Music and the Bible

By Leon Botstein

Written for the concert Music and the Bible, performed on Nov 2, 2010 at Carnegie Hall.

If there ever was a composer in the history of music whose posthumous reputation was entirely and shockingly at odds with the reputation he developed in his lifetime, it is Ludwig Spohr, or Louis Spohr as he came to be known. The ASO is honored to have the outstanding scholar and expert on Spohr, Clive Brown, as a contributor to tonight’s program notes. Professor Brown’s indefatigable efforts on behalf of Louis Spohr are responsible for helping to keep a small part of Spohr’s output alive in the modern imagination. When Spohr died in 1859 at the age of 75 (a venerable age in those days), Johannes Brahms was reported to have lamented that the last of the great masters had died. For Brahms, who painfully aware of the humbling legacy of music history, to place Spohr beside Mozart, Haydn, and Beethoven was high praise indeed. Brahms’s mentor and friend Robert Schumann shared a similarly deep admiration for Spohr’s accomplishment and importance.

Spohr’s career as a musician began early despite family pressure against music as a career; he was born into a distinguished line of physicians and clergymen. However his precocity on the violin was not to be ignored. Already as a young virtuoso he began to compose. In 1812, he found himself concertmaster of the orchestra of the Theater-on-der-Wien, which brought him into direct contact with Beethoven. Spohr then moved to London and finally, at the age of 37, to Kassel, where he remained for the rest of his life.

Spohr’s achievements are daunting indeed. He was a fabulous violinist, the Paganini of the north, and founder of a school of violin-playing. His music for the instrument has never lost its following. Prominent in the violin repertory are the many series of duets and the violin concertos. Spohr is reputed to have been the first conductor to use a baton, which suggests the growing importance of public concerts in his time. But Spohr’s reputation as a composer during his lifetime rested in the first instance on operas, two of which had a considerable following: Faust

(1823–52) and Jessonda (1824). He was also a symphonist; at least half of the ten he wrote deserve regular modern performances. There is an impressive body of chamber music, not only string quartets, but four double string quartets, and octet, and a nonet. Not surprisingly, Spohr also wrote many songs. But it was his contribution to the sacred and secular choral literature that ensured his reputation among contemporaries.

The nineteenth-century oratorio was the crossroads between public and private music-making. It demanded the participation of amateurs, which was provided through the large number of choral societies that sprang up in German-speaking Europe after the defeat of Napoleon in 1815. These choral societies were the musical equivalent of the reading clubs that the sociologist Jürgen Habermas identified as evidence of the development of a public sphere, a realm in which public opinion could be expressed in a manner that would influence the course of politics. Europe between 1815 and 1848 was in the midst of a political reaction that sought to reverse the spread of democracy and civil liberties. Tight censorship and the control of public gatherings were the rule. But censorship was less stringent with respect to music. Music-making became an important part of the growth of domestic and public entertainments. In particular, singing became popular because the standard of training for amateur participation was inevitably lower than might be required for an amateur orchestra. Spohr’s first major secular cantata, entitled Germany Liberated, was written on a text by Caroline Pichler, a prominent Viennese personality whose memoirs are a major historical document, and who was herself an amateur choral singer.

Both of the works you hear tonight were written in a period of religious revival. With the onset of the terror of the 1790s and the transformation of the French Revolution under Napoleon, the secular, anti-clerical universalist dreams of the Enlightenment seemed increasingly irrelevant and implausible to intellectuals and artists throughout Europe. The trajectory of the French Revolution gave birth to nationalism, not only in France but in the rest of Europe all the way to Poland and Russia. The early nineteenth century was a period of anti-Enlightenment ferment in literature and philosophy. Both in Protestant and Catholic Europe there was a revival of spirituality and a renewed curiosity in periods before the eighteenth century, particularly the Middle Ages. A fascination developed with the mystical, unknowable, and ineffable, ranging from the Gothic fairy tale to medieval romance. An anti-rationalism flourished which was entirely compatible with the renewal of Christian idealism. The oratorios of Spohr and Fanny Mendelssohn mirror this turn away from rationalism towards an inner sensibility and religious subjectivity. The religious fervor of the age had two important consequences for music. First, the vocabulary of expression expanded to invite greater color and freedom of form, though at the same time, composers were motivated to look back in history to models from before the classical era, to Bach and Handel. Second, because of its abstract and indeterminate meaning, music became prized as an instrument of faith, a vehicle for each individual to express his or her connection to God. The popularity of choral singing was not only rooted in social and political circumstances. Enthusiasm for participating and listening to choral music was grounded in the belief that the language of music and the act of singing were means to forge a closer connection to the divine, and to the divine qualities of the human individual.

