“A Sort of Mysticism”: Re-examining the Reception of Robert Schumann’s Late Sacred Music
In his 1858 biography of Robert Schumann, Wilhlem Joseph von Wasielewski dismissed Schumann's Mass and Requiem as being “of slight importance, since his religious opinions of 1852 were no longer free, but had assumed a morbid character, which, as his mind was obscured, degenerated into a sort of mysticism.” In the years that followed, subsequent biographers, critics, and music historians adopted a strikingly similar tone, echoing Wasielewski in contending that Schumann composed his sacred works under the influence of some kind of misplaced mysticism (Mystizismus) and strongly implying that his late-blooming interests in sacred music prefigured his eventual institutionalization and untimely death in an asylum near Bonn.
The posited connection between Schumann’s late music and his history of mental illness is a well-worn trope in Schumann scholarship. My purpose in this paper is to analyze how this linkage specifically affected the reception of Schumann’s sacred works by focusing on the question of why authors like Wasielewski associated the Mass and Requiem with mysticism. What did mysticism mean for these commentators? What insight might this word offer into the reception history of Schumann’s sacred works?
To answer these questions, I examine Schumann’s larger historical context, arguing that the dismissal of his late sacred works was deeply influenced by the phenomenon of “religious madness” in mid-nineteenth-century Germany. Drawing on Ann Goldberg’s investigation into German asylums during this time period, I analyze the reception of Schumann’s sacred works against the history of the nascent field of psychiatry and its practitioners’ efforts to combat a surge in popular religious expression that they felt threatened post-Enlightenment tenets of rationality and scientific progress.
Viewed in a broader historical context, I contend, the critical dismissal of Schumann’s late sacred works can be seen as extending directly from a discourse shaped by the intersection of medicine, gender, class, and religion in mid-nineteenth century Germany. In making this argument, I aim to historicize a key facet of Schumann reception while also contributing to a growing body of scholarship that highlights the influence of the history of medicine on music criticism and interpretation.
J.S. Bach’s St. Matthew Passion and the Song of Songs
Gerard Russel Weber
University of Western Ontario
The dramatic portrayal of Christ’s suffering in the Baroque Passion oratorio fulfilled not only artistic and liturgical purposes, but a pedagogical one as well. Isabella van Elferen (2009) describes the affective objectives of the artistic Passion as the ‘awakening of admiration for Christ’s death on the cross, repentance of sin, and grateful reciprocal love.’ Rather than leaving the audience to arrive at these empathetic states on their own, poets and composers of the Lutheran Passion oratorio tradition employ allegorical figures to mediate a deliberate affective response between Christ’s suffering and the audience. Bach’s St. Matthew Passion includes two such figures, the Daughter Zion (‘Tochter Zion’) and the anonymous faithful believers (‘gläubige Seelen’), who are responsible for poetic interpolations between the events of the Passion narrative.
Through a close reading of these allegorical figures, this paper will demonstrate that the Song of Songs text and its tradition of Christian exegesis (unio mystica) play a significant role in Bach and his librettist Picander’s conception of their Daughter Zion and anonymous faithful believer. The two allegorical personae are cast as sympathetic entities through paraphrases and allusions to the Song of Songs, thus evoking compassion and desire as the intended affective responses. However, these personae are not interchangeable; the Daughter Zion portrays an explicit sense of medieval unio mystica, while the anonymous faithful witness yearns for this theologically unattainable union in the parlance of Lutheran mysticism known as ‘indwelling.’
While Barthold Heinrich Brockes’s Der für die Sünde der Welt Gemarterte und Sterbende Jesus (1712) is frequently cited as a prevalent influence on Picander’s text for the St. Matthew Passion, I argue that Picander found inspiration elsewhere for his prominent theme of unio mystica. Christian Friedrich Hunold’s Der blutige und sterbende Jesus (1704) includes the first appearance of the Daughter Zion as an allegorical figure; he saturates Daughter Zion’s dialogue with paraphrases of the Song of Songs text, including a series of passages that Picander also includes in the aria “Ach, nun ist mein Jesus hin” of the St. Matthew Passion.
German Oratorios and Jewish Politics
New York/New York
During the 1830s and 1840s, the Jews of Western Europe confronted political and social challenges by embracing activist politics. In response to the Jews’ changing status, several composers wrote operas and oratorios that reflected their new position in European society, including Halévy’s La juive (1835), Hiller’s The Destruction of Jerusalem (1841),Spohr’s The Fall of Babylon (1842), and Mendelssohn’s Elijah (1846). In this paper, I examine the oratorios by Hiller, Spohr, and Mendelssohn, all of which employ biblical texts to present a positive image of the Jews, in sharp contrast to the Pietist German oratorios of the early 1830s. I suggest that The Destruction of Jerusalem was designed as cultural propaganda for German-Jewish emancipation (Schoeps 1996), that Spohr’s The Fall of Babylon reflects the birth of Christian Zionism in Great Britain during the 1830s (Lewis 2010), and that Mendelssohn’s Elijah oratorio was a response to the Damascus Affair of 1840 and its aftermath (Frankel 1997). I categorize the three works as examples of the “philo-Judaic oratorio,” demonstrating that they display both ideological affinities and structural similarities.
Mendelssohn’s friend, diplomat and Hebraist Karl Josias von Bunsen, was instrumental in bringing him to Berlin in 1841 as court composer for Friedrich Wilhelm IV of Prussia. Although previous scholars have examined Mendelssohn’s association with Bunsen (Sposato 2006), they have not discussed his music in relation to Bunsen’s involvement with Christian Zionism (Lewis 2010). In the wake of the Damascus Affair, Bunsen helped to found the Anglo-Prussian bishopric in Jerusalem.
Mendelssohn begins Elijah’s penultimate chorus with Is. 41:25, which describes “one” “from the north . . . who, from the rising of the sun, shall call upon His name.” Theologian E. W. Hengstenberg interpreted Is. 41:25 as a reference, not to Christ, but to a “worldly conqueror” (Hengstenberg 1861). I propose that Mendelssohn’s text alludes to Christian Zionism. In this reading,the verse represents Bunsen’s royal contacts in Great Britain and Prussia, who came “from the north” to establish a Protestant presence in the Holy Land. Elijah’s conclusion thus becomes a paean to Mendelssohn’s royal patrons in both countries.