George Frederick Bristow and the Oratorio Tradition
George Frederick Bristow was born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1825 to a musical family. His father, William, was a conductor and clarinettist in the New York area, and the son was given lessons in piano, harmony, counterpoint, orchestration and violin. Grove’s Dictionary has this to say about Bristow:
“Although historically important as a composer, George Bristow in his lifetime was known equally as a performer, conductor, and teacher. He began his professional career as a violinist at the age of 13… He joined the New Philharmonic Society in 1843 (at not quite 18) and remained a member until 1879… His versatility as a performer was reflected in occasional public piano performances and in positions as church organist.
“As a conductor, Bristow led such choral groups as the New York Harmonic Society and the Mendelssohn Society in performances of large choral and orchestral works…. As a public school teacher from 1854 and author of several pedagogical works, Bristow contributed significantly to music education in New York.
“…Bristow attempted to establish a native style in American art music. However, although Bristow’s works were often American in subject matter (e.g., his opera Rip Van Winkle, his Niagara Symphony, the cantata Pioneer, and The Great Republic: Ode to the American Union), his music was typically European, in the style of Mendelssohn. Among more than twelve compositions, the symphonies are the best works…. The chamber works, written during his early years, are unique and creditable representatives of a medium rarely explored by American composers in the 19th century.”
It is fitting that George Bristow conducted a group called the Mendelssohn Society, for to choral musicians of the second half of the 19th century, Mendelssohn was the “father figure”. It is no exaggeration to state that Mendelssohn almost single-handedly revived the oratorio tradition in Europe, England and America. The years after Handel’s great English oratorios were empty of these grand spectacles, until Mendelssohn’s own St. Paul and Elijah which remain today the only true European successors to Handel’s works. In addition, Mendelssohn revived the oratorios of J.S. Bach, which lay unnoticed and unperformed since C.P.E. Bach lost interest in them. Mendelssohn’s revival of the St. Matthew Passion in 1829, a hundred years after its writing, ranks as one of the most important historical revivals in the history of music; without Mendelssohn’s interest and energies, the great works of Bach may never have been brought back to light.
Mendelssohn’s influence was so strong in America that numerous choral societies were named after him and his choral music more than anyone’s became the staple of choral societies and church choirs. The great American composers in this style – Bristow, John Knowles Paine, Amy Beech and Horatio Parker – all were influenced by Mendelssohn and essentially wrote in his style. A less important, but still distinct influence, was the male quartet part-song, of which Schubert, Schumann, and Mendelssohn wrote many. This style is heard clearly in the quartet movements in Daniel.
Due to a particularly “churchy” influence during Victorian times, and especially during the first half of our century, it became common for presentations of these great dramatic works to receive a more staid and “pious” reading. Works like Elijah, which were conceived dramatically, were rendered in a less passionate, more sermonizing manner. The result was the falling out of favor of Mendelssohn and his successors, for the drama had disappeared, and what was left was missing its essential element. Only recently have we seen a return to the dramatic oratorio performed in a dramatic way, and a renewed interest in Bristow, Paine, et al.
The decade between 1865 and 1874 was exceptional for choral music. Brahms wrote his A German Requiemat the beginning of that period, and Verdi wrote his Requiem at the end of it. George Bristow was already well-known and respected as a composer when he wrote Daniel in 1866, and first performed it at Steinway Hall in New York City on December 28, 1867. The oratorio was performed again on January 30, 1878. Despite critical acclaim, it was never performed again, as far as can be ascertained, nor was it ever published. Unfortunately for this work, it was the practice of the time to discard works after a few years in favor of newer pieces, and rarely was a composer fortunate enough to have his work published “for future generations”.
Daniel was already recognized at its premiere as an important American work, and compared favorably with Mendelssohn’s oratorios; it is especially reminiscent of Elijah. Thurston Dox, in his major reference work American Oratorios and Cantatas, calls it
“…the greatest American oratorio written to that time, and probably since. It brought American composition up to the artistic level of the great European composers.”
At the composer’s death in 1898, the American Art Journal wrote about Daniel:
“Bristow’s oratorio Daniel is unquestionably one of the most important compositions in this form yet produced by an American composer.”
