I HAVE a strong belief in the essential excellence of Biblical subjects for the purposes of the lyric drama at least from an historical point of view. I can see no reason against but many reasons in favor of a return to the stage of the patriarchal and heroic figures of the people who are a more potent power in the world today, despite their dispersal and loss of national unity, than they were in the days of their political grandeur and glory. Throughout the greater part of his creative career Anton Rubinstein was the champion of a similar idea. Of the twenty works which he wrote for the theatre, including ballets, six were on Biblical subjects, and to promote a propaganda which began with the composition of “Der Thurmbau zu Babel,” in 1870, he not only entered the literary field, but made personal appeal for practical assistance in both the Old World and the New. His, however, was a religious point of view, not the historical or political. It is very likely that a racial predilection had much to do with his attitude on the subject, but in his effort to bring religion into the service of the lyric stage he was no more Jew than Christian : the stories to which he applied his greatest energies were those of Moses and Christ.
Much against my inclination (for Rubinstein came into my intellectual life under circumstances and conditions which made him the strongest personal influence in music that I have ever felt) I have been compelled to believe that there were other reasons besides those which he gave for his championship of Biblical opera. Smaller men than he, since Wagner’s death, have written trilogies and dreamed of theatres and festivals devoted to performances of their works. Little wonder if Rubinstein believed that he had created, or could create, a kind of art-work which should take place by the side of “Der Ring des Nibelungen,” and have its special home like Bayreuth ; and it may have been a belief that his project would excite the sympathetic zeal of the devout Jew and pious Christian alike, as much as his lack of the capacity for self-criticism, which led him like a will-o’-the-wisp along the path which led into the bogs of failure and disappointment.
While I was engaged in writing the programme book for the music festival given in New York in 1881, at which “The Tower of Babel” was per-formed in a truly magnificent manner, Dr. Leopold Damrosch, the conductor of the festival, told me that Rubinstein had told him that the impulse to use Biblical subjects in lyrical dramas had come to him while witnessing a ballet based on a Bible story many years before in Paris. He said that he had seldom been moved so profoundly by any spectacle as by this ballet, and it suggested to him the propriety of treating sacred subjects in a manner worthy of them, yet different from the conventional oratorio. The explanation has not gotten into the books, but is not inconsistent with the genesis of his Biblical operas, as related by Rubin-stein in his essay on the subject printed by Joseph Lewinsky in his book “Vor den Coulissen,” published in 1882 after at least three of the operas had been written. The composer’s defence of his works and his story of the effort which he made to bring about a realization of his ideals deserve to be rehearsed in justice to his character as man and artist, as well as in the interest of the works themselves and the subjects, which, I believe, will in the near future occupy the minds of composers again.
“The oratorio,” said Rubinstein, “is an art-form which I have always been disposed to protest against. The best-known masterpieces of this form have, not during the study of them but when hearing them performed, always left me cold ; in-deed, often positively pained me. The stiffness of the musical and still more of the poetical form always seemed to me absolutely incongruous with the high dramatic feeling of the subject. To see and hear gentlemen in dress coats, white cravats, yellow gloves, holding music books before them, or ladies in modern, often extravagant, toilets singing the parts of the grand, imposing figures of the Old and New Testaments has always disturbed me to such a degree that I could never attain to pure enjoyment. Involuntarily I felt and thought how much grander, more impressive, vivid, and true would be all that I had experienced in the concert-room if represented on the stage with costumes, decorations, and full action.”
The contention, said Rubinstein in effect, that Biblical subjects are ill adapted to the stage be-cause of their sacred character is a testimony of poverty for the theatre, which should be an agency in the service of the highest purposes of culture. The people have always wanted to see stage representations of Bible incidents ; witness the mystery plays of the Middle Ages and the Passion Play at Oberammergau to-day. But yielding to a prevalent feeling that such representations are a profanation of sacred history, he had conceived an appropriate type of art-work which was to be produced in theatres to be specially built for the purpose and by companies of artists to be specially trained to that end. This art-work was to be called Sacred Opera (geistliche Oper), to distinguish it from secular opera, but its purpose was to be purely artistic and wholly separate from the interests of the Church. He developed ways and means for raising the necessary funds, enlisting artists, overcoming the difficulties presented by the mise en scène and the polyphonic character of the choral music, and set forth his aim in respect of the subject-matter of the dramas to be a representation in chronological order of the chief incidents described in the Old and New Testaments. He would be willing to include in his scheme Biblical operas already existing, if they were not all, with the exception of Méhul’s “Joseph,” made unfit by their treatment of sacred matters, especially by their inclusion of love episodes which brought them into the domain of secular opera.
