First published in The Herald on 8 June, 2016
Was it George Bernard Shaw’s fault? “Despicable oratorio-mongering” was how the irascible critic described Felix Mendelssohn in 1898. “Not in the foremost rank of great composers.” Or maybe it was Wagner, who sowed insidious seeds of doubt in an 1850 diatribe called Jewishness in Music. He acknowledged how Mendelssohn had “shown us that a Jew can possess the richest measure of specific talents, the most refined and varied culture,” yet still — and here’s the masterfully corrosive bit — “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.” How very handy for him to ride a wave of anti-Semitism to drown out the talents of a rival.
Like the most charismatic of tyrants, Wagner’s tactic worked. The Nazis ran with it and systematically denigrated Mendelssohn’s reputation. Even now, an era supposedly beyond flagrant bigotry, the Wagnerian summation has by-and-large stuck: that Mendelssohn was a proficient composer, virtuosic, even, but that his art was never profound. And so to the need for this year’s East Neuk Festival focus on Mendelssohn (the Calidore Quartet performs his string quartets) to be accompanied by a series of talks considering the question: is Mendelssohn deeply misunderstood?
It probably doesn’t help that he was so popular with the Victorians. His oratorio Elijah has been a fixture for British choral societies since its 1846 premiere in Birmingham, when crowds lined the streets five-deep to catch a glimpse of the composer’s carriage trundling its way from New Street station to the Town Hall. His travels around Scotland — which most famously produced the Hebrides Overture after an enchanting trip to Staffa — chimed with a misty image of the Highlands appropriated by German romantics via Walter Scott novels. Oh, and Mendelssohn was the favourite composer of Prince Albert and Queen Victoria, who sang his songs during his visits to London. The lasting effect was something like a politician choosing a pop song for a party conference and spelling death to the band’s street cred evermore.
Neither can Mendelssohn claim a troubled enough biography. He wasn’t as dark or volatile or victimised as the True Greats: he can’t match the tragedy of Schubert, who died of complications after syphilis before his 32nd birthday, or of Schumann, who tried to drown himself in the Rhine and spent his final years in an asylum. Or of Beethoven, who became increasingly deaf and isolated, retreating into a stormy genius that inspired his late masterpieces, or so the narrative goes.
Instead Mendelssohn had a bourgeois upbringing and a stellar career full of fame and money and opportunities. The closeness of his relationship with his sister Fanny has raised a few eyebrows, and recent scholarship has unearthed evidence of an unrequited love for the soprano Jenny Lind, but if today Mendelssohn is dismissed as a lightweight, a nostalgic, too clever for his own good, too conservative to have been a genuine radical, maybe it’s because the music simply seemed to flow out of him so ridiculously easily. He wrote his Octet, glory or chamber music, when he was 16 years old.
And life seemed — seemed — to come easily, too. He was born into a wealthy Jewish family in Hamburg. Her mother Lea was an accomplished musician who had studied with a pupil of JS Bach. Her father Abraham was banker; his father was the Enlightenment philosopher Moses Mendelssohn. To avoid discrimination, the Mendelssohns baptised their children in 1816, added ‘Bartholdy’ to the family name and converted whole-sale to Protestantism in the 1820s. They moved to Berlin and became key figures in the city’s intellectual elite. From the early 1820s they hosted bi-weekly concerts of 100 guests or more on Sunday afternoons – the Sonntagsmusiken. These grew in size and importance in 1825 when the family bought a sizeable estate in what was then the outskirts of Berlin. The home was later to become the upper house of the Prussian parliament. It was an establishment family, nowhere near enough grit or trauma for a Ken Russell documentary.
“Modern ears are almost embarrassed by the simple, noble, directly expressed emotions in Felix Mendelssohn’s music,” suggests the cellist and conductor David Watkin, longtime Mendelssohn champion. “But a lot of the issues are to do with how Mendelssohn’s music often sounds nowadays, performed with saccharin vibrato and a straightjacket of strict pulse.” He draws comparisons with Thomas Hardy — “who writes about an age where a clock with only one hand was enough to divide up the day. This is music from another age, and it only speaks to us if we can let go of our self-consciousness. Of all the composers who sit behind that barrier in time of The Advent of Modernism around 1914, Mendelssohn is perhaps the one who most needs us to work at hearing him with pre-industrial ears.”
Was he a radical of sorts? Watkin is careful in how he applies cultural context around that term. “As a Jew, Mendelssohn struggled for recognition and desperately wanted to be accepted by the establishment. Wagner’s bizarre anti-Semitic comments about him ‘being an imitator’ (ironic coming from Wagner) weren’t made in a vacuum. I don’t think we can expect him to have been a hippy. He came from an incredibly cultured background, not just in music. Radicalism bubbles underneath his music rather than shouting.”
And if a lot of Mendelssohn’s piano music is immensely playable — the Songs without Words, for example, are gorgeously rewarding for amateur pianists — the flip side is that the music can be dismissed as parlour music, tailored for the tastes of those able to afford a piano at home. “In his day there was an important distinction between private and public music,” Watkin points out. “Symphonies and large choral devotional works were meant for the new expensive public (and civic) musical institutions, whereas ‘Hausmusik’ that cultured people could play at home had a different role.”
And the string quartets had a different role again. “Traditionally string quartets were crucibles where composers like Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven could experiment with radical ideas. Mendelssohn carried on that tradition as a young man — from Opus 13, streaked through with Beethoven’s direct influences on many different levels, to Opus 80, again based directly on Beethoven’s model of placing the torrid and the passionate next to the heroic and the noble.” Watkin suggests that the quartets are where Mendelssohn worked out his revolutionary influences “so they can be subsumed and reconfigured in bigger-scale works.” And that, he says, “makes them very hard to bring off!” Roll on the Calidores at East Neuk.
The East Neuk Festival runs 22 June – 3 July at venues around the East Neuk of Fife