Author: Rosenberg, Jesse
Date published: March 1, 2012
Musik als Bekenntnis: Christus- Oratorien im 19. Jahrhundert. By Daniel Ortuño-Stühring. (Weimarer Liszt-Studien, im Auftrag der Deutsche Liszt-Gesellschaft, ed. Detlef Alten - burg, Band 6). Laaber: Laaber-Verlag, 2011. [399 p. ISBN 9783890073439. i64.] Music examples, tables, bibliography, list of abbreviations.
Richard Wagner's putdown of the sacred oratorio ("an obvious misconstrual of the present"), cited more than once in the book under review, is a good indication of how low the genre had fallen in general esteem by the 1830s. In Wagner's view, the primary defect was the extreme conservatism of subject matter and musical style. By an ironic twist, the subsequent reawakening of interest in the oratorio as a viable genre was closely tied to the baroque revival lead by Felix Mendelssohn, and crowned by Mendelssohn's own superlative contributions to the genre, St. Paul and Elijah. These works, along with the eighteenthcentury masterpieces of Bach and Handel championed by Mendelssohn, cemented the association between large-scale sacred drama and the employment of eighteenthcentury models for form and texture. But other views were also expressed; Robert Schumann, though observing that the "bloom" of the oratorio had faded long ago, praised Ferdinand Hiller's Die Zerstörung Jerusalems (1840) for more closely approaching "the future," and Franz Liszt wondered how a genre in which the bestknown works belonged to the past could be made to live again in the present.
The ways in which these issues played out in sacred oratorios of the latter half of the nineteenth century make for a fascinating and complex history, but one too large to be encompassed in a single volume. Daniel Ortuño-Stühring has chosen to focus on a subset within a subset of this history. First, as regards subject matter, he concentrates exclusively on the "Christ-oratorio," a term used to denote a work which presents the life of Jesus as a whole, or at least an extended stretch of it, as opposed to a single episode such as the Nativity, the raising of Lazarus, or the Last Supper. Ortuño- Stühring's interest, moreover, falls principally on Germany, where by far the greater number of these works were conceived and performed, and in particular on the last four German works in the genre completed in the nineteenth century. The first three of these works, remarkably, share the identical title, Christus: Liszt's composition of 1872, Friedrich Kiel's of the same year, and Anton Rubinstein's "sacred opera," completed in 1893. Felix Draeseke's Christus- Mysterium, completed in 1899, is the fourth work.
Why a whole book on these four compositions? As the author explains in his introduction, they have notable commonalities which strongly suggest the need to be examined as a group. The table printed on pages 13-14, an annotated list of all the German "Christ-oratorios" between 1827 and World War I, clarifies that the four works in question form a consecutive sequence within the list overall. All four are further united by the evident centrality of Liszt, since, in addition to his own oratorio, we have three works by composers with close personal and professional ties to him. Each of the four works was considered the crowning achievement by the composer in question, as little as posterity may have concurred in the assessment. In all four works the composer was creatively involved in the text as well as the music, whether writing the libretto (Liszt, Kiel, and Draeseke) or closely supervising it (Rubinstein). The works, finally, are also linked by a reception history which focused largely on the artistic manifestations of their composers' religious identities or convictions (Liszt's Catholicism, Kiel's Protestantism, Rubin - stein's Jewishness) during the contentious period of the Kulturkampf and its immediate aftermath.
The excellent introduction, which focuses on the vexed history of the oratorio genre against the background of contemporary developments in religion and theology, lays the groundwork for an important theme of the book: that the late-nineteenthcentury works under consideration, far from being neobaroque or neoclassical attempts to recapture the styles and approaches of the eighteenth century, were contemporary in the fullest sense of the word, and reflected the various conflicting currents of religious thought at the time, secularization chief among them. Chapter 1 fulfils a similarly introductory purpose, summarizing the history of the nineteenth-century oratorio in Germany, with special attention to the treatment of the oratorio genre in criticism, the quest for an appropriate "oratorio style," and the focus within musical aesthetics upon genre as a guiding principle ("the poetics of genre").
The heart of the book is found in chapters 2-5, devoted respectively to the four principal works mentioned above. Here Ortuño-Stühring achieves a nice balance between consistency and flexibility. For each of these four chapters, he opens with a "biographical sketch" of the composer. In the case of Liszt such a sketch may appear somewhat gratuitous, but since the author places a notable emphasis on his religious profile, it is actually quite helpful. Each of the four chapters also includes a section describing the genesis of the work. The author concludes each of these chapters in the same manner, with three sections consisting respectively of an analysis of the libretto, analysis of the music, and the reception history of the work. But within this stable format there is considerable variety, since the commonalities are complemented by sections appearing only in the one chapter where they are appropriate. For example, the Liszt chapter has a section on the composer's technique of "motivic transformation" (a noted hallmark of his technique) as employed in his Christus, while the Rubinstein chapter has a section on the composer's idea of "sacred opera."
