In January 1851, Robert Schumann wrote to Richard Pohl with an idea: “I would like to write an oratorio. Perhaps you would lend your hand? I thought of Luther.” Pohl enthusiastically agreed to write the libretto and the two began discussing their ideas for a musical work depicting the life of the sixteenth-century Protestant reformer Martin Luther in an extended correspondence. Ultimately, despite two years of intermittent planning and deep investment on the part of Schumann, the project fell through. That there is no libretto or musical sketches for the proposed oratorio has meant the project, apart from brief mentions, has gone largely unexamined in scholarship about Schumann. Nevertheless, the letters between Schumann and Pohl give valuable insight into what drew both composer and librettist to this subject—and into the questions of identity, confession, and politics that captivated them and their contemporaries. In this article I argue that the Luther oratorio plans offer a prime example of what Alexander Rehding calls “historical monumentality,” characterized by the harnessing of historical figures into symbols of collective political, religious, and social identity. Drawing on perspectives from religious studies to visual culture, I argue that Schumann and Pohl sought to create a musical monument of Martin Luther as a symbol of politically liberal and confessionally Protestant Deutschtum. More broadly, I aim to demonstrate that Schumann’s interest in Martin Luther exemplified the complex interweaving of historicism, confessional legacy, political revolution, and emergent nationalism that guided Schumann’s compositional efforts during his tenure as municipal music director in Düsseldorf (1850–54), with particular emphasis on his active engagement with questions of religion and confession in German society in the years following the 1848 revolutions.
“Worthy of a Monument in Artistic History”: Religion and Nation in the Plans for Robert Schumann’s Unrealized Martin Luther Oratorio
Sonja Wermager is a PhD candidate in historical musicology at Columbia University. Her research focuses on intersections of religion and music in nineteenth-century Germany. Her dissertation examines Robert Schumann’s late works against the backdrop of religious, social, and political change during the mid-nineteenth century. She also maintains interests in Reformation Studies and has published on sixteenth-century English metrical psalmody in the Yale Journal of Music and Religion.
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Sonja Wermager; “Worthy of a Monument in Artistic History”: Religion and Nation in the Plans for Robert Schumann’s Unrealized Martin Luther Oratorio. 19th-Century Music 1 July 2022; 46 (1): 39–59. doi: https://doi.org/10.1525/ncm.2022.46.1.39
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