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.

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.

From “Fuhrer durch den Konzertsaal” (Leipzig 1887/1919)

By Hermann Kretzschmar

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

The composer whose name dominated the field of the secular oratorio for a long time is Max Bruch. By the time he turned to the oratorio, he had already demonstrated his talent for powerful and brilliant portrayals in the cantata. Frithjof and Schön Ellen will be mentioned for a long time to come in connection with works that sing best about freedom and homeland. Among contemporary composers with a higher education, Bruch is the most popular force by his very nature. His gift of being able to present simple thoughts at a point that makes them ignite is amazing. This folksy trait is also expressed in the clear, straight and definite form of his melodies. In this, he is directly reminiscent of C.M. v. Weber. However, contrary to the latter’s Freischütz, Bruch’s works do not combine a deeply romantic spirit with folk music. Over time, his imagination retreated increasingly into the contrasts of extreme simplicity and overwhelming pomp; his works and his undeniably powerful talent did not deepen. The selection and handling of the texts weighs even more heavily on the value and effect of Bruch’s oratorios than does this fact. They are picture sequences, held together by a title, by the name of a hero; a poetic goal in the larger sense–developments surrounding a main character, a main event–take second place to the musical purpose.

The first of Bruch’s oratorios was Odysseus, the fourth Achilles. While the era of Heinrich Voss has passed in Germany, musical souls among us who possess a classical education have certainly demonstrated a friendly interest in Bruch’s oratorios which are based on Homeric protagonists. Recently, Hellenism brought forth a Prelier, an Anselm Feuerbach, in German art. In music, in particular, Hellenism has become the father of the musical drama; it inspired Handel to compose one of the most cheerful oratorios; Gluck created some of his best in the Greek spirit. Yet Bruch’s oratorios do not reveal Hellenism’s inspiring power. Not even a special and inherent tone distinguishes them from the composer’s works that are situated on Nordic soil. It is left to an agglomeration of beautiful musical ideas to capture the listener’s interest in Bruch’s Greek oratorios.

Odysseus, which passed through the concert halls of most major music cities in Germany and England, sometimes more than once, from 1873 on, is based on a clever libretto by R.W. Graff. The scenes that recall Homer’s epic are divided into two parts. The first covers the time of Odysseus’ greatest danger; the second covers his rescue and return home.

The first scene shows “Odysseus on the island of Calypso.” Hermes, the messenger of the gods, has appeared and is told by the nymphs where Calypso and Odysseus are staying. Only at the end of this message does Bruch make a transition to the proper form of the recitativo, specifically the chorus recitativo. The major part of the movement is handled melodically and structured as a beautiful three-part women’s chorus. The second part follows the first faithfully; only the third, a harmonic filler, is less attractive. But the cheerful grace of his melodies makes this chorus of nymphs one of the most charming movements of the oratorio. At the end, the scene changes: The lonely Odysseus sings of his lamentation and his loneliness in a movement whose overall tone of solemn resignation, a tone that formally dominates some turns of the melody, is reminiscent of Bruch’s beautiful song “Biterolf Outside of Akkon’s Camp.” Hermes now steps up to the poor man and promises him, on behalf of Zeus, that he will return home. The Olympians, as often as they occur in Bruch’s oratorios, are not handled with musical care. The sound of a trumpet is the only thing which makes Hermes’ appearance seem unusual. But very prettily, the composer has the orchestra start a lively motif at the words: “So pull down the ship,” which awakens the feelings of joyful, lively travel. It continues to accompany Odysseus into the next scene, on his way into the underworld. The images of the oars’ rhythm, the waves and the moving ship recur frequently in the oratorio, in different versions.

