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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Bruch was known as a major defender of a musical aesthetic and tradition that was explicitly critical of Richard Wagner and the rage for all things Wagnerian that had come to dominate the musical culture of the 1890s. Bruch allied himself with Johannes Brahms and Brahms’s close friend, the Jewish-born violinist Joseph Joachim, who was a colleague of Bruch in Berlin.

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 Schumann.

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 disastrous consequences.

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.


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