Anton Rubinstein (1829-1894)
Was one of the most prominent figures of the Russian and International music scene in the 19th century. Born into an assimilated Jewish family, the pianist, conductor and teacher (among others, he was the founder of the Petersburg conservatory, where Pyotr Tchaikovsky was among his students) was also a prolific and very popular in his time composer, who shared his time between Russia and Western European countries. His piano concerts (especially Piano Concerto No. 4) and operas were highly valued; his 1871 opera The Demon, based on a poem by Lermontov, gained lasting popularity, particularly in his native Russia. Rubinstein’s series of biblical operas, with themes from the Old and New Testament is interesting and original; the series includes Der Thurm zu Babel, Sulamith, Moses and Christus. The genesis of this interest is connected, on the one hand, with the fascination with the romantic oratorios of Mendelssohn (Paulus, Elias) and on the other hand, with the renaissance of similar works by Georg Friedrich Händel, also using Old Testament narratives. It was then that the monumental editions were being prepared in Germany and exhibited in the German language version (in their original form, all of them were in English), gaining widespread enthusiasm of the audiences. The great pianist showed a lot of interest in musical historicism (which was not frequently seen in his times), giving recitals of work by early composers – hence his interest and unquestionable inspiration with the trend of the Baroque oratorios, full of sound splendour, intended for larger casts. An interesting feature of Rubinstein's aesthetic attitude was his opposition to the modernist trend in German art of that time (additionally, he also distanced himself from the national trend in Russian music, exposing himself to criticism in his homeland) represented by the art of "New German" composers, mainly Wagner and Liszt. Despite his friendship with Liszt, the Russian artist did not follow a similar path, rather looking at the legacy of classicist and classicist Romantics (like Brahms). The idea of a “religious opera” was somehow born in opposition to the concept of Wagner's musical drama. The composer's desire was to give the biblical content an equally impressive, theatrical expression – he considered concert performances, in contemporary costumes, without stage action and decoration to be not communicative enough and inadequate to the sublime themes. He even considered building a special theatre for such needs, balancing the "temple" of Wagner in Bayreuth.
Moses was composed in 1884-1891, to the libretto by Salomon Hermann Mosenthal. The Austrian playwright is remembered today primarily as the librettist of Otto Nicolai’s comic opera The Merry Wives of Windsor, based on the Shakespeare play. The success of this work also brought fame to the writer; he worked with the Russian composer several times (including The Maccabees in 1874, which was very successful in Russian and Germany); the music to Moses was composed after Mosenthal’s death. The opera tells the story of the prophet in eight suggestive pictures (previously, it had been presented on stage by Rossini, later by Arnold Schönberg; the prophet was also the protagonist of numerous oratorios, such as Handel’s Israel in Egypt, and, contemporary with Rubinstein’s work, an 1895 composition by Max Bruch, also forgotten), using an enormous performing apparatus. Maintained in the expressive, Neo-Romantic style, Moses contains many magnificent arias, especially in the stunning group scenes illustrating the famous dramatic episodes described in the biblical Pentateuch. The burden of the musical narration rests on the title character (baritone), speaking mainly in solemn accompanied recitatives and ariosos. The choirs representing a group protagonist – the people of Israel (as well as Egyptians) – are a particularly important partner for him. Standing out among the numerous dramatic personae of the biblical narrative (20 solo parts) is the Voice of God Himself (entrusted here to a tenor), which does have many precedents in stage music, and which in one of the particularly impressive scenes, passes down his laws. A special role is played by the large orchestra, treated in an exceptionally colourful way, which is particularly effective (with an interesting imitation of an ancient instrumentarium) at illustrating important scenes – the Egyptian plagues, the passage through the Red Sea, Jahwe’s appearance in the burning bush and others.
Moses was never performed on the stage in its entirety, although a performance was prepared in Prague at the Neues Deutsches Theater (later Státní Opera) in 1892. The dress rehearsal had already taken place when the performances were cancelled – officially, for financial reasons, but there could have also been troubles with censorship – this was a time of growing aspirations for Czech independence, and the echoes of the story about a small, brave nation freeing itself “from the power of the pharaoh” could have disturbed Vienna. We know that in 1894, there was a concert performance of Moses in Riga, later in several other centres (most likely, each time they were presentations of only fragments of the piece) and then it disappeared from the stages and the audiences’ consciousness for over a century. One of the reasons for this were the enormous costs of staging a work with such large cast, but also the fact that the fashion for “sacral operas” was already passing at the time. The death of the author shortly after composing the work also meant that he himself faded into oblivion quite quickly.
The prestigious concert under the auspices of the Polish Committee for UNESCO and the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage, which took place in the National Philharmonic Hall on 15 October 2017 (preceded by a recording of the work for this publication, with the same cast) was probably the first performance of the entire, integral opera, which had awaited its restitution for over a century! This was made possible thanks to the personal commitment of Michail Jurowski, who devoted many years to the preparation of the performance of this work and gained support for this project from the Polish Sinfonia Iuventus Orchestra. Maestro Jurowski's dream is for this extraordinary artistic undertaking to begin a wider renaissance of the interesting and beautiful, unjustly forgotten work of one of the most original characters of the musical scene of the 19th century.