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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.1

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?2 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 that he composed after his trip to Scotland in 1829. To this list even many skeptics would add as permanent classics his other concert overtures, Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage and The Fair Melusine; the Italian and Scottish symphonies, perhaps the Reformation Symphony; certainly the Violin Concerto, the string quartets, the piano trios, and Elijah. He also wrote a vast number of other instrumental and vocal works, some of which, such as the secular cantata Die erste Walpurgisnacht (based on a Goethe ballad of 1799), deserve much wider recognition than they have had.

Second, how should we interpret his religious affiliation as a converted Jew? Felix Mendelssohn was born into a prominent and highly cultivated German-Jewish family. His grandfather, Moses Mendelssohn (1729–1786), was the most famous Jewish philosopher of the eighteenth century, a celebrated writer, friend of Lessing, and defender of religious tolerance. Moses’s son and Felix’s father, Abraham Mendelssohn (1776–1835), a rich Berlin banker with high cultural and social ambitions, joined the trend to conversion that was rising in Germany at the time. In 1816 Abraham saw to it that four of his six children, including the seven-year-old Felix and his younger sister Fanny (herself a brilliant pianist and composer), were baptized in the Jerusalemskirche in Berlin. At this time the surname “Bartholdy” was added to their names, following the practice begun by Felix’s maternal uncle, Jacob Salomon Bartholdy.3 In 1822 Abraham and Lea Mendelssohn also converted to Christianity and added “Bartholdy,” but, as Todd notes, they did it in secret, which indicates some of the emotional contradictions many German Jews felt about their status as “new Christians.”

Felix kept the byname “Bartholdy” all his life; when English reviewers referred to him simply as “Felix Mendelssohn” his anxious father took him to task, thinking he was omitting it deliberately and telling him that “a Christian Mendelssohn is as impossible as a Jewish Confucius.”4 Still, Felix remained fully aware of his famous Jewish grandfather, and in his later years took pride in helping to publish a collected edition of Moses Mendelssohn’s writings.

Over the years Felix went on to write a considerable amount of Protestant religious music, including psalm settings, chorale cantatas, other choral works, and two major oratorios—St. Paul (1836) and Elijah. What was the relative importance of Judaism and Christianity for him as a man in society and as an artist? And how did his status as an assimilated Jew affect his artistic development? In quite different ways both of the books under review have something to say about these matters.

Clive Brown’s biography is a fairly bland account of Mendelssohn’s life and of his works, in which he usefully includes a number of biographical documents. On religious issues he offers a summary of the accepted facts; he deals with the works mainly by quotations and summaries from critical writings that range from Mendelssohn’s lifetime to the present, without saying much by way of independent critical commentary. He reproduces entire articles from music journals such as the Berliner Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung, including the mixed reviews of Mendelssohn’s early work that tended to emphasize the composer’s youth. For example, one reviewer writes of his C Minor Symphony—which Mendelssohn composed at fifteen—that

the spirit that animates the whole…speaks unmistakably of that youthful power that also captures hearts by its robust health and plenitude of bubbling life, even if it often roams quickly from one to the other with a lack of restraint natural to youth….

Some of the material from earlier writers sheds light on Mendelssohn’s reputation among his contemporaries and afterward. Brown writes, for instance, that

one of the most striking and individual contemporary appraisals of Mendelssohn’s position as a composer was published in the Wiener Allgemeine Musik-Zeitung in 1845; it takes the form of a comparison between Mendelssohn and Berlioz. Although the article was ostensibly about Berlioz, the author, Alfred Julius Becher, who knew and admired both composers, seems to have felt that Berlioz’s importance entitled him to be measured against the musician whom he evidently believed to be the leading composer of the day.

Brown quotes the article at some length and concludes that Becher

does not seem to have regarded Mendelssohn’s classic restraint and technical polish as evidence of a fettered imagination, and therefore as a weakness.

Such appraisals are a useful counter-weight to Wagner’s attack on Mendelssohn in his essay “Judaism in Music,” which first appeared in 1850, just three years after Mendelssohn’s death, and set the pattern for some of the negative criticism of later times.5

Todd’s book is a much more substantial and broadly conceived survey, in which the biographical and critical are intertwined from beginning to end. It is written with the assurance that is possible for a scholar who has steeped himself for years in his subject, and it seems likely to be the standard biography for a long time to come. Todd has written or edited a shelf of studies on many aspects of Mendelssohn, and in this book his experience tells. One of its special strengths is its detailed account of Mendelssohn’s social and family background, including the family trees of his parents, Abraham Mendelssohn and his wife, Lea Salomon Mendelssohn, granddaughter of Daniel Itzig, who had been court banker to Frederick the Great.

Along with giving a detailed portrait of Mendelssohn’s musical and cultural background, his early years, and his later life, Todd describes the anti-Semitism that led many Jews to conversion during these years. As Jews, he writes, they were denied citizenship, and “professional options for Jewish subjects were then severely limited.” Todd also notes that “the proselytizing zeal of Christians” was partly responsible for rising rates of conversion, and that “for well-to-do Jewish women, conversion offered a means of escaping failed marriages and forging new alliances with Prussian noblemen.”

He maintains a steady balance when he discusses Mendelssohn’s religious allegiance, a subject that has aroused considerable controversy in recent years in writings by Jeffrey Sposato, Leon Botstein, and Michael P. Steinberg. Whether one sees Mendelssohn as one of the great composers or as “only” a supremely gifted but uneven one, his fate, as a converted Jewish artist who lived through the periods of fierce anti-Semitism during the early nineteenth century, demands our attention. We feel this not only because of who he was, but because of the monstrous consequences of German anti-Semitism in the following century.

Recent disagreements about Mendelssohn’s religious identity, which have intensified since 1998, have to be seen against the background of the main scholarly contributions since World War II, first, in 1963 by Eric Werner (1901–1988), a Jewish musicologist of Austrian background, who escaped the Nazis and taught for many years at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati and later at Tel Aviv University. Werner’s main subject was Jewish and Christian early music, and his ambitious book The Sacred Bridge (1959) combined wide historical knowledge with sweeping claims for which little hard evidence was to be found.6

Similar reactions have recently emerged regarding Werner’s Mendelssohn biography, which claimed to present a “new image” of the composer.7 In a penetrating article on Mendelssohn’s problems of Jewish and Christian identity, Jeffrey Sposato exposed serious deficiencies in Werner’s book, showing more than a few instances in which Werner mis-transcribed or misinterpreted documents bearing on Mendelssohn’s Jewish self-awareness.8 Moreover, accord- ing to Sposato, he did so in ways that tended to reinforce Werner’s belief that, despite Mendelssohn’s commitment to Christianity, he “retained a deep-seated feeling for the fate of Jewry, which was much more positive than that of his father,” and that he had “a strong solidarity wherever Jews as individuals were concerned.”9

One such document concerns the ten-year-old Mendelssohn and the German anti-Semitic riots of 1819 (also known as the Judensturm), which began in Würzburg and spread across Germany, lasting more than two months.10 The riots were incited, Todd writes, by an “inflammatory pamphlet of the Berlin historian Friedrich Rühs that argued against Jewish citizenship unless accompanied by conversion to Christianity.” According to a contemporary, Karl Varnhagen von Ense, during these riots in an unnamed German town,

with the wild yell of “Hep, hep!” individuals were assaulted…, their homes attacked and partly plundered, and abuse and violence of all kinds used on them…. One royal prince jovially shouted “Hep, hep!” after the boy Felix Mendelssohn in the street.

And Varnhagen continues, “Not all of this was done with malicious intent, and some of those who shouted like that would, if necessary, have come to the Jews’ assistance if things had gone any further.”11 Werner’s version had the royal prince spitting at Mendelssohn and exclaiming “Hep hep, Jew-boy!”12 but he gave no evidence for his account and omitted any reference to Varnhagen’s essay, which softened the description to include teasing. By itself this overstatement might pass, but Sposato catches other, similar errors in the book.

Beyond his critique of Werner, Sposato goes on to claim that Mendelssohn, far from holding firmly to his Jewish roots, sincerely embraced Protestantism and “tried to distance himself from his heritage as much as possible.”13 He finds support for this view not only in letters but in Mendelssohn’s treatment of the Jews in the librettos of his choral works Moses, St. Paul, Elijah, and Christus (an unfinished oratorio on the birth and Passion of Christ). Thus St. Paul “is filled with common nineteenth-century stereotypes of the Jews as a ‘stiff-necked’ people dedicated to the word, rather than the spirit, of the law.” Sposato argues, and Todd agrees, that for St. Paul Mendelssohn rejected less anti-Semitic texts than the ones he finally chose. A further important point for Sposato is that after the death of his father in November 1835, Mendelssohn found ways to moderate the anti-Jewish content of the text, and that in Elijah he organized the text so as to achieve a “dual perspective,” in which the Jews could be perceived more sympathetically, thus working toward a reconciliation of Mendelssohn’s Christian faith with his Jewish heritage.14

Opposing Sposato’s conclusions, while accepting his strictures about Werner’s use of evidence, are Leon Botstein and Michael P. Steinberg. Both defended Werner’s larger purposes and viewpoint, while admitting the serious flaws in his treatment of evidence. Werner’s main aim in fashioning his “new image,” says Botstein, was to rescue Mendelssohn’s reputation from the margins of Romantic music, to which it had been relegated by critics from Wagner to Shaw, not to mention the onslaught carried out by German ideologues between 1933 and 1945. As Botstein sees it, Werner was fighting against layers of accumulated prejudice toward Mendelssohn, and he compares Werner’s passionate defense of Mendelssohn’s Jewishness to the work of other Jewish émigré scholars who had to “struggle to establish livelihoods and careers in a strange new world.”15

Looking at the issues from the wider perspective of cultural history, Steinberg argues for a more nuanced view of Mendelssohn’s religious identity:

The assertion that Mendelssohn should be considered a Protestant rather than Jew simply replaces one conceptually and historically inadequate label with another and thus duplicates Werner’s conceptual and historical limitations, even if it restores the veracity of the source material.

As Steinberg also shrewdly notes, “As…with most scholarly controversies, there is trouble both at the level of the facts and at the level of interpretation.”16 He is surely right. Sposato draws persuasively from letters, documents, and oratorio libretti to show that Mendelssohn’s strong devotion to his father—the prime mover behind his son’s self-identification as a Christian—helped him to distance himself from his Jewish roots and write religious works that would be fully acceptable to predominantly Protestant audiences. Botstein, accepting the view that Mendelssohn’s conversion was sincere, argues nevertheless that the choral works and other evidence show that

Mendelssohn’s personal construct of Protestant Christianity was designed to fit a crucial criterion—that it be the modern moral equivalent and logical historical outcome of Judaism.17

As Steinberg suggests, the strongest feature of Mendelssohn’s religious outlook is its dualism. From early boyhood on, Mendelssohn was a faithful Christian, a true believer, but he also knew all his life that he was a Jew. When he and his friend the actor Eduard Devrient joined forces to put on the famous revival of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, in 1829, he remarked ironically to Devrient that it took “an actor and a Jew-boy” to “bring back to the people the greatest Christian music.” No matter how sincere Mendelssohn’s acceptance of Protestantism and his fervor in building Christian thought and feeling into his sacred music, he must also have known that the world would see him as a Jew. And it did. When Queen Victoria met him for the first time, on June 16, 1842, she wrote in her journal: “He is short, dark, & Jewish looking—delicate—with a fine intellectual forehead….” He lived with the paradox of being both Jew and Christian, withstood the tension that sprang from his dual identity, and found ways to reflect that tension in his works. All of which was made the more poignant by his father’s insistence that he put his Jewish identity behind him, a demand that he could only meet in part.

