Academic journal article Notes

Musik Als Bekenntnis: Christus-Oratorien Im 19. Jahrhundert

Academic journal article Notes

Musik Als Bekenntnis: Christus-Oratorien Im 19. Jahrhundert

Article excerpt

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. …

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