FACILITY & MASTERY: FELIX MENDELSSOHN
by Jeffrey Dane
© 1998 Jeffrey Dane
If Felix Mendelssohn's position in the history of music is not as astral as that of other composers, he's still a central figure of his era and occupies an important place in the palace of his predecessors and peers.
His grandfather, Moses Mendelssohn, was arguably the most significant 18th-century Jewish philosopher. Like Brahms later on, he virtually invented himself and drew out of his own humble beginnings. Familiar with Latin and the teachings of Maimonides, his importance was of such magnitude that he influenced not only the course of Hebraic thinking but also an entire generation of philosophers, including his contemporary, Immanuel Kant. His translation of the Old Testament, begun in 1780, was written in German and printed with Hebrew characters. He sought a way for his people to simultaneously integrate with their society while maintaining their cultural religious standards. Esteemed by Frederick the Great of Prussia with the (questionable) distinction of being a "privileged Jew," Moses Mendelssohn was lightened of the burdens placed on most others. His collected writings, published in 1843-45, filled seven volumes.
The composer himself entered the world in Hamburg in 1809 as Jakob Ludwig Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy. He later underwent a formal conversion to Christianity, a decision more of convention than of conviction. He never denied his Hebraic origins; indeed, such connotations are evident in the titles of some of his works. A real idealist but also an ideal realist, his aspirations matched his practicality. He felt he could more fully contribute to his field by being able to function in it, a concept that will displease some people and leave others indifferent. Many feel we shouldn't be faulted for conducting business on the Sabbath if our livelihood depends on it.
Though his grandfather was born the son of a poor scribe, Felix was more fortunate. His father, Abraham, was a prosperous banker. As a child, the boy was almost as precocious as Mozart and his practical circumstances even more favorable. In an era when most people spent their lives within a few miles of their birthplace, Felix had a childhood stay in Paris. There he had piano lessons with Marie Bigot - a friend of Beethoven and who had played the great composer's Appassionata sonata from the nearly indecipherable manuscript.
If Mendelssohn was born with a silver spoon in his mouth, he, unlike most children of the wealthy, made it a golden opportunity where posterity benefitted by his diligence and creativity. Raised in a family of refinement and social position, their affluence made it possible to nourish his remarkable gifts and foster his development, even engaging a small orchestra with which the young teenager could experiment musically. His general education may have been more comprehensive than that of any other composer up to that time. By eighteen he had already reached a degree of mastery unusual in the history of music, and had composed his Octet for Strings, and the overture to A Midsummer Night's Dream, both of which are now considered masterpieces of their genre.
As a youngster Felix also studied with Carl Friedrich Zelter, Director of the Berlin Singakademie. Zelter ultimately gave Mendelssohn use of the Akademie musicians for the historic Bach revival for which Mendelssohn was later responsible. At 12, Felix was taken to Weimar by Zelter to visit his friend Goethe, 60 years the boy's senior and already a cultural icon. Felix wrote home, "Every afternoon Goethe opens the piano with these words, `Make a little noise for me,'" after which the boy would play Bach, Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven (whom Goethe himself had met 9 years before). That piano is now on view at the Goethe House Museum in Weimar, and Felix's Piano Quartet Op.3, written three years later, was dedicated to Goethe.
Though successful and affluent in his own right, Felix's father occupied a strange position in the family structure. Finding himself literally between two eminent generations, he said, "First I was called the son of a father. Now I am called the father of a son." He was not the only man who felt so discounted. The sentiment is reminiscent of Brahms' brother Friedrich, a fashionable piano teacher in Hamburg, whose disposition was not improved by his nickname, "The Wrong Brahms."
Mendelssohn visited Great Britain ten times during his 38-year life. On close terms with Queen Victoria, she viewed him not only as a personal friend but also as one of her favorite composers, of any nation. His era is now beyond the recall of any living person, but that Queen Victoria died only in 1901, having outlived Mendelssohn by 54 years, seems to enlarge and strengthen the links that bind us to the world's history generally and to our musical history in particular. Mendelssohn's reputation in England is comparable to the kind of following Leonard Bernstein had in Austria in our own day. While Brahms had no bent for the English language (even preferring that his publishers print his lieder without the English words), for England and its people and customs Mendelssohn had a sincere affection reciprocated by the nation.
Johann Sebastian Bach was mourned throughout Europe not as a composer per se but as an organist when he died in Leipzig in 1750. His music was known by connoisseurs and professionals, but performances of it were rare and effectively it lay dormant for almost eight decades. It may be hard to believe, but after Bach's death many of his manuscripts were sold for their own weight in paper (relatively costly in his day). Scholars have estimated roughly thirty percent of his total output was thus lost to posterity, robbing us of treasures we can now only try to imagine. The responsibility for the musical resurrection of Bach, a devout Lutheran, falls mainly to the Jewish Felix Mendelssohn, in having conducted the older composer's St.Matthew Passion in Berlin on March 11, 1829, for the first time since Bach's death nearly eighty years before.
