The Mission of Jonah
was the first Estonian composer who graduated St. Petersburg Conservatoire
in two specialties in 1897 - as an organist (with prof. Homilius)
and composer (with prof. Rimsky-Korsakov). After graduation Tobias
worked in St. Petersburg as an organist and choral conductor in St.
John Church until 1904,
oratorio is based on the Book of Jonah from the Old Testament
which belongs to the so-called minor prophetic books. It's a story of a prophet
who disobeys the Lord's command and tries to flee.
Tobias was not focusing so much on the story of Jonah's as a prophet, as on his character. Jonah is really the only prophet in the Old Testament who disobeys the Lord's command, and not out of fear, but out of conviction that God will nevertheless have a mercy on pagan Nineveh. Jonah is trying to avoid a conflict with the supreme ruler of his people. He happens to be in the center of the events against his own will and must, as a chosen man, predict downfall to the main cause of his people's suffering, to the people of Nineveh.
Although Jonah is the central character in the oratorio, we cannot view him as the hero. The Ecclesia or the believers' congregation plays an essential role. It is a small 7000-member gathering of the righteous and the suffering who are persecuted for their religious convictions (Rev. 6,9). Thus, we can follow two parallel lines in the development of the oratorio. The first depicts Jonah as a prophet and his predictions, the other a small and suffering nation who demand God's punishment and revenge for the wrong they suffered. Jonah acts as their representative, he opposes the great metropolis of Nineveh alone, empty-handed, predicting its downfall if it will not repent of evil and injustice it has committed. So Jonah becomes a symbol of moral resistance of a small people, asking the rulers of the metropolis to give up evil and violence.
Historically Nineveh was the capital of the powerful Assyrian Empire and in the book of Jonah its size is measured by "three day's journey". The Israelites' state at the time was politically and economically subjugated to the Assyrians. Jonah and his prophesy symbolize the moral opposition of the Israelites. Nineveh, which lay in the vicinity of Mosul, on the opposite bank of the Tigris, on the territory of the present-day Iraq, was destroyed by the Medes and the Babylonians in 612 B.C. and by the end of the 7th century B.C. the whole of the Empire had collapsed.
One of the central ideas in the Book of Jonah is that Lord's Grace is not bound to only on chosen people,
he also shows mercy on pagans if they repent of evil.
Thus the underlying idea of the oratorio is more general and wider in character - the conflict between Nineveh, the symbol of evil and injustice on the one hand and the small number of the righteous and suffering on the other. Here Tobias obviously refers to the small and suffering nation he himself comes from, and draws parallels between the fates of Estonians and the Israelites.
Differently from the Book of Jonah, where the king of Nineveh calls upon his people to repent, Tobias has introduced children's voices in the oratorio. Here the composer has probably intended to show, what the solution to the problem might be in future commenting that "through children the sinful will have a vision of the lost paradise of innocence and the purity of soul."
It should be mentioned, that the name "Jonah" means "dove" in Hebrew which is a reference to Noah's ark and symbolizes the idea of peace and reconciliation after the legendary Flood. The original meaning, reconciliation between God and his people, has later developed into the symbolism of the dove of peace. For Tobias Jonah is also ambassador of peace. Jonah denounces evil and injustice, he does not demand the punishment of gentile Nineveh, but calls for repentance. Although the idea occurs already in the Bible, Tobias employs it to seek a solution to the ancient problem of suffering and iniquity. As we can see, Tobias has made rather free use of Biblical subject matter, adding to the Book of Jonah some other texts from the Scripture, relying on his own artistic principles.
The central idea of the oratorio is God's mercy which redeemed the sins of all the world through God's martyrdom, and which allows the sinful to turn away from their sin, and which is professed through Jonah.
Tobias's varied use of polyphonic means should also be noted. Yet they are never formal ends of their own. Polyphony is highly characteristic and organic part of Tobias' musical thought, and his approach is therefore very individual. Polyphony almost never appears in its "pure forms". To bring an example, he has called the last chorus of scene 2 a fugue, and the separate formal parts of the fugue are indeed clearly distinctive, but the development of the fugue is so dynamic and genuinely powerful that the homophonic structure breaks through now and then, pushing polyphony aside. The first Chorus Mysticus of scene 2 stands in a kind contrast. It begins with a fugato-like development, and with its tragic and dolorous overtones remains reclusive and will not develop into a proper fugue.
The design of contrastive polyphony which occurs in several numbers is especially characteristic of Tobias's style. One should mention the Tempest Chorus (no. 6), which is one of the best numbers owing its intensive development based on three themes, and its dynamite. It is difficult to find any other sea pictures in the world literature of music that could withstand a comparison with extreme dramatics and elemental force of tempest scene in Tobias's oratorio.
Convincing imagery and musical character are also revealed for example in the judgment scene where feasting Ninevites express their insolence and arrogance. Tobias has written that "it would be better to invite a temperamental opera chorus instead of a church choir drilled in the spirit of one-sided German model." Here Tobias directly refers to his innovatory objectives in church music. We could call it aspiration for closeness to life which would have to be expressive and artistically convincing. In yet more general terms, it is the growth of the artistic figurative ideas out of the composer's aesthetic-philosophical conceptions which render multiple meanings to the oratorio. Here lies the religious symbolism, the divine message of Jonah's mission - Jonah is the herald of the second coming of Jesus Christ, as it stands in the Bible (Matt.12. 40).
