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It's impossible to listen to the Midsummer Night’s Dream Overture or the Octet for Strings and realize that he wrote them when he was sixteen and seventeen. How could anyone that young write this music and not eventually be a composer to dwarf even Mozart and Beethoven? Yes, Mendelssohn was in some senses a spoiled kid whose parents bought him his own orchestra to conduct his own compositions. If he needed feedback, he could simply ask the family friends who happened to be the leading German intellectuals of the age; like Ignaz Moscheles, the Humboldt Brothers, or even Goethe (who was himself a fine musician and revered Mendelssohn’s talent even over Mozart’s). Some people have all the advantages life can bestow, but only a genius can take advantage of them in the way Mendelssohn did.
(A Wagnerian orchestra, made with only 8 string instruments by a 16-year-old kid.)
Mendelssohn was the kid you are simply desperate to beat up. He was the son of a rich banker and the grandson of Moses Mendelssohn, the most influential and significant philosopher of the German Enlightenment. His parents created the perfect environment for him, and he not only displayed astonishing skill in composition but also displayed astounding gifts for the piano, organ, violin, drawing, painting, languages (ancient and modern), literature, philosophy, poetry, prose, mathematics, gymnastics, and fencing, all with near-equal precocity. There was not a German intellectual of his childhood’s epoch who did not pass through the Mendelssohn’s drawing room. He was the son of a family with enough means to educate him in whatever his mind desired. If it is only Nature herself which designates true aristocracy, then fate finally bequeathed one of nature’s aristocrats with a proper upbringing.
(Mendelssohn’s incredibly exciting First Piano Concerto, surprisingly seldom heard in concert halls, but played by virtually every advanced piano student of the last 150 years as their first romantic piano concerto.)
But rich and entitled does not imply undisciplined. Every day of his childhood, Mendelssohn was ordered to arise at 5 in the morning so that he would work at all his cultural pursuits throughout the day – and throughout his life, he maintained this truly Protestant work ethic. In retrospect, his music is precisely what one should expect from a rich genius afforded every opportunity; exquisitely crafted music which shields its listener from most of the darkness to which life subjects its less fortunate subjects. There is barely any sense in Mendelssohn of boundaries being broken, or even of a desire to break them. The closer Mendelssohn gets to middle age, the less striving there seems to be toward anything transcendent. The harmonic language may be Beethoven’s, but the proportions are as classic (if not more) than Mozart, and his part writing is pure Bach. As he matured, his music increasingly seemed to go through the motions of impeccable technique – a virtuoso display of pure musical mathematics but with less urgency summoned from one piece to the next.
(The Hebrides overture. He was just 20…)
On the one hand, the music of Mendelssohn is of an intelligence and cosmopolitanism to which we should all aspire. It is also music that is narcissistic as only privileged people can be. To take one obvious example, listen to Mendelssohn’s famous Hebrides overture – said by some people to be the first ever ‘Symphonic Poem’; it’s a pictorial depiction of Mendelssohn’s impressions of Fingal’s Cave, a natural wonder in Staffa, an island off the West Coast of Scotland. Like all gentlemen of means, he went on a long ‘grand tour’ of Europe as ‘finishing’ to his education. When he reached the cave, he was inspired to sketch both a drawing of what he saw and the first twenty bars of the overture, which he immediately mailed to his parents. There are so many exciting musical moments in this piece, of stupefying craft, of a genuine sense of maritime atmosphere, and of natural awe, that it is clearly a work conceived at the highest level of genius. But on the other hand, are we listening to anything more profound than the travel diary of an entitled rich kid? If so, then we get it, the cave’s a nice place. But is there any human sentiment in this music or is all this Romantic nature-worship simply a substitute for experiencing human emotions? The kid may be a genius, but he’s still just a snot-nosed rich teenager who thinks the world is interested in his every thought (note), no matter how trivial.
(Pure erotic energy. The last movement of the Italian Symphony, said to be Mendelssohn’s impressions of a girl in Rome dancing the Salterello with a Tambourine.)
On the other hand, Mendelssohn’s music speaks a language that transcends the typical boundaries of Romantic artists. In an era when musicians, artists, peoples, were balkanizing into competing Nationalisms, Mendelssohn sounded a note of interests in other cultures and for international understanding. Perhaps one had to be rich to feel cosmopolitan in the 19th century, but there is something truly inspiring about Mendelssohn’s ability to find value in sources far afield. Whereas Wagner makes claims for Germans to strive for greatness alone to the exclusion of all other peoples, Mendelssohn’s work makes what amounts to a plea for internationalization. Nobody should mistaken Mendelssohn for anything but a conservative, but Mendelssohn’s conservatism is a liberal conservatism that at least allows for the possibility of greatness from any place, any era, any epoch. For all its problems, Mendelssohn’s stodgy over-reverence is far more appealing than Wagner’s fanatical authoritarianism, which has so often, and dangerously, been misconstrued as progressive.