For years, while on his concert tours in various countries, Rubinstein labored to put his plan into operation. Wherever he found a public accustomed to oratorio performances he inquired into the possibility of establishing his sacred theatre there. He laid the project before the Grand Duke of Weimar, who told him that it was feasible only in large cities. The advice sent him to Berlin, where he opened his mind to the Minister of Education, von Mühler. The official had his doubts ; sacred operas might do for Old Testament stories, but not for New; moreover, such a theatre should be a private, not a governmental, undertaking. He sought the opinion of Stanley, Dean of Westminster Abbey, who said that he could only conceive a realization of the idea in the old time popular manner, upon a rude stage at a country fair.
For a space it looked as if the leaders of the Jewish congregations in Paris would provide funds for the enterprise so far as it concerned itself with subjects taken from the Old Dispensation ; but at the last they backed out, fearing to take the initiative in a matter likely to cause popular clamor. “I even thought of America,” says Rubinstein, “of the daring transatlantic impresarios, with their lust of enterprise, who might be inclined to speculate on a gigantic scale with my idea. I had indeed almost succeeded, but the lack of artists brought it to pass that the plans, already in a considerable degree of forwardness, had to be abandoned. I considered the possibility of forming an association of composers and performing artists to work together to carry on the enterprise materially, intellectually, and administratively ; but the great difficulty of enlisting any considerable number of artists for the furtherance of a new idea in art frightened me back from this purpose also.” In these schemes there are evidences of Rubinstein’s willingness to follow examples set by Handel as well as Wagner. The former composed “Judas Maccabaeus” and “Alexander Balus” to please the Jews who had come to his help when he made financial shipwreck with his opera ; the latter created the Richard Wagner Verein to put the Bayreuth enterprise on its feet.
Of the six sacred operas composed by Rubin-stein three may be said to be practicable for stage representation. They are “Die Makkabäer,” “Sulamith” (based on Solomon’s Song of Songs) and “Christus.” The first has had many performances in Germany; the second had a few performances in Hamburg in 1883 ; the last, first performed as an oratorio in Berlin in 1885, was staged in Bremen in 1895. It has had, I believe, about fourteen representations in all. As for the other three works, “Der Thurmbau zu Babel” (first performance in Konigsberg in 1870), “Das verlorene Paradies” (Düsseldorf, 1875), and “Moses” (still awaiting theatrical representation, I believe), it may be said of them that they are hybrid creations which combine the oratorio and opera styles by utilizing the powers of the old time oratorio chorus and the modem orchestra, with the descriptive capacity of both raised to the highest power, to illustrate an action which is beyond the capabilities of the ordinary stage machinery. In the character of the forms employed in the works there is no startling innovation ; we meet the same alternation of chorus, recitative, aria, and ensemble that we have known since the oratorio style was perfected. A change, however, has come over the spirit of the expression and the forms have all relaxed some of their rigidity. In the oratorios of Handel and Haydn there are instances not a few of musical delineation in the instrumental as well as the vocal parts ; but nothing in them can be thought of, so far at least as the ambition of the design extends, as a companion piece to the scene in the opera which pictures the destruction of the tower of Babel. This is as far beyond the horizon of the fancy of the old masters as it is beyond the instrumental forces which they controlled.
“Paradise Lost,” the text paraphrased from portions of Milton’s epic, is an oratorio pure and simple. It deals with the creation of the world according to the Mosaic (or as Huxley would have said, Miltonic) theory and the medium of expression is an alternation of recitatives and choruses, the latter having some dramatic life and a characteristic accompaniment. It is wholly contemplative ; there is nothing like action in it. “The Tower of Babel” has action in the restricted sense in which it enters into Mendelssohn’s oratorios, and scenic effects which would tax the utmost powers of the modern stage-machinist who might attempt to carry them out. A mimic tower of Babel is more preposterous than a mimic temple of Dagon ; yet, unless Rubinstein’s stage directions are to be taken in a Pickwickian sense, we ought to listen to this music while looking at a stage-setting more colossal than any ever contemplated by dramatist before. We should see a wide stretch of the plain of Shinar ; in the foreground a tower so tall as to give color of plausibility to a speech which prates of an early piercing of heaven and so large as to provide room for a sleeping multitude on its scaffoldings. Brick kilns, derricks, and all the apparatus and machinery of building should be on all hands, and from the summit of a mound should grow a giant tree, against whose trunk should hang a brazen shield to be used as a signal gong. We should see in the progress of the opera the bustling activity of the workmen, the roaring flames and rolling smoke of the brick kilns, and witness the miraculous spectacle of a man thrown into the fire and walking thence unharmed. We should see (in dissolving views) the dispersion of the races and behold the unfolding of a rainbow in the sky. And, finally, we should get a glimpse of an open heaven and the Almighty on His throne, and a yawning hell, with Satan and his angels exercising their dread dominion. Can such scenes be mimicked successfully enough to preserve a serious frame of mind in the observer ? Hardly. Yet the music seems obviously to have been written in the expectation that sight shall aid hearing to quicken the fancy and emotion and excite the faculties to an appreciation of the work.
