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Friday, September 25, 2015
"The idea that you have to share the identity with the subject of your art is a primitive one, particularly in music"....
How an Anti-Semitic, Gentile Composer, Created 'Kol Nidre' and 'Moses'
Any performance, much less an American one, of Max Bruch’s oratorio
from 1895 is a rarity. Yet this is a fabulous and important piece of
music. First, however, one fact that no Jew interested in classical
music ever seems to want to believe must be mentioned: Bruch was not
He may have written the iconic music for “Kol Nidrei” and it may be
his most famous work, but his Protestant credentials would have more
than satisfied the Nazis. More surprising, Bruch also was not
particularly philo-Semitic, unlike his friend Johannes Brahms. He was
typical in his everyday anti-Semitism, and even a bit nastier than some.
So the question arises: What was he doing writing “Kol Nidrei” and a
massive oratorio on a subject central to Jewish religion and history?
Bruch’s oratorio, the story of Moses, begins at Mt. Sinai and ends with
Moses’ death. It is about the birth of the Jewish nation and the search
for its home.
By the time Bruch got around to writing this oratorio in the 1890s,
the whole notion of a work for chorus and orchestra based on a biblical
theme was considered old fashioned. There had been all too many failed
attempts at setting the Moses story to music. A contemporary of Felix
Mendelssohn, A.B. Marx — a music theorist and himself a Jew— wrote a
massive oratorio on the subject that was a colossal failure and the
source of a personal breach between Marx and Mendelssohn. The only
lasting biblical oratorio written in the 19th century in German-speaking
Europe was Mendelssohn’s own “Elijah.”
The easiest way to think about a non-Jew setting “Moses” to music is
to remember that George Gershwin, the composer of “Porgy and Bess,” was,
after all, not black. The expectation that Bruch must have been Jewish
in order to write this oratorio or “Kol Nidrei” derives from a distorted
perception of the place of Jews in late 19th- and early 20th-century
Germany. Bruch’s choice of Jewish subjects and even Jewish materials was
a reflection of the extent to which Jewish assimilation into Germany
was successful, our retrospective post-Holocaust history
Jews were a crucial part of German culture. They were eager
participants in amateur musical societies, and they represented a
disproportionate share of the audience for concerts. The accommodation
that assimilation represents is no different from the accommodation and
symbiosis that blacks in America have lived with for more than a
century. It demands that the object of prejudice feel at home despite
daily encounters with racism.
The persistence of racism and prejudice have not gotten in the way of
African-American writers, painters and musicians succeeding and their
“white” counterparts freely availing themselves of the materials of
African-American culture. So it was in the Germany of the 1890s with
These composers and musicians believed in the continuing validity of
traditional genres such as the symphony, sonata, quartet and oratorio,
and classical norms with regards to musical composition. They rejected
what they saw as the subordination of music to verbal narration in the
Wagnerian music-drama. They held fast to the traditions of Viennese
musical classicism and the early romanticism of Mendelssohn and Robert
These staunch anti-Wagnerian beliefs in matters of music coincided
with skepticism about the politics associated with Wagner and his
followers. Bruch and Brahms were far more liberal, and admired the
English political system. To Bruch, the promise of German unification
had been thwarted. Under Otto von Bismarck, it had not led to a
constitutional monarchy in the English style. Among the “national
liberals” in the decades after 1871, the national part overwhelmed the
liberal part, and the national became tied to the autocratic and defined
in terms of racial superiority and cultural chauvinism.
For so-called musical conservatives like Bruch and Brahms, patriotism
and even the deep conviction that German musical tradition was the
greatest of all did not lead them to abandon a fundamentally tolerant
and cosmopolitan attitude that was resistant to the race-based
nationalism propagated by Wagner.
One can speculate that “Moses” is about charismatic leadership per se
and therefore provides a veiled metaphor for the career of Bismarck.