(The Fair Melusine Overture. Without the example of this piece’s opening, Wagner could never have composed the beginning of The Ring Cycle.)
Indeed, few people in history wanted to beat up a rich genius a more badly than Wagner wanted to beat up Mendelssohn. Wagner viewed Mendelssohn a bit like Abel to his Cain (or Fasolt to his Fafner) – blessed by God with a flock of sheep while Wagner had to toil the ground and grow his full creative fruits only after Mendelssohn had passed away. No doubt, Wagner’s animus toward Mendelssohn was as much class-related as racial. Wagner was the stepson (and probable son) of an itinerate actor who may or may not himself have been Jewish. Throughout his life, Wagner had to hustle and bully his way into the cultural eminence Mendelssohn was assured from birth. But the first thing that strikes one about Wagner’s anti-semitism is not how vituperative it was, it’s how stupid.
(Would Wagner have ever exhibited such masterly use of the Horn section without Mendelssohn’s example from the Nocturne of A Midsummer Night’s Dream?)
In his article, ‘Judaism in Music’ (which, class act he was, he only allowed to be published anonymously for the first twenty years of its circulation) Wagner declared himself a firm believer that Jews were constitutionally incapable of creating any great art of value or originality. Wagner saw Jews as rootless cosmopolitans, who are therefore incapable of speaking languages as native-rooted artists do, and thus cannot create literature or songs properly (whatever that means). As supporting evidence, he cites Mendelssohn’s lack of depth and Meyerbeer’s pompous vulgarities. Well, even if the accusations against both composers are true (and to a certain extent, they are), it is not their Jewish origins which inhibited them, it was anti-semitism itself. A light-hearted success like Mendelssohn or a popular success like Meyerbeer’s were the only avenues for musical greatness open to Jews of their time – who even in this relatively enlightened era had to be careful not to challenge accepted boundaries. A great, challenging composer of the Beethoven or Bach (or Mahler) variety would still have been squashed by anti-semites for his effrontery long before he was allowed to flourish in full plumage.
(Hark the Herald Angels Sing…yes, Mendelssohn wrote it)
Furthermore, there was one small problem with Wagner’s blaming Mendelssohn…Mendelssohn was not Jewish; not by religion at least, only by origin (not that that would have mattered to Hitler…). His father, Abraham Mendelssohn, was one of the richest men in Germany, yet even he had to flee French-occupied Hamburg in the wake of the Napoleonic Wars, with his young children in tow. Abraham feared a coming vendetta from the Napoleonic government for his role in financing a breech of the Napoleonic blockade against the British. And as a man of Jewish origin, he had that much more reason to fear the extremity of French animus. When he settled in Berlin, he opened what became the final version of Mendelssohn and Co., a bank that would become the largest in Germany until Hitler ‘Aryanized’ it in 1939 by forcing it to sell all its assets to Deutsche Bank, all this in spite of the fact that there was hardly a single Jewish Mendelssohn in over a century.
(The opening chorus from Mendelssohn’s EXTREMELY Christian oratorio about St. Paul, Paulus)
Abraham Mendelssohn was nearly as militant in his pro-secularism as his father, the great Moses Mendelssohn, was determined to balance secularism with Judiasm. To his mother-in-law’s distress, he refused to circumcise his sons and added a second last name, ‘Bartholdy’, to his given surname (presumably after the Apostle Bartholomew, who spent the rest of his life preaching Christ to heathens). In a letter, he famously stated that ‘there could no more be a Christian Mendelssohn than there could be a Christian Confucius.’ In 1816, Abraham had his children baptized in the Lutheran faith, and did so in secret in the distant city of Frankfurt so that he could avoid the suspicions of Jewish family members. Six years later, he was baptized as a Lutheran himself. Abraham Mendelssohn was determined that his family be accepted as fully German, an acceptance which would prove impossible after more than a century’s worth of attempts by the Mendelssohn family. The more achievements their family won for Germany, the more resented they were by the people for whom they strove.
(The finale of the Reformation Symphony, in which Mendelssohn incorporates Luther’s most famous hymn, A Mighty Fortress Is Our God, as the principle theme.)
