How an Anti-Semitic Composer Created 'Kol Nidre' and 'Moses'

What Max Bruch Had in Common With George Gershwin

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By Leon Botstein

Published March 24, 2014, issue of March 28, 2014.
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Any performance, much less an American one, of Max Bruch’s oratorio “Moses” 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 Jewish.

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 notwithstanding.

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 Jews.

Music, Maestro! Leon Botstein is the president of Bard College and the music director of the American Symphony Orchestra.
Jito Lee
Music, Maestro! Leon Botstein is the president of Bard College and the music director of the American Symphony Orchestra.

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