The second scene of the oratorio, “Odysseus in the Underworld,” will disappoint those who expect a demonic impression similar to the one achieved by Gluck in the related scene involving the Furies in his Orpheus. Bruch did not focus his imagination on a primary image; instead, along with the librettist, he sought to make the scene appealing by changing appearances. One after the other, they all step out of the chorus’s shadow: children, brides, young men; Teiresias appears, after him Odysseus’ mother; the earthy sounds of the hero’s companions are mixed in with the voices of the departed. It is a scene which in its own way demands imaginative genius of the first order, a combination of Schumann’s and Berlioz’ talent. Among the individual parts which Bruch effectively emphasized, the use of the first chorus of shades is particularly noteworthy. The sudden G-sharp after the D major, the pp after the ff is a Monteverdian idea. The best thing, however, the composer gained from the scene, is the orchestral lament that uses this pain-filled motif. The third scene, “Odysseus and the Sirens,” is tilled with soft, yearning songs that bring together soloists and choruses of women’s voices. They are peculiarly calm, but develop an unusual beauty of sound. The composer merely hints at the effects of the seductive melodies on Odysseus’ feelings. The chorus of Odysseus’ companions, which precedes and follows the music of the sirens, is both more beautiful and more penetrating. The melody which starts with the words, “Now sing, sirens, the magical song,” a march tune brought to a higher level, is one of the tone ideas peculiar to Bruch. At first glance, the “Sea Storm,” the last scene in the first part, and the “Feast of the Phaeacians,” are the oratorio’s most brilliant numbers. The former uses all the means at its command to depict the turbulence of the elements in their deafening effect, and is a counterpart to the thunderstorm in Haydn’s Seasons, to the image of the collapse of the tower that Rubinstein evokes in the Tower of Babel, and to the portrayal of the night of expulsion in Liszt’s Elisabeth. It also shares a wealth of individual episodes with these musical paintings; lightning, in particular, is something to which Bruch has given much thought. The plaintive voice of Odysseus rising from the all-encompassing gray of the weather, his “Woe is me” with the grand song tone, is very touching. The appearance of Leukothea offers a second soothing point of rest, even though her figure never comes into its own. The most beautiful part of the scene is its ending: “Pour, Athena, sweet sleep onto his eyes.” Here, everything comes together to yield a greater effect: the architectural place it assumes, the internal content of the ending’s main theme and its truly Bruchian character. Salamis and the composer’s other cantatas offer a wealth of such melodies, rich yet extremely simple, based on diatonic harmonies and marked by principal intervals.

Now that Odysseus has been rescued from the greatest danger, the librettist casts a first glance at the hero’s homeland. The fifth scene of the oratorio, the first of its second part, leads us to Odysseus’ wife and portrays “Penelope’s Mourning” in a two-part movement. The oratorio contains only two scenes that do not have chorus movements or ensemble forms, and both of them belong to Penelope. The one which will be considered first here begins with a recitativo movement in which the unhappy woman describes her hard lot: “First I lost my wonderful husband … and now the storms have taken my son from me, too.” This scene takes place in the morning. Penelope’s first words greet the “brightly shining day” and the light which has awakened her from sleep. Bruch did not take advantage of the opportunity to illuminate the scene romantically, and limited himself to an image of Penelope’s mood, without touching on the external background.

The singer herself remains primarily declamatory until the end of the recitativo; the instruments sing in her stead; their plaintive motif Adagio separates Penelope’s individual sentences. The second part of the scene is a closed arioso. It begins as a formal prayer and, at the end, presents an extraordinary warmth of feeling. This part begins with the words, “O now think of” with which the mother asks the gods to rescue her son, and then recurs at, “Give him back to his mourning wife.” Like Penelope’s first scene, the other one also is one of the most rewarding and rich contributions of recent solo singing, and it is quite fitting that both are frequently selected by our altos for individual presentation in mixed concerts. This second Penelope scene occurs directly before the return of Odysseus. It shows “Penelope weaving a robe,” again without any indication of the external situation. The music’s power is focused exclusively on the noble and emphatic expression of longing and lamentation. At the main point of the movement, “O return, Odysseus, before my hands complete this garment,” the melody is based on the same motif with which the instruments dominate the recitativo part of Penelope’s first scene. Formally, this scene is based on the old pattern of the aria in three sections.

