By Leon Botstein
Written for the concert The Destruction of Jerusalem, performed on March 16, 2008 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.
Not all attempts to reconstruct our musical heritage—or redress the distortions in standard accounts of music history by rehabilitating works once popular and now forgotten—are self-explanatory. Simply dusting off a forgotten masterpiece in the hope that it will spontaneously recapture its former glory may not always be enough. We may want to believe that aesthetic criteria are somehow stable over time, and that a great work will appear great no matter when and where in history it came from and when and where it is performed. But aesthetic judgments are fluid; they change with generations and circumstances. Some works that once were marginal have become famous; others have moved from the periphery to the center (or the reverse) with ease, because new generations of observers forge new connections between these works and their own experience. In literature, for example, Virgil’s Aeneid was long admired as a poetic model. It became a staple of general education in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Then, in the last century, it fell victim to a revived enthusiasm for Homer and was relegated to a secondary position. Now we find it appearing once again in new translations and in course syllabi as current readers find salient analogies between Imperial Rome and contemporary America. Just last year, Beowulf became a familiar name once again to millions as the subject of the first full-length digitally generated non-cartoon film (though its resemblance to the ancient epic is hazy, to say the least). In music history, perhaps the most famous example of revival and restoration was the music of Bach in the 1820s in Germany, best symbolized by twenty-year-old Felix Mendelssohn’s 1829 Berlin performance of the St. Matthew Passion.
Closer to our own time, the rejection of the conceits of twentieth-century musical modernism and the renewed interest in Romantic musical expressiveness have led us back to many anti-modernist composers of the twentieth century and lesser-known composers of the nineteenth, who just a few decades ago were considered irrelevant in the elite world of art music. Some of these composers whose reputations now enjoy a new stature in the repertory include Zemlinsky, Dohnányi, Suk, Glazunov, Elgar, Rimsky-Korsakov, Chausson, Chabrier, and Szymanowski. Today’s renewed enthusiasm for Sibelius and Shostakovich is in part a consequence of the Mahler revival that began in the 1960s.
But there is a second category of music that also deserves a new hearing, but which has never benefited from a favorable turn in the historical tide after its initial success. Works like Ferdinand Hiller’s The Destruction of Jerusalem were once familiar, loved, and respected, but the attachment to them was grounded in a set of cultural assumptions and values we no longer seem to share and appreciate. The music may be of the highest quality, but our perception of its value in our altered historical circumstances denies us immediate access to it—except as an object of archeological interest. This is certainly the case with Hiller, and even more so with two of his older contemporaries, Ludwig Spohr (1784-1859) and Giacomo Meyerbeer (1791-1864). Hiller may have composed one truly great large-scale masterpiece, but Spohr and Meyerbeer both produced a large corpus of works that were consistently well-received in their lifetimes. Meyerbeer was the most successful and beloved opera composer before Wagner. Spohr was, in the opinion of Johannes Brahms, the greatest composer of his time, the last in a line of giants that began with Mozart and Haydn. Hiller was certainly very well known in his day, and the work on today’s program was championed by Robert Schumann (see his two reviews reprinted in this publication). That figures like Hiller, once formidable in their day, have become so unfamiliar now begs for an explanation of what could have happened, both to them and to us, to cause such a sharp disconnect between past and present. The quality of the music per se is not at issue, in view of the respect accorded to it by composers we still revere today. Then what happened?
Many of the assumptions that influence us today regarding what it is that constitutes musical genius and greatness evolved in the later part of the nineteenth century. They were most compellingly articulated and disseminated by Richard Wagner. In his legendary 1870 essay on Beethoven, Wagner posited that what was then considered the least accessible music of Beethoven—the Ninth Symphony, the late piano sonatas, and quartets—were in fact Beethoven’s greatest achievements. This idea represented a reversal of the way Beethoven’s genius and music had been understood before the mid-nineteenth century, when his middle “heroic” period was judged his most important work, and his late period often derided as the obscure efforts of a deaf, eccentric old man. Wagner (his own image not far from his mind) argued that the more removed the composer was from reigning tastes and fashions, the more alienated from his own age—even in Beethoven’s case, to the point of being insulated by deafness—the more visionary and original his music became; therefore, the more authentic it was as true art, and the more attuned to future generations. Ferdinand Hiller had the misfortune to come of age at a time before 1848 (the legendary watershed in nineteenth-century history), and then to survive well beyond it, dying at the age of nearly 75 in 1885, two years after Wagner’s death and at the height of the rage for Wagnerian modernity. Because Hiller was rooted in a fundamentally different conception of music and its relation to the public from that expressed in Wagner’s essay, Hiller was branded in his later career as an obsolete conservative.
