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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 works.
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.