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A Portrait of Mendelssohn$

Clive Brown

Print publication date: 2003

Print ISBN-13: 9780300095395

Published to Yale Scholarship Online: October 2013

DOI: 10.12987/yale/9780300095395.001.0001

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• General Appraisals During Mendelssohn's Lifetime

• General Appraisals During Mendelssohn's Lifetime

Chapter:
46 • General Appraisals During Mendelssohn's Lifetime
Source:
A Portrait of Mendelssohn
Author(s):

Clive Brown

Publisher:
Yale University Press
DOI:10.12987/yale/9780300095395.003.0046

Abstract and Keywords

During the last decade of his life, Felix Mendelssohn and his works began to be appraised with increasing regularity in biographical encyclopedias and journals. These critical appraisals articulated a number of issues that persisted in later assessments and often drew upon common sources for their material. Two musical accounts of Mendelssohn's career, published in German during the second half of the 1830s, were provided by Rudolf Hirsch in Gallerie lebender Tondichter (1836) and Gustav Schilling in Encyclopädie der gesammten musikalischen Wissenschaften (1837). In France, François-Joseph Fétis's Biographie universelle des musiciens offered a biographical and critical account of Mendelssohn's career up to 1838. In 1845, the Wiener allgemeine Musik-Zeitung journal published an account by Alfred Julius Becher appraising Mendelssohn's position as a composer by comparing him to Hector Berlioz.

Keywords:   appraisals, encyclopedias, journals, Rudolf Hirsch, Gustav Schilling, François-Joseph Fétis, Wiener allgemeine Musik-Zeitung, Alfred Julius Becher, Hector Berlioz

General appraisals of Mendelssohn and his works, which began to appear with increasing regularity in biographical encyclopaedias and journals during the last ten years of his life, articulated a number of issues that were to remain factors in later critical assessments; they also expressed views that are less commonly associated with his posthumous reputation. Many of these contemporary biographical and critical appraisals drew upon common sources for their material.

Among the most widely circulated specifically musical accounts of Mendelssohn's career published in German during the second half of the 1830s were those in Rudolf Hirsch's Gallerie lebender Tondichter (1836) and in Schilling's Encyclopädie der gesammten musikalischen Wissenschaften (1837), both of which relied heavily on a common source that has not, (p.390) so far, been identified.87 The Encyclopädie article, although it takes Mendelssohn's career up to the winter of 1837, was possibly written somewhat earlier and only partially updated before publication; it refers to Mendelssohn as “now only 28 years old” but makes no mention of St Paul and does not name any work later than the overture Die Hebriden, op. 26 (published in 1833). This anonymous article begins with the statement: “However we view him, and from whatever standpoint, he remains a remarkable phenomenon in the present-day artistic world, and is in any case a very talented, significant musician.” In subject matter and phraseology, the biographical section of Schilling's article closely parallels Hirsch's account, but it also includes a significant additional statement. After a comment about Mendelssohn's early precocity having aroused hope of his becoming a second Mozart, which is shared with the other accounts, it continued: “That he has not as yet realized this hope is certainly a consequence partly of Zelter's method of teaching, which held his eminent talent, his genius, with, so to speak, iron tongs, firmly on the practical side of art, yet partly also perhaps of the direction that art in general as well as musical composition in particular appears to have taken, just at that time when his development was in its most powerfully expanding stage. From the exceptionally rapid advances he made, and from the manner in which he made them, one might rightly at that time have inferred such great expectations for the future.” In the final section of the article, in which an assessment of his qualities and significance as a composer is attempted, the author elaborated on the view expressed above. After indicating the range and quantity of Mendelssohn's compositions, he began his next section with a sentence common to the other accounts: “Considering his youth, perhaps no currently living composer equals his productivity.” He then continued differently, but included a passage (given here in italics) that is taken almost verbatim from August Kahlert's review of Mendelssohn's piano music in Caecilia in 1834 (see section 41 above), in which, however, the differences, reflected in this translation, alter the tone of the assessment; the difference in the last sentence is especially noteworthy in its qualification, which is entirely absent from the 1834 review:

On the other hand, however, from the same point of view, an opinion on his achievements can only be proffered (p.391) with the greatest caution. What he has written will certainly last, of that we are absolutely certain. But the artist is now only 28 years old, and at this age perhaps no-one had wholly realized what was in him. Yet if we look merely at his latest achievements in the field of composition, we must take a step back to make our judgment. In respect of poetic invention they clearly do not fulfil the expectations that his earlier extraordinary aptitudes, which were not less than those of the boy Mozart, aroused. We have already referred to that above. However, Mendelssohn's place among modern composers is still with those who stand out no less for their command overall the resources of their art than for their striving for a higher, universal goal; who have not lost the conviction that a deeper significance than merely that of sensual charm lies hidden in music among the numerous lifeless coloraturas, etc. At least, he is not content with mere form, but strives to bind this inextricably with the individual content of the matter. If this is not always achieved with that instinctive boldness, that freedom of spirit which we marvel at in Beethoven among others, he is nevertheless to be reckoned among those who have most effectively, and with the most sincere will, pursued the path opened up by Beethoven. And there are truly not many of these. Instrumental music easily leads to that insignificance, which quickly causes the most well-ordered, most mellifluous musical figures to become outmoded. Even though Mendelssohn may not always resist such aberrations with consistent success, his music is always spiritually animated. He is a complete musical artist, through nature and education. He has something to say to both head and heart and is able to express it in a worthy, beautiful manner. He is at his best, certainly, in the practical and technical. Here he may measure himself against every master. In his works as a whole careful workmanship, nicely managed phrasing, voice leading, imitation of all kinds and everything else one understands by workmanship predominates. Were music a science (p.392) we might perhaps place him at the peak of all phenomena in this field. Yet since it is an art, which springs clear and deep from the heart, created from the most sacred precincts of the soul, we may almost believe that the prevalent cast of mind, which we observe in the composer's individuality as well as in his works, and its predominance is—as we said—perhaps a result of his inflexible schooling, for his genius shows itself, where no exterior influences could yet dominate or rule him, to be unleashed in a higher, more beautiful sphere,—that this prevalent cast of mind may have damaged the pure development of those pristine artistic blossoms and might further damage them in the future. It would be a joy to us, immeasurably valuable, if we were one day constrained to recognize that we had too hastily and erroneously formulated and expressed this view.88

Hirsch's account, which largely parallels Schilling's, up to and including the first sentence of the preceding quotation, concluded at that point with a comment upon knowledge of Mendelssohn's music in Vienna at that time:

With us (in Vienna) Mendelssohn's compositions are almost completely unknown. It is quite remarkable: no nonnative composers, Herz, Hummel, Kalkbrenner to some extent excepted, have really found acceptance here, in anymeaningful sense of the word. In the case of opera the theatre directors are to blame; for only very rarely does a German opera enter the repertoire. In public concerts we hear nothing but old well-known works; the new ones are mostly Herz and Czerny. This selection is really pitiful, but it remains more or less the same. Of a Parisian Berlioz we know absolutely nothing! Of Mendelssohn not a single piece of music has been publicly performed as far as I know.—At last the piano maestros, who, in planting destroy the plants themselves. Nothing but Herz (p.393) and Czerny!—So where should real musical meaning come from?—I answer my question quite easily.89

The author of the biographical sketch in the Musical World, who openly confessed to deriving much of his information directly from Hirsch, did not qualify his opinion of Mendelssohn's achievements with any such reservations as those expressed in Schilling's Encyclopädie. He preceded the biographical part of the article with the statement: “Among the poets of sound, as the Germans in their richly expressive language, are wont to designate the master-spirits of musical art, the subject of the present memoir takes an exalted position,” and his account continues in a similarly positive vein. By this date St Paul had been performed several times in England, and the tone of enthusiastic admiration, which coloured so much later writing about Mendelssohn in England, predominates throughout. It is evident, too, that some of the information in the article derived from local knowledge,90 and a description of Mendelssohn's improvising records the author's first-hand experience.91 The tone of the article is aptly illustrated by the author's reference to the Overture to A Midsummer Night's Dream as “full of originality, of invention, and indication of the highest genius.”92

For French readers, a biographical and critical account of Mendelssohn's career up to 1838 was provided by Fétis in his Biographie universelle des musiciens. Much of the information in this account reflects the same common source used by Schilling, Hirsch and the Musical World, but it was supplemented by material derived from Fétis's own direct encounters with Mendelssohn. Regarding the 1829 visit to London, for instance, he remarked: “I found him in this city in April, and at the Philharmonic Concert I heard a symphony that he performed there. His exterior pleasantness, his cultured intellect and his independent position led to his being received with distinction, and laid the foundations for his success in the world.” Then after mentioning a meeting with him in Aix-la-Chapelle in 1834, relaying gossip about Mendelssohn's strained relationship with Ferdinand Ries,93 and providing further biographical details, Fétis attempted an appraisal of Mendelssohn's artistic importance. Some of this was more or less paraphrased from earlier German articles, but he also included his own observations. One comment clearly reflects the (p.394) general attitudes of French musicians and foreshadows the view that predominated in France for decades: “There may well already, in 1830, have been tendencies towards originality in his productions, particularly in the Overture to A Midsummer Night's Dream, which I heard in Paris; but it was easy to see that it was more the product of research and labour than of inspiration.”94 The contrast between this statement and the Musical World's reaction to the same overture could not more forcibly illustrate the difference between English and French responses to Mendelssohn. There were, however, important critics in France during Mendelssohn's lifetime who took a different view. Berlioz, for example, genuinely admired much of Mendelssohn's music, and Henri Blanchard, writing about St Paul in the mid-1840s, echoed Schumann's review of the D Minor Piano Trio (see below): “With regard to the music, it demonstrates that Mendelssohn has rightly been designated the modern Mozart. His oratorio St Paul is just as inspired and correct a work as the Requiem or Don Giovanni.”95 The problem was rather that genuine interest in instrumental music and in Protestant sacred music was narrowly circumscribed in France.

