Mendelssohn: On the Wrong Side of History

In the history of the spirit all that is decisive is newness, originality; everything else is of subordinate importance … Those composers who unconditionally ally themselves with the old masters do not work for progress, for a further development of the art.

–Franz Brendel’s 1852 book Geschichte der Musik in Italien, Deutschland und Frankreich

Franz Brendel was a prominent German music critic and and an early proponent of what we now might call musical historicism, or a Whig history of music. He advocated for an idea of musical progress, that universal truths could be inferred from history and that these would determine the future of music. As a consequence, he had some quite mad ideas, such as insisting that music before the Palestrina was ‘prehistory’, for it didn’t express the ideas and feelings of individuals. Theories like this make it easy for ideologues to place people and ideas on the wrong the side of history, and among the many victims was Felix Mendelssohn.

Mendelssohn died at a rather bad time. 1847 was one year before revolution would sweep across Europe, and so Mendelssohn, who saw himself as an inheritor and custodian of the past, would have his posthumous legacy formed in a post-revolutionary context. Moreover, Mendelssohn was an ethnic jew. And with German nationalism on the rise, this made his legacy vulnerable, despite the fact Mendelssohn seemed to be something of a German nationalist himself. And despite the fact that his family had since abandoned religious judaism, and that he, the reviver of Bach’s Matthew Passion, was a devout Lutheran. (‘Every kind of music ought, in its peculiar way, to tend to the glory of God,’ he said.) Wagner singled him out in his infamous Das Judenthum in der Musik (‘Jewishness in Music’), which was in fact first published by Brendel in 1850, though with Wagner hiding behind a pseudonym. Wagner wrote that

[Mendelssohn] has shown us that a jew can possess the richest measure of specific talents the most refined and varied culture, the loftiest, most tender sense of honor, without even once through all these advantages being able to bring forth in us that profound, heart-and-soul searching effect we expect from music…

This critique of Mendelssohn as sentimental, unoriginal and superficial would live on, albeit without the rancid antisemitism. One such way was in the backlash against perceived Victorian values — shallowness, prudishness etc. — with which Mendelssohn, who had an exceptionally close relationship with Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, could easily be associated.

So, how large an impact did antisemitism have on Mendelssohn’s legacy? Certainly the worse it ever got was under Nazi Germany, where they literally wrote him out of history and removed his statue from its honoured place outside St. Thomas Church, Leipzig (more famously, the church where Bach was director). Yet again, Mendelssohn didn’t fit the right narrative. But the regime apparently struggled to eliminate his music from public life completely, with his A Midsummer Night’s Dream overture and incidental music still proving too popular to get rid of.

However, I think by far the more significant reason for Mendelssohn’s problems was that he didn’t fit the new obsession with originality. (This subject, I must admit, is also a small obsession of mine.) Berlioz, who was incredibly admiring, professionally and personally, of Mendelssohn — ‘enormously, extraordinary, superbly, prodigiously talented’  — nevertheless remarked disapprovingly that ‘he is still rather too keen on composers who are dead’. According to Berlioz, Mendelssohn even found Berlioz’s music incomprehensible. And while Mendelssohn did, in his work as conductor, help promote new music, in many people’s eyes he did not do enough. He was a much better promoter of the music of the past, and was instrumental in forming the canon.

His own music showed him to be a master of his craft, as did his much-praised piano skill and his pioneering conducting (conducting was a relatively new thing in the early nineteenth century). Indeed, he excelled at many other things too, from chess to gymnastics to theology to painting. And while he had his own personal troubles, he seemed generally less mopey than many, which may have been helped by the fact he and his family were pretty well off. He was exceedingly competent, therefore, but without any of the mythical traits of a genius composer. The musicologist Alfred Einstein complained about this exact point: ‘he had no inner forces to curb, for real conflict was lacking in his life as in his art’. Certainly, Mendelssohn didn’t feel compelled to be innovative and to seek musical conflict. Responding to a friend who was disheartened by that fact that he couldn’t compose anything original, Mendelssohn said

But your reason for not wanting to write any more, because you do not hope to break any new ground, is — if you will pardon me — not reasonable. What does this phrase mean, actually? To clear a path that no one has walked before you? But first this new path would have to lead to much more beautiful, more charming territory. For just clearing a new path can be done by anyone who knows how to wield and shovel and move his legs. In every nobler sense, however, I deny forthwith that there are new paths to be cleared, for there are no more new artistic territories. All of them have long since been discovered. New ground! Vexatious demon for every artist who submits to it! Never, in fact, did an artist break new ground. In the best case he did things imperceptibly better than his immediate predecessors. Who should break the new ground? Surely no one but the most sublime geniuses? Well, did Beethoven open up new ground completely different from Mozart? Do Beethoven’s symphonies proceed down completely new paths? No, I say. Between the first symphony of Beethoven and the last of Mozart I find no extraordinary [leap in] artistic value, and no more than ordinary effect. The one pleases me and the other pleases me.

Forgive the length, but I hope you agree it’s a marvellous little rant. And it highlights so clearly why Brendel et al. found the Mendelssohnian view of music anathema.

When Mendelssohn died in 1847, the English journal The Musical World described it as ‘the eclipse of music’. He was extraordinary well-received while alive, especially in England. Yet his death was really his own eclipse. It wasn’t until the second half of the twentieth century that his reputation began to climb back to where it was when he was alive.

Now, I don’t if he’s one of the Great Composers. I must confess, I’ve probably spent more time doing somewhat cursory research on him than actually listening to his music. So I defer judgement on whether he was great, or, to borrow from H.L. Mencken, whether he missed greatness ‘by a hair’. But of the three symphonies I’ve heard, I keep coming back to his Symphony No.4, the ‘Italian Symphony’. A perplexing thing about the Mendelssohn symphonies is that all but one of them are wrongly numbered. The 5th is actually the 2nd, the 2nd is actually the 4th, the 4th is actually the third, and the 3rd is actually the 5th. At least I think I got that right! Anyway, the Italian Symphony, with the Gewandhaus Orchestra themselves performing it: