Reviver in Need of Revival
by Chad Twedt
In my early years of high school, I discovered the world of music on computers when I started using a music program called Visual Composer. More than I wanted to compose, I wanted to transcribe the most difficult music I could find in my family's music collection, since computers do not have the technical difficulties that I had in playing music, and I wanted to hear what the music would sound like played faster than what I could handle. I ended up transcribing almost 140 pages of music by Mendelssohn (mostly large-scale piano works), and as I listened to his music, every piece made me wonder more and more why there was such a shortage of recordings of these pieces. Dr. Ronald Williams, my piano instructor at the time, hadn't even heard of Mendelssohn's Trois Caprices, Op. 33, which had been (and still are) three of my favorite piano pieces.
In my research, I have found that I am not the only one in the world who feels that Mendelssohn is not as popular as he should be, if one judges solely on the merit of his music. However, before discussing this issue, it is important to first know Mendelssohn's life and especially his contributions.
Mendelssohn, unlike a great number of composers, was fortunate enough to have travelled around Europe extensively in his youth. Before he was even 25, he had grown up in Berlin, taken lessons in Paris, visited London (several times), and took a tour of Italy, and most of his earliest travelling was with his father, who very much encouraged Mendelssohn in his musical pursuit. Mendelssohn also had the benefit of growing up in an upper-middle-class family, which proved to be very significant in his musical career. His house became one of the most important salons in Berlin, with its theatrical performances, literary readings, and Sunday concerts, and because of this, he made many connections to diplomats, other musicians, critics, music editors, and even the philosopher Hegel.
From a very early age, Mendelssohn had been interested in the works of Bach, and had come to know many of his large scale works that were, at the time, considered impossible to perform. One of these works was the St. Matthew Passion, a piece which he revised, and by the time he was 20 years old, was performed three times under his direction. This was the beginning of his great Bach revival, which continued in one way or another through the rest of his life.
Although Mendelssohn is more known for this Bach revival, he also played an important role in the revival of 18th century forgotten works, such as Mozart's symphonies and concertos, Weber's concertos, Schubert's C major symphony, and even Beethoven's symphonies and concertos, including his Ninth Symphony, which is tremendously popular today. Mendelssohn also started directing "historical concerts" in 1837, in which he introduced listeners to music from the time of Bach to their own day.
Not only did this revive forgotten music, it also encouraged contemporary composers to produce new works. Kohler points out that even Schumann owed a large measure of his development and fame to the sponsorship of Mendelssohn, who conducted the premieres of his first two symphonies and Piano Concerto. There is no doubt that Mendelssohn had a great influence on popular music of the time, but more importantly, on what music would become part of the standard repertoire in the musical world for years to come.
As if Mendelssohn didn't contribute enough with his revival and support of music up to his time, Mendelssohn also contributed a great deal to the performance of orchestral music as well as improved conditions for its performers. When he was conductor of the Leipzig Gewandhaus orchestra, he shifted the direction of symphonies from the leader of the orchestra to the conductor. He recruited many soloists to perform with the orchestra, which attracted a larger audience, and he fought successfully for an increase in salary for the members of the orchestra. Another notable contribution of Mendelssohn was his establishment of the Leipzig Conservatory in 1843.
Even without considering all of these contributions, Mendelssohn would surely be no less respected as a composer than he is now. However, what is surprising is that he is not more respected than he is now. Like his Trois Caprices, a great deal of his piano music is virtually unknown, yet a lot of it is very worthy of being part of the standard repertoire of pianists. His "Andante Cantabile and Presto Agitato" Op. 117, Capriccio in f-sharp Op. 5, as well as his six sonatas are all very large-scale works, difficult to play (but not impossible), as well as being very unique and interesting to listen to. Yet there are very few recordings of his sonatas, and even fewer recordings of the pieces previously mentioned.
What reinforces the idea that Mendelssohn's popularity is not where it should be today is the fact that Mendelssohn was actually very popular during his time. Some composers were never extremely popular to begin with, and they still may lack the popularity that some feel he or she may deserve. However, in Mendelssohn's case, the popularity that was once there has not been there since just after his death. Weinstock suggests that the main reason for the decline in his popularity was that Mendelssohn was "a man of enormous charm without depth" who "composed more music than his talent warranted." (p. 689) Marek adds to this criticism by saying that much of Mendelssohn's piano music is "too slight and facile," and that "Mendelssohn never reached the thrust of Liszt or the intensity of Schumann." (p. 331) Kupferberg points out that some critics even go as far as to say that, since Mendelssohn was never tried by poverty, disappointment, bad health, as were other composers, it shows in his music. (p. 248)
What needs to be considered, however, is the possibility that these very qualities are exactly what makes Mendelssohn's music so great. What if Mendelssohn had experienced worse things than he did--does that automatically translate to composing "better" music? And what does comparing him to other composers in the manner above accomplish, since every composer has his or her own unique style of composition (and everyone has their own idea of what they like to hear in music)? It is just as easy to say that Schumann never reached the charm of Mendelssohn. What this issue of taste in music all boils down to is best said by Hurd. He says that the downfall of Mendelssohn's reputation is largely due to "...an inevitable change of taste that led certain critics to see in his music all that they most disliked of the nineteenth century." (p. 81) In other words, Mendelssohn's music did not change--his critics did.
