For the musical realisation, we searched for a suitable metaphor that would show, on the one hand, the differences between the religious communities and their protagonists and, on the other hand, a strongly connecting factor. In order to do justice to "Nathan the Wise" as a German-speaking work in the European Enlightenment by setting the opera, the music would have to reflect the Western musical tradition. The intention of the drama is not to call for a worldwide understanding between religions, but to hold a mirror before us in Germany, in Europe. We absolutely wished to retain and show these roots of the work.
Modern times in Europe and the precursors of the Enlightenment began with the Renaissance of the 15th and 16th centuries. With it, there also began a new musical tradition with triad-based polyphony and rhythmically polished forms developing out of medieval modal music. Out of this new musical departure with the introduction of string and wind instruments in families (modelled after the vocal quartet in different vocal ranges) arose the scale-degree system of tonic and dominant relationships and, ultimately, the exclusive use of the systems of major-minor harmony and cadences. This dependence on tonal relationships was the foundation of music from the Baroque and Classical periods to the Romantic period. This tonal network was only abandoned with the atonal music of the 20th century. But the tonal system is by no means extinct today, for large areas of pop music are still based on the tonal system.
One can say that an enlightening arch of modern times extends from the early Renaissance, with Giovanni Boccaccio, through the generation of Immanuel Kant up to the social theoretician Karl Marx in the 19th century. We also wished to reflect this arch, at least approximately.
With these guidelines as basic premises, we decided in favour of a new type of musical collage as a factor determining the nature of the setting of Lessing's "Nathan the Wise". Using this approach, we were delighted that we were not only able to show the artistic arch of Western musical tradition of over 300 years, but could also lend a voice to the material of "Nathan the Wise" - relevant everywhere in the world - by exhibiting elements from the source of the best composers from the Baroque, Classical and Romantic periods.
We developed a simple analogy: three religions, three musical stylistic periods. Each religion was assigned a stylistic epoch of tonal music: Christians – music of the Baroque period, Jews – music of the Classical period, Muslims – music of the Romantic period. We then gave each stage role a composer as "godfather". Thus arose a kind of superelevated leitmotif technique, for each operatic role obtained its own unique musical language. In order to take Lessing's German origins into consideration - musically as well - we decided to use exclusively German-speaking composers.
The stage role of Nathan is an homage created by Lessing to his friend Moses Mendelssohn, the philosopher of the Enlightenment. It thus seemed natural to give Nathan a musical voice through the philosopher's grandson, Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy. This composer can be viewed as a late representative of classical music, which is the musical language of the Enlightenment, thus offerering excellent musical support to the role of Nathan.
The major developmental role of the Templar required the musical language of a great sacred composer of baroque music. The selection of Johann Sebastian Bach, one of the greatest composers of all, lends a musical voice to the young Templar.
The powerful Sultan Saladin was to be represented by a rich, highly emotional musical language of the Romantic period. Richard Wagner succeeds in providing not only an expansive musical language, but also a thorn and a controversy; perhaps he also offers a bridge that might be capable of leaving ideologies behind it. Just as the musical language fits the role of the Sultan, Wagner's strict leitmotif technique had to be taken into consideration, and it was important to create convincing analogies in Lessing's text.
Recha, Nathan's assumed daughter who grows up in ignorance of her Christian roots but is not brought up in the Jewish faith, is perfect for the light, innocent and intelligent music of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Since Recha is only informed of her Christian roots at the end of the work, she receives the voice of the Classical period, for she feels that she is related to Nathan.
Daja, Recha's companion in Nathan's house, is a Christian. Strict in her essence, steadfast and reliable in her inner being, an ideal musical appearance for her is provided by George Friedrich Handel, the great German composer living in London. Daja knows about Recha's Christian secret; as a good Christian, she has her own plans for Recha, whom she wants to see returned to the bosom of Christianity.
The monk once brought the newborn Recha to Nathan. Her parents had died in the turmoil of war, as did Nathan's wife and all seven of his sons. As a secret diplomat with a good heart whilst remaining an obedient acolyte of his patriarch, he performs his tasks quietly and skilfully. Heinrich Schütz provides him with musical simplicity and, where necessary, inconspicuousness.
Saladin's sister Sittah, as the equalising and powerful force in the background, required a musical corrective to Saladin's Wagnerism. The musical language of Gustav Mahler gives Sittah the weight she deserves, but also the necessary flexibility and charisma of the heart.
The patriarch of Jerusalem; in him, Lessing embodies the despised Pastor Goeze. Bony, without scruples, eternally of the past and obsessed with power, he is the only unsympathetic figure in the entire work. Surrounded by lackeys and yet alone, singing in monophonic old Gregorian chant in a falsetto vocal technique, he is musically isolated as well.