This comment is especially revealing given that several oratorios of great popularity had been written just prior to Bristow’s death, including Horatio Parker’s Hora Novissima (1892). The obituary continues
“The Oratorio … added to Bristow’s previous successes in the highest walks of musical art, placed him on a level with the first composers of the day…. From the production of this great work dates a new era in our musical history.”
In the Old Testament book of Ezekiel, the kingdom of Judah was destroyed by the empire of the Babylonians, c. 586 BC. Many thousands of people were taken as prisoners into Babylon (referred to historically as the Babylonian Captivity) where they were called “Jews” for the first time (as derived from “Judah”). These people were destined to remain together for two hundred years, even without a country of their own. But their unfortunate neighbors, the Israelites, vanished completely.
In Babylon, which lay many miles to the east of Canaan, the Jews were strangers. Fortunately they were treated with kindness by their masters, and often they rose to positions of wealth and dignity. In spite of this, they kept away from other people because they worshipped the “one true God” and their Babylonian and their Babylonian captors worshipped idols. The Jews missed their homeland, and by the waters of Babylon, they often wept: “if I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth….” It is with this setting, and this thought, that the oratorio begins.
The Book of Daniel opens, about the 6th century BC. King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, one of the most powerful men in the world, instructs his chief eunuch to select a number of boys from noble Jewish families and put them through a three-year course of instruction for service at the court. Nebuchadnezzar was willing to educate these young men and to give them positions of wealth and power if they proved qualified. The boys were to be physically fit and mentally bright. The four selected were Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael and Azadah. Three were given Babylonian names of Meshak, Shadrach and Abednego (though Bristow refers to Shadrach still as Azariah). The fourth refused his new name, insisting upon keeping Daniel. There are several Daniel/Nebuchadnezzar stories.
Part I of the oratorio, after setting the historical stage, begins with Nebuchadnezzar’s dream of a statue with a head of gold, arms of silver, thighs of bronze and feet of clay, which is destroyed by a stone. The next morning he could only remember that he had had a disturbing dream, but could not remember the details. His wise men could not help him, and in his anger he ordered that all wise men of Babylon be slain. Daniel, however, could not only tell the king his dream, but he could interpret it as well: the great kingdom of Babylon would be destroyed, and only the kingdom of the One True God would remain. Nebuchadnezzar was so astounded and thankful that he made Daniel chief of all wise men and governor of the province of Babylon.
One day, Nebuchadnezzar ordered a statue to be built of himself: ninety feet tall and covered with gold. All were required to prostrate themselves before it “at the sound of the comet, flute, harp, sackbut … and all kinds of music” (Daniel 3:5), and whoever did not do so would be thrown “into the midst of a burning fiery furnace.” Meshak, Azariah and Abednego, who would not worship idols, refused to do so. The angry king ordered them bound and thrown into the furnace, which was made “seven times hotter” – so hot that the servants who thrust them in were burned to death.
Daniel was out of the country at the time, and it appeared no one could save the men. Yet the three walked about in the furnace unharmed, and with them was seen a fourth figure, an angel of the Lord, and “the form of the fourth [was] like the Son of God.” Overwhelmed by this miracle, the king issued a decree that the mighty God of the Hebrews was to be respected throughout his realm, and that they be allowed to worship as they pleased.
Part II of the oratorio tells another Daniel story. Nebuchadnezzar has another ominous dream, in which he sees a tall tree which has its branches cut off and its fruit scattered. Daniel tells the King that he is that tree, and must humble himself before God or his kingdom will be scattered, he will be turned into an animal and “driven from men” and be forced to eat grass like an ox for seven years. Nebuchadnezzar was alarmed at first, but soon became prideful and boastful again. An angel tells him he has lost his kingdom, until he acknowledges that all power comes from the Most High, and turns him into a raving beast.
The work ends with Nebuchadnezzar regaining his sanity and extolling the God of the Jews and the King of Heaven, and in a rousing finale, the chorus echoes that sentiment. The librettist, Hardenbrook, had given the composer a third part to the story which included the tale of Belshazzar’ Feast and the famous “handwriting on the wall”, but the composer chose not to set that to music.
Notes by David Griggs-Janower.