Mythology: Homer’s Odyssey in Music

By John Michael Cooper, Illinois Wesleyan University

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

“The work by which Bruch’s name is, perhaps, best known all the world over… The success achieved by it wherever it has been given has been very remarkable.” Thus the musicologist and critic JA. Fuller-Maitland described Max Bruch’s Odysseus in 1894. To modern audiences, Fuller-Maitland’s assessment might seem a bit peculiar, for Bruch is today best-indeed, almost exclusively-known by his beloved G-Minor Violin Concerto and Scottish Fantasy, and by his first opera, Die Loreley. However, in Bruch’s opinion the most important part of his oeuvre was not these better-known works, but rather his five oratorios, of which Odysseus (1872) was the first composed.

This assessment is a telling one. In the early 1870s, German musical culture was one that not only celebrated the unification of German-speaking peoples, but also was bent on realizing a strictly Darwinian, unidirectional “progress” in the arts as well as society: a musical culture in which the oratorio as a genre was considered to have outlived its usefulness. The “Artwork of the Future,” as espoused by Wagner, Liszt, and the so-called “New German School”‘ represented a music-dramatic ideal for which the oratorio was intrinsically unsuited. Liszt’s attempts to resolve these aesthetic incongruities in his two oratorios (The Legend of St. Elizabeth, 1865, and Christus, 1873) notwithstanding, the general consensus was that the oratorio in its traditional guise had breathed its final breaths in the works of Haydn, Beethoven, and possibly, Mendelssohn. Thus, in composing a series of oratorios that in all their major features rejected the ideals of the New German School and retained the essence of the genre’s tradition, Bruch also pitted himself against the contemporary notion of progress in the development of the musical art.

Bruch’s position vis-à -vis the New German School’s views on music and drama are readily observable in the layout of Odysseus and its successors in the genre of oratorio. Although the work’s tendency to blur recitatives, arias, and ariosi hint at the sort of musical continuity characteristic of Wagner’s music dramas, the overall structure clearly eschews the dramatic continuity supported by self-referential motivic thread that was the essence of the Wagnerian music-dramatic aesthetic. Instead, Bruch divides his epic oratorio into two large parts, each comprising a series of scenes extracted from Homerian epic, presented in the original sequence but otherwise only loosely dramatic. Thus, after an orchestral prelude, Part I presents a series of self-contained scenes representing “Odysseus on the Island of Calypso,” “Odysseus in the Underworld,” “Odysseus and the Sirens,” and the “Storm at Sea” (a colossal genre-scene that must count among the most vivid storms in the musical repertoire). Part II then presents “Penelope Weeping,” the “Feast with the Phaecians,” “Penelope Working on her Garment,” and “Odysseus’ Return Home.” It would be pointless to deny the tremendous sense of drama that infuses each of these scenes, but the only clear use of motivic and thematic material to unify the work is between the introduction and the final scene–hardly a compositional gesture consistent with those espoused by Wagner and his followers.

On the other hand, if Bruch consciously distanced himself from the New German School with Odysseus, he nevertheless revealed his sympathies with the artistic and nationalistic ideals that played such an important role in Wagner’s music dramas (when Odysseus was premiered, Wagner’s Rheingold and Walküre, as well as the complete poetic text of Ring, were already known, and the completion and premiere of the complete cycle was anticipated as the secular event of the century). For in presenting the protagonist of Odysseus in a variety of scenes from Homer’s original, Bruch presented a crystallized version of a series of themes central to Wagner’s musical aesthetic: love of country and fidelity in love, and honor and valor as the external manifestations of the individual’s love, courage, and will.

It is therefore perhaps fairest to judge Odysseus not for what it is not–a Wagnerian music-drama of the sort that usurped virtually all other kinds of operatic composition in Germany in the late nineteenth century–but rather for what it is: a dramatic oratorio actively concerned with presenting that aesthetic’s ideals in a musical format consistent with Bruch’s conservative bent and the generic proclivities of his native Rheinland.