JONAH'S MISSION, oratorio by Rudolf Tobias

The oratorio Jonah's Mission (Des Jona Sendung) is composed for five soloists, two mixed choirs (the other chorus mysticus), children's choir, big orchestra and organ, with text which is a compilation of Bible quotations, probably made by Tobias himself. The work consists of 38 numbers which make up five scenes with a prologue. The text, originally written in German in view of the possibilities of performance in those days, is in keeping with music, so it is almost impossible to translate it into Estonian without damaging the musical aspect.

The composer started to work on the oratorio while still in Tartu (although the idea must have been conceived earlier). After leaving homeland in January, 1908 Tobias first went to Paris, then stayed here and there in Germany, making a longer sojourn at the resort town of Eichwald where he kept working hard on the oratorio. At the same time he tried to seek a chance of performing the oratorio. There was some hope for it in Leipzig where Tobias moved in autumn, 1908 and where he completed the initial version of the oratorio in October, the same year. As a matter of fact, the work on the score continued until the first performance in 1909. Later the composer reworked some of the sections when part of the oratorio was performed at the opening ceremony of the Estonia Theatre in 1913 and at the concert of his works in Berlin in 1914. In the meantime Tobias tried to persuade some distinguished conductors to include his work in their concert programmes. He took the manuscript to Prof. S. Ochs, conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic. The latter gave a fairly high evaluation of the work saying that "as I looked through the score of Tobias' Jonah's Mission I got a good impression. Fantasy is natural and unimpaired. From the way how it is composed one would guess that the composer has had a good musical training." But Ochs demanded such big royalties for the concert that the composer could not possibly afford it. After trying his luck with the famous Mottl in spring, 1909 Tobias resolved on conducting the work himself. It was a courageous decision The material side of the concert rested on the support of some of his friends and Tobias had to cut his expenses to a minimum. He did not even have enough money to have the orchestra parts copied out, and had to do it by himself. Because of all of these things he had to use the smallest possible orchestra. We know from one of Tobias' letters that he hired forty-two musicians to play in the orchestra and less than a hundred singers for the chorus. Actually, the number of musicians was reduced to twenty-five. It is no wonder then that the artistic effect was not achieved. Also, Tobias was careless about the final revision of the manuscript and several additions to the score were only drafted. A. Topman has written in his recollections that when, years later, he met the organ player K. Hoyer in Leipzig (he had played the organ part at the first performance of the oratorio) the latter recalled that at rehearsals when it flashed into Tobias' mind that he might add a missing chord he said, "We'll, have a sixth here" promising to show it while conducting the concert, but he usually forgot all about it during the performance. So it is not surprising that the first performance of the oratorio in St. Andrew's Church in Leipzig on 26 Nov. 1909 was a failure. To have an idea of this historic concert let us quote some of the reviews: "Those who entered St. Andrew's Church on the 26th November were soon disappointed because they got no enjoyment whatsoever from the performance of Tobias' oratorio. As to the work itself I can hardly give any positive account of it because the performance was faulty in all respects. The chorus sounded - if at all understandably audible - out of tune. The orchestra was at a loss about their task ... The instrumentation was horribly clumsy. If Mr. Tobias had not been so stubborn as to take to conducting himself, perhaps something would have come out of it. Now it only led to an outrageous failure. To escape the endless cacophony I quitted after the first part feeling sorry for those in my heart who were willing to endure it up to the end.>> (L. Wambold) Or here is another: "The music which we were unwillingly made to listen to that evening was indescribable. Everything that was being sung, played or conducted, or I'd rather say "beaten out" was just below the mark." (H. Hiller) The reviews tended to speak ill of Tobias as a foreigner, but it must also be admitted that this extraordinarily complicated work was not feasible for such a small number of performers who had to make do with the smallest number of rehearsals. And Tobias with his impatient nature was not cut out for a conductor's job. Tobias himself wrote: "One try has gone amiss, I had overestimated my physical strength and my skill at conducting. But I pray, do not take it more tragically than it really is. The most important thing, my understanding of work is the same as always in spite of this sensational counter-propaganda. It does not matter that as a conductor I was denounced and the performance as such was abused, the work itself and my role in church music - these are things that no one has dared to question. On the contrary, I have caught the eye of several prestigious persons (Dr. E. Müller, Prof. Hoffmann, etc.) who had had no idea of my existence so far. Through darkness to light!" A couple of years later Tobias wrote about the same concert: "It had to be a failure, as even my physical strength was running out due to hard life I led what with arranging all the notes by myself and being terribly hard up. But, thanks to it I have won more than I could have hoped: it was just the fiasco of Jonah that opened the auditorium of the Berlin Hochschule for me." This is an allusion to Prof. H. Kretzschmar, a distinguished German scholar of the oratorio history who had been acquainted with Tobias's manuscript by that time. Kretzschmar is said to have commanded this work highly saying to Tobias' wife that "from Bach till today no one has composed such a powerful (gewaltige) work for church as Tobias." This was a high appreciation of Tobias' work and thanks to it he was invited to teach at the highest music school in Germany where, two years later, he was appointed professor at which post he remained until his death in 1918.

