From the moment they met, Felix Mendelssohn was completely and utterly taken with the French Reformed pastor’s beautiful daughter, Cécile Jeanrenaud, but it was her love for evangelical truth that would make theirs one of the world’s great love stories.
Aspiring Schutzstaffel Julius Schlesinger received orders to remove Jewish composer Felix Mendelssohn’s statue from the roof of the venerable Prague concert hall. Unable to identify Mendelssohn in the group of renowned composers adorning the building, the conscientious Schlesinger remembered a lesson from a Racial Science course taken while matriculating for his chosen, or perhaps foreordained, vocation. With this in mind, he would identify and then pull down the statue with the biggest nose. Soon enough Mendelssohn was identified. However, much to the consternation of Schlesinger and his comrades, as the memorial of the great composer began to topple and fall they noticed that it was not Mendelssohn’s statue at all, but that of the beloved Richard Wagner!1Jiri Weils, Mendelssohn on the Roof (Northwestern University Press, 1998), 2. Although this account is fictional, sadly enough Felix Mendelssohn’s memorial statue in Leipzig was indeed pulled down and removed in 1936. Accepted by neither Jew nor Gentile, Mendelssohn’s music was banned and public performances of his work forbidden by the Third Reich in an attempt to obliterate the memory of Mendelssohn, climaxing a scurrilous campaign of character assassination that the Composer seemed oblivious to during his life and proliferated after his death.
Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy, an extraordinary prodigy of Mozart-like abilities, was a distinguished composer and conductor, a legendary pianist and organist, and an accomplished painter and classicist. He was also a man of firm evangelical conviction, whose marriage to Cécile, the daughter of a French Reformed minister, has all the trappings of a storybook romance. Lionized in his lifetime, he is best remembered today for several staples of the concert hall and for such popular music as The Wedding March and Hark, the Herald Angels Sing.
The composer of the Reformation Symphony (celebrating the third century of the Augsburg confession), Elijah and St. Paul oratorios, Hymns of Praise (written to mark the fourth centenary of the invention of printing) and many other fine works led a peaceful, happy and productive life creating festive and joyous music to the glory of God.2Jane Stuart Smith and Jane Carlson, The Gift of Music: Great Composers and Their Influence (Crossway, 1980), 96 And not unlike the satirical, yet tragic account, of the destruction of the statue erected in Mendelssohn’s honor, he possessed a humor, acerbic wit and frank discernment that too often neglects mention in the volumes of history.
Mendelssohn’s cosmopolitan travel introduced him to many new ideas and characters. Having a great affection for London, he referred to it as “the grandest and the most complicated monster on the face of the earth.” He came to it again and again, and was never tired of praising the “smoky nest.” Mendelssohn was fond of telling the story of a country parish sexton in England who appeared for a funeral in red waistcoats. When the clergyman remonstrated with him upon the unseemly color, the clerk replied: “Well, what does it matter, your reverence, so long as the heart is black?”
Dining with hymn writer Sir George Smart, Felix made an uneven musical exchange–a copy of Midsummer Night’s Dream overture for a canonic drinking song…reconfirming Mendelssohn’s earlier impression of English glee as a “horribly infamous thing”.3R. Larry Todd, “Letter of June 5, 18, NYPL No. 65; Smart’s Canon is in Felix’s album MDM d. 8, fol. 70v.” in Mendelssohn, A Life in Music (Oxford University Press 2003), 213. While directing a men’s choir rehearsal, annoyed by the lack of enthusiasm, he instructed “gentleman, remember this even when you sing at home, do not sing so as to put anyone to sleep, even if it be a cradle song”. Mendelssohn rarely lost his composure. However, one incident which tried his patience to the limit took place while he was conducting a Beethoven concert. The audience was listening raptly, but during a pause in the music a woman with a strident, sing-song Saxon accent proclaimed loudly to her friend (not to mention the whole concert hall and Mendelssohn, too): “… and I always cook them with sauerkraut!”
When in private audience with Queen Victoria at Buckingham Palace, the Queen told her awe-inspired guest that she loved his songs and asked if she might display her vocal talents and sing her favorite—Italian from his Op. 8 collection. After she sang, Felix admitted to her that it was not his, but rather his sister Fanny’s. Fanny Mendelssohn, herself a child prodigy and prolific composer was witty, full of energy and shared a loving and cherished relationship with her younger brother. Mendelssohn says of Fanny that she played better than himself, “But, like most girls, she ‘went and got married.'” Although Fanny and others believed her career suppressed, she entertained some of the most prominent cultural elite in her Berlin Salon, figures like Hegel, Liszt, Oscar Wilde and Heinrich Heine. Her husband, court painter and son of a Lutheran minister, Wilhelm Hensel, sketched many of these attendees. Fanny relates the amusing story of Paganini’s performance at the salon in 1829, describing him in her diary as having “the look of an insane murderer and the movements of a monkey…plumbing the depths of his soul and yet simultaneously ripping the heart out of the poor violin.” Soon after his marriage, Mendelssohn was in Frankfurt engaged in active composition although he found it difficult in this entirely Catholic and unmusical town to procure two things which were absolutely indispensable, a Bible and a piano. Nevertheless, it was there that he composed the greater part of his D minor Concerto (opus number 42).4Wilhelm Adolph Lampadius, Th. D., The Life of Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy (1865) 239.
