Was Felix Mendelssohn a great composer? On its face, the question seems absurd. One of the most gifted child prodigies in the history of music, he produced his first masterpiece at the age of sixteen. From then on, he was recognized, first in Germany and then throughout the West, as an artist of near-Mozartean abilities, and not only as a composer but also as a pianist and conductor.
But Mendelssohn’s enduring popularity has often been at odds—sometimes quite sharply—with his critical standing. Despite general acknowledgement of his genius, there has been a noticeable reluctance to rank him with, say, Schumann or Brahms. Some critics have explicitly claimed that the composer of the Midsummer Night’s Dream Overture and the E-Minor Violin Concerto was (in the words of B.H. Haggin) a “minor master . . . working on a small scale of emotion and texture.” A few have gone further still: George Bernard Shaw, for example, attacked what he called Mendelssohn’s “kid-glove gentility, his conventional sentimentality, and his despicable oratorio-mongering.”
While the distinction between “major” and “minor” masters is far from meaningless, the latter term is usually reserved for miniaturists like Johann Strauss or Percy Grainger. Can Mendelssohn, who worked successfully in all the large-scale forms except opera, properly be called minor? Is there some underlying defect in his music, or, in denying him true greatness, have his critics been influenced by nonmusical factors? An insightful short biography by Peter Mercer-Taylor, the newest addition to the excellent Musical Lives series published by Cambridge University Press, suggests an answer.1
Mendelssohn was born in Hamburg in 1809, the eldest son of a well-to-do merchant banker who was himself the son of Moses Mendelssohn (1729-1786), the Jewish philosopher and advocate of religious tolerance who sought to reconcile faith with Enlightenment rationalism. Felix and his three siblings, baptized into Protestantism in 1816 and given the surname “Bartholdy,” were all tutored privately and expected to excel; but Felix’s accomplishments were remarkable by any possible standard.
By the time he was fifteen, he had written a violin sonata, three piano quartets, four concertos, twelve symphonies for string orchestra, and dozens of other pieces. As adept with words as with music, he met and befriended Goethe at the unlikely age of twelve, by which time he had already embarked on what ultimately became a vast correspondence (some 5,000 of his letters have survived). In addition to German, he spoke English, Greek, French, Italian, and Latin, and painted uninspired but technically competent landscapes in his spare time.
Though Mendelssohn’s student works were accomplished far beyond his young years, it was the E-Flat Octet for Strings, Op. 20 (1825), that constituted a truly astonishing step forward for the sixteen-year-old composer.2 Like much of his later music, it is traditional, even conservative, in form, but idiosyncratic in concept and content: a four-movement classical symphony scored for a double string quartet (four violins, two violas, and two cellos), climaxing in a high-speed finale whose first subject is an eight-part fugue. The unorthodox instrumentation is deployed with dazzling ingenuity, while the feathery, mysterious sound of the gossamer-light scherzo would become a Mendelssohn trademark.
This movement, inspired by a stanza from Goethe’s Faust2 marked the first of many occasions when the composer would seek to translate literature into the abstract language of instrumental music. Fanny Mendelssohn, Felix’s older sister and confidante, described it as follows:
[T]he whole [movement] is to be played staccato and pianissimo, the tremolandos coming in now and then, the trills passing away with the quickness of lightning; everything new and strange, and at the same time most insinuating and pleasing, one feels so near the world of spirits, carried away in the air, half inclined to snatch up a broomstick and follow the aerial procession.
Not only is the Octet fully mature, but no other classical prodigy, not even Mozart or Schubert, produced so characteristic a large-scale work at so early an age. It was a hard act to follow, let alone to top. But Mendelssohn succeeded in doing so with the Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Op. 21, composed the following year. Once again, he used a conventional structure (sonata-allegro form) to give shape to an unusual concept: a programmatic overture depicting the characters and atmosphere of Shakespeare’s play. It was the first such work ever written, and once again the result was entirely individual, at once elegant and exhilarating.
Having composed two masterpieces by the age of seventeen, Mendelssohn turned to the task of making a name for himself in the concert hall. In 1829, he led the first modern performance of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion in Berlin, an event that revived interest in Bach’s hitherto-forgotten choral music and established Mendelssohn as a conductor of significance. He then spent the next few years touring Europe, winning renown, especially in England, as a virtuoso pianist and recounting his adventures in dozens of irresistibly readable letters home.
Wherever Mendelssohn went, he wrote music, and his compositions reflected all that he saw—and heard. Indeed, his deeply informed interest in older musical styles foreshadows the neoclassicism of such 20th-century composers as Igor Stravinsky. Fascinated by Bach’s contrapuntal mastery, he produced a substantial body of choral music in the baroque style; at the same time, he turned out string quartets and piano sonatas modeled after Beethoven. Yet he remained open to the romantic spirit of his time, though his own impulses in this direction were invariably expressed with the precision and economy of means of a natural-born classicist.