Indeed, as Robert Schumann’s assessment demonstrates, Hiller shared with Felix Mendelssohn an idea of the composer that was diametrically opposed to Wagner’s glorification of the isolated and alienated artist, the artist as prophet of the future. For Mendelssohn and Hiller, large-scale musical composition needed to speak entirely to the present moment, communicating simply and without undue evidence of a narcissistic desire to shock the audience with startling originality and lay waste to the past. Hiller wanted to interact with a public, and in his case that public was a widely engaged one of literate, urban, middle-class, dedicated musical amateurs and connoisseurs.
Perhaps this eagerness to engage with the known public of their day (rather than with Wagnerian visions of future adoring crowds) was due in part to the fact that Mendelssohn and Hiller were members of the first full generation of affluent German-speaking Jews to enjoy the benefits of emancipation and tolerance. They enjoyed acceptance as serious contenders in secular European arts and letters. This was the generation of Heinrich Heine, when assimilation coincided with the opening of opportunity for leading talents of Jewish origin to assert themselves as cultural leaders. It was only after the revolution and reaction between the years 1848 and 1860 that rabid and populist nationalism, and its concomitant anti-Semitism (strongly advocated by those such as Wagner), that the brief age of tolerance that produced a Mendelssohn and a Hiller came to an end. After all, it was an important part of the Wagnerian ideology that no Jew could possess the kind of artistic genius that Wagner attributed to Beethoven.
The Destruction of Jerusalem therefore should remind us of the beauty that can result when the composer’s ambition is defined exclusively by his contemporary public and not by posterity. In Hiller’s world tolerance, optimism, and acceptance seemed dominant, as opposed to the fear, chauvinism, suspicion of religious and cultural difference, and paranoia of enemies within, that came to characterize Wagner’s generation. Ironically, the subject matter of Hiller’s oratorio itself is a parable of that very difference in sensibility.
But despite its religious connotations, Hiller’s oratorio is not a religious work. Rather, it represents a startling effort to define a new participatory cultural form: the secular oratorio based on religious subject matter. More so than Mendelssohn’s St. Paul (1836), to which this work is only partially indebted, Hiller’s oratorio is decidedly designed for public performance in a secular venue rather than a house of worship. Biblical texts and stories are stripped of their sectarian identification and turned into narratives designed for cultural edification. Unlike Mendelssohn, Hiller does not lean heavily on eighteenth-century models of Bach and Handel. Rather, he blends traditions of the eighteenth-century oratorio with techniques derived from contemporary opera, creating a form of musical drama that is theatrical but dispenses with the apparatus of the theater, relying instead on the sequential progression of music and text as vehicles of expression in a concert setting. As Hiller wrote to Mendelssohn, he wanted his oratorio to be played in a “noble concert hall” because its purpose was the generic “celebration of religious feeling.” The oratorio demanded that it be “dramatic” and be organized in a way that delivers to the audience sharp contrasts without the apparent devotional solemnity of, for example, the St. Matthew Passion. St. Paul offered an idealized and secularized religiosity. The Destruction of Jerusalem takes religious history as a source for epic storytelling. Hiller’s innovation led to a long tradition of secular oratorio writing that lasted well into the early twentieth century in England, France, and Germany. Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius; Dvořák’s St. Ludmila; the stunning oratorios of Max Bruch; César Franck, Camille Saint-Saëns, Anton Rubinstein; these are only part of the legacy of the nineteenth-century secular oratorio based on the experience and tradition of religion. In this continuum, The Destruction of Jerusalem was one of the earliest and among the most popular and influential.
The musical strategy Hiller employs is the very opposite of that which Wagner sought to praise in his singling out of late Beethoven. Hiller’s music is eminently accessible, straightforward, and direct in the best sense of the word. He presents us with one possible musical equivalent of the historical painting that flourished in Hiller’s day: a massive canvas of representation not dependent on mysticism, symbolism, and philosophical abstraction. Rather, transparent and powerful figures illuminate the essential elements of human emotion and expression.
We do not live in an age in which the work of Ferdinand Hiller can communicate to us so readily anymore. His music speaks to a rare and brief moment when several communities in Germany co-existed peacefully, an age soon to be shattered. But listening to Hiller again should at a minimum help us try to envision a moment in time when concert music had a central place in civic life and when there was still hope that the spread of culture and enlightenment could lead to a better world, and where the universality of experience was more important than national differences and distinctions of religion. But it is also hoped that this work, though highly prized by contemporary observers—not the least of whom was Schumann, whose own great oratorio Das Paradies und die Peri (1842; performed by ASO last season and previously at the Bard Music Festival) was in part inspired by Hiller’s success—will win among today’s audience new admirers because of its evident beauty. In an age that has seen a re-engagement with musical simplicity and accessibility, perhaps the time has come to set aside our Wagnerian inheritance in musical taste (and the politics it implies) and reexamine the elegant and moving legacy of pre-1848 musical works.