Bismarck, whose iron grip and will helped forge Imperial Germany, had
been dismissed in 1890. By the mid-’90s, Bismarck had become a focal
point of criticism against what were blind and stupid policies of
Emperor Wilhelm II, who fired him. What made Moses a wonderful subject
in the ’90s was that German citizens had come to depend on larger than
life leadership and believe less in the processes of politics. Their
faith in the charisma of one man to guide the state would lead to
The music of Bruch’s “Moses” is therefore organized in an explicitly
anti-Wagnerian and traditional manner. There is not one continuous
musical fabric but a sequence of set numbers. In Bruch’s neo-Handelian
emulation of “Israel in Egypt,” to which “Moses” might be regarded as a
latter-day sequel, there is nevertheless an imposing sense of drama that
was unwittingly influenced by Wagner. For the audiences of the 1890s,
listening to “Moses” made them think of Wotan, and hearing Aaron, they
could not but compare that tenor role to Siegmund or Siegfried.
By the 1890s, Bruch had already written many fine oratorios. “Moses”
was one of his last. His first, a setting of Homer’s “Odyssey,” was a
great success. It used Greek myth to celebrate the unification of
Germany in 1871. Odysseus’s homecoming to Penelope became a metaphor for
German unification. A quarter century later, Bruch used a biblical
framework to express the mixture of sadness and triumph that accompanied
the 25 years of success for the empire. In “Moses,” the years in the
desert, the residues of slavery, the uncertainty about the future, and
the protagonists, including the ever-present chorus representing the
people of Israel, reveal the full range of human emotion from despair to
triumph. Bruch’s “Moses” may be an oratorio, but it has more than its
share of opera in it. It follows a model clearly articulated by
Mendelssohn in “Elijah.” Both composers believed that music, when
combined with a great text and story, did not require the apparatus of
the theater. It did not require a change in musical procedure so that it
could narrate and be self-consciously dramatic in the style of Wagner.
Yet Bruch’s “Moses” is a true drama, and a poignant and moving one at
that. It marshals all the craftsmanship of musical art accumulated by
the 19th century in a manner that pays just homage to precedent.
Will Bruch’s “Moses” ever rival “Messiah” in popularity? No. But it
deserves a regular place in the all too narrow repertoire of
professional and amateur choruses. Choral societies would do well to
look into Bruch’s oratorios, not only “Moses,” for a welcome respite
from the routine defined by the endless repetition of a few standard
And Jews, no matter their various religious persuasions, should come
to “Moses” with the same bemused tolerance with which our fellow
African-American citizens purchase tickets to “Porgy and Bess.” For all
the revisionist criticism Gershwin’s opera has suffered for its lack of
authenticity, it is a great piece of music, and a tribute to the human
imagination. The idea that you have to share the identity with the
subject of your art is a primitive one, particularly in music. The music
of Aaron Copland, a gay Brooklyn-born Jew, has become the voice of a
muscular patriotism and the landscape of Appalachia and the American
West. In Bruch’s score, more than a little of what makes the biblical
figure of Moses so mesmerizing, particularly to Jews, comes to life
through music. So we might as well forgive him for being a prejudiced
non-Jew; he nonetheless clothed the essential narrative of the Jewish
nation in music of eloquence, drama and beauty.
Leon Botstein is the president of Bard College and the music
director and principal conductor of the American Symphony Orchestra for
whom he is conducting Max Bruch’s ‘Moses’ at Carnegie Hall on March 27
at 8:00 PM.
"The two other works of Bruch which are still widely played were also written for solo string instrument with orchestra: the Scottish Fantasy for violin and orchestra, which includes an arrangement of the tune "Hey Tuttie Tatie", best known for its use in the song "Scots Wha Hae" by Robert Burns; and the Kol Nidrei, Op. 47, for cello and orchestra
(subtitled "Adagio on Hebrew Melodies for Violoncello and Orchestra"),
which starts and ends with the solo cello's setting of the Kol Nidre ("All Vows ... ") incantation which begins the Jewish (Ashkenazic) Yom Kippur service. This work may well have inspired Ernest Bloch's Schelomo
(subtitled "Hebrew Rhapsody") of 1916, an even more passionate and
extended one-movement composition, also with a Jewish subject and also
for solo cello and orchestra.
The success of Kol Nidrei led to the assumption by many that Bruch himself was of Jewish ancestry — indeed, as long as the National Socialist Party
was in power (1933-1945) his music was banned because he was considered
a possible Jew for having written music with an openly Jewish theme. As
a result, his music was largely forgotten in German-speaking countries.
There is no evidence, however, that Bruch was of Jewish origin. As far
as can be ascertained, none of his ancestors were Jews. Bruch himself
was given the middle name Christian:15 and was raised Protestant.:109"