In Rome, Mendelssohn found the musical life severely lacking. Felix spent his free time in the company of German artists who had congregated in Rome. Mendelssohn was introduced to, and understandably curious about, the Nazarene Brotherhood—a group of artists who were seeking to revive medieval Christian art by uniting “Latin beauty with German inwardness.”5R. Larry Todd, “Gert Schiff,” An Epoch of Longing: An introduction of German painting of the Nineteenth Century, in German Masters of Nineteenth Century, (N.Y., 1987, p.107), in Mendelssohn: A Lifetime in Music (Oxford University Press, 2003), 236. They had executed the frescos for the drawing room of his uncle Jacob Bartholdy. The majority of the members had embraced Catholicism and wore their hair and beards conspicuously long, spoke condescendingly about Titian and painted “sickly Madonna’s, feeble Saints, and milk-sop heroes.”6R. Larry Todd, “Felix to Abraham letter December 11, 1830, Sutermeister, 87.” In Mendelssohn: A Lifetime in Music (Oxford University Press, 2003), 236.Mendelssohn demurred with “a particular aversion to this brood.”7R. Larry Todd, “February 15, 1831, in MLL, 159.”, in Mendelssohn: A Lifetime in Music (Oxford University Press, 2003), 236. The last straw, however, was when the Nazarenes, fearing political unrest, decided to shave their heads and beards to abruptly alter their external appearance intending to re-adopt their Christ-like trappings once the danger had passed. Mendelssohn found this hypocritical.
Mendelssohn’s biographer, Wilhelm Adolph Lampadius, Th. D., notes that while in Rome Mendelssohn set several of Luther’s hymns to music and thus defended himself most successfully from that sensuous charm of the Catholic worship to which so many German artists in Rome succumbed.8Ibid., 249.
Mendelssohn expressed scathing criticism of the music and personalities of the Parisian music scene in a letter he wrote to his mother on April 6, 1825. He thought the Paris style of opera vulgar, seems to have regarded Paris and its music with the greatest of suspicion, with almost Puritan distaste. When he met Chopin in 1834, his criticism was that Chopin “labored a little under the Parisian love for effect and strong contrasts, and often lost sight of time, and calmness, and real musical feeling,” adding on another occasion that Chopin possessed “a distinct talent but his second ideas are always weaker than his first. He rejected the heavy proselytizing of the Saint-Simonians while in Paris, an encounter that has been described as a collision.9Ralph P. Lock, Music, Musicians and the Saint-Simonians (University of Chicago Press, 1986),7. Yet one day the great composer with his thick German accent would recite his wedding vows in French in a Reformed Huguenot Church.10Ferdinand Hiller, Felix Mendelssohn, Letters and Recollections (London: MacMillan, 1874).
A Childhood Prodigy
Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy was born into a wealthy cultured family and, in sharp contrast to many of the great composers who suffered more than their share of misfortune and frustration, led a happy and for the most part successful life.11Patrick Kavanaugh, The Spiritual Lives of the Great Composers (Zondervan, 1996), 75. His father Abraham was a prominent Jewish banker who at the time was unsure of his own faith. With the insistence of his brother-in-law, while at the same time resolving to have his children raised in the Protestant faith, he added Bartholdy to the family surname. Abraham and his wife Lea were eventually baptized in 1822, in Frankfurt away from their family and friends in Berlin. Mendelssohn’s grandfather Moses was a noted Jewish philosopher and mathematician and leader and founder of the liberal school of Jewish thinkers of his day, to whom the obnoxious name rationalistic or enlightenment was freely applied.12Sebastian Hansel, The Mendelssohn Family, Letters and Journals by Sebastian Hansel 1729-1847 (London: Sampson Row, Marston, Searle, & Rivington, 1886). Nevertheless, Felix and his siblings were baptized and raised in the Christian faith13Eric Werner, Mendelssohn: A New Image of the Composer and His Age (Free Press of Glencoe, 1963), 37. and rather than resenting his forced entry into the new faith, Felix embraced it fervently his entire life.14Ibid., 42. He was faithful to the Christian religion, took it seriously and had great respect for the Biblical word.15Ibid., 208. In his manuscripts, the young prodigy often penned a prayerful exclamation: Lass es gelingen Gott! (“Let it succeed, God!”) or Hilf Du mit (“Help along”).16George R. Marek, Gentle Genius, the Story of Felix Mendelssohn (New York, NY: Funk & Wagnalls, 1972), 103.
