Music: Mendelssohn: Great—Or Also Ran?

Poor Mendelssohn was rich. Had he only suffered more, he might have been a profound composer. As it was, cosseted by the luxuries of the haute-bourgeois world of the wealthy Mendelssohn banking family, he was relegated to the politeness and pieties of the Victorian world. He was even afflicted with the name Felix, which means “happy man.” Worse still, he was happy for much of his life. This is very poor material for a Romantic artist.

These biographical facts seem decisive only if music is primarily autobiographical, which is the way music increasingly came to be seen during the Romantic era—the artist as personality. Unlike Beethoven, Mendelssohn did not stomp and moan as he composed. He was not found wandering in the woods, delirious with unrequited passion for an actress he had never met, as was Berlioz. Unlike Paganini, he was never suspected of having made a pact with the devil. Mendelssohn was, in fact, a gentleman. As if to prove the worst of what that label might mean, Mendelssohn once remonstrated with an English composition student for having written an “ungentlemanly modulation.” No wonder Mendelssohn has been demoted to the ranks of the near-great also-rans.

This was not supposed to have happened. Born in 1809, Mendelssohn had the shortest musical adolescence of any major composer in history, his precocity exceeding even that of Mozart. At age fifteen, young Felix had already produced an astonishing amount of highly accomplished work, which included a dozen string symphonies, various concertos, and chamber and choral pieces. (Every young composer should have an orchestra at home and Mendelssohn, courtesy of his wealthy father, did.) At that age, Mendelssohn showed that he could not only imitate the contrapuntal idioms of Handel and Bach; he had mastered them. His first concerto for two pianos, composed in 1823, demonstrated his command of Mozart. In 1824, Mendelssohn’s teacher Carl Zelter, who was quite stingy with his praise, announced before the audience that had just heard the premiere of Mendelssohn’s fourth opera, Der Onkel aus Boston: “My dear boy, from this day you are no longer an apprentice, but an independent member of the brotherhood of musicians. I proclaim you independent in the name of Mozart, Haydn, and old father Bach.”

To prove that Zelter was not exaggerating, Mendelssohn next produced two masterpieces of such assured genius that most of his later works have been judged against them: the Octet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream Overture. It is one of the mysteries of the music world that works of this miraculous quality could have been written by a sixteen to seventeen year-old boy. Though these two pieces are perhaps Mendelssohn’s most popular, they were not the only compositions of such high caliber from his teenage years. At roughly the same age, he wrote his Quintet No. 1 in A major, Op. 18; the String Quartet in A minor, Op. 13; the Overture; Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage; and other fully mature pieces.

Yet the judgment was made that Mendelssohn peaked at this point and never delivered on the larger promise of these extraordinary accomplishments. The famous conductor Hans von Billow said that Mendelssohn began as a genius and ended as a talent. Cosima Wagner, who had been Billow’s wife before running off with Richard Wagner, reported in her diaries Wagner’s impressions of Mendelssohn in a way that gives additional insight into this verdict: “Spoke with R. about Mendelssohn. Comparison to a crystal: the Hebrides Overture so clear, so smooth, so melodious, as definite in form as a crystal, but also just as cold; such an enormous talent as Mendelssohn’s is frightening, it has no place in the development of our music. A landscape painter, incapable of depicting a human being.”

As indicated by Wagner, the nub of the problem is that Mendelssohn cannot be fit into any progressivist scheme of music. Mendelssohn did not contribute to the “music of the future,” as seen or developed by Liszt, Berlioz, and especially Wagner. Thus, Mendelssohn himself must not have developed. As proof, some critics point to his seamless completion of A Midsummer Night’s Dream incidental music seventeen years after he had written the overture, as if a day had not passed. Rather than seeing this as an astonishing accomplishment, some take it as evidence of arrested development. Mendelssohn was a sort of sad freak—an outburst of genius that led nowhere and had “no place in the development” of music. If one is not progressive, then one must be regressive.

