Mendelssohn the misunderstood

It’s time to reassess a composer regarded as a burnt-out prodigy and rejected by both Christians and Jews.


The bicentenary of Felix Mendelssohn’s birth, on February 3, is being celebrated worldwide, and — so to speak — not a moment too soon. For, extraordinary though it seems, Mendelssohn needs the reassessment that a major anniversary provides more than most.

Why does Mendelssohn, a first-rate composer, suffer a second-rate reputation? After all, he was one of the most naturally gifted musicians in history. He composed prolifically from the age of 11 onwards; certain works that he wrote while still in his teens, such as the Octet and the Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, are among the best loved in the classical repertoire. His grasp of structure, style, melody, and instrumentation possessed a perfectionism second only to Mozart. Yet while concert promoters adore the less perfectly-formed works of his friend Robert Schumann, many musicians report that when they offer a programme featuring Mendelssohn the response can be distinctly frosty.

Over the years, an image of Mendelssohn has taken hold that portrays him as a facile and shallow artist for whom everything came too easily. Crucially, to an over-romanticising public, he did not starve in a garret like Mozart, lose his hearing like Beethoven or contract syphilis like Schubert. Instead, he grew up in a happy, wealthy family and sailed smoothly to fame as composer, conductor and educator unimpeded by anything except the stroke that killed him at the tender age of 38. It is an image that has nothing to do with the quality of his music.

However, there is a deeper strand to it — Mendelssohn was born Jewish, and his life, work and reputation have long been connected with his ethnic and religious identity. The grandson of the philosopher Moses Mendelssohn, one of the founding fathers of the Jewish Enlightenment, the child prodigy composer was raised in an upwardly-mobile family which, having fled the Napoleonic occupation of Hamburg in 1816, settled in Berlin, converted to Christianity and changed its name from Mendelssohn to Bartholdy.

The writer and film-maker Sheila Hayman is Mendelssohn’s “four times great-niece”, the direct descendent of his gifted sister, Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel. She is making a film about the composer for BBC4, due for screening later this year, plus a programme for BBC Radio 3’s Mendelssohn weekend in May. Her perspective on her illustrious ancestor is informed by an extraordinary family history in which the same concerns regarding sense of identity have troubled successive generations in different ways. “My mother was from Yorkshire, my father had a German accent, we had no religion and I grew up with a feeling of not ‘belonging’,” she says. “But then, the whole family history is one of not fitting in.”

Felix Mendelssohn’s problem number one, she suggests, is purely musical — the works he composed from his twenties became more complex and less instantly accessible than his earlier output. “This made people think that he was a prodigy who had burned out,” she explains. “His style was never avant-garde but was firmly rooted in the classical period, therefore it was easy for it to go quickly out of fashion.”

But in the second half of the 19th century, antisemitic musicologists in Germany began to target Mendelssohn with venom. Wagner began it, writing in his notorious essay, Das Judentum in der Musik (Jewishness in Music) that Mendelssohn, as a Jewish composer, could never achieve the profundity of a true German. Wagner, it turns out, bore a personal grudge — Mendelssohn, as conductor of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, had rejected an early Wagner symphony.

As time went on, Hayman says: “Musicologists gave credibility to anti-Mendelssohn notions like Wagner’s; the danger was that if people read it often enough, they started to believe it.” Until the Third Reich, she feels, Mendelssohn was seen as “a Jewish composer, but also a German one”. Since then, though, “he has become a Jewish composer”.

There is a further complication — Mendelssohn was in fact a committed Christian. He inscribed his manuscripts with dedicatory prayers and his wife, Cecile Jeanrenaud, was the daughter of a Huguenot pastor. “He was a genuine convert — that’s why certain Jewish lobbies resent him so much,” says Hayman. “It would have been regarded more favourably if he had converted only for social expediency. But Mendelssohn felt that to move from ‘an eye for an eye’ to ‘turn the other cheek’ was a fundamental advance in spiritual nobility.” Yet Mendelssohn — unlike his father — never gave up his Jewish name. When his father presented him with some business cards bearing the family’s adopted name, “Bartholdy”, with no hyphenated “Mendelssohn” preceding it, the young composer threw them away.

To him, there was no conflict in being Jewish and Christian at the same time, Hayman suggests. “I don’t think he felt he had to give up the Jewish tradition to adopt the Christian one; it was just a step forward from the same roots,” she says. “It wasn’t a problem to be both until the Nazis came along.”

But as the 20th-century progressed, some Germans ejected Mendelssohn from their musical canon because he was Jewish, while some of his Jewish admirers did likewise because he had espoused Christian beliefs. In that shifting cultural framework, he belonged nowhere. Mendelssohn’s strongest statement about his spiritual condition and ideals was his oratorio Elijah — a work partly inspired by Bach’s Passions (which Mendelssohn helped to revive after they had lain dormant for years) and which could be seen as actively bringing the two traditions together into one great statement of unity and faith.

Elijah is enormously dramatic, an Old Testament epic following the prophet through storms, fires and earthquakes, self-doubt and renewed faith. There is further insight here from Hayman: “When Mendelssohn’s father, Abraham, was on his deathbed, Mendelssohn had not yet finished Elijah,” she says. “And Abraham was desperate for it to be completed — perhaps he felt such a work would justify his own conversion.”

Mendelssohn should be perfectly easy to appreciate for his musical and personal qualities aside from any extramusical matters. His works are full of ebullience and élan, and melody poured from his pen.

“He wasn’t afraid to express his joy in his music,” Hayman says. “Unlike Wagner, he didn’t go around emoting; he didn’t impose himself on his musical ideas but he filled everyone’s lives with delight because he himself was so full of life, creativity and joy. He used his skills and his genius to make other people’s lives brighter. ”

And so, 200 years after his birth, perhaps it is time to take Mendelssohn on his own terms, and to appreciate the way in which his music, more than any other composer’s, brought together the traditions of Judaism and Christianity and sought to unite them in art.

Life and classic works

Born February 3 1809, grandson of philosopher Moses Mendelssohn. Family later settled in Berlin and converted to Christianity. Married Cécile Jeanrenaud in 1837; settled in Leipzig; five children. Died aged 38 after a series of strokes in 1847

Composed prolifically from age 11; Earliest celebrated compositions are the Octet (1825) and Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1826). First of 10 visits to Britain in 1829: Mendelssohn enjoyed great success here, becoming the favourite composer of Queen Victoria. Appointed conductor of Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra in 1835. Premiere of his oratorio Elijah in Birmingham in 1846. Other works include the Hebrides Overture, ‘Italian’ Symphony and Violin Concerto

Cello Sonatas — played by Steven Isserlis (right)(BMG/RCA Red Seal 62553); 5 Symphonies, 7 Overtures — London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Claudio Abbado (DG 4714672); Elijah — Gwynneth Jones, Nicolai Gedda, New Phil-harmonia Orchestra and Chorus (EMI 86257)

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