Mendelssohn made his first public performance at age 9, began composing at 11 and at that age visited Goethe at Weimar, staying 16 days where he played Goethe’s new Streicher piano almost daily. It’s said the women fell in love with him and the enlightened poet and philosopher prophesied the young master a successful career. At age 17, Mendelssohn completed his overture for Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream. Bohemian composer and piano virtuoso Ignaz Moscheles said after visiting the Mendelssohn home, “This afternoon…I gave Felix Mendelssohn his first lesson, without losing sight for a moment of the fact that I was sitting next to a master, not a pupil.” Adding, “This is a family the like of which I have never known. Felix, a boy of fifteen is a phenomenon. What are all prodigies compared with him?…He is already a mature artist. His elder sister Fanny is also extraordinarily gifted”.17Charlotte Moscheles, tr. A. D. Coleridge, Life of Moscheles, 2 vols. (London 1873), Felix Moscheles (ed.), Letters of Felix Mendelssohn to Ignaz and Charlotte Moscheles (London, 1888), Felix Moscheles, Fragments of an Autobiography (London, 1899).
Revival of Bach
At the age of 18, under the tutelage of Carl Friedrich Zelter, Mendelssohn began his labor to reintroduce Johann Sebastian Bach’s long-forgotten St. Matthew’s Passion, thus initiating the Bach renaissance which continues to the present day. This was accomplished only after many jeers from Zelter, who stormed and told him he was “an audacious young fool to attempt what his elders had failed in.” Felix gave his public performance with three or four hundred voices,18Encyclopedia Britannica, 9th Edition, 1875; and, 10th Edition, 1902. which proved to be a triumph beyond his highest expectations. Zelter, who himself studied under the great composer Bach, was forced into a grim acknowledgment of his pupil’s penetrative genius, fully recognizing that by his clear perception and energy a buried treasure had been brought to light; and Felix, in the delight of his success, made the only reference we hear of to his Jewish origin, for he said, “It is a singular fact that this great treatise on the Passion of our Divine Lord should have been given back to the world by a Hebrew.”19Mrs. Maxwell Y. Maxwell, Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy/ The Parents’ Review – Volume 12, No. 1 & 2, 1901 – p. 7-14; 93-100 (music, biography). It was Mendelssohn’s lifelong endeavor to restore all Bach’s works to public appreciation. He studied them intently, and traces of that study are to be found in his compositions right up to the end of his life. His championship of Bach led him to collect funds for a public monument to his memory.
“An evangelical Christian in the fullest sense….”
Concerning Mendelssohn’s character, he was brilliant in conversation, and in his lighter moments overflowing with sparkling humor and ready pleasantry, loyal and unselfish in the more serious business of life, and never weary of working for the general good. As a friend, he was unvaryingly kind, sympathetic and true. His earnestness as a Christian needs no stronger testimony than that afforded by his own delineation of the character of St. Paul; but it is not too much to say that his heart and life were pure as those of a little child.20Thomas Spencer Baynes, “Arts, Sciences and General Literature” in Encyclopedia Britannica, Ninth Edition, 1888, vol. XVI, 9. Wilhelm Adolf Lampadius wrote “to sum up in a word what was most striking in his character, he was an Evangelical Christian in the fullest sense; he knew and loved the Bible as few did in this time and from this intimate acquaintance came this assured belief, steadfast piety without which it would have been impossible to create works so deep and strong a spiritual character as he wrought.”21Lampadius, Life of Felix Mendelssohn. For Mendelssohn, the Bible served as the cornerstone of daily life, as well as the inspiration for much of his work. When he set passages of Scripture to music, he was painstakingly precise about the wording22Heinrich Edward Jacob, Felix Mendelssohn and His Times (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1963), 220. and believed that “all faith” must be based on Holy Writ.23Elise Polko, Reminiscences of Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy (New York: Leypoldt & Holt, 1869), 13.
