Ferdinand Hiller, Die Zerstörung Jerusalems

By R. Larry Todd, Arts & Sciences Professor, Duke University, and author of Mendelssohn: A Life in Music

Written for the concert The Destruction of Jerusalem, performed on March 16, 2008 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

Though no longer a familiar name in the history of nineteenth-century music, Ferdinand Hiller (1811-1885) was a widely respected composer, conductor, and pianist who knew intimately many of the leading figures of his time, including Mendelssohn, Chopin, Liszt, Robert Schumann, and Wagner. Son of a wealthy Jewish merchant from Frankfurt, Hiller showed such precocious musical ability that he was sent to Weimar to study piano with another former prodigy, Mozart’s pupil Johann Nepomuk Hummel. In 1827 Hiller accompanied Hummel to Vienna to visit the dying Beethoven and acquired a prized relic: a lock of the composer’s hair that late in the twentieth century would encourage no small measure of musicological sleuthing. In the 1830s Hiller spent several years in Paris, where he came to admire Chopin’s and Liszt’s revolutionary new approaches to the piano, before establishing himself in a series of posts that took him to Leipzig (where he deputized for Mendelssohn), Düsseldorf, and finally Cologne. In many ways Hiller’s friendship with Mendelssohn, whom he met as a boy, was the determining musical relationship in his life, and indeed, the principal impetus for the composition of his major work, the oratorio Die Zerstörung Jerusalems, Op. 24.

Dedicated to Mendelssohn, the oratorio in fact had its premiere on April 2, 1840 at the center of Mendelssohn’s influence, the Leipzig Gewandhaus. Its success led the publisher Kistner to acquire the rights the following day and issue the work in full score, a distinction accorded not many nineteenth-century oratorios. The libretto, based largely on the biblical account of Jeremiah, was prepared by Salomon Ludwig Steinheim (1789-1866), a versatile Jewish physician, theologian, and philosopher, who in 1835 had begun publishing his major work, Die Offenbarung nach dem Lehrbegriff der Synagoge [The Revelation According to the Doctrine of the Synagogue], in which he investigated the philosophical underpinnings of revelation as disseminated in the Old Testament. Not satisfied with the libretto, Hiller took it to Mendelssohn, who subsequently surprised his friend with an extensively revised copy. As the celebrated composer of the oratorio Paulus [St. Paul], which had premiered to international acclaim in 1836, Mendelssohn also offered detailed suggestions about Hiller’s score; when Hiller thanked him, the prescient Mendelssohn is reported to have said, “I only show you what you would have found out for yourself in a few months.”

Die Zerstörung Jerusalems is in two parts with forty-seven numbers, arranged into complexes of choruses, recitatives, arias, and duets. The soloists include the prophet Jeremiah (baritone), King Zedekiah (tenor), his mother Chamital (soprano), Achicam, a pious Israelite (tenor), and his sister Hannah (alto). In the first part, Jeremiah calls on the Israelites to return from their aberrant ways to God, and prophesies the apocalyptic destruction of Jerusalem. Ignoring his warnings, Zedekiah, last king of Judah, has the prophet imprisoned as a traitor. In the second part, Nebuchadnezzar’s Babylonians besiege and conquer the city. From his cell Jeremiah laments the utter devastation (Wie liegt die Stadt so wüste, die voll Volkes war?), but in the penultimate number issues a more optimistic prediction: ultimately God’s house will stand higher than all mountains, and his word shall go forth from Jerusalem (Isaiah 2,3). This pronouncement then introduces the triumphant final chorus, which unfolds as a stately fugue on a verse from Psalm 97, “The heavens declare his righteousness, and all the people have seen his glory.”

Robert Schumann admired the skillful orchestration, polished craft, and vibrant coloration of Hiller’s music, as in the use of the chorus to delineate three sharply profiled groups—the Israelites collectively, shown variously as pious, weak, and suffering; the unrepentant servants of Zedekiah; and the Babylonian captors, depicted in an unflattering march that reminded Schumann of one of his least favorite scores, Meyerbeer’s sensational grand opera Les Huguenots (1836). In other movements Schumann detected similarities too to Mendelssohn’s first oratorio, St. Paul, yet conspicuously absent in Hiller’s work is the traditional narrator; also, unlike St. Paul, which unabashedly displays strong ties to Bach’s St. Mathew Passion, Die Zerstörung Jerusalems does not employ chorales. But it bears comparison to another composition of Mendelssohn, his second oratorio, Elijah, premiered in Birmingham, England in 1846, and soon established, with Handel’s Messiah, as the most popular oratorio. Attentive listeners will note, for example, how the wind chords in Achicam’s recitative (No. 18) strikingly presage the very opening bars of Elijah. What is more, Jeremiah’s recitative in an agitated A minor (No. 3) foreshadows Elijah’s rage aria in the first part of Mendelssohn’s oratorio (No. 17), “Is not his word like a fire,” the text of which Mendelssohn drew, coincidentally or not, from Jeremiah. In short, indeed, Mendelssohn’s Old Testament prophet is not a little indebted to Hiller’s Jeremiah, another reason to welcome the American premiere of this too long neglected oratorio.