Felix Mendelssohn, for all his amazing versatility, is now remembered by a tiny handful of his works, themselves not always representative. But there is now no excuse for neglecting so many of the masterworks of a composer who was central to the art of his epoch.
Mendelssohn: The Caged Spirit: A New Approach to the Composer and His Family by Mary Allerton-North (692 pages, Prestige Press, 2008)
Mendelssohn: His Life and Music by Neil Wenborn (248 pages, Naxos Books, 2008)
Amid the neo-Stalinist personality cult of Darwin’s bicentennial jollifications, it is all too easy to forget various anniversaries of those individuals who, by contrast, actually benefited mankind. Such as Mendelssohn—Jakob Ludwig Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, to be exact—who was born exactly two centuries ago last February 3rd, and who ranks as the greatest musical prodigy of all time. Yes, greater than Mozart: for nothing in Mozart’s early output is as quintessentially awe-inspiring as the Octet and the Midsummer Night’s Dream Overture, both written when Mendelssohn had reached the ripe old age of sixteen. (This observation, a musicological cliché, is no less true for being a cliché.) No wonder that when the pianist-composer Ignaz Moscheles—himself no slouch—became Mendelssohn’s teacher, he soon admitted that he had no more instruction left to supply. Where Moscheles led, fellow professionals over the next hundred years followed. Sibelius considered Mendelssohn one of the two finest orchestrators who ever lived; Ferruccio Busoni hailed Mendelssohn’s “undisputed greatness”; while Schumann called Mendelssohn “the Mozart of the nineteenth century, the most brilliant musician, who looks most clearly through the contradictions of the present, and who for the first time reconciles them.” If the two Mendelssohn biographies under review—both of which were issued in 2008, as preludial responses to the bicentenary—had managed nothing else except to remind us of Mendelssohn’s centrality to the art of his epoch, they would still be most valuable. In fact, both manage far more.
Both demonstrate, above all, how singularly captious posterity has been in branding Mendelssohn (who lived only to the age of thirty-eight) as an underachiever in adulthood: a real-life equivalent of Tom Wolfe’s fictional protagonist, “The Man Who Peaked Too Soon.” Neil Wenborn, whose study is the shorter and more approachable of the two, laments the standard misrepresentation of Mendelssohn “as a sort of Orson Welles of music, living his creative life in reverse, the Octet and the overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream his Citizen Kane, the ubiquitous Songs Without Words his sherry advertisements.” But this willful distortion of Mendelssohn’s mature significance—a distortion emerging from no more licit motive than simple public unawareness concerning most of his later works—is merely one aspect of a wider belittlement: namely, a pathological aversion toward all things “Victorian” and a particular hostility to any great artist who behaved like a gentleman instead of like a scoundrel.
Typical of what passed for serious Mendelssohn scholarship (before the efforts of researchers like America’s R. Larry Todd and Britain’s Peter Mercer-Taylor cleared the air) were the efforts of the late George R. Marek. Having earlier established his scholarly credentials by producing the world’s worst books on Puccini and Richard Strauss, Marek maintained this lofty standard by producing the world’s worst book on Mendelssohn: Gentle Genius, an object lesson in patronizing, sophomoric disparagement. Insisting that Mendelssohn’s oeuvre “smells of eau de Cologne,” Marek went on:
Mendelssohn could have written anything he chose and got away with it, so unshakable was his reputation . . . . His music was elevated far too highly. Listeners perceived profound meanings that were not there. Later, however, he was toppled from his high rock; his melodies, fluttering nonchalantly in the breeze, were harmless enough to be heard by the senior class at St. Timothy’s Finishing School, without upsetting the emotional equilibrium of its pupils.
French music critic Emile Vuillermoz, in an earlier generation, ineptly and ignorantly maintained (in a passage that both Wenborn and his rival Mary Allerton-North cite with commendable impatience): “Since contented nations and contented men have no history, one should on principle abandon the idea of writing a life of Mendelssohn.” It is against such slovenly contempt as Vuillermoz’s and Marek’s that Wenborn and Allerton-North have set their faces. Allerton-North has furnished, with an industriousness demanding firm applause, the Mendelssohnian’s bible: almost 700 pages, many of them filled with primary source material that will have been unknown to most readers and even to most Mendelssohn experts.