This desire for acceptance is all the more tragic when one realizes that Mendelssohn’s cautious conservatism, his veneration for everything establishmentarian, his evangelism for Music as a Public Virtue, made him an ideal fit for the rigid moralities of Victorian England – a country to which he journeyed nine times over the course of his short life. He was a close personal friend of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, and even wrote four-hand piano music specifically meant for the Queen to play with him. Mendelssohn’s temperament, with its twin horrors of empty showmanship and original daring, would have found a natural home in the England of Disraeli. In his veneration for older models, he was in some ways a musical equivalent of Keats. In his reluctance to challenge middle class sensibilities, he was much like Dickens.
(Mendelssohn’s band. The still extant Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra which Mendelssohn lead for twelve years and built into the best in Europe.)
Mendelssohn was perhaps the first true musical classicist (in the University sense), who had no patience for his own day’s vulgarities, and sought to bring better, nobler, higher-minded music to the public than the tastes which fashion dictated. From his conducting originated the idea that the orchestra’s primary goal was to act as a preserver of music’s greatest literature – education rather than entertainment. As a conductor, he programmed not only his finest contemporaries, not only the ‘classics’ like Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert (and a great deal more besides), but also the ‘ancients’ like Palestrina and Lassus (Hector Berlioz, Mendelssohn’s musical antipode in so many ways, loved Mendelssohn personally but said that he was ‘a little too fond of the dead.’). In Mendelssohn’s chamber music, he strove to create chamber music for middle class homes that could act as a kind of self-betterment – never vulgar, never garish, limpid, beautiful, pastoral music for idyllic settings. It can be argued that the Golden Age of ‘classical music’ itself ended in 1829, when the great young hope of classical music introduced the great elder statesman in his grandest work: the St Matthew Passion of Bach. The next year, Berlioz first presented his Symphonie Fantastique, and from those two moments onward, the dichotomy was set in classical music, forever pitched in a battle between the preservation of the past and innovation for the future; a battle that still shows no signs of resolving…
(The Second Cello Sonata. Mendelssohn in typically exuberant mood.)
If Mendelssohn had lived to see the 1848 revolutions, he’d have been adrift. He was blind to the seismic undercurrents beneath him and ill-equipped to understand the era that followed him. Then as now, many viewed the rigidities of middle class sensibilities as a prison, and revolutionaries viewed Mendelssohn as the musical jailer. But had he lived longer, this very ill-adeptedness might have turned Mendelssohn into the great musical conservative of his age – the perfect rival which Wagner lacked. Mendelssohn’s temperament may have seemed untroubled, but it was not naturally so. As a conductor, Mendelssohn came again and again against those who would block his vision of making the greatest possible music, and as so many conductors have throughout history, his temper would raise the roof in response to his authority being questioned. Few composers ever worked harder than Mendelssohn, and no composer made as great an effort to travel further so that he could carry out his responsibilities. Merely as a conductor, Mendelssohn had official capacities all over Germany and England, and was a much sought after guest in Italy and France besides. In the 20th century, such travel is expected of top musicians, in the 19th century it was nearly impossible. This reckless travel schedule had to be honored in addition to his full schedule as a composer, his need to stay in shape as a pianist and organist, and his duties as a father. In those last few years, his music became more and more fraught with anexiety, stress, and emotional weight. Mendelssohn was finally composing like an adult. But it was too late for him to write a more sizable amount in this newly sober vein of his. The stress and strain of his workload no doubt contributed to the series of strokes which killed him in 1847.
(Minor-key Mendelssohn, his final string quartet. A completely different composer emerging?)
Furthermore, there is a new rumor that Mendelssohn, seemingly the happiest, most well adjusted of all composers, might have killed himself in response to the end of an extra-marital affair. An affidavit has apparently surfaced from the cuckolded husband, in which there is sworn testimony that Mendelssohn begged the revered Swedish Soprano, Jenny Lind, to elope with him to America, and threatened suicide if she didn’t. Like Mendelssohn, Lind was a deep artist above reproach, prized as much for her morality and the spiritual quality of her music making as for her general musicianship. Mendelssohn died barely a year or two after the letter was written, but it still feels like a conspiracy theory, an apocryphal theory like the kangaroo court which told Tchaikovsky to kill himself. But it does change our view of this composer – who is now revealed to be a suffering artist, and given to all the same hypocrisies as every other Victorian gentleman.
(Hear, Israel. A soprano aria from Elijah, written for Jenny Lind. The hypocrisy is a little thick…but a powerful aria anyway. Proto-Brunnhilde?)