Todd carefully discusses many different phases of Mendelssohn’s music. The early works show an integration of form, content, and expression that the later Mendelssohn could never surpass. The Octet of 1825 is without any precedent in the canon for its richness of string sonorities and its beauty of conception from start to finish. Somehow the sixteen-year-old had mastered the expanded formal procedures of middle-period Beethoven. His A-minor Quartet, Opus 13, of 1827, which is often recognized for its indebtedness to late Beethoven—above all Beethoven’s Quartet in A Minor, Op. 132—is equally and unmistakably in Mendelssohn’s own voice.18 And the Midsummer Night’s Dream Overture is as brilliant and original an orchestral realization of a poetic subject as has ever been conceived, from the evocative wind chords of its opening to the finely balanced thematic contrasts with which it continues, develops, and, as Todd notes, ends, with the equivalent of Puck’s epilogue.

As for the familiar complaint that in many later works Mendelssohn succumbed to routine phrase-spinning and dreary patchwork, I think it is generally overstated. It will come as a surprise to most people that the rest of the incidental music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream was written in 1843, seventeen years after the Overture and four years before Mendelssohn’s death. The Scherzo, the Nocturne, and the famous Wedding March are only the most familiar of the thirteen numbers that he then wrote to match the Overture, and the series forms a perfect musical web. While we can be bored by many of the later salon pieces, by Songs Without Words, and by later piano pieces, as well as by the more tedious products in various other genres, we should remember the power of the later string quartets, especially the F Minor Quartet, Op. 80; the Piano Trios in D minor and C minor; the Violin Concerto (written in 1844!), and Elijah. We have to remember that Mendelssohn, like Mozart, crowded an enormous amount of work into a creative life of little more than twenty-five years, from about age twelve to his death at thirty-eight. The American scholar Greg Vitercik, who is hardly an admirer of the later Mendelssohn, nevertheless cites a wise remark by the musicologist Donald Tovey:

Gluck, Handel, Haydn, Wagner, and Verdi—none of these would have been particularly great names to us if we possessed only the works they had written before they reached the age at which Mendelssohn died.19

If his oratorios reveal the two sides of his religious identity, as Sposato shows, they also present another dimension, namely his devotion to Bach and Handel, now expressed in Mendelssohn’s Romantic language. Elijah, for all its traditionalism, is a work of enormous solidity, with many passages of melodic strength and dramatic power. For Todd it is the “crowning achievement of Felix’s career.”

Near the end of the first part of the oratorio, the people, suffering from a seven-year drought, yearn for water. Elijah, the Prophet, sends a little boy up a hill overlooking the sea to look for rain. At first the child sees nothing, then Elijah renews his prayer for rain. Now gradually, with increasing intensity in the orchestral accompaniment, a cloud “no bigger than a man’s hand” appears on the horizon, the sky darkens, and a storm envelops the land. Elijah thanks the Lord, and the final chorus breaks out with tremendous force, “Thanks be to God, He laveth the thirsty land.” The passage shows us Mendelssohn the dramatist, putting his dream of opera into an oratorio scene that Handel would have been proud to write.

There is, I would say, another dual perspective to be found in his music: that of a musician steeped in reverence for the masters of the past but working to bring their formal disciplines and strength of expression into his own times. That he does so without the searching ambiguities of Schumann or the coloristic novelties of Berlioz has made him seem old-fashioned to some; but in fact his ambition to reconcile past and present made him an immediate heir of Beethoven, just as he hoped to be, and his mastery in his best works is as complete as that of any other major composer of the century.

  1. 1

    Jirí Weil, Mendelssohn Is on the Roof, translated by Marie Winn, with a preface by Philip Roth (HarperCollins, 1991), p. ix. The only reference to Weil’s novel I have encountered in the Mendelssohn literature is by Leon Botstein, “The Aesthetics of Assimilation and Affirmation: Reconstructing the Career of Felix Mendelssohn,” in Mendelssohn and His World, edited by R. Larry Todd (Princeton University Press, 1991), p. 36.

