Sometimes a genius appears who is so unbelievably gifted that whatever they do can't help but be a disappointment relative to the expectations they set up. Think of so many artists in various forms from the 1950's when Americans turned young artists into Gods. Think of Leonard Bernstein and ask yourself why he didn't write a dozen musicals as good as West Side Story. Think of Orson Welles and ask why he didn't make a dozen movies as good as Citizen Kane, or Tennessee Williams a dozen plays as good as A Streetcar Named Desire. Why didn't Ralph Ellison write a dozen books as good as Invisible Man? Why didn't Mickey Mantle hit a thousand home runs? Why didn't John Kennedy cause world peace?
The way people once talked about all these figures at the beginning of their careers, you would figure that that all would have been possible. But making great things is really, really, really hard - and even if the talent is there, it depends on a hundred different circumstances. Mickey Mantle played his whole career with injuries and terrible pain and still managed to hit 535 home runs. Bernstein never got proper respect from the classical community either for his instantly accessible compositions or for his ability to take musicals to the next level, so he for all intents and purposes abandoned composition after 40 and became one of the great conductors to ever pick up a baton. Orson Welles never again got carte blanche to make any movie he wanted, so he hustled for the next forty years to make whatever movies he could make. Ralph Ellison felt such responsibility after his first novel to do justice to the black experience right that he spent the next forty years trying to make sure the next one was even better. Jack Kennedy? Well, you know.
When expectations are too high, the reality can't help but be disappointing, even if the reality is still really, really good. And that's the reality of Felix Mendelssohn - these days known unquestionably as one of history's great composers, but not the musical Shakespeare which people thought he would become when he was still a teenager. Why was Mendelssohn known as a potential musical Shakespeare? Well, for one thing, there's this tribute to the Midsummer Night's Dream he wrote when he was seventeen years old (Abbado - play first minute).
He raises the curtain with four bars as perfect as any ever written in music. Two flutes on the first note, joined by two clarinets on the second, then two bassoons and a horn, and then all the winds and brass together on the final chord that suddenly vanish to reveal strings who flurry about like Peasblossom, Cobweb, Moth, and Mustardseed. But just in case that's not enough to convince you what a genius Mendelssohn was, there's this passage in which Mendelssohn perfectly imitates the braying of a donkey (Maag).
A year before that, when Mendelssohn was sixteen, he had already written the Octet, the most number of musicians that Beethoven or Schubert ever used in their chamber music. A work of chamber music meant to show that he was ready to tackle something much grander than he had so far like a symphony. Frankly, it's better than any of Mendelssohn's symphonies, it's better than nearly every symphony ever written. Listen to its start, it's clearly meant to channel, or even challenge, Beethoven's Eroica. And it's a statement that Mendelssohn is ready to do it. (Academy/Brown) But if that doesn't sound Beethovenian enough, listen to this heroic passage at the end of the exposition, or this more tragic passage in the development.
Let's now go to a passage in Beethoven's Fifth for just one second. When Lenny said last week that Beethoven wasn't a great harmonist, he was either exaggerating or completely full of shit. This passage in the Fifth is one of the great harmonic moments in the history of music.
So many diminished chords in there, so much chromaticism. But sixteen year old Mendelssohn hears that, and realizes he can make it a multiple of times as long, twice as eerie, twice as dissonant, and resolve it in a manner that only a musician whose natural gifts may be even greater than Beethoven's ever could.
Can you believe that? Two more amazing things in this young Mendelssohn's repertoire. The slow movement is not particularly extraordinary - Mendelssohn always had a little trouble with slow movements though he wrote a few wonderful ones in his chamber music, but then he comes up with this scherzo, like a rough draft for the Midsummer Night's Dream overture, and if anything, still more magical. If the fairies in the Midsummer Night's Dream sound like they are entirely on the side of good, you're never quite sure whether these fairies mean well. This is much closer to Puck or Pan than to Peasblossom or Mustardseed. There's something that is just this side of sinister about this vision.