Nowhere is this tension more fruitful than in the Hebrides Overture, Op. 26 (1829), a portrait of the Scottish seascape that is both passionate and finely wrought. On the same day that Mendelssohn made the stormy crossing to the Isle of Mull, he wrote a letter to his family that began as follows: “In order to make clear to you the extraordinary effect the Hebrides have had on me, the following occurred to me there.” Then come 21 bars of music—apparently conceived on the spot and written down in short score immediately afterward—that would become the opening section of a piece as vividly evocative of the Hebrides Islands as the Midsummer Night’s Dream Overture is of Shakespeare’s play, or the Italian Symphony in A Major, Op. 90 (1833), of the sun-drenched landscapes of southern Italy.
To listen to these works is to be put in mind of a remark Mendelssohn made thirteen years later: “The thoughts which are expressed to me by music that I love are not too indefinite to be put into words, but on the contrary, too definite.” Here we encounter the true classicist, sure of the self-sufficiency of the language of music even when using that language to illustrate the world of nature and ideas.
For all Mendelssohn’s youthful wanderlust, he seems never to have felt seriously tempted to settle abroad. “The French say I am cosmopolite,” he wrote to his family from Paris. “Heaven defend me from being anything of the kind!” For him, Germany was “the land of artists,” and he longed to help shape its musical life.
Then as now, it was difficult for a young composer to make a living solely by writing music. Uninterested in pursuing the irregular life of a peripatetic piano virtuoso, Mendelssohn instead chose to become music director of the city of Düsseldorf (1833-35), then conductor of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra (1835-47), where he led the world premiere of Schubert’s C-Major Symphony and introduced the music of Handel and Schumann to German audiences. He also appeared frequently in Berlin and London, and played a major role in organizing the Leipzig Conservatory.
These posts were not sinecures, nor did Mendelssohn view them solely as more or less agreeable ways of earning money. An idealist to the core, he was committed to deprovincializing German musical life, and under his astute and innovative leadership, as Peter Mercer-Taylor relates, he turned the Gewandhaus into a prototype of the modern symphony orchestra:
Where the Gewandhaus Orchestra had formerly been led by the concertmaster, Mendelssohn now directed with the baton, adumbrating through the sheer clarity of his musical vision the auteur status of the modern conductor. . . . And while he vigorously sought out and programmed worthy new creations, the Gewandhaus concerts of those years consolidated a repertory—the concept of which we take fully for granted today—centered around a fixed, stable canon of German masterworks.
Though his work as a conductor and administrator won Mendelssohn well-deserved acclaim, it inevitably distracted him from the task of composition. To be sure, it was in Leipzig that he wrote such cornerstones of the classical repertoire as the D-Minor Piano Trio, Op. 49 (1839), the Scottish Symphony in A Minor, Op. 56 (1842), and the E-Minor Violin Concerto, Op. 64 (1844). It was there, too, that he composed many of the Songs Without Words, those engaging character pieces still beloved of talented amateur pianists the world over. But duty took its toll, and his output became significantly less consistent in quality and inspiration.
More ominously, he began as early as 1839 to fall victim to inexplicable illnesses (including partial deafness and severe attacks of depression) that were no doubt exacerbated by the stress of his professional life. He knew something had to give:
I believe the time is approaching—or perhaps is already here—when I shall put all this kind of regular, public performance of music on the shelf, in order to make my own music at home, to compose and let this existence continue, as best it may, without me.
In time, Mendelssohn succeeded in cutting back on his performing commitments, freeing him to compose Elijah, Op. 70 (1846), a biblical oratorio inspired by his Düsseldorf and Leipzig performances of the oratorios of Handel. Premiered under the composer’s baton at England’s Birmingham Music Festival, Elijah was an instantaneous success, meeting with the wholehearted approval of the music-loving Queen Victoria (to whom he had previously dedicated the Scottish Symphony).
In May 1847, less than a month after Mendelssohn conducted Elijah in London, his sister Fanny died suddenly. Already drained by his unremitting labors, Felix was devastated by the news; his final composition, the Sixth String Quartet in F Minor, Op. 80, was intended as a requiem for her. A few weeks after finishing it, he suffered the first of a series of strokes, the last of which killed him on November 4, four months shy of his thirty-eighth birthday. Buried in Berlin, he was mourned at services held in Leipzig, London, New York, Paris, and Vienna.