One of the most striking and individual contemporary appraisals of Mendelssohn's position as a composer was published in the Wiener allgemeine Musik-Zeitung in 1845; it takes the form of a comparison between Mendelssohn and Berlioz. Although the article was ostensibly about Berlioz, the author, Alfred Julius Becher, who knew and admired both composers,96 seems to have felt that Berlioz's importance entitled him to be measured against the musician whom he evidently believed to be the leading composer of the day.

It would be out of place here to provide a closer illustration and appraisal of Mendelssohn's genius; but for the sake of comparison the following observations may be appropriate.—Apart from the expression of smooth, homogeneous sensations, which play no small part with him, Mendelssohn has obviously concerned himself more with perceiving the life of the soul in the reflexes of the external world, and with depicting an organically developed state of mind, than with portraying a fermenting turmoil of different kinds of feelings. Certainly he (p.395) seemed at first to want to go down this Beethovenian path, but he soon abandoned it again; his inborn preference for proportional dimensions and architectonic symmetry in form, nurtured by his uncommonly early occupation with J. S. Bach, together with a preponderating sense of external (acoustic) beauty, which is related to Cherubini's, led him to shun a path on which he could not have helped now and then damaging this [sense of beauty], albeit with every justification and even to intrinsic poetic advantage. Indeed, for the same reason he chose almost entirely peaceful, charming material for his descriptive music, and he depicted for us calm seas and prosperous voyages rather than storm and shipwreck, elves rather than gnomes. Purity, tenderness and sincerity of feeling, nobility and clarity of intention, distinctness of plan, even amid the most intricate complications, fresh, spirited but always tightly controlled imagination, a peacefulness and smoothness in exterior and well as interior form, deep learning, which is evident everywhere but never flaunted, palpable piety and a wholly individual, witty, even teasing but always harmless humour, appear to me to be the chief characteristics of this most noble, most chaste, most rounded, most substantial, and most versatile composer of the present generation, in this context it is important to note that in his work, where the intention is serious or pleasant, the humour referred to above is only very rarely interwoven as an ironic element, but mostly appears as a separate piece or at least as an independent developed episode. Finally, it may be noted here that in Mendelssohn's case (similarly in Goethe's) the effervescent daring that characterizes the works of his youth has, till now, given way increasingly to a cautious moderation; for the only work from a later time that appears to contradict this assertion, the Walpurgisnacht, was drafted and even partially elaborated at a very early period of his work. One should not take me to mean by this, however, that this intellect, which is just as amiable (p.396) as it is dignified,97 has become a lesser one than we might have expected from his first appearance; certainly not,—in many respects rather the opposite; but I believe that every perceptive and attentive critic will concede to me that he is now other than we might have expected from his romantic youthful compositions. Yet have we already reached his final period?—

Becher then turned to Berlioz, whom he described as presenting “an almost complete contrast to this picture.” He referred to Berlioz's “audacious, far-reaching imagination,” observing that “no colour is too garish for him, no truth too bitter” and that he “seeks out the sharpest contrasts.” Finally, he attempted a comparison of the two composers:

Berlioz has written no work that has as its content that aforementioned organic development of a state of mind, such as Beethoven's Fifth and Ninth Symphonies, which are concerned with inner exultation of the soul, and Mendelssohn's Symphony-Cantata [Lobgesang], which is concerned with religious confidence. Rather, in the depiction of feelings that are wildly storming and selfdisplacing, harsh, conflicting and anxiously piled up, and multifarious, he even crosses the boundaries within which Beethoven keeps; he has undertaken to portray confused feelings that are more entangled and made up of more heterogeneous elements than the boldest creations of that master on this path down which he was the first to travel; in short, Berlioz has taken a step forward here. Backwards say (quite consistently) the enthusiasts for the old musical republic, who entirely reject that Beethovenian path as turning away from the inner sanctum of art.—

Here the fundamentally different natures of Berlioz and Mendelssohn are very clearly and decidedly set forth. For whereas the latter, in the peaceful fields of organic development, offers a worthy complement to the original creations of the powerful master, the former remains in this respect wholly inactive; and whereas, in reverse, in (p.397) the territory of agitated and heart-stirring feelings Mendelssohn retired from the field right at the beginning of his career, Berlioz stormed straight on to this road ahead of his leader.98

Whereas Becher does not seem to have regarded Mendelssohn's classic restraint and technical polish as evidence of a fettered imagination, and therefore as a weakness, other German critics clearly did take this view. Among these was Franz Brendel, who, in a comparison of Mendelssohn and Schumann, also published in 1845, contrasted the objectivity of the former with the subjectivity of the latter. He regarded Mendelssohn as “a representative of classicism in our time” and “not an expression of the present time in its entirety, least of all of future trends.” He obliquely denigrated Mendelssohn in the statement that his followers “would work for the future even less than their master … and, in accordance with the whole movement, would degenerate into superficiality and formalism.”99 The author of the article on Mendelssohn that appeared in the ninth edition of the Brockhaus Conversations-Lexikon, the year after Becher's and Brendel's articles, was also among those who considered Mendelssohn's achievements as falling short of the greatness claimed for them by his more enthusiastic admirers. In the following extract from the Brockhaus article, the opinion expressed in the passage beginning “Were music a science” echoes that in Schilling's Encyclopädie. After the usual biographical details, the author remarked:

As far as Mendelssohn's artistic individuality is concerned, we note above all that his most characteristic feature, in contrast to so many present-day artists who serve the moment and its requirements, is the conscious striving for the highest in art, and at the same time he has a musical as well as general cultivation that is truly excellent and only given, to this extent, to few musicians. Even at an early stage he attempted the most noble and difficult forms and genres; single-mindedly and energetically he worked to reach a high ideal; and he remained true to this striving right up to the present. Even at an early stage he stood out for his fine taste and clear, conscious (p.398) recognition of the problems that the artist of the present had to solve. If, despite this excellent endeavour and the possession of all requirements that derive from diligence and study, the critic is obliged to deny M. the certificate of a master of the first rank, this is because of his lack of originality and abundance of imagination, lack of elemental power and immediacy of creativity, excess of reflectiveness, a characteristic that he shares with his native city,100 and which in this context at least has not been without influence on him. Everything that the noblest and richest education can provide, everything that the artist can acquire through his own activity, we see realized in Mendelssohn, but the natural foundation, the other side of the artistic spirit, which must be present to the same degree if harmonious creations are to be brought forth, is not quite the same as those qualities, and so in his case the activity of the intellect comes forth at the expense of the imagination; the abstract thought and coldness of the north predominates, not the warm, sensual and imaginative life of the south. Were music a science, Mendelssohn would be the greatest musician; but in art the natural power of the spirit is primary and the activity of the intellect secondary. As far as the marked outlook of his works is concerned, we have to remark that the fortunate circumstances in which he lived kept him far from the abysses of pain, far from the vicissitudes of daily life and its pain and struggle; untroubled serenity, smiles of fortune, reconciliation, which artists enjoyed before the year 1830, are therefore the basic traits of his being; at the same time, his attention was directed primarily to the past by the comprehensive education he received at an early stage.101

The comments in the final sentence indicate that opinions of Mendelssohn may have been influenced, in “progressive” circles, by the changing mood of the 1840s, with a growing emphasis on the need for struggle and self-sacrifice in the service of nationalistic goals.

Notes:

(87.) Hirsch acknowledged the Brockhaus Conversations-Lexicon (1833), i.e., the 8th edition, as his source, but Brockhaus did not, in fact, contain an article on Mendelssohn until the 9th edition in 1846.

(88.) Schilling, Encyclopädie, 4: 654–56.

(89.) Hirsch “Mendelssohn,” Gallerie, 81.

(90.) Such as the writer's comment on the reception of St Paul. See section 44.

(91.) See section 26.

(92.) Anon, “Life of Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy,” Musical World 4 (1837): 6–10.

(93.) See section 18, note 27.

(94.) Fétis, Biographie, 1st ed., 6: 367–69.

(95.) Revue musicale (trans. in AmZ 48 (1846): 377).

(96.) See Federhofer-Königs, “Der unveröffentliche Briefwechsel,” 7–94.

(97.) Untranslatable wordplay: liebenswürdige als würdige.

(98.) Becher, “Über Hektor Berlioz,” WaMZ 5 (1845): 589–90.

(99.) Brendel, “Robert Schumann,” 149. (Partly translated in Jurgen Thym, “Schumann in Brendel's NZfM from 1845 to 1856,” in Finson and Todd, Mendelssohn and Schumann, 32–33.)

(100.) The author had stated incorrectly, as in earlier biographical articles, that Mendelssohn was born in Berlin.

(101.) Brockhaus, Conversations-Lexikon, 9th ed., 9: 488–89.