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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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• Changing Critical Perspectives

• Changing Critical Perspectives

52 • Changing Critical Perspectives
A Portrait of Mendelssohn

Clive Brown

Yale University Press

Abstract and Keywords

A few writers supported Richard Wagner's assertion that Felix Mendelssohn's Jewish inheritance was the root cause of his supposed musical weaknesses. In 1852, for instance, Wilhelm von Lenz described the music of Mendelssohn as echoing the psalmodic chants of the synagogue. Several years later, Joseph Schlüter suggested “the absence of innate vigor, masculine simplicity, and genuine feeling” in Mendelssohn's music, while August Reissmann attempted to correct what he deemed to be excessive admiration for Mendelssohn among many musicians and music lovers. During the first two decades after his death, Mendelssohn's stature was the subject of considerable debate in Germany. In France, Mendelssohn's music began to arouse greater interest as performances of instrumental music increased in popularity. At the end of the 1860s and in the 1870s in England, his compositions remained central to the repertoire. During the centenary of Mendelssohn's birth in 1909, a number of writers took the opportunity to consider the discrepancy between Mendelssohn's reputation then and half a century earlier.

Keywords:   instrumental music, Richard Wagner, Wilhelm von Lenz, Joseph Schlüter, August Reissmann, Germany, France, England

A few writers overtly followed Wagner in his identification of Mendelssohn's Jewish inheritance as the root cause of his supposed musical weaknesses. In 1852, for instance, Wilhelm von Lenz claimed that “the Hebraic element detectable in the ideas of Mendelssohn stands in the way of his works' universal acceptance without distinction of time and place … Jews often advance to the first rank when it is a question of acquiring mechanical abilities … the real artist, the composer, is not derivative; it is his own nature he must express…. The music of Mendelssohn echoes the psalmodic chants of the synagogue, just as the Jewish spirit, as we have characterized it, plays a part in his thinking.”44 Many others echoed the insinuations of effeteness in Mendelssohn's music. Joseph Schlüter referred in 1863 to “the absence of innate vigour, masculine simplicity, and genuine feeling” in Mendelssohn's music, and although he suggested (p.485) that this was not true of all his works, as “unjustly insisted upon by Marx,”45 he attributed it even to such works as the A major and A minor symphonies, asserting: “The hard trials and acute sorrows which alone could give emotion, pathos, and tragical grandeur to compositions of this kind never fell to the lot of the happy Felix—and to counterfeit emotion and raging grief was utterly foreign to his upright, candid nature.” In respect of the oratorios, however, Schlüter felt that “Mendelssohn has displayed such a fund of exquisite originality, and such dignity and solemnity (especially in St. Paul) in his treatment of this previously almost neglected branch of composition, that his works may henceforth be regarded as models of modern oratorio composition.” But although he admired the “noble choruses” in Elijah, he disliked “the somewhat overstrained pietism of some of the solos.” He ended his appraisal: “Nevertheless—and we trust without incurring the charge of inconsistency—we are constrained to admit that in the musical world of our day (on which female and dilettanti influences are brought to bear in no slight degree) Mendelssohn plays an all too important part. Scarcely a concert takes place without one or even more of Mendelssohn's compositions. Not only do the great models of Bach and Handel seem likely to be cast into the shade by the very composer who has deferred to them in so eminent a degree, but even Schumann—the last musician of historical importance—has had to make way for the favourite of the day.” Yet at the very end of his book, after castigating the works of Berlioz, Liszt and Wagner but praising “a considerable number of, for the most part, sterling and admirable musicians” (including Joachim, Brahms, F. David, Volkmann, Rubinstein and Raff), Schlüter concluded: “Are we to believe that the field of art lies fallow and must be ploughed up before it can produce another crop? True, no one among living composers has been able to replace Mendelssohn; and, were he still living, we should most certainly never have heard all this talk about new theories in art.”46

A few years later August Reissmann, a fundamentally sympathetic biographer, also displayed the tendency to provide a critical corrective to what he evidently saw as excessive admiration for Mendelssohn among many musicians and music lovers. He thought that “the school [of composers] that meant to create in his spirit is mostly responsible for people beginning to undervalue his great deserts … for it only tried to imitate his manner.” Like Schlüter, he compared Mendelssohn and Schumann, (p.486) observing that the former was “unremittingly concerned to fill and revivify the old forms with the new spirit, but almost entirely with less success than that contemporary fellow worker, Robert Schumann, because, under the influence of training and upbringing, originality and immediacy and power of invention were lost.” In line with contemporaneous notions of cultural progress, Reissmann argued that in almost every field Mendelssohn “had a profound effect on the feelings of our time, but really without a higher gain for the development of our art.”47

While in Germany during the first two decades after his death Mendelssohn's stature was being hotly debated—but his music widely performed—the French paid him little attention either in print or in the concert hall. So long as opera remained the principal focus of French musical life this situation changed little; but as performances of instrumental music became more popular, Mendelssohn's music began to arouse greater interest. His distinctive style of “classical romanticism” seems to have appealed increasingly to French taste and provided an alluring model for many French musicians of the generations of Gounod and Saint-Saëns. This quality in Mendelssohn's music was highlighted by Hypolite Barbedette in 1868: “As he was in his life, so he was in his music. We have said and reiterated sufficiently that Mendelssohn is a passionate artist; but, in love with Bach's precepts, worshipper of rules and of form, he imprisoned the passion with which he was inundated within narrow confines, and his music is the same as his life was, passionate but contained.” Barbedette doubted, however, whether Mendelssohn's music, as he was at heart a “puritan,”48 would ever be really popular in France. He concluded: “Nothing equals the vogue that Mendelssohn enjoys in Germany and England. In Leipzig one speaks of him as of a second Beethoven, as of a Goethe, as of one of the greatest artistic personalities. In London, it was only necessary for him to appear for everyone to rise in acclamation. His person, his music became the object of incredible ovations there, and his works are still played there in preference to all others. In France, it is not long since it has been universally accepted; it was contested for a long time. Mendelssohn was hardly known here, while in Germany he enjoyed a colossal renown; and whatever may be the sympathy that his music inspires nowadays, it is not destined to strike deep roots among us because it does not conform to our differing tendencies.”49

Barbedette's remarks about Mendelssohn's continuing popularity calls (p.487) attention to the paradox that in Germany, despite all the manifestations of criticism, Mendelssohn's music still elicited widespread admiration at the end of the 1860s and his continuing high status in the 1870s was emphasised by the publication, between 1874 and 1877, of the Breitkopf und Härtel edition of his collected works. In England, too, his compositions remained central to the repertoire, as Barbedette noted; but whereas critics and public were largely united in their esteem during the 1860s, dissenting critical voices began to be heard with increasing frequency during the last thirty years of the century. Thus Friedrich Niecks felt it necessary to defend Mendelssohn against some of his contemporary critics in 1875,50 and the changing climate is indicated by comments in the Musical Standard in 1877: “It is impossible not to notice that an immense majority hold Mendelssohn in no very high esteem. Many, probably sickened by the mannerisms of his myriad imitators, never can mention his name without a sneer; others deny him his due meed of respect because they believe him to be an overrated man.” A writer in the Musical Times quoted these comments and responded to them in an article entitled “Is Mendelssohn in Danger?”: “All this may be real enough to the writer, but we fancy that he has mistaken a coterie for the great world. At any rate, our experience is very different. Allowing that his popularity has lost whatever it derived from a personal fascination without a parallel in the history of art, Mendelssohn is as much beloved as ever he was by the mass of those to whom music appeals.”51

In Germany, too, Mendelssohn's music remained popular with the concert-going public in the 1880s, despite the growing tendency of critics, many of whom were enthusiastic Wagnerians, to characterize his music as facile and shallow. In the Allgemeine deutsche Biographie in 1885, Gustav von Loeper, who in contrast to many felt that it was in his vocal music that Mendelssohn achieved the true summit of greatness, called him “the first oratorio composer of our century” and argued that in this field “he will live as long as German music exists,” remarking: “It is always a festal evening for our societies when one of his larger choral works is performed and a noble enthusiasm aroused by it in all hearts. He will stand alone in this for a long time, for nature rarely succeeds in uniting qualities that are capable of such universal effects in a single person.”52