Mendelssohn did not commit suicide, he had a series of strokes. He suffered from a family condition called “Mendelssohn Brain” first documented in his grandfather, in which the hyper-brilliance of their minds made them especially prone to aneurisms. No doubt, the stress of his affair might have contributed to the strokes, but so might have the death of his beloved sister Fanny from a similar stroke. Fanny might have become a still greater musician/mind than Felix had either her brother or her father approved of her developing her talents as anything more than an amateur pursuit. But as a female Mendelssohn, it would have caused a scandal had she become a professional musician, and while she suffered an additional indignity of not being allowed to pursue her gifts after the manner of Felix, she shared Felix’s hyperactive mental acuity, and suffered from its same imbalance.
(The most beautiful – and darkest – thing Mendelssohn ever wrote? The slow movement from the second string quintet.)
The music of Mendelssohn’s final years show a different composer emerging, using his natural genius to reflect emotions deeper than the typical light-hearted classicism Mendelssohn generally pervaded. A potentially new Mendelssohn, middle aged and bitter, is highly noticeable in his final works. After some failed early attempts, Mendelssohn had retreated all his life from attempting the Grand Metaphysical Statements of Beethoven. He simply lacked the nerve for daring vision. Even his Lobegesang Symphony (with its 40-minute long choral finale) and Paulus play by tasteful rules established long in the past, often seeming more like imitations than original compositions. Yet in his late oratorio, Elijah, a new Mendelssohn emerges. Like his other large-scale choral works, Elijah is a conservative work in every sense – a turgid monsterpiece filled with uninspired padding and lighter, sweeter moments than should probably occur in a dramatic oratorio. Yet there are passages in this oratorio of such heart-stopping drama that they seem far more like the greatest music of Wagner than like Mendelssohn.
(Click here for the Magnificence of Elijah in Full Cry)
Here is Mendelssohn, fully mature, finally ready to take on the metaphysic mantle of Beethoven. But whereas Beethoven’s message is essentially liberal, to embrace the masses and storm the Bastille; Mendelssohn’s message is fundamentally conservative, that those embraced millions have grown sinful and indolent, and therefore must repent. Beethoven found choral inspiration in Schiller’s poetry and the Catholic Mass, Mendelssohn found his inspiration in the Old Testament Prophets. Mendelssohn may not have been Jewish, but he had a Talmudic cast of mind and a Rabbinic sense of mission. It might be said that at the end of his life, in the midst of crises from which privilege previously shielded him, he finally composed with true purpose; a purpose found within the texts which his grandfather so valued.
(Psalm 2: Why Do The Heathen Rage?)
Mendelssohn may not have been Jewish himself, but the values he inherited were Jewish to the marrow: a fearsome if imperfect commitment to ethics, knowledge, community, family, and rule of law. And whether rightly or wrongly, Mendelssohn saw his values as being rejected by his era's revolutionaries. The full promise of Mendelssohn’s genius was not to be contained in his actual achievements, but Elijah and a few other works from his final years give us a glimpse into the man which his earlier work never allowed. In choosing to write an oratorio about Elijah, Mendelssohn seemed to compose a declaration of intent – no longer would he be the passive, benevolent builder of public virtue. From the premiere of Elijah onward, he seemed to announce an intent to be the militant defender of righteousness’s cause – composing not with pen, but with a sword every bit as steely as Wagner’s, used to defend the glories of his Jewish and German heritage, both of which had given him so much. Given ten more years, Mendelssohn might have become a very different composer than the one we know; perhaps he'd have become an heroic spiritual leader after the manner of Beethoven, ready to do battle with Wagner's revolution so that he might preserve Beethoven's. Or perhaps he'd have calcified into every bit the fanatical purveyor of nationalist bombast (unlikely as much of his music makes that sound) which Wagner was. In theory, Mendelssohn was the fanatical defender of an Old Germany which allowed Mendelssohn’s ancestors to flourish while Wagner was the fanatical promulgator of a New Germany which would allow his descendents to flourish just as greatly. But Mendelssohn died, and Wagner, with his completely different (inverse?) goals, assumed the mantle of Germany’s Greatest Living Composer. He assumed this mantle in reaction to a Germany shaped by the first generations of emancipated Jews as a way of curbing their influence to restore Germany to a more glorious, united, and pure past. Yet the Germany of Wagner was not so different than Mendelssohn’s Germany. In their different ways, they exhibited precisely the same uncomplicated love of a national ideal which only a true outsider can possess. Wagner believed that the German past would only be saved by supporting the 1848 revolutionaries, Mendelssohn (would have) believed that that same past would be saved only by opposing them. But they shared a goal of a united Germany, with a truly German music to inspire her. Even Wagner’s greatest achievement, the Ring Cycle, began as an idea Mendelssohn had for his first adult opera. Perhaps Wagner merits a chapter of his own in A Brief History of Why Jewish Music Sucks. I don't doubt he'd love to have one.
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