Rubinstein may well be considered the odd man out in this group, since he is represented by an opera and not by an oratorio like the other three composers; the author's decision to include Rubinstein's Christus in a book about oratorio calls for some comment, especially when the work has been treated so intelligently in a book which receives several citations in this study, Annakatrin Täuschel's Anton Rubin - stein als Opernkomponist (Berlin: Ernst Kuhn, 2001). In fact, Ortuño-Stühring is careful to refer to his chapter on Rubinstein's Christus as an "excursus," and he is obviously aware that it does not altogether fit into the generic framework of his study. He also cites several passages from Rubinstein's essay on sacred opera (in which the composer heatedly inveighed against the coldness and sterility of oratorio, so opposed to the passionate Biblical narratives it presented). But in insisting on his right to regard this opera as part of the history of the oratorio, the author has not only excellent precedents (Howard Smither and Richard Taruskin have made similar pronouncements), but also performance practice on his side: Rubinstein encountered enormous difficulties in getting his sacred operas staged, so that Das verlorene Paradies, Christus, Der Thurm zu Babel, and Moses actually received their premiere performances in concert form, and the latter two works were never staged at all. In this sense, Rubinstein's Christus may be said to have entered the ranks of oratorios willy-nilly. More important, as a large-scale musicodramatic work which treats an extended span of the life of Jesus, it clearly fits into the company of Christus works by Liszt, Kiel, and Draeseke. Beside that central point, the issue of whether Rubinstein's Christus is an opera or an oratorio seems a minor distraction.
Rubinstein also stands apart as the only composer of the group whose family background was Jewish. The author's observation on the importance accorded to the "religiöse Überzeugungen" (religious convictions) of the composers as characteristic of the reception history of these works calls for particular scrutiny. He quotes the German composer Cyrill Kistler (1848- 1907) as saying that unlike the Christ of Draeseke's work, which transcended the boundaries of any particular confession, Liszt's Christus seemed too Catholic, Kiel's too Protestant, and that of Rubinstein bore an "unmistakably Hebraic stamp" (pp. 15-16). But surely this was principally a racial slur, and had nothing to do with any putatively Jewish religious aspect of Rubinstein's identity as manifested in his music. The same is true of an example of the reception history of the work not cited by the author, the anti-Semitic appraisal by the critic and dramaturg Arthur Seidl (1863-1928), who described the performance of Rubinstein's Christus during a Good Friday service in a Protestant church in Dresden as "a celebration of an important Christian feast in the musical style of the synagogue," a wildly inaccurate and utterly unsupported statement, and went on to characterize the event as an "Ent - weihung des Tages" (profanation of the day) which church authorities should not have allowed. (The Seidl quotations are reported on p. 39 of the July 1895 issue of Im deutschen Reich; cited from http://compactmemory.de/, accessed 20 Septem ber 2011.) If anything, Rubin - stein's Christus, with its angrily unpleasant music for the Jewish high priest Caiaphas as he denounces Jesus, and its honeyed epilogue for Paul as he sets off to spread the true gospel to the Gentiles, is probably the work most likely to offend Jewish sensibilities of the four works under consideration; the musical depiction of the high priests in a corresponding passage from Friedrich Kiel's Christus (given on p. 216) is quite tame by comparison. At any rate, an enhanced awareness of the racial and ethnic dimensions of Jewish identity would have helped the author to avoid misleading remarks about "religious convictions" of a composer whose published aphorisms (Gedankenkorb [Leipzig: B. Senff, 1897]) reveal a liberal and universalist religious orientation, leavened by Voltairean jibes at ecclesiastical hypocrisy.
The religious orientation and trajectory of Liszt, on the other hand, have been copiously documented, and Ortuño-Stühring provides a convenient summary of their impact on Liszt's ideas regarding the reform of church music and their practical application in his sacred works. Already in his 1835 essay "De la situation des artistes" in La Revue et Gazette Musicale Liszt called explicitly for renovation, "progress," and openness to theatrical influences in religious music (this last an opinion he was later to repudiate), views which, significantly, ran counter to the neobaroque tendencies of the oratorio, while his further development included a lively appreciation of Gregorian chant, a cappella writing à la Palestrina (whose works he heard in the Sistine Chapel) and their fructifying effects on contemporary music. The author's separate section on Liszt's conception of the oratorio is among the most interesting and valuable passages in the book, based solidly on an original interpretation of what he has gleaned from Liszt's letters and critical writings, though always demonstrating an admirable familiarity with what others have written on the subject. Ortuño-Stühring boils Liszt's conception down to four cardinal points. First, an oratorio should present characters and events with the purpose of arousing true prayer from devotion in the listener, a goal impossible to achieve outside of a dogmatic and ecclesial framework. Second, the liturgical quality of this type of oratorio-a type so different from the prevailing model as to merit a new name altogether-goes far beyond its subject matter, extending to the "epic" nature of the work. Third, Liszt grounded his notion of "epic" oratorio in terms of a close relation with Greek epos, resulting in a work in which lyrical or dramatic elements find their rightful proportion as episodes within the larger work. Fourth, the orchestra has a determining role to play, resembling that of the address or an episode in the Greek epos, making clear to the listener that which is only thought or felt.
