answer to Wotan, and Aaron might be heard as his Siegfried. The text and subject matter, as was the case with Odysseus, pay homage to a noble ideal of learning and culture (in German, Bildung) so cherished by the middle classes, the members of which formed the many choral societies, and grounded in a profound respect for biblical and classical sources rather than Germanic mythology. It is not that Bruch was not a German nationalist; like Brahms he displayed more than his share of cultural chauvinism. He was not particularly philosemitic, (a fact listeners find hard to believe given the popularity of his Kol Nidre). And neither was he (counter to a common assumption) Jewish. But Bruch and Brahms had a more liberal ideal—in the English sense—of what Imperial Germany ought to become than that cherished by Wagner and his supporters. This national liberal sensibility was shared by the author of the text of Moses, the brother of one of Bruch’s closest friends, Philip Spitta, the famous biographer of Bach.

Despite the fact that Bruch adheres in Moses to quite conservative compositional practices and retains a structure comprised of discrete numbers—arias, recitatives, and choruses—he nevertheless betrays, in a startling manner, the extent to which, despite himself, he absorbed Wagner’s redefinition of musical drama. This oratorio verges on the music drama, in a manner only suggested perhaps by Mendelssohn’s Elijah but realized in Moses—to great effect—in a way that reminds one of Wagnerian strategies. Bruch’s decision to choose episodes in the story of Moses that are not ones of triumph but of conflict and renunciation is suggestive of the trajectory of Wotan’s role in Der Ring. Although the people of Israel reach the Promised Land, Moses is denied. As in Schoenberg’s Moses und Aron (1932), a great deal of emphasis is placed on the golden calf episode; and some of the finest music in this work, as in Schoenberg’s operatic fragment, is inspired by the rage and anger of Moses. The beauty of Aaron’s role is perhaps more closely comparable to that of Siegmund rather than Siegfried; but it is hard not to hear that it offers an explicit alternative to the sound of the Wagnerian “Heldentenor.” It is only in the handling of the chorus, which is masterful, that Bruch relies exclusively on the great non-Wagnerian oratorio tradition of the 19th century.

By the time Moses was performed, Richard Strauss had already become world-famous and Gustav Mahler was well on his way to joining Strauss as a representative of a new post-Wagnerian modernism in German music. The audience and supporters on whom Bruch counted, the enthusiastic amateurs and music-lovers in England and Germany who were not content to be relegated to the role of passive spectator as Wagner defined it and who appreciated the explicit historicism in Bruch’s work, were already finding themselves in the minority and outnumbered by the philistine pro-Wagnerians of the Germany of Wilhelm II (so brilliantly parodied by Heinrich Mann, the great novelist who will remain forever in the shadow of his more famous brother). Although the music of Moses seeks to accommodate late 19th-century Wagnerian musical and aesthetic expectations, it was already behind the times when it appeared.

For audiences in the 21st century, however, the cultural wars of the second half of the 19th century over music seem, if not inexplicable, then arcane. It is hard for us to fathom why there was so much enmity and conflict between the followers of Wagner and of Brahms. Nevertheless, Moses is a reminder of how sophisticated and important musical culture was, and how much seemed to be at stake in terms of issues of morality, ethics, and politics in quarrels over the nature of musical art. With the distance of time, we can put outdated polemics aside, and savor the brilliance, elegance, and the poignant drama of this powerful and moving rendering of one of the greatest of all biblical narratives. In Moses we confront a compelling and masterfully written synthesis of 19th-century musical rhetoric and expression that, long forgotten, merits a revival, particularly now, in the midst of an oversupply of excessive, CGI-adorned cinematic trivializations of the ancient stories from Homer, Herodotus, and the Bible.