Mendelssohn had this ability which I'm not sure any composer had, except maybe Mozart, to create motion that moves so fast that it has the vividness of a visual texture. Perhaps it was a limitation that he fell back on, the kind of writing that makes it easier to generate momentum through too many notes, or makes Mendelssohn not quite sure what to do when he has to slow down and relax. But whatever it did to the rest of Mendelssohn's gift, it was, as people say these days, a 'next level' gift.
We're just going to listen to the first thirty seconds of the Octet. Let's recall that moment in Mozart's Jupiter Symphony when Mozart manages a few seconds of five voices doing five themes going on at once (COE/Harnoncourt). And now, for two seconds, the sixteen-year-old Mendelssohn creates the impression for a few seconds of eight voices going all at the same time. This is, maybe, the most virtuoso compositional feat since the last few pieces of Bach.
So what made Mendelssohn different from Mozart that at 16 he could write a work that combines the best of Beethoven's Symphonies with the best of Beethoven's chamber music? The answer is in some ways fairly simple. Mendelssohn was rich. But of course, being a Jew in Germany is never simple, and in order to do justice to it we have to put music aside for a moment.
Mendelssohn's grandfather was the philosopher Moses Mendelssohn, the founder of modern Judaism and thought such a great thinker in his own time that he was called 'The German Socrates.' Moses Mendelssohn rose to prominence by attacking German philosophers for ignoring each other's intellectual contributions in favor of foreign-born philosophy. His great contribution to philosophy was pro-religion, and therefore - and this is amazing for its time, pro-Judaism. Like philosophers a hundred years before him, Leibniz and Pascal, he used modern reason to argue for God's existence - he said that the fact that reason itself exists proves that reason is divine, and therefore that humanity is divine. He was born Moshe Mi'Dessau, and came to Berlin at an early age to be a Yeshiva student in a city which at the time was known by Jews for producing decidedly mediocre Torah scholars. But young Moses Mendelssohn did something no Torah student of the time was ever supposed to do, (gasp!) he read non-Jewish books. If he were caught, his teacher would have had him banned from Berlin.
Now, Berlin was, at the time, under the control of Frederick the Great - and great he certainly was. The entirety of the enlightenment, perhaps all modern progress, can perhaps be traced to his policies. The whole idea that the world should progress, that humanism is a worldview worth practicing, that by greater reliance on study and reason we can attain a kind of enlightenment, this existed in the Noble Classes at least since the Renaissance began in the 14th century. But it could never impact historical progress except among the aristocrats literate enough to suppress these ideas lest their subjects find out about them and get it into their heads that they deserve much more than anyone's ever given them. The only person who could enact such policies on a wide enough scale is a King, so the world's progress is at the mercy of the genetic lottery, a matter further complicated by the fact that all of Europe's royal families were inbred.
But in Frederick the Great, there was finally, 400 years after Renaissance ideas could be enacted, a king who was a philosopher of war and economics, an urban planner and an environmental conservationist, speaker of ten languages, one of history's greatest generals, a reasonably gifted playwright, musician, architect, and wit. The first King who not only valued education, learning, and tolerance in courtly life, but also enacted it as a general policy for common subjects.
Like all followers of the enlightenment in his generation, he took his cue from Voltaire, and because Voltaire despised religion, so did Frederick. A hundred years before Karl Marx, Frederick the Great wrote "Religion is the idol of the mob. It adores everything it does not understand." When you read Voltaire on so many issues, he seems so unbelievably progressive for his time, as though he's a contemporary of ours. And then you read what he has to say about Jews in his Universal History...:
It's doubtful that Voltaire ever met more than a few Jews in his lifetime. These accusations are a combination of medieval blood libels that hold Jews responsible for killing Christians, and, it must also be said, passages in the Old Testament, which we Jews call the Tanakh. The typical antisemitism of Christianity holds not only that Jews killed Christ, but that Jews cannot help but be inherently unmerciful and hateful because they have no more direction than that which they were instructed in by bitter old Yahweh in the Old Testament. By not hearing the Good News that is the arrival of Christ the Messiah, Jews are cut off from love and therefore everything that's hateful and contemptuous in human nature boiled down to one incarnation - in Jews you can see the reason which salvation is necessary. Ergo they must be persecuted appropriately lest their hatefulness contaminate others.