Effectively a Renaissance Man of his time, Mendelssohn excelled in virtually any undertaking, musical or otherwise. Like some other composers he was a voluminous letter writer, and his missives are more readily available and affordable to collectors than those of, say, Brahms or Beethoven, whose letters today can command a small fortune at auction. Like Robert Schumann's, even Mendelssohn's most mundane letters can be small literary gems. His musical note-hand was remarkably neat and clean, and even today a musician could easily play from the holograph manuscripts themselves. A gifted graphic artist with exceptional skill in drawing, during a stay in Rome he sketched the façade of his dwelling, the Spanish Steps Nr.5, and painted the old Leipzig Gewandhaus in watercolors. He met and was esteemed by the important composers and musicians of the day, including Liszt, Chopin, Robert and Clara Schumann, Meyerbeer, Rossini, Paganini, Berlioz, and even Wagner. In November 1842 he founded the Leipzig Conservatory; when it opened five months later he was its first director, and also taught piano and composition. On the faculty, at Mendelssohn's invitation, was Robert Schumann, who lived at Inselstrasse 18 with his wife of two years, Clara Wieck.
His first visit to England and a stay in Scotland in 1829 made a profound impression on the composer and resulted in a singular work. In its classical orientation Mendelssohn's Hebrides Overture is as musically descriptive of the sea and its surroundings as anything composed in that century, including Wagner's own Romantic-era overture to The Flying Dutchman 11 years later. Considering his notorious Semitic views, that Wagner himself acknowledged this fact is a testament to the quality and distinction of Mendelssohn's music. The woodwind dialogs in the second movement of his fourth symphony, subtitled Italian and prompted by his stay in Italy, is one of the most exquisite and touching passages in the entire corpus of Mendelssohn's ouvre. His Violin Concerto in e-minor has become one of the best-loved works of its kind and is a staple of every violinist's repertoire. It was written for, dedicated to, and premiered on March 13, 1845 by a member of the Conservatory faculty: Mendelssohn's friend, the great violinist and concertmaster of the Gewandhaus orchestra, Ferdinand David.
In 1833 Mendelssohn became Düsseldorf's music director. Continuing the tradition he created, he performed Bach's cantatas and music by Cherubini (who had encouraged him as a youngster), motets by Palestrina and music by Beethoven. Two years later he was made conductor of the Gewandhaus Orchestra in Leipzig. Under his direction the ensemble soon became the most distinguished orchestra in Germany. The conductor's podium, replete with its candle-holders, was one of the few articles saved from the old Gewandhaus when it was destroyed during World War II. That very rostrum, from which Mendelssohn and later Liszt, Wagner, Brahms and others had conducted, is now displayed in Leipzig's Old City Hall. Also on view is the Johann Baum piano that belonged to Mendelssohn, exhibited in an area depicting the composer's living room, recreated with the original furniture rescued from his Leipzig residence. Restoration efforts began on the building, through the efforts of Kurt Masur, conductor from 1970-1996 of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra andfittingly one of Mendelssohn's own successors there, and currently music director of the NY Philharmonic.
As a musician generally and as a conductor specifically, Mendelssohn had the ability to influence the players under him with his taste and wisdom, and the charm and delicacy of his personality, and to inspire them in performance by his special magnetism and personal enthusiasm. As conductor of the Gewandhaus concerts he insisted on performing the scores as written. In this sense he may have been the first of the true musical purists. That Leipzig was the home of his idol, Bach, may have played a role in Mendelssohn's preference for the city.
Mendelssohn's sister, Fanny, five years his senior, was considered as talented as Felix and an even better pianist. She was his musical mentor until he left home. Her son wrote a biography of Felix, based on Fanny's letters and diaries. Though Felix was happily married and had five children, so strong was the bond between him and his sister that her sudden, unexpected death on May 14, 1847 signalled the beginning of the end for him: totally overwhelmed by the loss, he outlived her by only six months. On the evening of Thursday, November 4, 1847, Felix Mendelssohn died. Soon after, an English student wrote, "It is lovely weather here, but an awful stillness prevails. We feel as if the king were dead." Mendelssohn's eldest son, Karl, also wrote a biography in 1871, and the composer's daughter, Elisabeth ("Lilli"), born in 1845, lived into the 20th century.
Though Mendelssohn died when photography was in its childhood, photographic portraits were in fact being made. In view of his wealth, it seems paradoxical there are no known photographic images of him, though a death mask was made. In physical stature Mendelssohn was relatively short, 5'6", slight but athletic and wiry of build. William Makepeace Thackeray, 6'4" and second only to Dickens as England's foremost Victorian novelist, called Mendelssohn's face the most beautiful he had ever seen: variable of expression, bright and animated. Mendelssohn had fine but thick black hair which rose above a prominent forehead in a natural wave, and his most striking facial feature was his large, dark brown eyes.
He himself perfected the finish and grace that permeates and typifies his music. A true genius, he did this not from without but from within. He's fittingly characterized as a Romantic classicist, just as Brahms after him was the quintessential classical Romantic. Mendelssohn lived only three years longer than Mozart, who died at 35. In view of their relatively short lives, they were both prolific composers - as was Schubert, who lived only 31 years. Mendelssohn's work includes the Scottish, Italian and Reformation symphonies, concerti, piano and chamber music, oratorios, songs, and organ pieces. In his lifetime he was arguably the most popular of composers, but in spite of this - or perhaps even because of it - his music for a time met a fate similar to Tchaikovsky's: it fell out of favor with those of the next generation. In Germany and even in England a period of derogation began, which became as excessive and unjust as the previous adulation had been intense and sincere.
There are many rooms in the castle of composers, and Felix
Mendelssohn was an important tenant.
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