Felix Mendelssohn transcends music in a way no other composer does. In addition to being firmly ensconced in the canon of great composers, nurse Mendelssohn must also be regarded as an important figure in political history and in the history of ideas.
Felix was a Jew. His grandfather, Moses Mendelssohn, who was a noted philosopher and disciple of Leibniz, promoted the humanistic idea that Jews can assimilate into Western culture and still maintain their identities. Ideas such as this led to the great Jewish Emancipation of Europe and helped establish 19th century Germany as the world leader in the arts and sciences.
By converting to Christianity and spending much of his career championing Christian music, Felix Mendelssohn embodied his grandfatherâ€™s ideas of assimilation and emancipation. This led the famous German-Jewish poet Heinrich Heine to quip, â€œthe most Jewish thing Felix Mendelssohn ever did was to become a Christian.â€
Born in 1809 to a family that was as prosperous as it was cultured and respected, young Felix displayed astoundingly prodigious musical talent. He gave his first piano concert when he was nine. At twelve he dazzled the poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who compared him favorably to a young Mozart in terms of his ability to sight-read and improvise on the piano. Goethe was speaking from experience. Old as he was in 1821, he had witnessed young Mozart play in 1763!
Mendelssohn had always admired the choral music and texts of Johann Sebastian Bach. Such music was hardly fashionable in the early years of the Romantic era, when enlightened Germans looked down upon such unabashed religiosity, and when leading composers such as Chopin, Liszt, Schumann, and Wagner were focusing on rebelling against classical traditions. Nonetheless, in 1829, when he was a mere twenty years old, Mendelssohn arranged and conducted Bachâ€™s St. Matthewâ€™s Passion. It was a tremendous success, and the young composer was credited for almost single-handedly reviving Bachâ€™s music in Germany. Significantly, 1829 marked not only the 100th anniversary of St. Matthewâ€™s Passion but also the 100th anniversary of the birth of Moses Mendelssohn.
Mendelssohn took new inspiration from traditional forms of music. He wrote many works for the church, such as his Elijah Oratorio, which were instantly popular and grew to be cherished in Germany and beyond. His Midsummer Nightâ€™s Dream Overture recalled the majestic sweep of Beethovenâ€™s Leonoren Overtures. And the choral Lobgesang, his second symphony, took up where Beethovenâ€™s Ninth left off in merging the classic symphony with the spiritual cantata.
With the symphonic poem, however, Mendelssohn was at his most Romantic and in many cases a step ahead of his contemporaries. The famous conductor Hans von Bulow once stated that Mendelssohnâ€™s symphonic poem Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage â€œwould live when other symphonic poems had ceased to be played.â€ And this came from the son in-law of Franz Liszt who coined the term â€œsymphonic poemâ€ and did the most to popularize the form. Around the time of his primeval and terrifying Walpurgis Night cantata in the early 1830s, he began calling himself â€œRichard Wagnerâ€™s elder brother.â€ Indeed, his elemental Hebrides Overture, a work that captures the raw violence and beauty of the sea, is considered a Wagernian work before Wagner!
What can never be forgotten about Felix Mendelssohn was how he was almost deliberately forgotten nearly a century after his death. The Nazis struggled to efface this towering and much beloved figure from the very core of the German psyche. They could not prevent Germans from singing the songs they loved, but they could suppress the name of the Jew who wrote them. They could not pull him off the small stage where he shared a place with the other great German composers of the past, but they could pull down the statue of Mendelssohn that stood in Leipzig. That these cruel and clumsy efforts came frighteningly close to success can drag one either into the depths of cynicism regarding manâ€™s inherent selfishness and ingratitude or into euphoric heights regarding the victory of Truth over oppression.
As the saying goes, all roads lead to Rome. But in the case of the rather stormy and contentious Romantic period of classical music, all roads seemed to stem from Felix Mendelssohn. Chopin may have disregarded Schumann. Schumann may have railed against Wagner. Wagner may have stood apart from Brahms. Brahms may have condemned Liszt. But to a man, they all revered and took inspiration from Felix Mendelssohn. His dear friend Robert Schumann was said to have begun dying the day Mendelssohn passed away tragically in 1847 at the age of thirty-eight. Upon hearing Mendelssohn himself play his gorgeous Songs Without Words, with its adroit and mesmerizing variations simple themes, Robertâ€™s wife Clara Schumann called him â€œthe dearest pianist of all.â€ And why? Throughout his charmed but short life, he was brilliant, kind, generous, honest, erudite. But most of all, he wrote beautiful music.