“The Tower of Babel” has been performed upon the stage ; how I cannot even guess. Knowing, probably, that the work would be given in concert form oftener than in dramatic, Rubinstein tries to stimulate the fancy of those who must be only listeners by profuse stage directions which are printed in the score as well as the book of words. “Moses” is in the same case. By the time that Rubinstein had completed it he evidently realized that its hybrid character as well as its stupendous scope would stand in the way of performances of any kind. Before even a portion of its music had been .heard in public, he wrote in a letter to a friend : “It is too theatrical for the concert-room and too much like an oratorio for the theatre. It is, in fact, the perfect type of the sacred opera that I have dreamed of for years. What will come of it I do not know ; I do not think it can be performed entire. As it contains eight distinct parts, one or two may from time to time be given either in a concert or on the stage.”
America was the first country to act on the suggestion of a fragmentary performance. The first scene was brought forward in New York by Walter Damrosch at a public rehearsal and concert of the Symphony Society (the Oratorio Society assisting) on January 18 and 19, 1889. The third scene was performed by the German Liederkranz, under Reinhold L. Herman, on January 27 of the same year. The third and fourth scenes were in the scheme of the Cincinnati Music Festival, Theodore Thomas, conductor, on May 25, 1894.
Each of the eight scenes into which the work is divided deals with an episode in the life of Israel’s lawgiver. In the first scene we have the incident of the finding of the child in the bulrushes ; in the second occurs the oppression of the Israelites by the Egyptian taskmasters, the slaying of one of the overseers by Moses, who, till then regarded as the king’s son, now proclaims himself one of the op-pressed race. The third scene discloses Moses protecting Zipporah, daughter of Jethro, a Midianitish priest, from a band of marauding Edomites, his acceptance of Jethro’s hospitality and the scene of the burning bush and the proclamation of his mission. Scene IV deals with the plagues, those of blood, hail, locusts, frogs, and vermin being delineated in the instrumental introduction to the part, the action beginning while the land is shrouded in the “thick darkness that might be felt.” The Egyptians call upon Osiris to dispel the darkness, but are forced at last to appeal to Moses. He demands the liberation of his people as the price to be paid for the removal of the plague ; receiving a promise from Pharaoh, he utters a prayer ending with “Let there be light.” The result is celebrated in a brilliant choral acclamation of the returning sun. The scene has a parallel in Rossini’s opera. Pharaoh now equivocates ; he will free the sons of Jacob, but not the women, children, or chattels. Moses threatens punishment in the death of all of Egypt’s first-born, and immediately solo and chorus voices be-wail the new affliction. When the king hears that his son is dead he gives his consent, and the Israelites depart with an ejaculation of thanks to Jehovah. The passage of the Red Sea, Miriam’s celebration of that miracle, the backsliding of the Israelites and their worship of the golden calf, the reception of the Tables of the Law, the battle between the Israelites and Moabites on the threshold of the Promised Land, and the evanishment and apotheosis of Moses are the contents of the remainder of the work.
It is scarcely to be wondered at that the subjects which opera composers have found adaptable to their uses in the New Testament are very few compared with those offered by the Old. The books written by the evangelists around the most stupendous tragical story of all time set forth little or nothing (outside of the birth, childhood, teachings, miracles, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth) which could by any literary ingenuity be turned into a stage play except the parables with which Christ enforced and illustrated His sermons. The sublime language and imagery of the Apocalypse have furnished forth the textual body of many oratorios, but it still transcends the capacity of mortal dramatist.
In the parable of the Prodigal Son there is no personage whose presentation in dramatic garb could be looked upon as a profanation of the Scriptures. It is this fact, probably, coupled with its profoundly beautiful reflection of human nature, which has made it a popular subject with opera writers. There was an Italian “Figliuolo Prodigo” as early as 1704, composed by one Biffi ; a French melodrama, “L’Enfant Prodigue,” by Mo-range about 1810 ; a German piece of similar character by Joseph Drechsler in Vienna in 1820. Pierre Gaveaux, who composed “Léonore, ou l’Amour Conjugal,” which provided Beethoven with his “Fidelio,” brought out a comic opera on the subject of the Prodigal Son in 1811, and Berton, who had also dipped into Old Testament story in an oratorio, entitled “Absalon,” illustrated the parable in a ballet. The most recent settings of the theme are also the most significant : Auber’s five-act opera “L’Enfant Prodigue,” brought out in Paris in 1850, and Ponchielli’s “Il Figliuolo Prodigo,” in four acts, which had its first representation at La Scala in 1880.