Mendelssohn’s letters revealed a profound faith in God.24Eric Werner, Mendelssohn: A New Image of the Composer and His Age (Free Press of Glencoe, 1963), 42. In a letter that brother-in-law Wilhelm Hensel shares, he wrote “pray to God that he might create in us a clean heart and renew a right spirit in us.25Sebastian Hansel, The Mendelssohn Family, Letters and Journals by Sebastian Hansel 1729-1847 (London: Sampson Row, Marston, Searle, & Rivington, 1886), 337. His own work as a composer blended his belief in divine inspiration and his Protestant work ethic.26Hiller, Mendelssohn, Letters and Recollections, 85. He composed a great deal of sacred music, notably his celebrated oratorios Elijah and St. Paul. Many continue to speculate as to the inspirational dynamics and influencing individuals behind the content and libretto used in Mendelssohn’s oratorios. Mendelssohn had a penchant for tying in the New Testament’s message of salvation as well as complementing this message with Old Testament unity. In the Elijah oratorio, Bach has been counted as one influence, as has friend and contributing librettist Julius Schubring. Friederich Schleiermacher, of whom one would naturally think next, disqualifies himself since he emphasized the discontinuity of the Old and New Testaments, rather than commonalities of points of unity.27See for example, F. Schleiermacher, Einlietung ins neue Testamentes (Berlin, 1845) (Samtliche Werke 1.8), 25-28. In Elijah, Mendelssohn expressly conceded the “significance for the New Covenant, which after all must be necessarily included.”28R. Larry Todd, “Mendelssohn: A Life in Music” in F. Mendelssohn Bartholdy, Briefe aus Leipziger Archiven, ed, H.-J. Rothe and R. Szeskus (Leipzig, 1972), (see note 42), 43f. It has been pointed out by Martin Staehelin that a probable influencing factor in Mendelssohn’s Elijah was then-famous Reformed minister Friedrich Krummacher. It is suspected that Mendelssohn read some of the collection of Krummacher’s sermons on Elijah and was inspired by it to model his Elijah aria. Krummacher’s father was a Reformed minister in Frankfurt and it’s likely that Mendelssohn was introduced to Krummacher by the Jeanrenauds.29R. Larry Todd, “Mendelssohn and his World” F.W. Krummacher (see note 26), 71.
The story of Paul’s dramatic conversion to Christianity touched Mendelssohn deeply. As he composed it, he wrote “I must not make any mistakes”30Jacob, Mendelssohn and His Times, 216. and his letters speak of a holy zeal to complete the project.31Eric Werner, Mendelssohn: A New Image of the Composer and His Age, (Free Press of Glencoe, 1963), 283. In the process, he devoured everything he could read on Greek and Church history, as well as daily life in the time Paul lived.32Jacob, Mendelssohn and His Times, 216.
Mendelssohn was not easily seduced by the new enlightened age of rational thought, or higher critical thinking that was sweeping through both ecclesiastical and secular Europe. On one occasion he became angry with friend Julius Schubring for his promotion of Friedrich Schleiermacher’s interesting new Protestant theology movement. Schubring had suggested that it would have been better to have gone to Schleiermacher than to the more conservative minister, Friedrich Philip Wilmsen, who had instructed and confirmed Felix and his siblings. According to Schubring, Mendelssohn carried feelings of affectionate reverence for his pastor and would not allow him to attack his spiritual adviser.33Julius Schubring, Reminiscence of Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, Feb 3, 1866 in Musical World 31, (12 and 19 May 1866) R. Larry Todd, Mendelssohn and His World, 227. Regarding Mendelssohn’s view of sacred music versus secular, Schubring quotes Mendelssohn: “On one occasion, he expressly said that sacred music, as such, did not stand higher in his estimation than any other because all music ought, in its peculiar way, to tend to the glory of God”.34Ibid., 227. Said his friend Berlioz, “He has one of those clear, pure souls that one does not often come across…and I am afraid I shocked him terribly by making fun of the Bible.” Heinrich Heine says of Mendelssohn: “I cannot forgive this man of independent means that he sees fit to serve the Christian pietists with his great and enormous talent. The more I admire his greatness, the more angry I am to see it so iniquitously misused.” Heine himself would convert from Judaism to Christianity in 1825.
Mendelssohn’s zeal for the faith is wonderfully illustrated as he meets a beautiful young Reformed girl, daughter of a French Reformed minister, and falls deeply in love. Theirs would be a storybook romance and marriage.
Cécile Charlotte Sophie Jeanrenaud was the younger daughter of Auguste and Elizabeth, born in Lyon, France, while her father was on sabbatical due to poor health. Eduard Devrient in his memoirs, with a romantic mode of representation, describes Cécile as “a slender figure, the facial features of striking beauty and refinement, dunkelblondem hair and big blue eyes that transfigured zauberischen glory, which, as well as the Rosenröhte cheeks…She spoke little, with quiet, gentle voice.” Felix met Cécile while he was temporarily leading the Choir of Cäcilien-Verein, deputising for the ill conductor. Felix later reported his first meeting with Cécile in Frankfurt: “Luxurious golden-brown hair” a complexion of “transparent delicacy” and the most “bewitching deep-blue eyes” with “dark eyelashes and dark eyebrows”.35The Frankfurt Woman—The city-sheet Frankfurter Newspaper v. 22 September 1928. Mendelssohn was so surprised at the depth of the impression the young girl had made upon him that he was worried. To make sure that he was really at last in love, he went away for a month to take sea-baths at Scheveningen, near The Hague. But salt water would not wash away his ardor, and after a month’s absence he returned, proposed, and on the 9th of September, 18, was betrothed. He wrote his mother at once: “My head is quite giddy from the events of the day; it is already late at night and I have nothing else to say; but I must write to you, I feel so rich and happy.”
