Felix Mendelssohn – In Honor of His 200th Birthday

Mendelssohn was the brightest musician, who had the clearest comprehension of the contradictions of the time and was the first to reconcile them.1

The Germany of Mendelssohn’s time comprised a number of independent states, not to be unified until 1871. Europe was turbulent with the Napoleonic Wars. In 1806, Napoleon allied the German states with France by creating the Confederation of the Rhine, forcing the Habsburg regime out of power, thus ending the Holy Roman Empire. The Confederation introduced Germans to the ideas of the French Revolution. Nobility lost privileges and commoners gained new rights and freedoms, such as representative government, land ownership, and freedom of the press and religion.

During his coming of age, Mendelssohn witnessed a reform movement based on these ideas, which continued to illuminate German culture after Napoleon’s defeat in 1815. Road networks, canals, and railroads sprang up in the wake of the Industrial Revolution, and the population grew rapidly. An emerging middle class became the backbone audience for the arts. The vibrancy of 19th-century Germany contributed to Mendelssohn’s becoming a Renaissance man adept in literature (German, Greek, and Roman), philosophy, and art,<sup>2</sup> as well as music.

His parents, Abraham and Lea Mendelssohn, held weekly musicales in their home, which drew orchestral performers from the royal court. The Mendelssohns sent their children, Felix and Fanny, to study in Berlin and Paris, where their musical abilities flourished. Fanny became an accomplished pianist and composer of nearly 500 lieder, piano works, choral pieces, and instrumental ensemble music compositions.<sup>3</sup> Felix was the first to match Mozart as a child prodigy who became a prolific composer. Mendelssohn wrote most of his string symphonies before the age of 15, along with a few concertos, a great deal of piano music, and several operas. At 17, he composed his well-known overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, based on Shakespeare’s play by the same name. At 20, he began a successful conducting career, both in England and in the rest of Europe. In 1843, at age 34, he founded and taught at the Leipzig Music Conservatory, which became the model for modern music conservatories and which continues to thrive today as the Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy College of Music and Theater.

By the time he was 18, Mendelssohn had studied the music of J.S. Bach, Handel, and Mozart in depth. He chose a course to renew church music by also reviewing 16th-century masters Palestrina and Orlando di Lasso. In the debate of the time, he sided with those who believed church music should facilitate spiritual contemplation, not merely accompany church services. Mendelssohn’s compositions struck a balance between his Classical upbringing and the emerging Romanticism of his contemporaries, such as Schumann, Chopin, Liszt, Wagner, and Verdi.

Richard Wagner modeled his own career after Mendelssohn’s, even though he devoted his long life to denigrating Mendelssohn and his music in published articles. By linking Mendelssohn to Judaism despite Mendelssohn’s and his family’s Protestant conversion decades before, by disparaging “assimilated” Jews, and by characterizing Jewish culture as unpatriotic, Wagner contributed to the anti-Semitism that would prevail in Germany for decades. The Mendelssohn family’s world-historic contributions to German culture and to modern Jewry were banned, along with centuries of Jewish history, during the Nazi period. When the Nazis banned Mendelssohn’s music, German librarians sent his manuscripts and letters to Poland, from where they were dispersed throughout the world when the Nazi occupation of Poland began.

Efforts are underway by “The Mendelssohn Project” to restore Mendelssohn to his rightful place in music history. Over several decades, this project has successfully tracked down unpublished scores and presided over performances of some of these rare gems. Mendelssohn’s subjective high standards for himself contributed to one third of his music not being published (270 of his 750 works). He revised his work relentlessly, unwilling to publish anything he did not personally deem ready.

Whether his family’s earlier conversion to Protestantism was spurred by anti-Semitism or by religious conviction or both, Mendelssohn’s father’s separation from the centuries-strong traditions of Judaism must have been wrenching. We can only surmise, from Mendelssohn’s music, that Abraham and Lea prepared their children well for navigating a difficult world. Mendelssohn intentionally transcended liturgical and denominational boundaries by studying and composing church music.

The sacred motets on tonight’s program are among eight choral works he composed in 1827-1832, which included a series of Psalm compositions. They are infused with the influences of Bach, Handel, and Mozart, as well as the spirit of Romanticism. “[I]n Mendelssohn the new and original breathes fresh life into older classical forms; the new portrays itself as if it has just struggled free of them . . . .”<sup>4</sup> After Mendelssohn’s death, these delightful choral works fell into obscurity until their publication in 1972-1983.

Surrexit pastor bonus (Op. 39, No. 3) was inspired by the heavenly sounds of a nuns’ choir Mendelssohn heard while traveling in Italy in 1830. He chose text often set by early composers to celebrate “the good shepherd” willing to die for his flock.

Zwei geistliche Männerchöre (Op. 115) is unaccompanied choral music reminiscent of a Gregorian chant. In this a cappella piece, Mendelssohn uses only male voices, with a smoothly sonorous effect. The first movement, “Beati mortui,” is a calm and confident iteration of the rewards of good works. The second movement, “Periti autem,” sets to music Daniel 12:3-4 (Old Testament), underlining the radiant effects of a good life.

Wer nur den lieben Gott lässt walten sets to music text that Bach translated from Latin into German. As Mendelssohn once said, “everything comes together in Sebastian.”<sup>5</sup> Considering the human capacity to become preoccupied with worry and woe, what better antidote than remarking on heaven-sent fortune with heartfelt prayer and song? Bach would have done nothing less, and this motet is Mendelssohn’s homage to him.

— Carol Talbeck

  1. Robert Schumann quoted in Between Baroque and Romantic: Mendelssohn’s Sacred Choral Music CD liner notes by Christian Wildhagen, Mendelssohn Choral Works (Complete), Brilliant Classics, Netherlands, 2002.
  2. Several of Mendelssohn’s excellent watercolors were on display in February 2009, during the “Mendelssohn on the Mall” concerts in Washington, D.C., a joint project by the Library of Congress and the National Gallery of Art.
  3. Social convention requiring women to remain invisible kept the gifted Fanny from deserved fame. When she married, her husband, artist Wilhelm Hensel, encouraged her to publish some of her compositions.
  4. Mendelssohn and His World, edited by R. Larry Todd, Princeton University Press, New Jersey, 1991.
  5. Christian Wildhagen.