Dinner Topics for Friday
It’s the little moments that make life big.
I love Mendelssohn music. It is like the balm of Gilead. ~C.D.
Song without Words
Itzhak Perlman Mendelssohn Violin Concerto andante
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
To the noble artist who, surrounded by the Baal-worship of false art, has been able, like a second Elijah, through genius and study, to remain true to the service of true art. ~Prince Albert, 1847 .
Jakob Ludwig Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy born, and generally known in English-speaking countries, as Felix Mendelssohn[n 1] (3 February 1809 – 4 November 1847) was a German composer, pianist, organist and conductor of the early Romantic period.
A grandson of the philosopher Moses Mendelssohn, Felix Mendelssohn was born into a prominent Jewish family, although initially he was raised without religion and was later baptised as a Lutheran Christian. Mendelssohn was recognised early as a musical prodigy, but his parents were cautious and did not seek to capitalise on his talent.
Early success in Germany, where he also revived interest in the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, was followed by travel throughout Europe. Mendelssohn was particularly well received in Britain as a composer, conductor and soloist, and his ten visits there – during which many of his major works were premiered – form an important part of his adult career. His essentially conservative musical tastes, however, set him apart from many of his more adventurous musical contemporaries such as Franz Liszt, Richard Wagner and Hector Berlioz. The Leipzig Conservatoire (now the University of Music and Theatre Leipzig), which he founded, became a bastion of this anti-radical outlook.
Mendelssohn’s work includes symphonies, concerti, oratorios, piano music and chamber music. His most-performed works include his Overture and incidental music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the Italian Symphony, the Scottish Symphony, the overture The Hebrides, his Violin Concerto, and his String Octet. After a long period of relative denigration due to changing musical tastes and anti-Semitism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, his creative originality has now been recognised and re-evaluated. He is now among the most popular composers of the Romantic era.
Felix Mendelssohn was born on 3 February 1809, in Hamburg, at the time an independent city-state,[n 2] in the same house where, a year later, the dedicatee and first performer of his Violin Concerto, Ferdinand David, was to be born. Mendelssohn’s father was the banker Abraham Mendelssohn, the son of the German Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn. His mother was Lea Salomon, a member of the Itzig family and a sister of Jakob Salomon Bartholdy. Mendelssohn was the second of four children; his older sister Fanny also displayed exceptional and precocious musical talent.
The family moved to Berlin in 1811, leaving Hamburg in disguise fearing French revenge for the Mendelssohn bank‘s role in breaking Napoleon‘s Continental System blockade. Abraham and Lea Mendelssohn sought to give their children – Fanny, Felix, Paul and Rebecka – the best education possible. Fanny became a well-known pianist and amateur composer; originally Abraham had thought that she, rather than Felix, would be the more musical. However, at that time, it was not considered proper, by either Abraham or Felix, for a woman to have a career in music, so Fanny remained an active, but non-professional musician. Abraham was also disinclined to allow Felix to follow a musical career until it became clear that he intended seriously to dedicate himself to it.
Mendelssohn grew up in an intellectual environment. Frequent visitors to the salon organised by his parents at the family’s home in Berlin included artists, musicians and scientists, amongst them Wilhelm and Alexander von Humboldt, and the mathematician Gustav Dirichlet (whom Mendelssohn’s sister Rebecka would later marry). Sarah Rothenburg wrote of the household that “Europe came to their living room”.
Abraham Mendelssohn renounced the Jewish religion; he and his wife deliberately decided not to have Felix circumcised, in contravention of the Jewish tradition. Felix and his siblings were first brought up without religious education, and were baptised as Lutherans in 1816, at which time Felix took the additional names Jakob Ludwig. Abraham and his wife Lea were baptised in 1822, formally adopting the surname Mendelssohn Bartholdy (which they had used since 1812) for themselves and their children. The name Bartholdy was added at the suggestion of Lea’s brother, Jakob Salomon Bartholdy, who had inherited a property of this name in Luisenstadt and adopted it as his own surname. Abraham later explained this decision in a letter to Felix as a means of showing a decisive break with the traditions of his father Moses: “There can no more be a Christian Mendelssohn than there can be a Jewish Confucius“. On embarking on his musical career, Felix did not entirely drop the name Mendelssohn as Abraham requested, but in deference to his father signed his letters and had his visiting cards printed using the form ‘Mendelssohn Bartholdy’. In 1829, his sister Fanny wrote to him of “Bartholdy […] this name that we all dislike”.