Cécile was the daughter of Auguste Jeanrenaud, a French Huguenot minister and “vigorous pioneer of the Protestant Faith.”36R. Larry Todd, Mendelssohn: A Life in Music, 102. At his ordination in 1808, he promised to “further the honor and glory of God” and to “eschew schisms, dissentions and plots.”37Jacques Petitpierre, The Romance of the Mendelssohns (London: Dennis Dobson, 1947), 47. Two years later, he moved to Frankfurt succeeding Pastor Jean-Daniel Souchay (Cécile’s great-Grandfather) as the minister of the French Reformed Church and in 1814 married Elizabeth Souchay, daughter of an influential Huguenot family. In Frankfurt, these Huguenots congregated in “an island of Calvinism” in the very heart of the Lutheran country38Ibid., 70. and where the Reformed since 1806 were on equal footing with the Lutherans. Both the Jeanrenaud and Souchay families had immigrated in 1685 when Louis XIV revoked the Edict of Nantes and settled in Switzerland near Neuchâtel39David Mason Greene, Greene’s Biographical Encyclopedia of Composers. where the Souchay’s were goldsmiths.
On March 28, 1837, at 11:00 AM in the French Reformed Church, the Frankfurt elite witnessed Auguste Jeanrenaud’s successor, Pastor Paul Joseph Appia, perform the wedding ceremony in French and preach a sermon on Psalm 92: “It is a good thing to give thanks unto the Lord, and to sing praises unto thy name O Most High; to show forth thy loving kindness in the morning, and thy faithfulness every night, upon an instrument of ten strings, and upon the psaltery; upon the harp with a solemn sound.”40Jacques Petitpierre, Le Mariage de Mendelssohn (Lausanne: Librairie Payot & Cie,1937). Friend Ferdinand Hiller surprised them with a new bridal chorus. The wedding tour lasted nearly a month, and the honeymooners kept a journal, in which they both sketched and wrote humorous nothings. The home they chose was in Leipzig, where they attended the Reformed Church. It was in Leipzig that Fanny Hensel visited them, and found Cécile possessed not only of “the beautiful eyes” Felix had raved over so much, “but possessed also of a wonderfully soothing temperament, that calmed her husband’s whims and promised to cure him of his irritability.”
It is a proof of the fondness the people cherished for Mendelssohn that, when the engagement became noised abroad, the directors of the Gewandhaus in Leipzig put on the program, the second finale in Fidelio—”He who has gained a charming wife” (“Wer ein holdes Weib errungen”). The audience saw the meaning at once and shouted its enthusiasm until Mendelssohn was forced to seat himself at the piano and extemporize upon the theme.
The married life of the two was interrupted by the journeys the husband had to make for his important engagements, till he growled vigorously, and regretted being a conductor at all.
In February, 1838, their first child was born, and Cécile was dangerously ill. On other tours of his, even to England, she accompanied him. She bore him five children, three boys and two girls. Their life together was almost perfect. He writes, in 18, to a friend who is to be married: “If I have still a wish to form it is that your blissful betrothal-mood may be continued in marriage, that is, may you be like me, who feel every day of my life that I cannot be sufficiently thankful to God for my happiness.”
In another letter, he thus pictures his private paradise: “Eating and sleeping, without dress coat, without piano, without visiting-cards, without carriage and horses, but with donkeys, with wild flowers, with music-paper and sketch-book, with Cécile and the children.” Again, in 1844, he writes of a return home: “I found all my family well, and we had a joyful meeting. Cécile looks so well again,—tanned by the sun, but without the least trace of her former indisposition; my first glance told this when I came into the room, but to this day I cannot cease rejoicing afresh every time I look at her. The children are as brown as Moors, and play all day long in the garden. And so I am myself again now, and I take one of the sheets of paper that Cécile painted for me, to write to you.
“I am sitting here at the open window, looking into the garden at the children, who are playing with their ‘dear Johann.’ The omnibus to Koenigstein passes here twice every day. We have early strawberries for breakfast, at two we dine, have supper at half-past eight in the evening, and by ten we are all asleep. The country is covered with pear-trees and apple-trees, so heavy with fruit that they are all propped up; then the blue hills, and the windings of the Main and the Rhine; the confectioner, from whom you can buy thread and shirt-buttons; the list of visitors, which comes out every Saturday, as Punch does with you; the walking-post, who, before going to Frankfurt, calls as he passes to ask what we want, and next day brings me my linen back; the women who sell cherries, with whom my little four-year-old Paul makes a bargain, or sends them away, just as he pleases; above all, the pure Rhenish air,—this is familiar to all, and I call it Germany!”