  2. 2

    See Todd, Mendelssohn and His World, p. ix.

  3. 3

    The name Bartholdy derived from a dairy farm that had once been owned by Mendelssohn’s great-grandfather Daniel Itzig, who in turn took it from a previous Christian owner, Baron Friedrich Christian von Bartholdy. See Todd, Mendelssohn, pp. 14 and 575, n. 56.

  4. 4

    Abraham’s letter to Felix, July 8, 1829, as quoted by Jeffrey S. Sposato, “Creative Writing: The [Self-] Identification of Mendelssohn as Jew,” in The Musical Quarterly, Vol. 82, No. 1 (Spring 1998), p. 194 and n. 29.

  5. 5

    Brown’s book shows some signs of haste in production, and a few errors should have been caught. For example, in Brown’s chronology (p. xv) Haydn’s year of death is given as 1808 instead of 1809, and on pp. 445–446 a paragraph from an article on Mendelssohn by George Mcfarren is printed twice, the second time with slightly different wording.

  6. 6

    For a sample, see Leo Treitler’s comments on Werner’s discussion of the possible origins of Western chant notation, in Treitler’s With Voice and Pen: Coming to Know Medieval Song and How It Was Made (Oxford University Press, 2003), p. 364.

  7. 7

    Mendelssohn: A New Image of the Composer and His Age (Free Press, 1963; reprinted by Greenwood, 1978). A revised and expanded German version appeared as Mendelssohn: Leben und Werk in Neuer Sicht (Zurich: Atlantis, 1980). For a concise evaluation of both versions see John Michael Cooper, Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy: A Guide to Research (Routledge, 2001), pp. 35–36.

  8. 8

    See Sposato, “Creative Writing.” The article is condensed from Sposato’s doctoral dissertation, “The Price of Assimilation: The Oratorios of Felix Mendelssohn and the Nineteenth-Century Anti-Semitic Tradition” (Brandeis University, 2000). As Dr. Sposato informs me, the book will be published in revised form by Oxford University Press in 2005. Additional criticism of Werner’s treatment of documents was made by Peter Ward Jones in a letter to the editor, The Musical Quarterly, Vol. 83, No. 1 (Spring 1999), pp. 27–30.

  9. 9

    Werner, Mendelssohn, p. 43.

  10. 10

    On these riots see Paul Lawrence Rose, Revolutionary Antisemitism in Germany from Kant to Wagner (Princeton University Press, 1990).

  11. 11

    Todd, p. 50, from the translation in Roger Nichols, Mendelssohn Remembered (Faber and Faber, 1997), p. 9.

  12. 12

    Werner, Mendelssohn, p. 28; German version, p. 36.

  13. 13

    Sposato, “Creative Writing,” p. 204.

  14. 14

    Sposato, The Price of Assimilation, pp. 482–483, 485.

  15. 15

    Leon Botstein, “Mendelssohn and the Jews,” The Musical Quarterly, Vol. 82, No. 1 (Spring 1998), p. 218; see also his “Mendelssohn, Werner, and the Jews: A Final Word,” The Musical Quarterly, Vol. 83, No. 1 (Spring 1999).

  16. 16

    Michael P. Steinberg, “Mendelssohn’s Music and German-Jewish Culture: An Intervention,” The Musical Quarterly, Vol. 83, No. 1 (Spring 1999), pp. 31–32. Sposato responded in The Musical Quarterly, Vol. 83, No. 2 (Summer 1999).

  17. 17

    Botstein, “Mendelssohn and the Jews,” p. 218.

  18. 18

    For an excellent introduction to these and other works see Greg Vitercik, The Early Works of Felix Mendelssohn (Philadelphia: Gordon and Breach, 1992).

  19. 19

    Vitercik, The Early Works of Felix Mendelssohn, p. 314, from Donald Francis Tovey, Essays in Musical Analysis (Oxford University Press, 1935–1944), Vol. 4, p. 90.

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