One notable shift of emphasis, which gained strength towards the end of the nineteenth century, concerned Mendelssohn's moral character. In (p.488) his own time and for several decades afterwards his “blameless character” was widely cited as a recommendation for his works. Comments like those of the Reverend H. R. Haweis in 1871, in his phenomenally popular Music and Morals, are typical: “In this age of mercenary musical manufacture and art degradation, Mendelssohn towers above his contemporaries like a moral lighthouse in the midst of a dark and troubled sea. His light always shone strong and pure. The winds of heaven were about his head, and the ‘Still Small Voice’ was in his heart. In a lying generation he was true, and in an adulterous generation he was pure—and not popularity or gain could tempt him to sully the pages of that spotless inspiration with one meretricious effect or one impure association.”53 Frederick Crowest, too, implicitly linked the excellence of Mendelssohn's character with that of his music, asserting in 1874: “Mendelssohn's was a noble nature; spurning all that was base, mean, and insincere; full of fiery energy, yet as simple and lovable as a child's. Let those who wish to become acquainted with it, read his collected letters; and there is for those who desire to know him as a musician, his sublime music.”54

These opinions remained in circulation for decades (Haweis's book reached a twentieth edition in 1906 and Crowest's was reissued as late as 1926). In the post-Wagnerian, post-Freudian world of the early twentieth century, however, such notions were increasingly derided, and it is much more common in later assessments to find Mendelssohn's irreproachable character and life equated with a perceived lack of depth, or at least emotional detachment, in his music. This connection, which had been insinuated in Mendelssohn's lifetime, for instance by Hirschbach in 1845 and in the appraisal in Brockhaus's Conversations-Lexicon in 1846,55 is echoed in the 1890s by the American writers John K. Paine and Leo R. Lewis: “Mendelssohn's genial and refined nature mirrored itself in his music. Nevertheless, with all the beauty, sweetness, classic form and purity of his music, one thing is missed,—tragic depth and fire. He did not touch the deepest chords of the heart like Beethoven and Bach, perhaps because his existence was not clouded by adversity, or because he arrived without serious struggles at the complete development of his artistic powers.”56

A process of retrenchment from the frequently asserted mid-nineteenth-century view that Mendelssohn was on a level with the greatest of his predecessors, or at least was surpassed only by the very greatest, is (p.489) evident in many writings from the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries. George Bernard Shaw's celebrated condemnation, in 1889, of Mendelssohn's “kid-glove gentility, his conventional sentimentality, and his despicable oratorio-mongering”57 condensed into a single striking aphorism the reservations and objections of musicians that had crystalized during the last quarter of the nineteenth century from a host of different causes, few of which were genuinely related to Mendelssohn's music itself. Yet, despite the often severe criticism of Mendelssohn's style or of significant portions of his output, many writers seem to have been reluctant to relegate him to a lower status in the canon of great composers. Thus John S. Dwight could write in the early 1890s that Mendelssohn was “gifted with original creative genius—a genius not so deep and absolute, so elemental, so Titanic as that of Bach and Handel and Beethoven, nor of so celestial a temper as that of Mozart.” But at the same time he asserted of the Symphony in A Minor: “After the immortal nine of Beethoven, there is no Symphony more perfect in form than this, of charm more enduring, although we have the great one of ‘heavenly length’ in C by Schubert, and such noble ones by Schumann.” And, attempting to fix Mendelssohn's place in the canon, he wrote: “Four we count above all others in the temple of tone-art and genius:—Bach, Handel, Mozart and Beethoven. Can we fill out a second four without the name of Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy? Choice may vary as to one or two names in that second quartet; of Schubert and Schumann there can be no question, some may have preference for Haydn, or for Gluck, or Weber, Cherubini, even for Rossini; but when with the other distinctions we take into account that of many-sidedness, all-round musicianship, can any other four compete with Mendelssohn except to his advantage?”58

Another American author, Nathan H. Dole, who admired Berlioz, Liszt and Wagner, and showed no particular taste for Mendelssohn's music, observed in 1891: “Mendelssohn is in a certain sense the musician of the unmusical; his ‘Songs without Words’ appeal to the young Philistines of the conservatories; his ‘Elijah’ is the masterpiece for religious Philistinism.” And he remarked: “It seems indeed rather ludicrous in a recent writer to speak of him as being the last of the musical Titans … it may be safely maintained that he had not the spontaneous creative genius of a Bach, a Mozart or a Beethoven.” Dole credited Mendelssohn merely (p.490) with “the distinction of having ‘restored the lost art of counterpoint,’ and bringing back classic forms at a day when romanticism was compelling men like Meyerbeer and Weber into enchanted, if not dangerous ground.” In his chapter on Schumann he observed, “Both have exerted great influence on musical art. But Mendelssohn's was ephemeral, and felt mainly by those of weaker fibre; whereas Schumann's has been felt especially by stronger natures.” Nevertheless, he stopped short of questioning Mendelssohn's right to be regarded as a major composer, and concluded his lukewarm assessment with the rather surprising comment: “Though it is somewhat the fashion to sneer at him, it seems safe to predict, that as time goes on his fame will rather increase than diminish.”59

The centenary of Mendelssohn's birth in 1909 called forth many conventional articles marking the event without any attempt at critical analysis. A number of writers, however, took the opportunity to consider the discrepancy between Mendelssohn's reputation then and half a century earlier. In England Ernest Walker observed that “no one in touch with the inner musical life of the country can deny that for a very large number of the most talented of the younger men and women Mendelssohn hardly exists…. A quarter of a century ago concert-goers were familiar with all sorts of works—orchestral, chamber, vocal: where can they be heard now? … a great mass of Mendelssohn's music is apparently being simply forgotten by almost everyone.” Contrasting the old view with the new, he remarked: “Emotional profundity and technical perfection—these were the qualities his contemporaries acclaimed in him, and now we can concede even the latter only with very many reservations.” Although Walker's ostensible purpose was to argue that the disparagement of Mendelssohn was going too far, he seems to have agreed with most of the current criticisms: “It is useless to deny that about a great deal of Mendelssohn's music there is, as one of our chief living critics has said, a ‘flavour of stale chocolate’: and neither emotionally nor in any other respect is the giant's robe for him.” Entirely rejecting the sacred music, Walker argued that only some of the instrumental music—the overtures and a few selected movements from other works—deserved to live; even the Violin Concerto, which remained popular, might not, he suggested, have survived “had there been more great concertos for violinists to play.”60

It is symptomatic of the level to which Mendelssohn's reputation had sunk in intellectual circles that in the Spectator, shortly after this, C. L. (p.491) Graves could refer to Walkers article as “probably the best appreciation of Mendelssohn that has appeared in the English press.” Yet Graves took a more sympathetic view and advanced the following explanation for the decline in Mendelssohn's reputation:

While Mendelssohn's fame suffered from the “sixties” onward from legitimate competition as the genius of Schubert, Schumann and Brahms gained wider recognition in the concert-room, and the tremendous influence of Wagner made itself felt on the stage, he gradually became the special aversion of those who base their claim to enlightenment on the extent of their divergence from the opinion of the majority … Along with justifiable criticism there was mixed up a great deal of unwarrantable disparagement. This hostility was chiefly shown among the extreme Wagnerites … and it gradually became so acute in certain circles that to confess to an admiration of Mendelssohn exposed one to the risk of being written down as Early Victorian, bourgeois, and altogether “out of movement.” This attitude has found copious expression during the last ten years in the Press and in books devoted to musical criticism.

Graves's recital of the charges these critics levelled against Mendelssohn contains many that are familiar from earlier attacks: his privileged background and systematic education meant that “he had none of the irregularity, angularity, or colossal egotism associated with daemonic genius”; in addition, “his moral excellence, integrity, lovableness, and charm are treated as so many damning proofs of his shortcomings when tried by the test of heroic antinomianism”; and “his all-round musical equipment, his remarkable performances as an organist and pianist, and his skill as a draughtsman, linguist, dancer,—these, according to such critics, are only evidences of a superficial versatility irreconcilable with the true concentration of genius.”61 Even among those who were not rabid Wagnerians were many who had absorbed the detractions of Mendelssohn that stemmed directly from Wagner and his circle. Charles Villiers Stanford, probably influenced also by the then current interest in eugenics, seems (p.492) to have accepted the racial slur propagated by Wagner in 1850. He wrote in 1916: “[Mendelssohn's] music, always finished to the smallest detail, always picturesque when written under inspiring conditions … and invariably careful not to outstep the limitations of his genius, does not, as a rule, retain its first appeal in subsequent repetition. His trick … was the dangerous one of perpetual and unvaried repetition of phrases and even bars: a habit which probably had its source in his Hebrew blood.” He also stated that Mendelssohn “possessed great reverence for his predecessors but no great depth of invention or design in himself.”62 In this and many other cases the propaganda of the Wagnerians, which aimed to leave “no place for the gnat Mendelssohn to vaunt himself,”63 seems unconsciously to have been absorbed.