“We do not see on the contrary, in all annals of the Hebrew people, no generous action. They do not know nor hospitality, nor liberality, nor leniency. Their sovereign happiness is to exert wear (trade) with the foreigners; and this spirit of wear, principle of any cowardice, is so natural in their hearts, that it is the continual object of the figures that they employ in the species of eloquence which is proper for them. Their glory is to put at fire and blood the small villages they can seize. They cut the throat of the old men and the children; they hold only the girls nubiles; they assassinate their Masters when they are slaves; they can never forgive when they are victorious: they are enemy of the human mankind. No courtesy, no science, no art improved in any time, in this atrocious nation.”
That's traditional antisemitism. But the new antisemitism, the antisemitism of the Enlightenment, blames Jews not for rejecting Christianity, but for having created Christianity, having created monotheism, and having created all the brutality which Christians have visited upon the world for so many centuries, particularly, of course, upon Jews...
So in breezes 14 year old Moses Mendelssohn to Berlin, and while other Prussian intellectuals gain great fame during Frederick's forty-six year reign - Immanuel Kant in Konigsberg, Goethe in Weimar, it is Moses Mendelssohn who becomes the leading intellectual light of Berlin, the Prussian capital, and therefore establishes Berlin as the intellectual capital of the German-speaking lands. And yet, while Frederick the Great was friends with Voltaire and corresponded with Kant, he never allows Moses Mendelssohn into any room he's already in, and when the Prussian Academy of Sciences unanimously voted Mendelssohn a member, the membership only had to be ratified by Frederick the Great, and he never even so much as refused Mendelssohn membership, he simply ignored it. There wasn't a single intellectual who so consistently brought honor to Frederick the Great, but he was not just Jewish but proudly Jewish and used the philosophy Frederick the Great so valued to argue on behalf or religion, not against it.
Even if he was hated by the King, he was still the proverbial 'Court Jew' in all but name. he was the exception that proved the rule that no matter how beloved or valuable a Jew is to non-Jews, he was still a 'Jew', held up as an example like a noble savage that Jews could be civilized into being rational and tolerant and merciful - not like all those other horrible dirty Jews who are responsible for keeping humanity in darkness. Around 1770 he was publicly challenged by a man to prove Christianity wrong once and for all or convert, and this was a man who claimed to be an admirer! Never mind how Mendelssohn refuted this, but can you imagine the danger this might have put Mendelssohn in if clergy decided his response was offensive?
By the end of his life, Moses had turned his fame into some wealth, which his sons turned into great wealth. Abraham Mendelssohn became a banker, and after Moses died, the connection with Judaism became more and more isolating and tenuous. By the time Felix Mendelssohn was born, Abraham made the decision to convert and try to be fully German rather than Jewish.
Because the Mendelssohns were born Jewish, they would always be suspected of dual loyalties, so they had to be more German than the Germans. Not just rich but with the best possible educations, with the most morally upstanding lifestyles, and take up the richness of the German heritage as their own in a way Germans never did.
Mendelssohn was not just a great composer. In his spare time, such as he had any, he was a great visual artist, he was a voracious reader and very fine writer who wrote incredible volumes of correspondence, he was fluent in multiple languages, and of course he was a great pianist as well as composer.
