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Music: Felix Forever

6 minute read

The name of one composer was on everybody’s lips last week in Berlin. So were words like Wunderkind. After all, hadn’t he matured faster than Mozart? It was said that his talents as pianist and conductor were beyond those of any of his contemporaries. On top of all that, he was evidently a likable, unpretentious man of the world, gifted in languages, poetry and science, a fit partner for any woman on the dance floor, and any man’s match in the billiard room. Who was the man? Why, Jacob Ludwig Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy.

Mendelssohn grew up in Berlin, but that city was not always kind to him. Because he was born a Jew, the Nazis did their best to expunge his name, and his elegant, sweet, highly uncontroversial works, from Germany between 1933 and 1945. What happened thereafter was odd if not downright shameful. Mendelssohn’s name remained forgotten in postwar Germany, his music rarely played. Even his grave, in the Mendelssohn family plot, was all but lost amidst the rubble and weeds in Berlin’s Holy Trinity Cemetery.

In 1970 a U.S. Army sergeant hunted it up, and cleared away the mess. Since then Mendelssohn’s grave has become a musical shrine. Today Berliners, East and West alike, are enjoying a month-long festival of the composer’s music to commemorate the 125th anniversary of Mendelssohn’s death in 1847 at age 38. Herbert von Karajan led the Berlin Philharmonic down the high-flavored paths of the Scotch Symphony. The Radio Symphony Orchestra of Berlin gave the first major performance in 149 years of Mendelssohn’s early (but mature) String Symphony No. 10. Even his mammoth oratorios were heard in churches on both sides of the Curtain.

The story of Mendelssohn’s life and works is a rare case history of the cheerful, the fruitful and industrious cultivation of genius. He was born in 1809* of a remarkable family. His grandfather was the great, hunchbacked philosopher Moses Mendelssohn, often called the “modern Plato,” and the undisputed intellectual leader of German Jewry in the Age of Enlightenment. Felix’s father Abraham was a well-to-do banker who regularly rousted his children out of bed at 5 each morning for study and work, recognized their musical talents early, had them baptized, and ran a household that regularly included dinner guests like Hegel and Heine.

Neither Abraham nor his wife Leah, a gifted amateur pianist, exploited their prodigy son. Instead, they created a world of tutors and home musicales in which Felix, his sisters Fanny and Rebecca and his brother Paul could grow at their own pace. Every other Sunday morning, Felix presided over a musical program at home—as conductor, pianist and master of ceremonies. He was also composer. Several of his operas, a dozen or so string symphonies, numerous concertos and cantatas were among the works thus premièred. Before he left knee breeches, in fact, Mendelssohn was a thoroughgoing musical pro.

He had prodigious powers as a musical extemporizer. When he was only eleven, none other than Goethe himself asked the boy to play a certain fugue of Bach’s. Unable to recall it all, Felix improvised as he went along, weaving contrapuntal lines into a heavily brocaded baroque fabric that was good enough, at least, to convince Goethe. That was one of the few instances, however, when Mendelssohn’s memory failed him. Shortly after Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony came out, Mendelssohn, then 15, could play it all on the piano without a book.

Felix made the grand tour. Starting out in 1829, he traveled for three years. His greatest successes came in London, for the English liked his music as well as his charm. Queen Victoria and her consort spent many a privateevening with him, with Mendelssohn playing Albert’s new pipe organ and the prince literally pulling out all the stops.

Mendelssohn did not have to work, but his family believed in industry. Declining a permanent chair at the university in Berlin, Felix in 1835 took a paying post as music director of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra. Dictatorial, high-strung and charismatic, Mendelssohn demanded absolute obedience from his players and in the process raised the level of orchestral playing in Leipzig, Germany, and throughout Europe to new highs. He also changed the entire look of German symphonic life by using Mozart and Beethoven as the backbone of the repertory (instead of local celebrities like Anton Eberl and Karl Reissiger). Haydn and Handel were also often in his programs, along with such composers as Schubert, Liszt, Rossini, Schumann. And, of course, Mendelssohn. Moreover der Herr Direktor once and for all dispensed with the practice of inserting divertissements by harpists and the like between the movements of symphonies.

Real Love. Mendelssohn was one of those annoying people who seem to find time for everything. The 7,000 letters he wrote in his brief lifetime are proof enough of that. While he was settling in comfortably at Leipzig, he also began to branch out in many musical directions. Guest-conducting engagements took him all over Europe. In 1842 he founded the Leipzig Conservatory. He founded festivals. He played, he taught, he administered, he composed. He also devoted much time to the charming of ladies, in ways that apparently did not develop into bona fide affairs. The real love of his life was his older sister Fanny. As children they were inseparable, sometimes too much so for Felix. “Is the string on which I flutter long, but unbreakable?” he once wrote her. Although each later married happily, they remained the closest of confidants, especially on artistic matters. Upon hearing the news of Fanny’s premature death of a stroke in 1847, Mendelssohn himself collapsed. He died five months later.

There are those who regard Mendelssohn’s music as precious and superficial. It is true that Mendelssohn could not, like Schubert, say “My music is the product of my genius and my misery.” He knew no misery, neglect or disappointment, neither the gloom of Beethoven nor the melancholy of Chopin. The Reformation Symphony, for example, is religiosity at its most cloying, and Elijah, tender as its pastoral moments are, simply does not convey the full might of its subject. What Mendelssohn did know about was order, proportion, logic and joy. He was a better orchestrator than either Schumann or Brahms. In some of his juvenile operas, he experimented with leitmotifs—long before Wagner. His greatest innovations came in the realm of orchestral color—ruddy brass canvases, fragile wood-wind-and-string pastels that give the Midsummer Night’s Dream Overture, for example, such perpetual freshness and surprise. Today, when such qualities are so rare in our new music, it is foolish to scoff at Mendelssohn. In short, if the often windy and bombastic Liszt is entitled to a comeback, can Mendelssohn be far behind?

* An auspicious moment in history for the birth of composers. Within a four-year period (1809 to 1813), in addition to Mendelssohn, Schumann, Chopin, Liszt, Wagner and Verdi were born.

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