Der Thurm zu Babel, Op. 80 (with German libretto)
(b. Vikhvatinets, Ukraine, 28 Nov.1829 – d. Peterhof nr. St. Petersburg, 20 Nov. 1894)
Der Thurm zu Babel
Anton Rubinstein’s legacy rests largely on his life as a piano virtuoso and founding director of the St. Petersburg Conservatory. His musical style was influenced by the early German Romantics. As a pianist he resides squarely in the line of Liszt, having started his playing career at a young age, rising to greatness, and working to grow his reputation from one as a mere virtuoso to that of a composer and true artist. First taught by his mother Kaleriya Khristofforovna, Rubinstein studied with Aleksander Villoing who quickly identified the boy’s talent and, in 1840, set out with him to tour Europe. Villoing would later teach Nicolai Rubinstein, Anton’s younger sibling who established the Moscow Conservatory in 1866. Rubinstein first encountered Liszt in recital in 1841 at the Salle Érard in Paris. The impact of Liszt on Rubinstein was monumental. Rubinstein was mesmerized by Liszt’s dramatic and forceful playing and set out to model it for himself.
Together with his mother, younger brother Nicolai, and sister Lyuba, Rubinstein moved to Berlin in 1844 to study harmony and counterpoint with Siegfried Dehn. He immersed himself in his studies, developing a solid compositional technique. His musical style is indebted to Mendelssohn, Schumann and the early German Romantics. Later on, despite a lifelong friendship with Liszt, he refuted the harmonic and textural innovations being developed in the New German School and was particularly appalled with Wagner and his musical and social positions. However, Liszt’s choral music made a great impression on the younger composer. Rubinstein conducted Liszt’s Christmas Oratorio in Vienna in December 1871 with the composer present and Anton Bruckner playing the organ.
As a child, Rubinstein’s family was forcibly converted from Judaism to Christianity via the Russian Orthodox Church. Rubinstein developed an interest in all aspects of his religious heritage particularly his Judaic roots and the Old Testament. In order to bring dramatic life to religious stories, he developed the concept of sacred opera in the 1860’s, seeing the oratorio as an inadequate genre to portray biblical drama. However, it was Liszt’s treatment of the sacred oratorio that stimulated Rubinstein’s development of his sacred operas. His four sacred operas – Das verlorene Paradies; Christus; Der Thurm zu Babel; Moses – were premiered in concert form (as oratorios, ironically), largely because of the difficulty Rubinstein encountered in getting them staged.
Using the term Geistliche Oper to describe his biblical work Das verlorene Paradies of 1856, Rubinstein invented a genre. This genre – part opera, part oratorio, with bombastic settings and unwieldy forms – was in part a response to Wagner’s harshly anti-Semitic pamphlet Das Judenthum in der Musik, a work that caused Rubinstein much dismay and anger. These sacred operas allowed him to develop drama from the stories of the Old Testament, embracing his Jewish heritage while providing a robust platform for presenting the works….
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