The long gestation of Liszt's work (the first completed portions date from 1859, the last from ca. 1868) did not prevent the emergence of what the author analyzes as a deeply unified work both theologically and musically. The table provided on page 105 demonstrates a symmetry of content among the fourteen numbers comprising the oratorio: the first and last sections contain prophecies respectively about the Advent and Second Coming, the second and nextto- last form a similar mirror image in relating the Nativity and the Resurrection, the third and third-to-last present parallel "Stabat Mater" texts (with Mary standing joyfully at the manger and tearfully at the cross), and so forth, a series of remarkable insights based solely on the author's attentive observations. To this the author adds a complex argument for overall musical design, operative on both the motivic level and that of tonality. This last element is discussed not only in terms of musical organization but symbolism as well. Regarding tonal organization, the author states that G major is the "tonal center" of part 1, E major that of part 2, and F minor that of part 3. If by "tonal center" he means to suggest a single governing tonality, his point is not at all supported by the table of sections and keys given on page 119; if interpreted to mean an important tonality which holds sway at least during the central portion of each of the three parts of the oratorio (and more than that in part 2), it is hard to dispute. It is not clear, at any rate, how the appearance of E major for the closing "Resurrextit, Christus vincit" supports the author's contention that it is the framing tonality ("Rahmentonart") of the entire work. But such minor defects are more than balanced out by a host of fascinating observations contained in the author's detailed blow-by-blow commentary on the numbers which make up the score.
Liszt's reputation as a major composer has never been more widespread than it is today, and while Rubinstein's star descended long ago (though a major reappraisal of his work has been underway for some time), his fame as the greatest pianist of his age remains untarnished. By contrast, Friedrich Kiel and Felix Draeseke are unknown to most audiences outside of Germany. Ortuño-Stühring thus provides a convenient introduction to the Christus works which these two composers rated among their greatest. Kiel, who exercised much influence thanks to a powerful position at the Academy of the Arts in Berlin, was primarily known for his chamber music, but the list of performances of his Christus is formidable: the work was given more than twenty times within forty years of its Berlin premiere, though the author's synthetic table of these performances (pp. 219-20) reveals that they all took place in Germany save for the year 1879, when it was heard in Milwaukee and New York. The text of Kiel's oratorio adheres closely to Martin Luther's translation of the Bible, a fact which, together with the presence of a narrating Evangelist and occasional Bachian touches in the score (the quotation of a chorale, a choral fugue), tends indeed to give a strongly Protestant stamp to the work. The author convincingly demonstrates Kiel's indebtedness to Bach, Handel, and Mendelssohn, and shows how Kiel steered clear of the secularizing Christo - logical tendencies of his time by placing special emphasis on the Resurrection and the Ascension. Draeseke's long career as a composer, teacher, and critic saw him travel from an association with the most radical tendencies of the New German School (it was only Liszt's abrupt departure from his post in Weimar in 1858 that prevented the carrying out of his plan to perform Draeseke's opera König Sigurd ) to a curmudgeonly rejection of the musical "confusion" in Strauss's Salome in 1905. Draeseke's Christus-Mysterium is really a trilogy of oratorios, and it is significant that of the eight performances from 1900 to 1913 documented by Ortuño-Stühring, only two were complete. Draeseke expressed himself voluminously and vociferously in his critical writings, and once again the author provides a concise, well-supported synthesis of the composer's conception of the oratorio. Musically, Draeseke combined a forwardlooking mentality to a strong attachment to the language of Bach-inspired counterpoint which, however, has nothing of the archaic or historicizing about it, thanks to a rich late-romantic harmonic language. A highly cultured and open-minded Protes - tant active mainly in Catholic Dresden, Draeseke thus attained what Ortuño- Stühring calls a "transconfessional" artistic result in his music. The excerpt from the orchestral introduction provided on page 328 will be enough to convince even many skeptics that our present-day negligence of the composer is truly unjustified.
Laaber-Verlag is among the most important publishers in Germany specializing exclusively in music-related items- monographs, modern editions, dictionaries, facsimiles-and their production standards are high. The volume is printed on high-quality paper and lavishly provided with music examples, some of them evidently prepared by the author with musicwriting software, but most photographically reproduced from published piano-vocal reductions and (very occasionally) full scores. The heavy reliance on vocal scores, though lamentable insofar as it results in a reduced consideration of orchestration of the four oratorios, was obviously necessary in order to keep the volume from reaching prohibitive dimensions. Four photographs taken during the general rehearsals of the Bremen premiere of Rubinstein's Christus (pp. 274-75) are the only iconographical documents provided in the volume, but they are breathtaking. Minor reservations notwithstanding, Ortuño-Stühring's study is an outstanding contribution to our knowledge of an often misunderstood and overlooked genre of sacred music.