Felix Mendelssohn: a great composer still to be rediscovered.
Felix Mendelssohn is still the most undervalued and misunderstood of the great composers of the 19th century. Born in Hamburg in 1809 to an upper-middle class Jewish family, and grandson of the philosopher Moses Mendelssohn, he was distinguished by an enlightened intelligence highly atypical for his time. He was a pianist, orchestral conductor, composer, writer, polyglot, sketcher and painter, but also organizer, founder and director of the Leipzig Conservatory. Thanks to Mendelssohn, the music of Bach was reappraised (it was he who discovered the St. Matthew Passion) and since then has been reconsidered as the foundation of western art music.
Because of the anti-Semitic persecutions of which he was a victim, culminating in the banning of his music by the nazi regime, the figure and work of Mendelssohn have long been misunderstood and misinterpreted. The great German conductor Kurt Masur, one of the most authoritative interpreters of Mendelssohn, once said: When I was 12, during Nazism, I studied with a teacher who set me the Songs without Words, but told me it was forbidden to play them, so I was forced to play them with the windows closed. In fact during the Third Reich the presence of the secret police was very strong.
The statue of Mendelssohn that stood in front of the Leipzig Gewandhaus was destroyed by the nazis on 9 November 1936. And along with the statue they also tried to cancel Mendelssohn's music, to make him disappear from history: to the extent that in 1938 Hitler's regime commissioned Carl Orff to rewrite the incidental music to Shakespeare's A midsummer night's dream, with the intention that it should replace the already celebrated music of Mendelssohn.
It is also on account of these historical facts that Mendelssohn still today awaits a complete reappraisal: some of his compositions remain to this day unpublished and unperformed, and a complete scientifically compiled catalogue of his works was only published in 2009 by Ralf Wehner (Breitkopf & Hartel). Many people are still unaware of his true importance in the history of music. On the other hand, as Kurt Masur remarks, we must remember that Mendelssohn was German, and so attracts the enemies of the Germans; he was Jewish, and had the enemies of the Jews. But he was later baptized. He therefore occupied three different seats. Nobody said “This is our man”. He felt he was German, he composed many Lieder on texts by Heine, but was refused by the country he belonged to and loved.
Mendelssohn was not a practising Jew, and, like his brothers, converted to Protestantism at the instigation of their father Abraham, who had also converted. However, many echoes of Jewish culture remain in his music, with the frequent use of melodic formulas derived from traditional Jewish music. Often, in the same single composition, Mendelssohn introduces elements of Jewish origin alongside others of Christian provenance: his two great oratorios Paulus and Elias are emblematic in this sense. We don't know how familiar Felix was with the philosophical writings of his grandfather, but his tendency towards the tolerance and optimism of enlightenment certainly shows a strong link with Moses Mendelssohn. Idealistic optimism, but integrated with a pragmatic approach in real life, was, in fact, one of the most worthy legacies left by the Mendelssohn family.
Mendelssohn's relationship with music and with its meaning was one of great modernity, and this can be inferred from a letter that Mendelssohn wrote to Marc André Souchay on 15 October 1842: What the music I love communicates to me is not in the least too vague to be converted into words, but, on the contrary, is too defined. If I was asked what I was thinking while writing a Lied ohne Worte, I would reply: precisely the music as I wrote it. And even if I happened to have in mind some words for one or another of these Lieder, I would never want to tell anyone, because the same words don't have the same meaning for different people. Only music can have the same meaning for everyone, a meaning that, however, cannot be expressed in words.
Mendelssohn incarnates the perfect union between tradition and innovation: he experimented with new musical structures without ever losing his peculiar formal balance, he retrieved the great tradition of the sacred music of Bach and Händel, renewing it in the light of the experience of German Romanticism. If Mendelssohn had not existed, the evolution of music in the second half of the19th century would certainly have been very different.
Maybe the time is now finally ripe to rediscover the true greatness of this composer.