These two Penelope scenes are separated by the two most cheerful images of the oratorio: “Nausicäa and “The Feast of the Phaeacians.” Nausicäa and her playmates are drawn with lively melodies that also invoke a tone of strength and resolution, characteristic for Bruch; young men happy to take up arms need not be ashamed of it. The orchestra’s intermezzos develop the greatest charm in the introductory part of the scene. The speeches of Odysseus take on a beautiful, soft tone, once they are rendered in E flat major. The part with the words, “To embrace your knees,” in particular, is excellent. The dialogue between him and Nausicäa ends in a two-part movement; its beginning contains one of the oratorio’s most penetrating melodies, which also accurately illustrates the composer’s specific style. Bruch repeatedly demonstrated his particular talent for such refrain motifs. This gift has enabled him to reproduce Homeric sentences with music that is understandable to the common man, without becoming trivial. The melody which introduces the closing part of the following scene, the “Feast of the Phaeacians” deserves particular mention in this connection: It returns at the end of the work, at the end of the last scene, to remind us that a similar dominant idea could have been incorporated into the oratorio from the beginning. The opening of the Phaeacian scene is a choral movement with a theme which, again, ideally illuminates Bruch’s musical nature, externally and internally. As with the “Nausicäa” melodies, it displays the composer s tendency to speak with force, although the mood and the situation might require a milder tone. The high point of the scene is the “Song of the Rhapsodists.” In melodical terms, it is actually a rather poor unison movement of men’s voices, made grandiose by the string orchestra’s Rameau-like giant pizzicato and charmingly enlivened by cheerful refrain motifs. At the end of this section, the part where Odysseus reveals himself offers a hint of sensitive insight. The simple, completely unexpected words: “It’s me, Odysseus,” are free of any theatrical pathos and must be considered one of the oratorio’s deepest and most emotional effects.

In the scene of the “Return,” the brief men’s chorus with which the crew greets the break of dawn is fascinating. The last scene, the “Feast on Ithaca,” is dominated by the external joyous sound of the choruses. The part that everyone is anxiously waiting for, the meeting of the spouses who have finally been reunited, is somewhat reticent musically. The orchestra’s formal eighths motif appears to cast a glance back at the difficult times of sorrows. This instrumental theme, which appeals to everyone with Schumann-like familiarity, also forms the major part of the prelude which introduces the oratorio.

Special thanks to Gertrude Mathys
President of TCA – Translation Company of America

Ancient Greece in the Nineteenth Century

By Lynne Meloccaro, University of Rochester

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

“We are all Greeks,” said Percy Shelley. While historians may question whether, in the idealized cultural vision of Shelley’s day, even the Greeks were ever really Greeks, the poet nevertheless expresses a powerful conceit, and one that provides an important context for the subject of Max Bruch’s oratorio. That modern civilization considers many of its greatest achievements to be refinements of classical culture is evident in the markers of historical continuity that surround us still–the architecture of educational and governmental institutions, the language of medicine, the use of myths like Oedipus through which we explain ourselves. Indeed, our reverence for Greek accomplishment is so embedded in our current experience and education, that we might easily forget that the idea of Greece as the birthplace of civilization is really only about two hundred years old. The notion was developed through the course of the nineteenth century, when circumstances in Europe determined the need for an appropriate history and genealogy.

This is not to say that classical culture was not always a fertile imaginative archetype in European thought. Aristotelian philosophy dominated the Roman Church for centuries, and when Europe discovered classical art and literature already known to the Arabs, it sparked a movement known as the Renaissance. An education in ancient literatures and languages was standard for the princes of Europe throughout the sixteenth century and seventeenth centuries, and shortly after that, the Baroque era was ushered in by the so-called “neoclassicists,” who believed their historical mission to be the reinvention in orderly fashion of the best social and artistic elements of the ancient world.

But it was not until after the French Revolution effectively ended the Baroque era that an eruption occurred–sometimes referred to as “Hellenomania”–when the shade of Greece began to materialize into its present embodiment as cultural fountainhead. At this point, just when Europeans were anxiously pondering their future, a series of events occurred that inflamed their imaginations about their genealogical past. Not the least of these were the advancements made in the understanding of Greek philology and art. For the first time, linguists were able to clarify the relation of ancient Greek to modern European languages. This was particularly interesting to the Germans, who immediately noticed specific similarities between Greek and their own language. Earlier, the sculptor Johann Joachim Winckelmann, influenced by the English Lord Shaftesbury, had written an influential treatise reevaluating Greek art, Thoughts on the Imitation of Greek Works in Painting and Sculpture, which was followed by a famous essay of his student, Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, entitled Laocon. Additionally, in 1807, Lord Elgin brought the friezes of the Parthenon to England, where multitudes of Europeans marveled at them. And, as interest mounted in this ancient culture, the Greek War of Independence broke out in 1821, striking a blow for the ancients against the “degenerative influence” of the “Orientals.”