Mendelssohn's music is undoubtedly "charming," and it may possibly lack a certain depth that can be found in other composers' music of his time. However, Stolba points out that "Mendelssohn was essentially a Classical composer ... with some Romantic tendencies." Kohler agrees when he says that the best classification one could put Mendelssohn into would be neo-classic. (p. 143) Regardless of what words are chosen to classify Mendelssohn, it is very clear that the only way one can put Mendelssohn strictly into the "Romantic" category is if one only considers that he lived from 1809 to 1847 (classifying by time period, not by music style). Therefore, it is unfair to compare him to Liszt and Schumann, since his music strives to be more like the music of Mozart in its simplicity and form. It is no different to consider Mendelssohn a "Romantic" composer than it is to consider Rachmaninov a "Contemporary" composer, since Rachmaninov composed primarily in the 20th century (yet Rachmaninov's music is widely accepted as being "Romantic" in style). Would it be any less fair to judge Rachmaninov's music based on comparisons made with Prokofiev and Shostakovich, just because they all happened to live at the same time?
Having to do with the fact that Mendelssohn was a Jew, another factor in Mendelssohn's declined popularity was the anti-Semitic movement that reached everywhere around Mendelssohn, even to Wagner, one of Germany's greatest composers. In 1850 (the year after Mendelssohn's death), a pamphlet entitled Judaism in Music was published in which Wagner openly expressed his rejection of Mendelssohn as a part of German culture. This movement gained more and more momentum, until the peak was reached with the arrival of Hitler, who had the Mendelssohn memorial in Leipzig destroyed in 1936, and who suppressed Mendelssohn's music in every way he possibly could within his sphere of influence. Although this event did not take as devastating of a toll on Mendelssohn's worldwide popularity as what some snobby critics had to say about him did, the toll that it took on his popularity was a very important one, since it was in Mendelssohn's homeland, a place which should be more proud of Mendelssohn than any other place in the world.
Similar to the way in which Mendelssohn revived the forgotten music of Bach and many other composers, I hope that the forgotten music of Mendelssohn will someday be revived and placed on the pedestal that it deserves to be on. The anti-Semitic movement in Germany has continued to decline over the decades ("decline" is a mild word when referring to the time of Hitler), but there are still more than enough people who continue to see Mendelssohn as a "wannabe" Romantic composer, and this seems to be the main limiting agent in Mendelssohn's popularity, since Mendelssohn, if anything, was a wannabe Classical composer with "Romantic tendencies," as Stolba puts it. There needs to be a great awakening among stubborn critics who insist on comparing Mendelssohn to composers who are not similar to him, except for the fact that they lived in the same century. Since most critics actually do acknowledge that Mendelssohn is a "Classic Romanticist," they should also treat him like one.
Botstein, Leon. "Songs Without Words: Thoughts on Music, Theology, and the Role of the Jewish Question in the Work of Felix Mendelssohn." The Musical Quarterly 77, No. 4 (Winter 1993):561-577.
Hurd, Michael. The Great Composers: Mendelssohn. London: Faber and Faber, 1970. ML 410.M5H9
Jacob, Heinrich Eduard. Felix Mendelssohn and His Times. Translated by Richard and Clara Winston. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1963. 780.92 M537JE
Kohler, Karl-Heinz. The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. Washington, D.C.: Macmillan Publishers Limited, 1980. Vol. 12, pp. 135-152.
Kupferberg, Herbert. The Mendelssohns: Three Generations of Genius. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1972. ML 410.M5K88
Marek, George R. Gentle Genius: The Story of Felix Mendelssohn. New York: Funk & Wagnalls, 1972. ML 410.M5M15
Richards, Denby. Liner notes for CD: Mendelssohn, Piano Concertos Nos. 1 & 2, Capriccio Brillant. BMG Music, 1989. (personal collection)
Sabean, David Warren. "Fanny and Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy and the Question of Incest." The Musical Quarterly 77, No. 4 (Winter 1993):709-715.
Stolba, K. Marie. The Development of Western Music: A History, Second Edition. Dubuque, IA: Brown & Benchmark Publishers, 1994. pp. 492-499.
Weinstock, Herbert. The Encyclopedia Americana: International Edition. Danbury, CT: Groiler Inc., 1993. Vol. 18, pp. 688-690.