Singing in a large chorus with a professional orchestra in oratorios became a passionate pastime for thousands of middle-class citizens in German-speaking Europe and England. Of all of Spohr’s oratorios, The Last Judgment (as tonight’s oratorio came to be known in English) was his most popular and remains the most persuasive. If for some it lacks the dramatic effects of his contemporary competitors, it reveals what Clive Brown has eloquently identified as Spohr’s achievement. Spohr “accepted the substance of received classical forms but filled them with music that, employing a highly distinctive melodic and harmonic idiom, proved wonderfully apt to depict the fluctuating emotions of the human soul.” Spohr was in fact the musical equivalent of early romantic literature. There is a sensitivity, elegance, and intensity to Spohr’s music that remains compelling to our post-modern sensibilities.

If Spohr was born to a family of learning and respectability, Fanny Mendelssohn was born into a family of even greater intellectual distinction and substantial wealth. She was the beloved sister of the world-famous Felix, granddaughter of the great philosopher Moses Mendelssohn, and she married a distinguished painter, Wilhelm Hensel. Only in the last quarter-century has scholarly attention turned to Fanny Mendelssohn as a musical figure in her own right, not merely the sister of one great man and the wife of a prominent husband. Fanny’s father was reputed to have said that he grew up the son of a famous man (Moses Mendelssohn), only to find himself the father of a famous son. Today he would have to modify that to being the father of a famous daughter as well. R. Larry Todd, author of the finest biography of Felix Mendelssohn, has recently published a companion biography of Fanny.

Fanny Mendelssohn was given the same education as Felix, her brother, but not the same encouragement. Despite the enormous prejudice at the time against women as professional artists (consider the case of George Sand), Fanny never gave up her commitment to music. She continued to write both for solo piano and small ensembles. As the work on tonight’s program suggests, she also wrote large-scale works in genres such as those in which her brother excelled. Many of these works were designed for semi-public concert venues. Fanny herself maintained a Sunday afternoon concert series which accommodated large groups: choruses and orchestras.

There is a fair amount of controversy surrounding Fanny’s relationship to her brother. There is no doubt that Felix was devoted to her and believed in her talent. Her death shattered her brother, who died in an identical manner less than a year later. Felix was also dubious about her publishing music in her own name. But he was as critical of himself as he was of his sister. His notoriety as a child prodigy made him increasingly gun-shy of publishing his music as he became older. Many of his greatest works from his maturity were performed to acclaim but never published. As he gained experience as a composer, Felix Mendelssohn became obsessed with revision and improvement, fearing the criticism that might come to him through the premature publication of his works. The interesting question, then, is to what should we ascribe Fanny’s failure to be published and therefore recognized as a composer in her own lifetime. Her obscurity as a public figure extended well beyond her death. It is only the modern re-evaluation of the prejudice against women that has caused the rediscovery of Fanny Mendelssohn in her own right.

It may very well be that the bias against Fanny may not have been limited to issues of gender. Felix’s hypersensitivity to publishing his own music may equally have been related to his status as a Jew, despite his conversion and genuine commitment to Protestant Christianity. Felix and Fanny were converted as children by their parents after their grandmother, the widow of Moses Mendelssohn, died. Throughout the 1830s and 1840s, although Mendelssohn’s fame continued to grow, his visibility as a Jew in the climate of increasing political and racial anti-Semitism also flourished. Therefore Felix Mendelssohn was not sympathetic to modern nationalism.

The early nineteenth century, before modern nationalism, represented a heyday of great cultural salons, particularly in Berlin and Vienna, maintained by charismatic and dynamic Jewish women of great wealth. Fanny Mendelssohn maintained such a salon primarily devoted to music. Her brother’s anxieties and her own uncertainly about assuming a public role as a composer were driven not only by the prejudice against her gender but against her Jewish origins. Although through marriage she assumed a name that hid her origins and although she became like her brother a believing Christian, in the hearts and minds of those intent on prejudice she remained a Jew. In the most positive sense, she was a great figure among several of her day and age, like Fanny Arnstein, and Rachel Levin von Varnhagen, eminent Jewish women who played an extraordinary role in the urban high culture of the first half of the nineteenth century.

In the decades following her death, in the wake of modern political anti-Semitism pioneered in part by Richard Wagner, any hope that Fanny Mendelssohn would get her proper due as a composer was certainly slim. It is poignant and ironic that her reappearance as a composer of large-scale music should come in the form of choral music based on religious texts and located within the traditions of Protestant Christianity. This fact forces us to confront the ease with which we carry forward prejudice with respect to religious affiliation on the basis of race and not confessional membership or conviction.