As a child, he would apparently get up at five o'clock every day to master his many subjects and encounter the very best of thought and deed in every art form. His parents were friends with all the greatest German intellectuals, and from the earliest age Mendelssohn would get informal tutoring from the greatest intellectuals in Germany - Goethe, Hegel, Humboldt, to make sure he understood the developments in all their fields. Most crucially, his music teacher introduced him to Bach at a time when hardly anybody played Bach's music.
When Mendelssohn (like his older sister) showed early signs that he was a musical genius, Abraham Mendelssohn would do nothing so exploitative or vulgar as have his son play in public. Instead, he hired musicians to be Felix's personal string orchestra for which he would write twelve string symphonies.
Rather than play music according to whatever the fashions of public taste were that year, Mendelssohn's goal was to expose music lovers to the best music of every and all eras. When he was twenty, he gave his first public concert, and it was Bach's St. Matthew Passion. People were said to have wept, and Mendelssohn was careful to have admitted that it took a Jew's son to discover the greatest Christian music ever conceived.
The entire concept of classical music, concerts that honor the greatest music of the past, begins with Felix Mendelssohn, and in many ways he is more important as a conductor than a composer. When Liszt or Paganini gave concerts, it was like a sporting event. When Mendelssohn gave concerts, it was like going to church.
But compared to all the music Mendelssohn championed, Mendelssohn's own music was a little lightweight. And I don't think it's because he didn't have angst in his soul. Let's listen to a minute of Elijah, from the last years of his life, almost certainly Mendelssohn's masterpiece, and a piece of a completely different character than the kind of 19th century Mozartean music Mendelssohn was generally known for (McCreesh/Gabrieli Consort).
It almost sounds like it could be written by Wagner. I tend to think of Elijah as Mendelssohn's answer to Beethoven. Both Beethoven and Mendelssohn clearly loved humanity. But Beethoven was clearly a progressive, and the Ninth Symphony is a call to humanity to embrace each other. Elijah - and notice that Mendelssohn has returned not just to the Old Testament but one of the Old Testament's bloodiest prophets - is a call to to humanity to return to God. Mendelssohn clearly had rage in his soul, he worked and slaved for what he thought to be virtue, but everybody was following the vulgarities of his day - Liszt at the piano, Paganini at the violin, Meyerbeer and Donizetti in the opera house, revolutionaries like Bakunin in the streets, and antisemites like Voltaire in the drawing rooms.
Mendelssohn was particularly popular in England, Prince Albert and Queen Victoria were two of his closest friends, and Elijah premiered in Birmingham. He was obviously a conservative, but he was not a reactionary. Everywhere but England, the 1848 revolutions were looming. Everywhere, the ideas of democracy and populism was at their low points among the Middle Class, who were scared of losing everything even as it was their loafing student children manned the barricades. Like the middle class in every age, Mendelssohn valued stability. He may have been financially wealthy, but in the 19th century, no Jew's position was so secure that they weren't capable of losing everything.
A few years ago, a musicologist released a shocking and well-authenticated letter from Mendelssohn. This supposedly most well-adjusted and moral of composers was, in fact, not only probably cheating on his wife with Jenny Lind, the greatest soprano in Europe - who was also known for her moral rectitude, but threatening suicide if his mistress didn't run off with him. This letter was less than a year before he died. There is a 1% chance that Mendelssohn killed himself.
The chance that Mendelssohn killed himself, however, is no more than one percent and even one percent is seriously highballing it. It within the margin of error that Mendelssohn certainly died of a series of strokes, which are just as well documented. Mendelssohn's beloved older sister died of that problem just a half-year before he did, and his grandfather died of that about sixty years earlier. A combination of stress, overwork, and the same hyperactivity of mind and energy which produced that incredible work ethic, and perhaps also the frenetic quality of his music, is almost certainly what killed him.