As the widespread sorrow at Mendelssohn’s death suggests, Elijah was far from a purely German triumph: it also put a seal on his reputation as England’s best-loved composer, and as an emblematic figure of the Victorian era. But as the 19th century gave way to the 20th, so did Mendelssohn’s close identification with Victorian musical life start to undermine his reputation. Shaw’s tart reference to his “oratorio-mongering” was a clear indication of this sea change in sensibility; to the generation that followed, earnest biblical oratorios were less appealing still.
But the decline in Mendelssohn’s reputation went beyond mere hostility to oratorios and all they implied. The second half of the 19th century had also seen a fundamental shift in the very idea of greatness in music. By contrast with the grandiose “profundity” of Richard Wagner, the clear-eyed classicism of a Mendelssohn began to seem emotionally detached—even shallow.
Wagner himself wrote scathingly, and notoriously, about Mendelssohn’s music, and his criticisms were rooted in his anti-Semitism. Mendelssohn’s Jewishness, Wagner argued in his 1850 essay On Judaism in Music, rendered him incapable of expressing the true German spirit. As Peter Mercer-Taylor writes:
In Wagner’s formulation, it is finally to Mendelssohn’s Jewish heritage that we must ascribe the fact that “he was not able, even one single time, to call forth in us that deep, that heart-searching effect which we await from art. . . .” Thus began a tradition of anti-Semitic criticism in Germany that culminated, under the Nazis, in Mendelssohn’s total erasure from the history of his country’s music. In 1937, the statue of Mendelssohn that stood before the Gewandhaus was taken down and sold as scrap iron.
All this would have mystified Mendelssohn himself, who not only remained a devout and practicing Christian his whole life long but was wholly committed to German nationalism—not least in music. It is, indeed, a grotesque irony that a composer who devoted so much of his life to the consolidation of the German classical-music tradition should have become the object of abuse as a “cosmopolitan” after his death. And no less ironic is the fact that, long after Wagnerian anti-Semitism was consigned to the dustbin of history by Germany’s defeat in World War II, the central premise of Wagner’s assault on Mendelssohn should continue to be accepted by critics who would never dream of associating themselves with the racist ravings of On Judaism in Music. Such, however, is the case. While no one now supposes that Mendelssohn was incapable of profundity because he was Jewish, it is still widely thought that his music is insufficiently profound to be considered truly great.
Mercer-Taylor sheds no light on how or when Wagner’s criticisms began to float free of their original context (though it seems likely that Shaw, one of Wagner’s most assiduous advocates during his years as a music critic, was at least partly responsible). But echoes of the Wagnerian “line”—which is, not to put too fine a point on it, that Mendelssohn was a lesser composer because he did not write music in the manner of Wagner—continue to be heard, especially from German-born commentators. One finds them, for instance, in the work of the great Mendelssohn biographer Eric Werner, who in 1959 wrote of the youthful A Minor Quartet, Op. 13: “[H]ad Mendelssohn been able to maintain the level of this quartet, his name would stand in close proximity to that of a Mozart or Beethoven!” Such assessments, Mercer-Taylor devastatingly retorts, are “based on two simple measures: the prevalence of unifying devices and a piece’s harmonic resemblance to Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde.”
But was Mendelssohn, after all, one of the elect, or a charming minor master who occasionally touched the superlative?
It cannot be denied that his music is uneven in quality (a trait he shares with many great composers). Elijah, though rather better than Shaw thought, remains an especially problematic piece, “Victorian” in its enervating sentimentality and lack of dramatic force. Like many of his other second-tier efforts—ranging from the banal Reformation Symphony, Op. 107, to some of the more insipid entries in Songs Without Words—it can strike modern ears as strangely prim.
Small wonder, then, that the Victorians adored Elijah and ignored the Sixth Quartet, a work of unprecedentedly wrenching ferocity and anguish which, coming as it did at the very end of Mendelssohn’s too-short life, adds weight to the judicious words of the English musicologist Sir Donald Francis Tovey:
Perhaps, in the violent reaction against the worship he received during his life and after his early death, it has been too readily assumed that he had expressed all that was in him. Gluck, Handel, Haydn, Wagner, and Verdi—none of these would have been particularly great names to us if we possessed only the works they had written before they reached the age at which Mendelssohn died.
It is, of course, impossible to know how Mendelssohn might have developed had he lived longer, though the Sixth Quartet offers a clue. At the same time, it is not necessary to indulge in speculation in order to appreciate the unique qualities of his strongest work. For those who judge all music by the directness of its resemblance to Beethoven’s late quartets (which Mendelssohn, as it happens, admired extravagantly), not to mention the last act of Tristan, the composer of the Italian Symphony is bound to come up short. But listeners whose sensibilities have been shaped under the aspect of modernity need no reminding that Wagnerian romanticism is not the only road to immortality.
Rather than criticizing Mendelssohn’s masterpieces for what they do not say, then, it makes far better sense to reflect on what they do say, and how they say it. They display, in fact, tremendous expressive range, from the fizzing high spirits of the Octet to the controlled but intense yearning of the Scottish Symphony. Sometimes they are lyrical, sometimes hauntingly pensive, sometimes ingeniously witty. Always they are subtly and exquisitely crafted, generously repaying close scrutiny and repeated listening. All of which is by way of suggesting that they are the work of an inconsistent but nonetheless indisputably major master, who at his not-infrequent best was one of the greatest and most satisfying composers who ever lived.
Mendelssohn on CD: A Select Discography
Most of the great conductors, soloists, and chamber ensembles of the 20th century made recordings of Felix Mendelssohn’s best-known works. Here, chronologically, are ten of the finest:
1927: Two years after the introduction of electrical recording, the violinist Jacques Thibaud, the cellist Pablo Casals, and the pianist Alfred Cortot, classical music’s first all-star group, recorded the D-Minor Trio. Three-quarters of a century later, their powerfully personal interpretation remains the best available version (Biddulph LHW 002).
1930: The Polish pianist Ignaz Friedman recorded nine Songs Without Words on 78’s, and these mercurial performances, available as part of Friedman’s volume in the Great Pianists of the 20th Century series, are among the most precious examples of Golden Age pianism ever committed to disc (Philips 456 784-2PM2, two CD’s).
1935: Of all the many memorable recordings of the Italian Symphony, the one by Serge Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony deserves special mention for its bracing combination of high spirits and refined execution (Pearl GEMM CD 9037).
1941: Arturo Toscanini adored Mendelssohn’s overture and incidental music to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and the brilliantly lucid recording he made with the Philadelphia Orchestra, despite imperfect 78-era sound (and a king-sized bobble from horn soloist Mason Jones at the end of the nocturne), is an invaluable souvenir of the maestro’s brief association with Leopold Stokowski’s orchestra (RCA Victor Gold Seal 60314-2-RG). Also of interest is Benno Moiseiwitsch’s bewitching 1939 performance of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s solo piano arrangement of the scherzo, recorded—incredibly—without rehearsal and in a single, unspliced take. This touchstone of transcendental virtuosity is available as part of the Moiseiwitsch volume in the Great Pianists of the 20th Century series (Philips 456 907-2PM2, two CD’s).
1960: The best recorded performance of the Scottish Symphony is by Peter Maag and the London Symphony, handsomely and sensitively played and finely reproduced in early stereo sound (London 289 466 990-2DM).
1961: Virtually every great violinist since Fritz Kreisler has done the E-Minor Violin Concerto, and many of these recordings—including those of Jascha Heifetz, Isaac Stern, Joseph Szigeti, and Kreisler himself—have long since achieved classic status. But Nathan Milstein’s lean, lithe second recording, with Leon Barzin and the Philharmonia Orchestra, is especially noteworthy for its aristocratic poise (Classics for Pleasure 4374).
1965: The Octet for Strings has also been recorded many times, perhaps most engagingly by the Marlboro Festival Ensemble, an all-star group including the violinists Alexander Schneider and Jaime Laredo, plus the four members of what would shortly become the Guarneri Quartet (Sony Classical SMK 46251). A radically different approach to this warm and expansive interpretation can be heard in the tauter, faster, more explicitly virtuosic recording made in 1961 by another all-star group of string players including Heifetz, the violist William Primrose, and the cellist Gregor Piatigorsky (RCA Victor Gold Seal 09026-61766-2).
1971: Benjamin Britten, the 20th century’s greatest composer-conductor, performed the Hebrides Overture with the English Chamber Orchestra at the 1971 Aldeburgh Festival, and a BBC radio broadcast of this live performance, now available on CD, is electrifyingly bold—one of Britten’s finest recorded performances of 19th-century music as well as a fascinating reminder of his own extreme receptivity to English seascape (BBC BBCB 8008-2).
1974: Murray Perahia’s rendition of the Piano Concerto No. 1 in G Minor, Op. 25, with Sir Neville Marriner and the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, has a youthful brio ideally suited to this spectacular display piece (Sony Classical MK 42401). This CD also contains a 1982 recording by Perahia of the Rondo Capriccioso, Op. 14, Mendelssohn’s most perfect work for solo piano.
1988: The Lindsays (as England’s Lindsay String Quartet now bills itself) give an exceptionally fine live performance of the rarely recorded Sixth Quartet (ASV Quicksilver CD QS 6173).
All of the CD’s listed here can be purchased online by viewing this article on COMMENTARY’s website: www.commentarymagazine.com
1 The Life of Mendelssohn. Cambridge, 238 pp., $17.95 (paper).
2 Recommended recordings of the Octet and other key works by Mendelssohn are listed in the selected discography at the end of this piece.