Which Is the Real Mendelssohn?

A Portrait of Mendelssohn

by Clive Brown
Yale University Press, 551 pp., $45.00

In his preface to the English translation of Jirí Weil’s novel about Czechoslovakia under the Nazis, Philip Roth sums up the book’s first chapter:

An SS man has orders to remove the statue of the Jewish composer Mendelssohn from among the statues of musicians that ornament the roof of the Prague Academy of Music. Since he does not know which one is Mendelssohn, he decides to take down the one with the biggest nose. This turns out to be the statue of Wagner. The novel proceeds from there.

As Weil’s book turns to the tragic fate of the Czech Jews, his larger themes emerge. They provoke wider thoughts. Did Weil know that, in fact, in 1936 the Nazis demolished a statue of Mendelssohn that since 1892 had stood in front of the famous Gewandhaus in Leipzig, the venerable concert hall where Mendelssohn had been the conductor between 1835 and 1847? Perhaps for Weil’s purposes it hardly matters, but in current music history and criticism, Mendelssohn’s position in the pantheon is often questioned, for reasons that have nothing to do with ideology, while Wagner’s, no matter how detestable his character and politics, remains firm. Despite Wagner’s repulsive personal qualities and notorious anti-Semitism, no one doubts his creative genius and his powerful influence on the world of music after his time. Do both composers belong on the roof of the Prague Academy? Two biographies of Mendelssohn, one by R. Larry Todd and the other by Clive Brown, raise this and a number of related questions.

To most music lovers Mendelssohn ranks as one of the most remarkable prodigies in the history of music, a teenage genius who went on to fulfill a grand and successful career as a composer of instrumental and vocal music largely conceived along traditional lines. His works for orchestra and chamber ensembles intermingle high Romantic sensibility and fineness of touch with reverence for the formal schemes that he inherited primarily from Beethoven and Mozart. Admired as the leading German composer of the 1830s and 1840s, Mendelssohn also conquered early Victorian England, making many visits there and becoming a personal favorite of Queen Victoria. By the later part of the century he was the virtual patron saint of English music, and his last and greatest oratorio, Elijah, composed for the Birmingham Festival in 1846, had become a staple of English choral literature.

A few basic questions dominate the literature about Mendelssohn. The first, and to my mind the largest, is: What is his importance as a composer and how should we appraise his entire work, which has been interpreted in radically different ways for more than 150 years? The only music by him that commands universal admiration today consists of a cluster of brilliant early compositions, including the Octet for Strings that he wrote in 1825 at age sixteen, the Midsummer Night’s Dream Overture written a year later, and the Ossianic Hebrides Overture, the evocative tone poem of 1830 …

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