Mendelssohn was in a tight bind. He not only had to be more excellent than everyone, he had to be more tasteful. He was an evangelist for Bach, for Mozart and Beethoven, even Schubert, but would he have been nearly so influential on classical music if he wrote the music that was truly in his heart? There's something about Mendelssohn that only seldom lived up to his early promise. The Octet is Mendelssohn's greatest symphony, it takes the best of Beethoven's symphonies and chamber music and combines it into one piece. It's the consolation we get for the fact that Mendelssohn never wrote a symphony as great as any of Beethoven's.
And I know, I know, everybody loves the Italian Symphony, and that's adorable. The Italian Symphony is truly great in its way, but be honest with yourselves. It's ultimately kind of light music, not really that far away from Rossini or Offenbach. It's perfectly delightful, but to take unserious music too seriously robs us of what makes unserious music fun. Even many of Haydn's greatest works have dark and sublime moments in it. But even the dark stuff in much of Mendelssohn isn't that dark.
Let's look at the Finale. The Finale is in the minor, but what kind of minor key is this? Mendelssohn wrote to his sister that this symphony is the jolliest thing he'd ever wrote, especially the finale. He also wrote about the impression which a woman who danced with a tambourine made on him, and with that information, listen to the first very little bit of the Italian Symphony's last movement.
This is a tambourine rhythm, over and over again. It's not supposed to be sad, it's supposed to be sexy, perhaps a forbidden, almost gypsy kind of eroticism. Or take the famous theme in the first movement. It's a tarantella.
Or take this moment from the coda of the first movement of the Scottish Symphony. For what it is, it's a wonderful storm scene though it can't hold a candle to the violence of Beethoven's or Wagner's storms. It's the midst and fog on the Scottish terrain, followed by the gathering of a storm picks up wind.
There was something about Mendelssohn that clearly responded to nature. We see it again and again in many of the overtures - Hebrides, Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage, The Fair Melusine, Die Erste Walpurgisnacht almost all of which are better than the Symphonies. It's almost as though nature was the only place where Mendelssohn could allow himself a place to express anything like his true turmoil.
But then, you have the Reformation Symphony. Many people say that the Reformation Symphony is not as good as the Italian. I will go to bat for it and say that it's quite a bit better - the problem is that most performances of it suck. To do justice to the first movement, you need rage in your heart, and the conductor needs to be a flawless technician to make clarity of the many lines in the last movement.
In three weeks, it'll be the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. Mendelssohn wrote the Reformation Symphony for the 300th anniversary of the Augsburg Confession, which the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, which was a document Luther wrote articulating the religious, and therefore political, views of the newfangled Protestants.
Let's remember who Martin Luther was. In addition to being the most influential man in German history up to Hitler, he was also the most influential antisemite until Hitler. His last four sermons were devoted to the evil Jews. Here's some of what he had to say about them (call on reader):
They are our public enemies. They do not stop blaspheming our Lord Christ, calling the Virgin Mary a whore, Christ, a bastard, and us changelings or abortions (Mahlkälber: "meal calves"o). If they could kill us all, they would gladly do it. They do it often, especially those who pose as physicians—though sometimes they help—for the devil helps to finish it in the end. They can also practice medicine as in French Switzerland. They administer poison to someone from which he could die in an hour, a month, a year, ten or twenty years. They are able to practice this artHere's another charming quote that articulates Hitler's argument about blood 400 years before Hitler:
We want to deal with them in a Christian manner now. Offer them the Christian faith that they would accept the Messiah, who is even their cousin and has been born of their flesh and blood; and is rightly Abraham’s Seed, of which they boast. Even so, I am concerned [that] Jewish blood may no longer become watery and wild.
Think of the Reformation Symphony like this. Who is the American composer whom everybody says articulates the spirit of middle and rural America better than any other American composer? (wait for Copland). Yes, Aaron Copland, and Aaron Copland was a son of immigrants, from Brooklyn, Jewish, gay, and communist. Who is the composer people say expresses the spirit of England better than any other composer (wait for Elgar). Edward Elgar! But think of the name Elgar, (French pronunciation), Elgar, Elgar was descended from French Catholics.