The mediaeval mysteries were frequently interspersed with choral songs, for which the liturgy of the Church provided material. If we choose to look upon them as incipient operas or precursors of that art-form we must yet observe that their monkish authors, willing enough to trick out the story of the Nativity with legendary matter drawn from the Apocryphal New Testament, which discloses anything but a reverential attitude toward the sublime tragedy, nevertheless stood in such awe before the spectacle of Calvary that they deemed it wise to leave its dramatic treatment to the church service in the Passion Tide. In that service there was something approaching to characterization in the manner of the reading by the three deacons appointed to deliver, respectively, the narrative, the words of Christ, and the utterances of the Apostles and people ; and it may be that this and the liturgical solemnities of Holy Week were reverently thought sufficient by them and the authors of the first sacred operas. Nevertheless, we have Keiser’s “Der Blutige und Sterbende Jesus,” performed at Hamburg, and Metastasio’s “La Passione di Gesù Christi,” composed first by Caldara, which probably was an oratorio.
Earlier than these was Theile’s “Die Geburt Christi,” performed in Hamburg in 1681. The birth of Christ and His childhood (there was an operatic representation of His presentation in the Temple) were subjects which appealed more to the writers of the rude plays which catered to the popular love for dramatic mummery than did His crucifixion. I am speaking now more specifically of lyric dramas, but it is worthy of note that in the Coventry mysteries, as Hone points out in the preface to his book, “Ancient Mysteries Described,” 1 there are eight plays, or pageants, which deal with the Nativity as related in the canon and the pseudo-gospels. In them much stress was laid upon the suspicions of the Virgin Mother’s chastity, for here was material that was good for rude diversion as well as instruction in righteousness.
That Rubinstein dared to compose a Christ drama must be looked upon as proof of the profound sincerity of his belief in the art-form which he fondly hoped he had created; also, perhaps, as evidence of his artistic ingenuousness. Only a brave or naïve mind could have calmly contemplated a labor from which great dramatists, men as great as Hebbel, shrank back in alarm. After the completion of “Lohengrin” Wagner applied himself to the creation of a tragedy which he called “Jesus of Nazareth.” We know his plan in detail, but he abandoned it after he had offered his sketches to a French poet as the basis of a lyric drama which he hoped to write for Paris. He confesses that he was curious to know what the Frenchman would do with a work the stage production of which would “provoke a thousand frights.” He himself was unwilling to stir up such a tempest in Germany ; instead, he put his sketches aside and used some of their material in his “Parsifal.”
Wagner ignored the religious, or, let us say, the ecclesiastical, point of view entirely in “Jesus of Nazareth.” His hero was to have been, as I have described him elsewhere,’ “a human philosopher who preached the saving grace of Love and sought to redeem his time and people from the domination of conventional law the offspring of selfishness. His philosophy was socialism imbued by love.” Rubinstein proceeded along the lines of history, or orthodox belief, as unreservedly in his “Christus” as he had done in his “Moses.” The work may be said to have brought his creative activities to a close, although two compositions (a set of six pianoforte pieces and an orchestral suite) appear in his list of numbered works after the sacred opera. He died on November 20, 1894, without having seen a stage representation of it. Nor did he live to see a public theatrical performance of his “Moses,” though he was privileged to witness a private performance arranged at the German National Theatre in Prague so that he might form an opinion of its effectiveness. The public has never been permitted to learn anything about the impression which the work made.
On May 25, 1895, a series of representations of “Christus” was begun in Bremen, largely through the instrumentality of Professor Bulthaupt, a potent and pervasive personage in the old Hanseatic town. He was not only a poet and the author of the book of this opera and of some of Bruch’s works, but also a painter, and his mural decorations in the Bremen Chamber of Commerce are proudly displayed by the citizens of the town. It was under the super-vision of the painter-poet that the Bremen representations were given and, unless I am mistaken, he painted the scenery or much of it. One of the provisions of the performances was that applause was prohibited out of reverence for the sacred character of the scenes, which were as frankly set forth as at Oberammergau. The contents of the tragedy in some scenes and an epilogue briefly out-lined are these : The first scene shows the temptation of Christ in the wilderness, where the devil “shewed unto him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time.” This disclosure is made by a series of scenes, each opening for a short time in the back-ground castles, palaces, gardens, mountains of gold, and massive heaps of earth’s treasures. In the second scene John the Baptist is seen and heard preaching on the banks of the Jordan, in whose waters he baptizes Jesus. This scene at the Bremen representations was painted from sketches made by Herr Handrich in Palestine, as was also that of the “Sermon on the Mount” and “The Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes,” which form the subject of the next part. The fourth tableau shows the expulsion of the money changers from the Temple ; the fifth the Last Supper, with the garden of Gethsemane as a background ; the sixth the trial and the last the crucifixion. Here, as if harking back to his “Tower of Babel,” Rubinstein brings in pictures of heaven and hell, with angels and devils contemplating the catastrophe. The proclamation of the Gospel to the Gentiles by St. Paul is the subject of the epilogue.