On the subject matter of the oratorio

The text of Tobias' oratorio is based on the Book of Jonah from the Old Testament. The Book of Jonah differs from other prophetic books because there are no prophetic predictions here (with the exception of the prediction of Nineveh's overthrow), it is a story of a prophet who disobeys Lord's command and tries to flee. Since some fairy-tale elements from ancient Greek legends are also included (e.g. Jonah is swallowed by a great fish), there is no concrete evidence to what degree the book is linked with historical Jonah who is said to have lived in the eighth century B.C. and whose supposed grave near ancient Nineveh is being shown up to this day. The theologians date the book back to about fourth century B.C. Historically, Nineveh was the capital of the powerful Assyrian Empire and its size is measured by "three days' journey" in the Book of Jonah. For the Israelites this was a period of decline, of economic and political subjugation. Thus, in this book Jonah

appears as the symbol of moral opposition of the Israelites who predicts the destruction of' the capital of the great and powerful empire. Nineveh, which lay in the Mosul area oil the territory of present-day North Iraq, was destroyed by the Babylonians in 612 B.('. and by the end of the seventh century the whole of' the Assyrian Empire had collapsed. One of the central ideas in the Book of Jonah is that Lord's grace does not embrace only one chosen people, but also the pagans when they repent of evil. This book shows why prophetic predictions do not always come true. Although Tobias'' oratorio is based oil the Book of Jonah, it tries to convey a more general idea: the conflict between Nineveh, symbolizing evil and iniquity and the Ecclesia, a small number of the righteous and the sufferers. As to the latter, Tobias obviously refers to this small and -Suffering nation which lie himself came from. Differently from the original text of the Book of Jonah in which the king of Nineveh calls upon his people to repent, Tobias has introduced Children's voices. Here the composer has probably intended to show what the solution to the problem in future might be, commenting that ((through children the sinful will have a vision of the lost paradise of innocence and the purity of soul.>> The scene that follows in the Book of Jonah in which Lord prepares a gourd that will be a shadow over Jonah's head by means of which He attempts to explain to Jonah the idea of God's grace has been left out of the' oratorio. Instead, the problem of justice and wrong has been included which is missing in the Book of Jonah and with the introduction of this problem Tobias has deviated from the original idea of the Book of Jonah. The name of Jonah means 'dove' in the Hebrew translation which is a reference to Noah's ark and symbolizes the idea of peace and reconciliation after the legendary time of the flood. From this idea the symbolism of the dove of peace has grown out which originally meant reconciliation between God and people. For Tobias Jonah is also ambassador of peace. Jonah denounces evil and injustice, but he does not demand the punishment of the gentile Nineveh, he calls upon the townspeople to repent. In this we could see the manifestation of the idea of peace and friendship between nations. This idea occurs in the Scripture, too, but in Tobias' treatment it means seeking a solution to the ancient problem of suffering and iniquity. It leads to the idea of redemption and reconciliation which finds its philosophical interpretation in the final scene of the oratorio through the Passion of Christ. As we can see, Tobias has made free use of Biblical subject matter, adding to the Book of Jonah some other texts from other Books of Bible, relying on his own religious and artistic principles.