There is something about the outsider who sees into the insides better than the insider ever can. Short of Bach, there aren't any composers who articulated the Lutheran spirit better than Mendelssohn does here. It's the longing to belong, the mixture of belief and hope for acceptance in a new country, and the anxiety that you won't be accepted.
So let's see what Mendelssohn does (play introduction, Maazel/Berlin). What does this music mean? You hear those three notes, passed again and again from voice to voice. Then what unquestionably sounds like an organ. This may be a romantic tone painting of Bach, but it's still very Bach-like, and no music symbolizes Lutheranism like Bach does. (1:30) The Kantor calls out 'Lord Have Mercy', the congregation responds 'Lord Have Mercy.'
Then comes what is called the Dresden Amen, supposedly how churches in Saxony have sung Amen for hundreds of years. You hear it in Mendelssohn's Reformation Symphony, and you hear it in Wagner's Parsifal.
When it comes time to talk about Mahler, we'll talk about Wagner plenty. Because Wagner was a proponent of a still newer form of antisemitism that was originated in many ways in response to Mendelssohn. But that's getting ahead of ourselves.
In the meantime, we are plunged into a religious fantasy. And that frenetic musical tapestry that the teenage Mendelssohn portrays as the flight of fairies, the adult Mendelssohn uses to evoke something that sounds like the flickering flames of hellfire.
So now let's go back to Beethoven for a moment. Remember that pizzicato passage in the 5th symphony right before the surprise buildup of the last movement? Let's listen to it again. (Kleiber/Vienna)
And remember that passage in the Eroica which sounds like a cry of despair? (Karajan/Berlin '84)
Mendelssohn seems to make a hybrid of the two, and creates something that sounds like we're traveling through hell like Dante and Virgil, only to arrive at a place where we can hear the screams of the damned. (Gardiner/BRSO)
In a bad performance, this moment never registers. In a good performance, it's terrifying, sublime stuff. And then comes the homily, the moment when the stakes of salvation and perdition are hit home to the parishioner and you realize the full existential dread which believers must have felt for millennia. (Fey/Heidelberg) And then, back to the Dresden Amen.
The second movement is not particularly special, another country dance. But then, something incredibly weird happens. Mendelssohn gives a melody which is unquestionably not of an intonation that sounds Christian, I'll leave it to your imaginations to figure out what could be intoned here. (Bernstein/Israel Philharmonic)
To me, if no one else, this is the sadness of the Jewish lot in life. To follow that comes a moment which, depending on your point of view, might be a supreme act of triumph, or a supreme act of self-loathing.
Martin Luther was also a musician, he knew that in order to create a body of believers, the best way he could make them feel the Holy Spirit was to sing. And this is Luther's most famous melody. 'A Mighty Fortress is Our God.' (shudder). But just like in A Midsummer Night's Dream, we hear the harmonies gradually accumulate in depth and richness.
Perhaps the Jews have now heard the Good News. But Mendelssohn, to hit the point home, appropriates yet another Bach Fugue, this one for solo violin (Szeryng). And here's Mendelssohn's version.
Next comes a little trick that Bach would always pull in which he would sound two chorales together at the same time - something that no doubt awed Lutheran audiences at the time. One fast moving, another much much slower as what we call a cantus firmus, never mind what that is. The most famous example of it is in a giant orchestra/chorus setting in the opening movement of the St. Matthew Passion, of which Mendelssohn of course knew every note. But here's a simpler example of what that's like, just for Organ. (Wachet auf, Koopman)
All this is why, I submit to you, the Reformation Symphony is easily Mendelssohn's greatest official and adult symphony. After the break, we'll try to talk about one of the other two great composers of the German middle class who perhaps achieved a little more as a composer than Mendelssohn, but lost even more of his personal life to it than Mendelssohn did.