Sir Grove makes this sketch of the blissful circle: “The pleasure in his simple home life, which crops out now and then in these Frankfurt letters, is very genuine and delightful. Now, Marie is learning the scale of C; he has actually forgotten how to play it, and has taught her to pass her thumb under the wrong finger! Now, Paul tumbles the others about so as to crack their skulls as well as his own. Another time he is dragged off from his letter to see a great tower which the children have built, and on which they have ranged all their slices of bread and jam—’A good idea for an architect.’ At ten Carl comes to him for reading and sums, and at five for spelling and geography—and so on. ‘And,’ to sum up, ‘the best part of every pleasure is gone if Cécile is not there.’ His wife is always somewhere in the picture.”
During his life, Mendelssohn had been celebrated as rich, talented, courted, petted, loved, even adored and, according to French Composer Hector Berlioz, “His path was practically ‘roses, roses all the way.'” He never knew the cares that beset the lives of Beethoven, Mozart, Schubert, Wagner, and Schumann. The fires of adversity never touched him like that of the tortured artists. Mendelssohn, like Bach, Handel and Brahms did not compose to inner feelings, and/or the sentimentality driven by the popular brooding composers and failed to pass muster with the charmed and elite of the day who were influenced by the French and German philosophers of the enlightenment. Thus, the joyful and celebratory work of Mendelssohn and the like lost favor to the more cerebral and melancholy work of the new school of the romantic classical composers of the second half of the 19th century.
Thus began the war of the Romantics as two separate schools of music. The “New German School,” the radical progressives of Weimar favored the composers of the “Music of the Future” including the music of Liszt and Wagner. The conservative classical school consisted of enthusiasts supporting the music of Brahms, Bach and Handel. Two of the well-loved composers in the history of classical music are Mendelssohn and Franz Schubert. Unlike composers like Beethoven, Mahler and Wagner, their music is relatively free from inwardly-directed turmoil, depending instead on the classical perfection of form, drama derived from nature, and beautiful melodies designed to make an impact on the listener.
Enter Richard Wagner. Idolized by both King Ludwig II and Adolph Hitler, Wagner’s compositions were brilliantly conceived in depth, beauty and drama, key ingredients that Wagner would argue are born of superior genetics (a nuance which would later become a pillar of the eugenicist “master race”).
Wagner also found sympathizers in Victorian England not long after Mendelssohn had attained celebrity status throughout England, and particularly in the courts of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. In England, after his death at the age of 38, Mendelssohn’s memory was celebrated in a kind of hero worship that manifested itself in the practice of devising fanciful titles to his popular work Song Without Words and Elizabeth Sheppard’s fictional-historical-romance Charles Auchester, which offered a thinly veiled allusion to the idealized Mendelssohn in the character Seraphael. To a large degree, this post-humous idealization of Mendelssohn encouraged a counter-reaction. And so the view of Mendelssohn’s music as overly sentimental—at best insipid, and at worst saccharine creations, in contrast to Robert Schumann’s view of them as exquisitely refined miniatures—took hold.41R. Larry Todd, “London Music in 1888-1889 as heard by Corno di Bassetto (later known as Bernard Shaw)” in Mendelssohn and His World, (Princeton Paperbacks, 1991) preface x.
George Bernard Shaw—knee deep in drama, politics and bad philosophy—was a Fabian Society member influenced by German Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. Shaw took issue over this “conventional sentimentality” and was particularly critical of Mendelssohn’s work while extolling that of Wagner in his pamphlet, “The Perfect Wagnerite”. An advocate of eugenic politics, Shaw does take issue with Hitler and the “bee in his bonnet” as Shaw put it, the question about the Jews. Shaw’s own view is that “…we ought to tackle the Jewish question by admitting the right of the State to make eugenic experiments by weeding out any strains they think undesirable.”42Bryan Cheyette, “Constructions of ‘the Jew’” in English Literature and Society: Racial Representations, 1875-1945 (Cambridge University Press, 1993), 118, 301.
Shaw accuses Mendelssohn of kid-glove sentimentality and oratorio-mongering as critical voices were raised against Victorian values even before the end of the Queen’s reign. The Wagnerian critique and the Victorian critiques account for much of the 20th-century reaction against Mendelssohn, painting him as a superficial effeminate Victorian. Twentieth century American music theorist Charles Rosen characterized Mendelssohn as, “the inventor of religious kitsch in music”. In Rosen’s view, Mendelssohn’s religious music “is designed to make us feel that the concert hall has been transformed into a church. The music expresses not religion but piety…This is kitsch insofar as it substitutes for religion itself the emotional shell of religion.”43Charles Rosen, The Romantic Generation (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995), 590, 594.