In fact, it was in terms of the past that Robert Schumann greeted Mendelssohn, saluting him as “the Mozart of the 19th century.” But it was precisely Mozart that the 19th century did not want. The Romantic era that relegated Mozart to the status of a porcelain figurine of fragile refinement, except for the few works, such as Don Giovanni, that it could promote as proto-Romantic. Mendelssohn was most like Mozart in his shared concern that, as Mozart wrote, “passions, violent or not, may never be expressed to the point of revulsion, that even in the most frightening situation music must never offend the ear but must even then offer enjoyment, i.e. must always remain music.” Mendelssohn is not Romantic in the sense that Romanticism is about the release of passion from any restraint. If a human being is defined as a person in the grips of unbridled passion, it is no wonder that Wagner thought Mendelssohn “incapable of depicting a human being.” The two composers had quite different ideas of what a human being is. Wagner was not a gentleman.

Charles Kesler has defined Romanticism as “the exaltation of great passions and great struggles at the expense of reason and the rational harmony of good character.” Mendelssohn was never willing to pay that price. Neither did he care for the music of those who were, such as Berlioz and Liszt. Of Berlioz, he said, “he was groping in the dark and yet thought himself to be the creator of a new world.” Mendelssohn was perfectly comfortable in the old world of Classical form and refinement that he infused with a new lyricism. There is no break with the past in his music, only the challenge of continuity—which he met brilliantly. Even in a work on such a wild subject as Goethe’s First Walpurgisnacht, Mendelssohn never lets the exciting witches’ Sabbath get out of control. Mendelssohn’s grounding in the past also showed in his veneration of Bach, whose St. Matthew Passion Mendelssohn revived for the first time since Bach’s death. For his contrapuntal mastery, Liszt called Mendelssohn “Bach reborn.” In fact, friends cautioned Mendelssohn that his reverence for Bach and Handel was undermining his individual genius. That this danger was real can be heard in parts of his oratorios, Paulus and Elijah.

There is another feature of Mendelssohn that militates against the Romantic image: He was deeply religious. Berlioz wrote: “He believes firmly in his Lutheran religion and I used to scandalize him sometimes by making fun of the Bible.” Mendelssohn’s family converted from Judaism to Christianity when Felix was seven. Some critics flippantly dismiss this conversion by quoting the poet Heinrich Heine’s remark that baptism was “the ticket of admission to European culture.” The imprecation of cultural opportunism ignores an inner logic working within the Mendelssohn family from the time of Felix’s grandfather, Moses Mendelssohn, a famous rabbi who was known throughout Europe as the “Jewish Plato.” Moses Mendelssohn wrote, “You ask me which religion is least impeded? I answer, the religion which permits the greatest freedom to Reason.” That dispensation led Moses’s daughter Dorothea to became a devout Catholic, while his other children, including Felix’s father, Abraham, converted to Lutheranism. (This did not prevent the Nazis from banning Mendelssohn’s music as “Jewish.”)

Mendelssohn’s Christianity informs a substantial part of his work: Two of his five mature symphonies are devoted to religious subjects, as, of course, are his oratorios Paulus, Elijah, and Christus, which he left uncompleted at his death in 1847. There are many sacred works as well. Though pious, Mendelssohn was not without humor. Referring to a rehearsal of another composer’s oratorio, entitled Ten Commandments, he said, “the chorus ‘Thou shalt not commit adultery’ sounded excellent. The girls do not understand what they are singing about, and the married women do not care.”

The “music of the future” is now past. With a perspective free from “progressivism,” one can wonder afresh about Mendelssohn’s true stature. Mendelssohn seems to have been neither Classical nor Romantic. Was he, then, a Classical Romantic or a Romantic Classicist? The great cellist and conductor Pablo Casals probably came closest to the right answer by describing Mendelssohn as “a romantic who felt at ease within the mold of classicism.”

In one respect at least, Mendelssohn met the Romantic image: He died young. At age thirty- seven, Mendelssohn collapsed in grief over his sister Fanny’s death and from a life of overwork. He recovered briefly to write his last String Quartet, Op. 80, as a requiem for Fanny. Anyone who wishes to condescend to Mendelssohn as a burned-out boy genius should hear this work; anyone who thinks Mendelssohn did not suffer enough should hear it as well. It is a profoundly pained and searing utterance. It is not nostalgic for past greatness, neither does not promise future greatness. It is great.

Johannes Brahms witnessed the kind of condescension toward Mendelssohn that became typical during the latter half of the 19th century. He would simply respond: “Yes, yes, Mendelssohn—he was the last of the great masters.”


  • Robert R. Reilly

    Robert R. Reilly is the author of America on Trial: A Defense of the Founding, forthcoming from Ignatius Press.

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