The structure of the oratorio "The Mission of Jonah" is a little bit similar to the opera genre in many ways. Actually it is something between the mass and opera. The work consist of 38 numbers, or 5 scenes with a prologue, divided into 3 parts which could be called acts. Although naming separate sections "acts" would seem to suggest action on stage there is still no reason to say that Jonah's Mission is a stage oratorio. Tobias rather wanted to underline the figurativeness of the work. The use of leitmotifs, combining separate numbers into larger units, and a certain closeness to Wagner's sound (cf. Orchestral intermezzos Nos 10 and 33 with the leitmotif of sleep from "Die Walküre," Act III). However, Tobias still draws on a clearly perceptible classical basis, on Bach's and Händel's traditions who actually were real paragons for him. Tobias wrote: "Take Bach, take Händel, like two lighthouses stand these two unrivalled masters of church music."
Although Rudolf Tobias's musical thought modeled itself mainly after German classics, we should describe his style as a synthesis which combines the elements of German classicism and late Romanism. As Mart Saar has expressed it, "Tobias is a great talent of neo-classical orientation. There is nothing specifically modernistic about him. He is impressive by force of his talent and character rather than by his originality. What appears in Tobias's works is a vivacious, bold and positive mood and desire for powerful, strong, forceful and grandiose conceptions."
His desire for "powerful and grandiose conceptions" shows already in the cast of performance: for "The Mission of Jonah" two mixed choirs (the other is Chorus Mysticus), children's choir, five soloists, a big orchestra and organ. But it is also revealed in the extended scale, texture and general mode of expression which make the whole work noble and lofty.
An important role is played the principle of contrasts or oppositions, which help Tobias to increase dramatic tension of the work. It is already apparent in the first number of the oratorio. The introduction of Chorus Mysticus also serves this end (the name evidently derives from Goethe's "Faust," where a small chorus represents a voices from heaven, commenting on the course of events down on the earth). But there are other bold contrasts in the oratorio, i.e. No 33, which begins in fff and ends in ppp; or Jonah's interference which stops the rage of the Tempest Chorus (No.7); or the surprising effect of Jonah's arrival at Nineveh (No 26), which is introduced by a contrast in keys (from D-major to A-flat minor); or the first commentary by Chorus Mysticus, which refers to Jonah, as the God's chosen man, the only prophet in the Old Testament who is compared in the New Testament with the Son of Man. At the same time, these contrasts also represent religious symbolism - heavenly and earthly forces stand in a sharp contrast.
The premiere of the oratorio in the St. Andrew's Church in Leipzig on 26th of November 1909 was unfortunately a failure because of unpolished score. Besides this large-scale work was extremely complicated and demanding. The restricted choir and orchestra lessened the work's artistic effect considerably. Tobias was too nervous and unstable to revise the score properly which explains why the orchestra parts were prepared insufficiently and in haste.
Everyday problems had their effect on Tobias's health and capability for work.
On leaving Estonia in 1908 Tobias had been fairly optimistic about the future. But soon he was disappointed. He believed that first performance of this work would be a success and his ideas about church music reform would attract attention in Germany. After the failure in Leipzig Tobias rewrote some of the sections in the oratorio for the opening ceremony of the Estonia Opera House in 1913 and for the concert of his works in Berlin in 1914. Unfortunately this one remained the last one in the composer's lifetime. Tobias's early death on 29th of October 1918 did not allow him to consummate his ideas about church music reform.
The fiasco of "The Mission of Jonah" premiere has often been misjudged. Nevertheless the German musicologist Hermann Kretzschmar commended the work highly after having been acquainted with the score. This distinguished musicologist is said to have told to Tobias's wife that "from Bach till today no one has composed such a powerful (gewaltige) work for church as Tobias's Jonah". In 1912 prof. Hermann Kretzschmar invited Tobias to teach at the Köningliche Hochschule für Musik in Berlin.
The rebirth of Tobias's oratorio happened gradually, part by part in revised form, only 1986-1989. Although Tobias's oratorio was totally forgotten for decades and during soviet occupation time it was not allowed to perform as a ecclestical work, its full restored version was first time performed in Estonia Concert Hall on 25th of May 1989 conducted by Peeter Lilje. Later it was performed several times in Estonia, Sweden, Finland, Australia and Germany under conductors Leo Krämer, Arvo Volmer and Neeme Järvi. In 1995 it was recorded for BIS and it highly evaluated by international critics. Let us quote for example Mr. Anderson in "Fanfare:"
"Rudolf Tobias's monumental oratorio "Des Jona Sendung" is one of the greatest choral-orchestral works ever composed, a score of towering strength and unflagging imagination. I can state with complete conviction that "Des Jona Sendung" is a great piece of music. I have no doubt that it is worthy of the company of the greatest of its peers: the Bach Passions, Brahms German Requiem, Berlioz Requiem - I exempt only the Beethoven's Missa Solemnis, which is sui generis and sans pareil. My guess is that "Des Jona Sendung" is likely to be the most important discover you will make in years. If anything puts musical Estonia on the map, this will."
Tobias's oratorio represents the Estonian's striving for spiritual and cultural self-realization in the international culture scene.