Nietzsche, the son of a Lutheran minister, and Wagner socialized in the same circles for several years before Wagner’s social fall from grace, compelling Nietzsche to write his pamphlet, “The Case Against Wagner”.
In 1834, Mendelssohn was successful and accomplished, and by that time the impecunious and opportunistic Wagner was assimilating Mendelssohn features into his style both in the E Major overture in his 2nd opera The Fairies reminiscent of the Midsummer Night’s Dream overture and in 1835 for his incidental music to Theodor Apel’s drama Columbus. In 1879, Wagner would admit that he was guilty of plagiarism.44R. Larry Todd, Mendelssohn: A life in Music, 316.
Although Wagner was forced to flee his home (slipping the pursuit of creditors) and made a scant living most of his life, his music was greatly welcomed by Germany and Europe’s elite sophisticates. Froth with talent, confidence and resolve, Wagner was highly influential not only to the casual observer, but to aspiring despots as well.
Wagner would later capitalize as the labor of his third opera Rienzi is promoted due in part through the legacy and tutelage of the wealthy Jewish Composer Giacomo Meyerbeer of Les Huguenot fame.
Wagner’s tract “Jewishness in Music”, normally translated Judaism in Music, was a scathing attack on Jews in general and composers Giacomo Meyerbeer and Felix Mendelssohn in particular. The tract was published under a pseudonym in the New Journal of Music in Leipzig, 1850. It was reissued in a greatly expanded version under Wagner’s name in 1869. It is regarded by many as an important landmark in the twisted history of German anti-Semitism. Wagner would only conduct Mendelssohn’s music when wearing gloves. At the conclusion of the performance, he would toss the gloves to the ground to be swept away by the janitor, such was his disdain.
Ironically, Wagner would forever share billing with Mendelssohn on many happy occasions, as his bridal chorus (“Here Comes The Bride”) is heard as precursor to sacred vows followed by Mendelssohn’s distinctive wedding march.
Although the Nazis would attempt to eradicate all evidence of Mendelssohn in Germany, his legacy today is honored and embraced, while theirs is universally despised. Thankfully, during his own lifetime, Mendelssohn did not have to face the great evils that the Twentieth Century would unleash. When death claimed Mendelssohn at a relatively early age, he left behind a loving family, devoted friends and an unblemished Christian testimony. The noted pianist and composer Clara Schumann, writing about Cécile Mendelssohn on the death of her husband said that Cécile, “…received me with the tenderness of a sister, wept in silence, and was calm and composed as ever. She thanked me for all the love and devotion I had shown to her Felix, grieved for me that I should have to mourn so faithful a friend, and spoke of the love with which Felix always had regarded me. Long we spoke of him; it comforted her, and she was loath for me to depart. She was most unpretentious in her sorrow, gentle, and resigned to live for the care and education of her children. She said God would help her, and surely her boys would have the inheritance of some of their father’s genius. There could not be a more worthy memory of him than the well-balanced, strong and tender heart of this mourning widow.”45Gustav Kobbe, The Loves of Great Composers (New York, NY: Thomas Crowell & Co., 1905), 6.
The grave marker of Cécile Mendelssohn had been lost for many years until recently discovered in 2004. The inscription in French reads: Elle n’est pas ici, pour quoi chercher, ceux parmi les morts, qui sont vivants. “She is not here, what to look for those among the dead, who are alive.”
