Anton Rubinstein and Sacred Opera

Tower of Babel

Tower of Babel

Imagine watching a pre-dawn scene. This is a building site. The master workman awakens his workers to continue their efforts on a tower. Only gradually, as you watch this ‘geistliche oper,’ this ‘sacred opera,’ do you realize which tower this is. For this is the tower of Babel – and in due course Nimrod himself will come on stage to boast that this tower shall reach Heaven and he shall speak face to face with God.

The opera is Der Thurm zu Babel, music by Anton Rubinstein, with a German libretto by Julius Rosenberg.

We at Just Sheet Music hope that all our Jewish readers and customers have had a happy start to their year 5,772. Even if you were just getting used to writing “5771” on your checks. (Okay, that’s an old joke.)

As we approach Hanukkah (although it comes rather late this year: it begins December 20), we might give some thought to the rebellion of the Maccabees against Antiochus IV Epiphanes – the rebellion this holiday commemorates – and, since this is, that thought in turn might well send us again to the music of Anton Rubinstein.

Rubinstein composed Die Maccabäer (The Maccabees), a German-language operatic celebration of this rebellion, first performed in April 1875 in Berlin. The composer himself conducted the orchestra for that first performance.

So: Who Was Rubinstein?

Rubinstein, born in November 28, 1829 in Vikhvatinets, Russia, was the son of Jewish parents who raised him in Russia as at least nominally a Christian. In the context of 19th century Russian music, Rubinstein is something of an outlier, fitting into no camp.

In March 1877, a writer for an American magazine, The Nation, witnessed a performance of The Maccabees in Munich. It inspired this writer, to us anonymous, to compare nations with one another in compositional aptitude. “One of the most remarkable phenomena in the musical world is the fact that England and Russia have always shown such a great interest in music … while yet they have never had composers of their own who could be ranked with the first Germans, Italians, or even French composers.”

I love that phrase “even French.” It is nice of our critic to concede that “even” the French have had some top-notch composers “of their own,” since this was written only eight years after the death of Hector Berlioz, only two years after the death of Georges Bizet, and during the active working life of Charles-Francois Gounod.

Anyway: in the case of England, our reviewer blamed a continuing Puritan streak for this alleged national ability to sire composers.

In the case of Russia, he found no such handy a culprit. Happily, Rubinstein, the anonymous reviewer continued, looked like the man to correct this deficit. “[He] possesses all the thoroughness or depth, as well as the wealth of ideas, which characterizes German composers, while at the same time he is distinguished from them by a peculiar national Russian tone which pervades his compositions and makes them all the more interesting and original.”

Bloody Plots

The plot of the opera is only loosely inspired by the actual history involved. Music historian Richard Taruskin describes it as a “bloody piece” perhaps inspired by Alexander Serov’s Judith (1863).


At any rate, the historical materials of Die Maccabäer chiefly had the effect of allowing Rubinstein and his collaborator, the librettist Salomon Hermann, to introduce “three warring nationalities each represented by a chorus: Greek slaves, Syrian warriors, and victorious Hebrews.”

Censors and Concert-rooms

Although Rubinstein did in time bring the opera home – it was not only performed in Russia, but with a re-worked Russian-language libretto – it was natural that he felt it necessary to stage the first performances in Germany. Any drama with even a hint of political rebellion in it presented a challenge for an artist who had to live under the Czar’s censors. In fact, when Giacomo Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots was performed in Russia it was re-worked and renamed, The Guelphs and the Ghibellines. Apparently a civil war in 13th century Florence seemed a safely distant setting to the Tsar, but a civil war in 16th century France did not.

Die Maccabäer was neither the first nor the last time Rubinstein turned to Jewish history for the inspiration of operas. He had already composed Der Thurm zu Babel (1870), as we’ve mentioned, and that opera, too, has three choruses each representing a ‘nation’ (though in that case we need the inverted commas to indicate that the word may be an anachronism.)

Anton Rubinstein

In time, Rubinstein would compose another fine opera founded on Jewish sacred history, Moses. This is not divided as convention would have it into separate acts. It contains eight scenes, each representing a stage on the life of the protagonist. It is difficult to stage, but Rubinstein understood that it would be, and expected that it would be performed piecemeal.

“It is too theatrical for the concert-room and too much like an oratorio for the theatre….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 a stage.”

We are to see Moses as infant is pulled out of the bulrushes along the banks of the Nile, Moses as a young man deciding to identify himself with the oppressed, rather than with the royal family, his step family, their oppressors.

We are to stand by as the voice of God speaks from out of a burning bush and gives Moses his mission.

We are to witness the awful plagues that afflicted the Egyptians as they hardened their heart against the demands of the Israelites.

Let us end our brief tribute to Anton Rubinstein with the reflection that music has the power to cause us, or at least to allow us, to put aside our political and religious differences while under its spell, and perhaps to put them all in perspective, to see our common humanity, even after the sound is no longer ringing in our ears.

Our refusal to celebrate our common humanity has, after all, visited upon us all plagues enough.

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