One phenomenon that Allerton-North and Wenborn stress is the unenviable position of Felix’s father, Abraham Mendelssohn, himself the son of philosopher Moses Mendelssohn. “Once I was merely the son of my father, now I am merely the father of my son,” Abraham ruefully admitted after Felix’s breathtaking skills became manifest. (Since the popular image of Abraham is that of an unbending and sanctimonious patriarch, it is a relief to discover his devotion to the eminently humane vice of smuggling, in order to defy Napoleon’s Continental blockade.) No parent of a child prodigy ever goes unpunished. If he publicizes his offspring, as did Leopold Mozart, he is denounced for exploitation; if he does the opposite, as did Abraham, he can expect similarly sharp rebukes for apparent indifference to family honor. Moscheles, though not seeking to blame anyone, marveled in his diary at the caution that marked Felix’s parents: “They are anxious about Felix’s future, and to know whether his gift will prove sufficient to lead to a noble and truly great career. Will he not, like so many other brilliant children, suddenly collapse? I asserted my conscientious conviction that Felix would ultimately become a great master . . . but again and again I had to insist on my opinion, before they believed me.”
Of course, Moscheles was right, and Abraham and Lea Mendelssohn wrong— as became increasingly evident in Felix’s adolescence. There seemed to be literally no compositional difficulty that the young Mendelssohn could not surmount, as even those listeners most hostile to pure exalted craftsmanship unavoidably—however reluctantly—admit. (What he carried out can be appreciated with particular thoroughness via Wenborn’s volume, the publisher of which has helpfully supplied two free CDs containing extracts from many of the items discussed. Other imprints, please copy.) The one severe musical disappointment Mendelssohn experienced was his failure to write a successful opera, but this failure had nothing to do with any lack of enthusiasm or diligence. Altogether he considered no fewer than fifty possible subjects for operatic treatment, and many of his other inspirations indicate how keen a dramatic sense he commanded. His late oratorio Elijah, despite its concert-hall origins, has been—as Allerton-North notes—given occasionally on stage to good effect, one such performance occurring as recently as the 1950s. If granted better health, he would doubtless have finished his projected opera Die Lorelei, which survives only in the form of perpetually tantalizing fragments.
The problem with being a world-beater is that all non-world-beaters are apt to inspire vexation: not least when one is inculcated, as Mendelssohn had been almost from birth, with an often overpowering sense of responsibility. This sense he combined with a passionate allegiance to what he regarded as Germany’s civilizing role. In the Europe of our own day, where even the mildest acknowledgment of national boundaries is apt to involve being hauled before Eurocrats for “hate speech,” Mendelssohn’s defiant pride in his Teutonic ethos will make for peculiar reading. “Never,” he told his father after visiting Stuttgart, Heidelberg, Frankfurt, and DÜsseldorf, “did I feel so clearly that I am a German at heart and must always remain one.”
Like most dutiful men of stupendous artistic endowment, Mendelssohn had rather more toleration for honest incompetence than for clever tawdriness, but not much toleration for either. His French and Italian journeys amounted to little more than a chronicle of successive, and trenchantly expressed, musical abhorrences. He described Rossini as “the great Maestro Windbag.” Berlioz’s instrumentation he found “so disgustingly filthy that one needs a wash after merely handling one of his scores.” Liszt’s pianism he summed up as possessing “many fingers, but little brains.” He condemned the operas (smash-hits at the time) of Giacomo Meyerbeer as “frigid and heartless.” (Sooner than run the risk of being mistaken for Meyerbeer while in Paris, Mendelssohn had his hair cut short.) Another once-venerated composer, Luigi Cherubini, appeared to Mendelssohn nothing more than a volcano that “occasionally spews forth, but is covered with ashes and stones.” These verdicts he confined to intimates; but he sometimes displayed a terrifying temper in public also, and it is painful to contemplate how much energy he needed to waste on the ego-stroking busywork of musical administration— for which he had little, if any, natural aptitude—when he should have been creating more masterpieces.