Meeting Goethe and conducting Bach
In 1821 Zelter introduced Mendelssohn to his friend and correspondent, the elderly Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who was greatly impressed by the child, leading to perhaps the earliest confirmed comparison with Mozart in the following conversation between Goethe and Zelter:
“Musical prodigies … are probably no longer so rare; but what this little man can do in extemporizing and playing at sight borders the miraculous, and I could not have believed it possible at so early an age.” “And yet you heard Mozart in his seventh year at Frankfurt?” said Zelter. “Yes”, answered Goethe, ” … but what your pupil already accomplishes, bears the same relation to the Mozart of that time that the cultivated talk of a grown-up person bears to the prattle of a child.”
Mendelssohn was a fine and enthusiastic artist in pencil and watercolour, a skill which he used throughout his life for his own amusement and that of his friends. His enormous correspondence shows that he could also be a witty writer in German and English – sometimes accompanied by humorous sketches and cartoons in the text.
Although Mendelssohn was a conforming (if not over-zealous) Lutheran by confession,[n 3] he was both conscious and proud of his Jewish ancestry and notably of his connection with his grandfather Moses Mendelssohn. He was the prime mover in proposing to the publisher Heinrich Brockhaus a complete edition of Moses’s works, which continued with the support of his uncle Joseph Mendelssohn. Mendelssohn was notably reluctant, either in his letters or conversation, to comment on his innermost beliefs; his friend Devrient wrote that “[his] deep convictions were never uttered in intercourse with the world; only in rare and intimate moments did they ever appear, and then only in the slightest and most humorous allusions”. Thus for example in a letter to his sister Rebecka, Mendelssohn rebukes her complaint about an unpleasant relative: “What do you mean by saying you are not hostile to Jews? I hope this was a joke […] It is really sweet of you that you do not despise your family, isn’t it?”. Some modern scholars have devoted considerable energy to demonstrate that Mendelssohn was either deeply sympathetic to his Jewishness or sincere to his Lutheran beliefs (though there is in fact no reason to suppose these attitudes to be incompatible).[n 4]
Marriage and children
Mendelssohn married Cécile Charlotte Sophie Jeanrenaud (10 October 1817 – 25 September 1853), the daughter of a French Protestant clergyman, on 28 March 1837. The couple had five children: Carl, Marie, Paul, Lilli and Felix. The second youngest child, Felix August, contracted measles in 1844 and was left with his health impaired; he died in 1851. The eldest, Carl Mendelssohn Bartholdy (7 February 1838 – 23 February 1897), became a distinguished historian, and professor of history at Heidelberg and Freiburg universities, dying in 1897 in a psychiatric institution in Freiburg. Paul Mendelssohn Bartholdy (1841–1880) was a noted chemist and pioneered the manufacture of aniline dye. Marie married Victor Benecke and lived in London. Lili married Adolph Wach, later Professor of Law at Leipzig University. The family papers inherited by Marie and Lili’s children form the basis of the extensive collection of Mendelssohn manuscripts, including the so-called ‘Green Books’ of his correspondence, now in the Bodleian Library at Oxford University.
In general Mendelssohn’s personal life seems to have been fairly conventional compared to his contemporaries Wagner, Berlioz, and Schumann – except for his relationship with Swedish soprano Jenny Lind, whom he met in October 1844. An affidavit from Lind’s husband, Otto Goldschmidt, which is currently held in the archive of the Mendelssohn Scholarship Foundation at the Royal Academy of Music in London, reportedly describes Mendelssohn’s 1847 written request for Lind, who was then not married, to elope with him to America. The affidavit, though unsealed, is currently unreleased by the Mendelssohn Scholarship Foundation, despite requests to make it public.[n 5]
Mendelssohn met and worked with Lind many times, and started an opera, Lorelei, for her, based on the legend of the Lorelei Rhine maidens; the opera was unfinished at his death. He is said to have included a high F-sharp in his oratorio Elijah (“Hear Ye Israel”) with Lind’s voice in mind, although she did not sing this part until after his death, at a concert in December 1848. In 1847 Mendelssohn attended a London performance of Meyerbeer’s Robert le diable – an opera which musically he despised – in order to hear Lind’s British debut, in the role of Alice. The music critic Henry Chorley, who was with him, wrote “I see as I write the smile with which Mendelssohn, whose enjoyment of Mdlle. Lind’s talent was unlimited, turned round and looked at me, as if a load of anxiety had been taken off his mind. His attachment to Mlle. Lind’s genius as a singer was unbounded, as was his desire for her success”.
Upon Mendelssohn’s death Lind wrote, “[He was] the only person who brought fulfillment to my spirit, and almost as soon as I found him I lost him again”. In 1869 Lind erected a plaque in Mendelssohn’s memory at his birthplace in Hamburg; in 1849 she established the Mendelssohn Scholarship Foundation, which makes an award to a British resident young composer every two years in Mendelssohn’s memory. The first winner of the scholarship was Arthur Sullivan, then aged 14, in 1856.
The numbering of Mendelssohn’s mature symphonies is approximately in order of publishing, rather than of composition. The order of actual composition is: 1, 5, 4, 2, 3. Because he worked on it for over a decade, the placement of No. 3 in this sequence is problematic; Mendelssohn started sketches for it soon after starting No. 5, but completed it following both Nos. 5 and 4.
The Symphony No. 1 in C minor for full-scale orchestra was written in 1824, when Mendelssohn was aged 15. This work is experimental, showing the influences of Beethoven and Carl Maria von Weber. Mendelssohn conducted this symphony on his first visit to London in 1829, with the orchestra of the Royal Philharmonic Society. For the third movement he substituted an orchestration of the Scherzo from his Octet. In this form the piece was a success, and laid the foundations of his British reputation.
During 1829 and 1830 Mendelssohn wrote his Symphony No. 5, known as the Reformation. It celebrated the 300th anniversary of the Lutheran Church. Mendelssohn remained dissatisfied with the work and did not allow publication of the score.
The Scottish Symphony (Symphony No. 3 in A minor) was written and revised intermittently between 1829 (when Mendelssohn noted down the opening theme during a visit to Holyrood Palace) and 1842, when it was given its premiere in Leipzig, the last of his symphonies to be performed in public. This piece evokes Scotland’s atmosphere in the ethos of Romanticism, but does not employ any identified Scottish folk melodies.
Mendelssohn’s travels in Italy inspired him to write the Symphony No. 4 in A major, known as the Italian Symphony. Mendelssohn conducted the premiere in 1833, but he did not allow this score to be published during his lifetime as he continually sought to rewrite it.
Mendelssohn wrote the choral Symphony No. 2 in B-flat major, entitled Lobgesang (Hymn of Praise), to mark the celebrations in Leipzig of the 400th anniversary of the invention of the printing press; the first performance took place on 25 June 1840.
The Violin Concerto in E minor, Op. 64 (1844), written for Ferdinand David, has become one of the most popular of all of Mendelssohn’s compositions. David, who had worked closely with Mendelssohn during the piece’s preparation, gave the premiere of the concerto on his Guarneri violin.
The hymn tune Mendelssohn – an adaptation by William Hayman Cummings of a melody from Mendelssohn’s cantata Festgesang (Festive Hymn) – is the standard tune for Charles Wesley‘s popular hymn Hark! The Herald Angels Sing. This extract from an originally secular 1840s composition, which Mendelssohn felt unsuited to sacred music, is ubiquitous at Christmas.
Reputation and legacy
Criticism of Mendelssohn for his very ability – which could be characterised negatively as facility – was taken to further lengths by Richard Wagner. Mendelssohn’s success, his popularity and his Jewish origins irked Wagner sufficiently to damn Mendelssohn with faint praise, three years after his death, in an anti-Jewish pamphlet Das Judenthum in der Musik:
“[Mendelssohn] has shown us that a Jew may have the amplest store of specific talents, may own the finest and most varied culture, the highest and tenderest sense of honour – yet without all these pre-eminences helping him, were it but one single time, to call forth in us that deep, that heart-searching effect which we await from art […] The washiness and the whimsicality of our present musical style has been […] pushed to its utmost pitch by Mendelssohn’s endeavour to speak out a vague, an almost nugatory Content as interestingly and spiritedly as possible.”
This was the start of a movement to downgrade Mendelssohn’s status as a composer which lasted almost a century, the echoes of which still survive today in critiques of Mendelssohn’s supposed mediocrity.[n 6] Even the comment of Friedrich Nietzsche that Mendelssohn was “a lovely interlude” in German music (i.e. biding time between Beethoven and Wagner) is condescending. In the 20th century the Nazi regime and its Reichsmusikkammer cited Mendelssohn’s Jewish origin in banning performance and publication of his works, even asking Nazi-approved composers to rewrite incidental music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream. (Carl Orff obliged.) Under the Nazis, ‘Mendelssohn was presented as a dangerous “accident” of music history, who played a decisive role in rendering German music in the 19th century “degenerate” .’ The German Mendelssohn Scholarship for students at the Leipzig Conservatoire was discontinued in 1934 (and not revived until 1963). The monument dedicated to Mendelssohn erected in Leipzig in 1892 was removed by the Nazis in 1936. A replacement was erected in 2008.
Mendelssohn’s reputation in England remained high throughout the 19th century. Prince Albert inscribed (in German), a libretto for the oratorio Elijah in 1847: