Felix Rocks

Almost all composers tend to get misrepresented by history in one way or another.

The great modern example is the “debate” about Shostakovich, in which many American academics continue to promote a portrait of the man at odds with descriptions of him by all his children and colleagues. Of course, there was more to Mozart than the cartoon-ish figure in Amadeus, and if Mahler was really as neurotic and emotionally unstable as he’s often portrayed, he could never have run the two biggest opera companies in the world.

However, I think Mendelssohn has gotten about the worst treatment in the press of any major core-repertoire composer (possibly tied with his friend, Schumann). Why is it that he is still treated as the composer of cutesy-wootsey, nicey-nicey music? Why do writers so often call his music “brilliant” as if that were an insult? How often does a commentator really come to grips with the true spiritual and emotional depth of his music?

Let’s set the record straight. Let’s make this perfectly clear:

Mendelssohn’s reputation has been shortchanged for over 150 years because of repeated, clearly anti-Semitic attacks by commentators in the 19th Century, who created a false portrait of a composer of surface brilliance whose music somehow lacked the profound spiritual content of his non-Jewish contemporaries and successors. It was with the worst of intentions that those who wrote history described his music as  “sweet and tinkling, without depth” (Wagner’s words).

History has taught us to look for deep meanings in every note by Beethoven. Wagner, who repeatedly denounced Mendelssohn in his less-savory writings, told us himself that we were to look for symbolism, context and meaning in every bar of his (Wagner’s) music. With Brahms it is assumed that we will always treat his every thought with reverence and deep contemplation.  In fact, we may have shortchanged of these composer’s capacity for humor and good cheer by insisting on treating their ever thought as deeply personal, and powerfully felt.

On the other hand, as often as we hear Mendelssohn’s “hits,” we rarely get any discussion of what this music means, only how popular it is and how easy it was for him to write. We’re rarely told to look for anything truly deep, personal and profound. We treat the Violin Concerto as harmless, remembering only the sunny and virtuosic finale and forgetting the tragic and stormy first movement. We think of the Italian Symphony as a virtuoso showpiece for the orchestra, but isn’t there something quite ferocious, dangerous and wild about the Tarantella which ends the work? Both piano trios are in minor keys and are just as stormy and scary as anything by Dvorak or Brahms.

No one in his generation understood Beethoven better, or was more successful in responding to Beethoven’s ideas about form and meaning than Mendelssohn. Mendelssohn’s early A minor String Quartet is a beautiful and very thoughtful answer to Beethoven’s own A minor Quartet op 132. Mendelssohn’s Fifth Symphony traces a truly Beethovenian path from tragedy to celebration, and yet commentators have scarcely noticed the tremendous pathos of the slow movement, or the high tragedy of the first.

Of course Mendelssohn himself expressed some reservations about the Fifth, but these seem to have been the result of his eventual realization that the anti-Semitic voices in the press were never going to accept him on his merits. I can’t help but feel he lost the stomach for this work which so eloquently celebrated the legacy of the Reformation. Quite a tragic turn for a man who had been baptized and raised in the Lutheran church.

Of course, for 19th century listeners (as for listeners of our own time) it  has always been too easy to equate profundity with pomposity, and there is not a pompous or self indulgent note in all of Mendelssohn’s music.

Mendelssohn’s music is %100 fat-free.

It is pure fire, pure direction.

At its best it can devastatingly tragic without a hint of sentimentality or self-indulgence, or boundlessly jubilant and radiantly hopeful.

It is a challenge to find any resource on Mendelssohn that avoids these pernicious stereotypes that have haunted him since his death. If you visit the website that bears his name, you’ll read this.

“Whether he was born with his incredible talent or was the product of an artistically and intellectually-inclined family will remain a mystery, but like all prodigies, Mendelssohn showed signs of true genius from childhood.”

I’m sorry, Mendelssohn clearly was born with incredible talent and was the product of an artistically and intellectually inclinded family. Moreover, he did not “show signs” of genius from childhood, he clearly was a fully accomplished genius as a child. He was not the next great child prodigy after Mozart, he was a greater child prodigy than Mozart. Nothing Mozart wrote before the age of 22 can be compared to the best works of Mendelssohn’s teenage years, such as the Midsummer Night’s Dream Overture and the Octet, as well as the early quartets.

He worked himself to death as conductor, giving us back the music of J.S Bach, and wrote possibly the most perfect choral work of the 19th Century in Elijah, which we continue to offer up for public massacre at the hands of inept church choirs everywhere. Felixmendelssohn.com suggests that he was “a great composer who’s contribution would have been greater, had his life been marred with more hardships,” and yet he died at 38 with the body of an 80-year old. For me there is just as much hardship and pathos in the very-brief third movement of the Fifth Symphony as in all of Tristan. Let’s stop talking about him as a man who somehow wrote facile music that sounds good (as if sounding good was a failing) and recognize him for what he truly was so that we can appreciate him for what he really gave us. It’s not just music that sounds like great music, it is great music, and as performers and listeners we ought to be thinking harder about what this music really says.

By the way, can you think of any composer who wrote more often in minor keys?

UPDATE- A nice response at My Second Act

c.2006 Kenneth Woods

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

Learn about Kenneth at www.kennethwoods.net

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