Inevitably Mendelssohn antagonized some who, unlike the indulgent Rossini et al., paid him back in kind. Wagner, only four years Mendelssohn’s junior, came to know him quite well, and at first revered him (“I am proud to belong to the nation that produced you”); but one of Mendelssohn’s few failures as a conductor occurred in 1846, when he directed—and seems to have made a hash of—Wagner’s Tannhäuser overture. Composers as thin-skinned and self-regarding as Wagner never overlook substandard renditions of their pieces, and Wagner recoiled against Mendelssohn, singling him out for contumely in his notorious pamphlet Judaism in Music, which characteristically sought to promote personal grievances as a grand metaphysical dogma. “There are few parallels,” writes Wenborn, “for the ugly line of historical causation that runs directly from Wagner’s Über das Judentum in 1850 to Mendelssohn’s extirpation from the German canon by Hitler’s aesthetic commissars in the 1930s.” Well, yes and no; mostly no. Wagner published his pamphlet under a pseudonym; extremely few of even his well-wishers, when he revealed his identity, regarded the pamphlet as anything except a fatuous indiscretion; Wagner advocated Jewish assimilation (albeit of an unpleasantly forceful kind) rather than Jewish extermination, which was one obvious difference between his outlook and Nazism; and to the end of his days Wagner took more enjoyment in Mendelssohn’s actual music than his principles would have allowed him to concede. In Parsifal he alluded to one of the most haunting ideas in Mendelssohn’s Reformation Symphony—an idea that Mendelssohn himself derived from a long-forgotten eighteenth-century composer, Johann Naumann—while in Das Rheingold‘s opening measures Wagner echoed, perhaps unconsciously, the string figurations of Mendelssohn’s concert overture The Fair Melusine.
Mendelssohn had been baptized in his seventh year (his acquisition of the extra surname Bartholdy dates from this event). His correspondence includes the very occasional Yiddish phrase, such as eppes rares, which means “something rare.” But too much recent commentary on Mendelssohn’s Jewish roots springs from an anachronistic attempt to impose on him late-twentieth-century notions of identity politics and ethnic victimhood. Mendelssohn zealously practiced Lutheranism throughout his teens and his adult life. Over-zealously for the fastidious taste of Heinrich Heine, who complained: “I feel malice towards the man. Because he pretends [sic] towards Christianity, I cannot forgive him.” Allerton-North goes on to quote from Heine a lavatorial reference to Jesus that is best omitted here. Mendelssohn would have found utterly insufferable (had he lived long enough to learn of it, which he did not) the sheer presumption of Heine’s deathbed boast: “Dieu me pardonnera. C’est son métier.“
Far more influential than either Heine’s sniping or Wagner’s diatribe—at least in the English-speaking world—were Bernard Shaw’s obsessive scoffs in the 1880s and 1890s at what he called Mendelssohn’s “kid-glove gentility, his conventional sentimentality, and his despicable oratoriomongering.” Like so much of Shaw, this assessment arose less from conviction than from a rather juvenile desire to voice the most shocking idea he could think of; and since Shaw never lost his youthful flair for couching preposterous idiocies in unforgettable prose, his censures were eagerly echoed by authors of far less talent.
The result has been that Mendelssohn, for all his amazing versatility, is now remembered by a tiny handful of his works, themselves not always representative. His Hark, The Herald Angels Sing and the Midsummer Night’s Dream Wedding March constitute, as Wenborn puts it, “the soundtrack to the happiest moments of millions of lives”; all competent violinists take up, sooner or later, his Violin Concerto, just as all competent chamber-music groups take up his Piano Trio No. 1 in D Minor; his six sonatas are cherished additions to the organ’s very limited early-nineteenth-century repertoire; Elijah and, to a lesser extent, Saint Paul still figure on choral societies’ programs; but much of the rest is silence. In particular, pitifully few modern pianists bother with Mendelssohn’s numerous solos for the instrument. It could be argued that these works’ fundamental intimacy makes them better suited to a salon seating dozens than to a Carnegie-Hall-type auditorium seating hundreds or thousands, but this sounds much more like an alibi than a reason. The truth is that with a Mendelssohn (as with a Haydn) piano solo, the “wow” factor hardly exists. Such music is at once too difficult to attract the average fumbling amateur and too easy to attract the average jaded barnstormer. Liszt’s contributions to the piano literature have a certain panache ensuring that even under the stupidest executant’s fingers, they will make their impact. Mendelssohn’s must be played perfectly or not at all; and even (or especially) a perfect account will never provoke cheering from the gallery, which cheering, after all, is the average virtuoso pianist’s sole raison d’être.
For neglecting such material, and the hundreds of other Mendelssohn creations now mostly gathering dust on library shelves, there is now no excuse: Allerton-North and Wenborn, in their differing ways, will permit none. It would defy a reincarnated Heine himself to read either biography and not have his comprehension of Mendelssohn’s spirit enriched, his musical appetite whetted, his admiration for the composer’s fundamental decency enlarged. Both authors deserve our thanks for the understanding they reveal of the man whom New Yorker journalist Alex Ross recently, and rightly, called “the youngest master.”
Playlist of works mentioned in this essay (Spotify subscription required):
Republished with gracious permission from Modern Age (Fall 2009).
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The featured image is a portrait of Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy (1847) by Wilhelm Hensel, and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.