On the leitmotifs of the oratorio

Leitmotifs or leading motives acquire a fairly great importance in Tobias' oratorio. The composer has not always specified their meaning, but they represent some particular concepts. The leitmotif of God's providence (1) stands out among the others, it could be regarded as the central symbol of the oratorio and the summary of its ideological content. The three-chord harmonic progression (which modulates boldly and unexpectedly through a lowered dominant ninth into a new key) is the basis for two independent orchestral intermezzos (No. 10 and 33) which refers to Jonah as the image of Christ, as it is in the Scripture (Mt. 12:40). This leitmotif occurs in all the most important points of development and is intonationally related to another leitmotif which could be called the leitmotif of God's command and which sounds at the beginning of scene 1(4). God's appearance in "Sanctus" is also characterized by it, the latter with its festive magnificence is the central number

(No. 19) dividing the oratorio into two equal parts. To the leitmotif of God's providence (which is often given instrumentally and in ff) is opposed another leitmotif. This is the leitmotif of God's mercy (2) which sounds in the presentation of chorus mysticus after the previous leitmotif just at the beginning of the oratorio (its peculiar feature is the chord progression with a stop at the dominant second). Contrary to the previous motif', it always sounds in the vocal part (mostly in pp) and two of the chorus mysticus are based on it (Nos. 18 and 34). An important place is occupied by the leitmotif Jonah, the prophet (3) which accompanies the prophet on several occasions (its characteristic feature - syncopated rhythm). It sounds either convincingly and decisively, or menacingly and potently, or plaintively and humbly (in Jonah's prayer). To characterize Jonah another- leitmotif has been used which could be called the leitmotif of Jonah's suffering (7) which, with its peculiar expressiveness, conveys Jonah's despair (first sounds in the tempest chorus). From other leitmotifs the more important are that of vengeance (9) and that of Nineveh's repentance (11). The first of these, with its militant rhythm, expresses the demand for justice by the suffering and humiliated nation. This is the Ecclesia or the congregation of the faitfull who are persecuted because of their religious beliefs and convictions (see Rev. 6:9), those who have not bowed unto Baal (idols - V.R.), those who have not accepted false gods or false teachings, as it is in the Scripture (1 Ki 19:18). The second attracts attention with its peculiar modality (hypophrygian) and its ostinato bass figure; against this background a masterly polyphony develops. Firstly, here we can note tonal inconstancy, secondly, the stubbornly repeated bass figure brings to mind inner contradiction which characterizes the repentance of the Ninevites. Beside it, there is another leitmotif to illustrate the selfconscious and cheeky Ninevites (the beginning of scene 4) which, with its dance-like character, properly conveys their boasting ("Who will stand against our great city?") and feasting ("Let us eat and drink"). Very illustrative are also the leitmotif of Jonah's escape (5) and the leitmotif of waves (6). The first of them is only of episodic importance (No.5), the other is used quite extensively. With its "wavy" melodic line it depicts the billowing of the waves being interwoven in the tempest chorus with other themes in contrapuntal development and painting a stormy seascape before our eyes. It acquires special expressive force together with the leitmotif of God's providence which accompanies the casting of Jonah into the sea (the end of No. 7) and which also points to Jonah's escape. What a masterly synthesis of the illustrative and the psychological!

The themes of chorales used in the oratorio also bear symbolic significance and they could even be called leit-themes. Especially important is the chorale "O that I Had a Thousand Tongues" ("O, dass ich tausend Zungen hätte") by which Jonah's escape is characterized and which, according to Tobias, "characterizes his gratitude which he himself expresses in Nineveh where he is forced to go for the second time." The chorale "O Lord in Heaven, Look Down Upon Us" ("Ach Gott, vom Himmel Sieh' darein") used in scene 3 is the only one which occurs in its "pure form" and it conveys the complaint and the anxiety expressed by a small nation for "the servants of God's kingdom", who are waiting for "the coming of the Saviour". The themes of chorales have been used by Tobias in other places as well whereas the short motives of chorales refer symbolically to the text of the chorales (e.g. soprano's arietta No. 23 and Jonah's aria No. 24). This free and bold use of the chorales reminds us of the means of expression typical of Tobias' chorale preludes. To sum up, leitmotifs play an important role in the interpretation of the symbolism and the artistic-figurative concept of the oratorio.

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