|↑1||Jiri Weils, Mendelssohn on the Roof (Northwestern University Press, 1998), 2.|
|↑2||Jane Stuart Smith and Jane Carlson, The Gift of Music: Great Composers and Their Influence (Crossway, 1980), 96|
|↑3||R. Larry Todd, “Letter of June 5, 18, NYPL No. 65; Smart’s Canon is in Felix’s album MDM d. 8, fol. 70v.” in Mendelssohn, A Life in Music (Oxford University Press 2003), 213.|
|↑4||Wilhelm Adolph Lampadius, Th. D., The Life of Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy (1865) 239.|
|↑5||R. Larry Todd, “Gert Schiff,” An Epoch of Longing: An introduction of German painting of the Nineteenth Century, in German Masters of Nineteenth Century, (N.Y., 1987, p.107), in Mendelssohn: A Lifetime in Music (Oxford University Press, 2003), 236.|
|↑6||R. Larry Todd, “Felix to Abraham letter December 11, 1830, Sutermeister, 87.” In Mendelssohn: A Lifetime in Music (Oxford University Press, 2003), 236.|
|↑7||R. Larry Todd, “February 15, 1831, in MLL, 159.”, in Mendelssohn: A Lifetime in Music (Oxford University Press, 2003), 236.|
|↑9||Ralph P. Lock, Music, Musicians and the Saint-Simonians (University of Chicago Press, 1986),7.|
|↑10||Ferdinand Hiller, Felix Mendelssohn, Letters and Recollections (London: MacMillan, 1874).|
|↑11||Patrick Kavanaugh, The Spiritual Lives of the Great Composers (Zondervan, 1996), 75.|
|↑12||Sebastian Hansel, The Mendelssohn Family, Letters and Journals by Sebastian Hansel 1729-1847 (London: Sampson Row, Marston, Searle, & Rivington, 1886).|
|↑13||Eric Werner, Mendelssohn: A New Image of the Composer and His Age (Free Press of Glencoe, 1963), 37.|
|↑16||George R. Marek, Gentle Genius, the Story of Felix Mendelssohn (New York, NY: Funk & Wagnalls, 1972), 103.|
|↑17||Charlotte Moscheles, tr. A. D. Coleridge, Life of Moscheles, 2 vols. (London 1873), Felix Moscheles (ed.), Letters of Felix Mendelssohn to Ignaz and Charlotte Moscheles (London, 1888), Felix Moscheles, Fragments of an Autobiography (London, 1899).|
|↑18||Encyclopedia Britannica, 9th Edition, 1875; and, 10th Edition, 1902.|
|↑19||Mrs. Maxwell Y. Maxwell, Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy/ The Parents’ Review – Volume 12, No. 1 & 2, 1901 – p. 7-14; 93-100 (music, biography).|
|↑20||Thomas Spencer Baynes, “Arts, Sciences and General Literature” in Encyclopedia Britannica, Ninth Edition, 1888, vol. XVI, 9.|
|↑21||Lampadius, Life of Felix Mendelssohn.|
|↑22||Heinrich Edward Jacob, Felix Mendelssohn and His Times (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1963), 220.|
|↑23||Elise Polko, Reminiscences of Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy (New York: Leypoldt & Holt, 1869), 13.|
|↑24||Eric Werner, Mendelssohn: A New Image of the Composer and His Age (Free Press of Glencoe, 1963), 42.|
|↑25||Sebastian Hansel, The Mendelssohn Family, Letters and Journals by Sebastian Hansel 1729-1847 (London: Sampson Row, Marston, Searle, & Rivington, 1886), 337.|
|↑26||Hiller, Mendelssohn, Letters and Recollections, 85.|
|↑27||See for example, F. Schleiermacher, Einlietung ins neue Testamentes (Berlin, 1845) (Samtliche Werke 1.8), 25-28.|
|↑28||R. Larry Todd, “Mendelssohn: A Life in Music” in F. Mendelssohn Bartholdy, Briefe aus Leipziger Archiven, ed, H.-J. Rothe and R. Szeskus (Leipzig, 1972), (see note 42), 43f.|
|↑29||R. Larry Todd, “Mendelssohn and his World” F.W. Krummacher (see note 26), 71.|
|↑30||Jacob, Mendelssohn and His Times, 216.|
|↑31||Eric Werner, Mendelssohn: A New Image of the Composer and His Age, (Free Press of Glencoe, 1963), 283.|
|↑32||Jacob, Mendelssohn and His Times, 216.|
|↑33||Julius Schubring, Reminiscence of Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, Feb 3, 1866 in Musical World 31, (12 and 19 May 1866) R. Larry Todd, Mendelssohn and His World, 227.|
|↑35||The Frankfurt Woman—The city-sheet Frankfurter Newspaper v. 22 September 1928.|
|↑36||R. Larry Todd, Mendelssohn: A Life in Music, 102.|
|↑37||Jacques Petitpierre, The Romance of the Mendelssohns (London: Dennis Dobson, 1947), 47.|
|↑39||David Mason Greene, Greene’s Biographical Encyclopedia of Composers.|
|↑40||Jacques Petitpierre, Le Mariage de Mendelssohn (Lausanne: Librairie Payot & Cie,1937).|
|↑41||R. Larry Todd, “London Music in 1888-1889 as heard by Corno di Bassetto (later known as Bernard Shaw)” in Mendelssohn and His World, (Princeton Paperbacks, 1991) preface x.|
|↑42||Bryan Cheyette, “Constructions of ‘the Jew’” in English Literature and Society: Racial Representations, 1875-1945 (Cambridge University Press, 1993), 118, 301.|
|↑43||Charles Rosen, The Romantic Generation (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995), 590, 594.|
|↑44||R. Larry Todd, Mendelssohn: A life in Music, 316.|
|↑45||Gustav Kobbe, The Loves of Great Composers (New York, NY: Thomas Crowell & Co., 1905), 6.|