da capo: mendelssohn, wagner, and anti-semitism


Mendelssohn’s Piano Trio No. 1 in D minor, Op. 49, performed by Emanuel Ax, Yo-Yo Ma, and Itzhak Perlman

Mendelssohn’s String Octet in E-flat Major, one of his most celebrated pieces, was written when he was just 16 years old. At age 20, he conducted the first St. Matthew’s Passion performed after Bach’s death, and is thus credited as one of the strongest influences in bringing Bach out of the dust and shadows of time and into public light. I don’t know about you, but some of my biggest achievements at age 20 were more like “passing atonal dictation” and “getting enough exercise” and “not waiting till the last moment to finish that extra-credit paper.” It’s obviously safe to say that Mendelssohn was a prodigy of the Mozart variety, and even Goethe (yes, that Goethe) recognized his genius:

“A day or two after, when the youthful composer’s first quartett had been performed, and Felix himself, after playing the pianoforte part, had run off into the garden, Goethe remarked to the other players: ‘Musical prodigies, as far as mere technical execution goes, are probably no longer so rare: but what this little man can do in extemporizing and playing at sight, borders on 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 Frankfort?‘ said Zelter.

‘Yes,’ answered Goethe; ‘at that time I myself had only just reached my twelfth year, and was certainly, like all the rest of the world, immensely astonished at his extraordinary execution; 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 does to the prattle of a child.‘”

Source: Karl Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, Goethe and Mendelssohn (London: Macmillan and Co.), 18-19.

BURN. Goethe just referred to Mozart’s music as baby babble compared to Mendelssohn’s. So why is Mozart still considered one of the pillars of classical music, while Mendelssohn is often overlooked? Much may have to do with the fact that Wagner was, as one would say in the vernacular, a “hater.” Although he was an unabashed Protestant, Mendelssohn was Jewish by heritage. It was this trait which Wagner brazenly attacked, calling out Mendelssohn by name in the infamous anti-Semitic essay “Das Judenthum in der Musik” (“Judaism in Music”):

…We find [accumulated considerations about the Jewish character] exhibited in the nature, life and art-career of the composer who was taken from our midst at such an early age—Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy. By him we have been shown that a Jew may be gifted with the ripest specific talent, he may have acquired the finest and most varied education, he may possess the highest and most finely-tempered sense of honor–and yet, notwithstanding all these advantages, he may remain unable, even in so much as one solitary instance, to bring forth that deep effect upon our hearts and souls which we expect from Art because we know its capability in that direction.

Source: Richard Wagner, Judaism in Music (London: W. Reeves, 1910), 33.

The source of Wagner’s distaste for Mendelssohn, however, may have been due to more than just radical German nationalism. It’s possible he was nursing a personal grudge: at the age of 23, Wagner had sent Mendelssohn a copy of his C major symphony–perhaps in the hope that Mendelssohn would conduct it–and received no reply.

Wagner’s letter to [Mendelssohn] of the 11th April, 1836, from Magdeburg, shows that he sent the score to Mendelssohn as a present, asking him to read it at his leisure, as a specimen of his industry and aspirations at eighteen. Mendelssohn never performed the work….While it is certain that the score was not lent but given to Mendelssohn, it is difficult to account for its not being found among his papers after his death, except on the supposition that he destroyed it. In 1874 Wagner told Cosima that he thought Mendelssohn must have done so, “perhaps because he detected in it a talent that was disagreeable to him.

Source: Ernest Newman, Life of Richard Wagner, Volume 1: 1813-1848 (Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1933).

The rivalry between these two greats of the 19th century also showcases their differences. Mendelssohn was conservative and traditional, interested not only in his own compositions but also in reviving the masterpieces of the past. Wagner was progressive and pioneering, and believed that Mendelssohn’s conservatism was slowing musical progress. It provides a bit of drama to the narrative, and a reminder of the tension and competition between the rockstar musicians of more than a century ago. At any rate, Mendelssohn deserves more credit than we give him nowadays. His works hum with dramatic tension and sweeping gestures, shimmer with lyricism, and are shaded with the stained-glass hues of religious reverence in hymn quotations or chorale textures. Take the time to listen to some Mendelssohn this weekend–I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.

More reading:
The Guardian – Clash of the Composers

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s