Bruch’s oratorio, written in 1872, was a great success in its own day; Brahms chose a shortened version of it for his final concert as conductor in Vienna in 1875. The work was dedicated to the choral society of Bremen, and it became a particular favourite with amateur choirs, with numerous performances all over Germany. A successful performance in Liverpool in 1877 led to Bruch’s appointment as Director of the Liverpool Philharmonic Society for three seasons from 1880 to 1883. He lived in lodgings in Sefton Park, his daughter, Margaretha, was born in Liverpool in 1882, and his wife, Clara, sang the role of Penelope in several performances of Odysseus in England. In 1894, the music scholar and critic J.A. Fuller Maitland described Odysseus as ‘the work by which Bruch’s name is, perhaps, best known all the world over.’
Today, however, Odysseus is not as well known as Bruch’s popular violin concerto in G minor (op.26). There is a recording conducted by Leon Botstein with Radio-Philharmonie Hannover des NDR (Koch Classics, 1999), and some extracts from this and other versions can be heard on YouTube.
Full both of drama and beautiful melody, Odysseus certainly deserves to be better known, with its rich orchestral and choral writing and its interesting take on the Odyssey. Looking for a secular theme (he had come to think that religious themes had been played out for oratorio) Bruch hit on the Odyssey and was enthralled, telling his sister that it provided ‘incomparable material’. He decided to put together an oratorio from contrasting scenes:
The splendour of this primeval work of poetry became so clear to me that I could no longer dispel the thought of turning it into a series of lyrical scenes. … I selected the scenes, chose their order according to the rule of contrast, mainly following musical considerations, and then made a detailed outline of each scene, precisely indicating where I wanted to have ten lines for Ulysses, four for the chorus and so forth.
He then handed his scheme over to the librettist, Wilhelm Paul Graff, to work up.
In Part I, after the orchestral prelude, the scenes are: Odysseus on Calypso’s Island; Odysseus in the Underworld; Odysseus and the Sirens; and finally the dramatic storm sequence The Tempest at Sea, which concludes with a beautiful lullaby ‘Gracious Athena, oh, upon his weary eyelids, pour the soothing balm of sleep’. Part II consists of Penelope’s Lament; Nausicaa; The Banquet with the Phaeacians; Penelope weaving a Garment; The Return; Feast in Ithaca and a final rousing chorus.
The order of scenes in fact alters the chronology of Homer’s epic, so that Odysseus travels to the Underworld and past the Sirens after his captivity on Calypso’s island, and not before as in the original. This means that Odysseus’ companions appear and disappear at different points in the work without explanation. But the idea was not so much narrative consistency as the provision of contrasting episodes and moods: gaiety and lyricism for Calypso’s nymphs and Nausicaa and her maidens; pathos and terror in the Underworld; jollity and vigour in the Phaeacian banquet scene. The sea is a constant feature, and evocative sea music helps to bind the work together.
Bruch’s is a deeply romantic interpretation of Homer. Gone is some of the wit and irony of the original work; the emphasis is on emotions. Central is the theme of longing for home and family. In the first scene on Calypso’s island, Odysseus’s opening words are:
‘Of all joys, home is the loveliest in the world, even if one lives far away in the richest palace, away from dear parents and beloved spouse.’
The theme occurs again in the Banquet scene (regarded by Fuller Maitland as ‘the climax of the work’) in the words sung by Odysseus, Nausicaa and her parents, and the chorus in a key piece of music:
‘Nowhere abides such delight as in the homestead, sweet the love of parents dear, sweet to dwell with wife beloved’ [I quote here in the original English version of the libretto by Natalia Macfarren, which will be used in the performance].
Two speeches by Odysseus provide the inspiration for both passages in the libretto:
‘So true it is that nothing is sweeter than a man’s own land and his parents, even though it is in a rich house that he dwells a long way off in a foreign land away from his parents.’ (Odyssey, 9.34-6)
‘There is nothing better than when a man and a woman keep house together in full agreement, a great grief to their enemies and a joy to their friends, and they know it best of all.’ (Odyssey, 6.182-5)
The lovely melody to which Bruch sets the words in the Banquet scene then recurs in the final chorus, emphasising their importance for the meaning of the work.
Click here for tickets.
Note: Further information on Max Bruch and Odysseus may be found in the following;
Christopher Fifield, Max Bruch: his Life and Works, new ed. (Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2005)
J.A. Fuller Maitland, Masters of German Music (London: Osgood, McIlvaine & Co, 1894)
Joanna Parker, October 2019