It should not surprise us that the first important thinkers to embrace the new Hellenism were the German and English Romantics. We are sometimes prone to think that, in their rejection of the works of the previous age, which they saw as mired in slavish adulation of the classics, the Romantics rejected classicism in favor of nature. But it is far more accurate to say that they rejected the Latinate imitations of eighteenth-century artists as a corruption of Greek principles. For them, the recovery of Greek culture unadorned with Augustan frills was firmly associated with a sloughing off of the old ways–the initial optimism of revolutionary times. The shift from Roman reason to Greek sentiment is reflected in the shifting attitudes toward the perceived father of Greek literature, Homer. Pope translated Homer’s epics, but considered Virgil and Horace far superior to the crude Greek. Goethe, however, declared Homer his favorite author, and while touring classical sites, contemplated (but never wrote) a play about Odysseus. Keats’s admiration for Homer and the Greeks is evident throughout his work, including two of his most famous poems, “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer” and “Ode on a Grecian Urn.” Shelley planned to travel to the land of Homer but was prevented by his untimely death. Byron did travel there, and met his own untimely death on his way to fight for the Greeks.

For the Romantics, then, Greek culture symbolized beauty, liberty, and republicanism. As a symbol, Greece did not impart such notions as much as become invested with them by nineteenth-century thinkers. Ancient Greece, in other words, was appropriated and variously interpreted to serve contemporary ends. This is apparent in what happened to the image of the Greeks later in the century. Disillusionment with the French Revolution by no means lessened the Europeans’ fervor for all things Greek. Instead, Europe merely refashioned the Greeks to suit the changing times. For the German philologist Wilhelm von Humboldt, ancient Greece represented anything but revolution. As Minister of Education, he established the Altertumswissenshaft, the Science of Antiquity (or as its English counterpart was called, the discipline of Classics). Humboldt saw the study of classics as a means of educational reform and social unification that avoided both the destruction of revolution and the oppressive domination of the Roman church. It was a secular alternative that appealed to the Germans, who already felt a special connection to the Greeks linguistically. Humboldt extended this relation to encompass culture: “Our study of Greek history is therefore a matter quite different from our other historical studies. For us the Greeks step out of the circle of history. Knowledge of the Greeks is not merely pleasant, useful or necessary to us–no, in the Greeks alone we find the ideal of that which we should like to be and to produce.” To small fragmented states rapidly industrializing, where economic unity was becoming a necessity, Humboldt offered a wondrous vision of a Germany culturally united as heir apparent to the Greeks, ensuring the succession of the glory of the ancients. For the Romantics, the primary figure of Greek lore was Prometheus, the suffering genius bringing fire to the common people. In the latter part of the century, another figure predominated–the wandering, exiled king, the rightful ruler who puts his house in order: Odysseus.

What the eminently adaptable image of ancient Greece offered nineteenth-century Europe, then, was an identity, a means by which Europeans could interpret their past, evaluate their present, and propose their destiny. The Greeks afforded Europe a prolific source of cultural definition. Wagner may have looked north for such definition, but Bruch looked south, and he was not alone. For the Germans, the achievements of Greek culture was a powerful model for their own national identity–regardless of actual circumstances. In 1871, Bismarck succeeded in his plan of uniting Germany, though the unification was more a result of Prussian domination than mutual agreement. By 1873, optimism concerning the unification had vanished in the wake of a devastating market crash. But that year also saw two other events: the premiere of Bruch’s Odysseus, and Heinrich Schliemann’s discovery of the site of ancient Troy. “We are all Greeks,” said Shelley, but perhaps Bruch might have added, “especially Germans.”