Among younger writers Donald Francis Tovey, as a contributor to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, took a more positive view of Mendelssohn than many of his contemporaries. In his postscript to the article by Rockstro, reprinted in the eleventh edition (1910–1911), Tovey commented that “in the early Wagner-Liszt reign of terror” Mendelssohn's “was the first reputation to be assassinated.”64 Tovey's appraisal in his own article on Mendelssohn for the next revision of the encyclopaedia was characteristically independent. He considered Mendelssohn's early death to have been, “perhaps, one of the most inopportune events in musical history; inopportune for his reputation …; disastrous for many musicians who hoped to learn from him; and doubly inopportune as making it impossible for him and the pioneers of new musical developments to learn from each other.” He even went so far as to imply that Mendelssohn, had he lived, might have countered Wagner's domination of mid-nineteenth-century music: “He would soon have seen the reality of Wagner's new sense of movement, and would have experimented with it. And Mendelssohn's experiments were apt to succeed in the long run.” Tovey, however, reflected the prejudice of his generation in condemning “the sentimentality of Mendelssohn's efforts at a religious style,” damning the beginning of the Andante religioso of the Lobgesang as “the origin of almost all that is sickly in English church music.”65

During the period between 1890 and 1920 the tide of criticism in Germany largely mirrored that in the English-speaking world, but after the First World War growing critical engagement with radical new trends in European music, represented by such composers as Stravinsky, Bartók (p.493) and Schoenberg, further depressed Mendelssohn's reputation. Adolf Weissmann, in 1922, looking at the “problem of modern music,” mentioned Mendelssohn a couple of times, merely to condemn his compositions as “a weak reflection of eighteenth-century work” and “unexacting neo-classical music.”66 During the period between the two world wars few serious scholars could be found to say much in Mendelssohn's favour, and many dismissed him unceremoniously. Thus, in Gerald Abraham's A Hundred Years of Music (1938) he is effectively written out of the history of romantic music; the opening paragraph of the preface, in which Mendelssohn is not mentioned at all, says, “The early eighteen-thirties saw the opening of the careers of a number of composers—Chopin, Liszt, Berlioz, Schumann—who brought a new note into music” and, a few paragraphs later, “The central position of any book on music of the last hundred years must inevitably be occupied by Wagner.” Where Mendelssohn is mentioned in the body of the book it is always in negative terms. Discussing how a number of composers reverted to more classical procedures in later life, Abraham remarked: “It is noticeable that of the renegades from romanticism, Mendelssohn—who possessed less musical vitality than any of the others—was first to go.” Referring to “compensating values” in the later works of these composers, he commented: “In Mendelssohn's case the compensating elements are pitifully few.” Of the Symphony in A Minor Abraham asserted: “As a whole [it] symbolizes only too well the course of its composer's career: the brief touch of inspired romanticism at the beginning followed by a dreary waste of mere sound-manipulation, relieved only by the oasis of the light-handed scherzo, and ending in a blaze of sham triumph.”67 Here Abraham, perhaps taking his cue from Hans von Bülow's often cited comment that Mendelssohn began by being a genius and ended by being a talent, delivered a more damning judgment, since Bülow at least stressed that Mendelssohn was perfect in both phases.68

Abraham's judgments were nevertheless an honest reflection of his own musical perceptions and preconceptions. But in Germany during the 1920s and 1930s very different forces were at work. Wagner's claim that artistic impotence was an inevitable consequence of Jewish blood, and that there was a universal Jewish conspiracy in music had been regularly echoed during the second half of the nineteenth century, for instance, in the anti-Semitic writings of Rudolf Friedrich Grau.69 Even a musicologist (p.494) as positive about much of Mendelssohn's output as Hans Joachim Moser, writing around 1920, saw evidence of his Jewishness in the fact that “he lisped, was highly strung, very often ill, and died like father and sister of a stroke at an early age.” Moser maintained that “the decidedly Jewish element in his music” was evident in “the lack of German weight and profundity,” the “unstylistic” imitation of Handelian dotted figures and the use of “dangerously frequent six-eight rhythms,” as well as “a shrewd aversion to all music expressive of ambiguous ideas, an all-too-smooth treatment of merely pleasant ideas, carried out with cosmopolitan suavity,” and “the notable gift of being able to feel just as good in Bach's style as in Silcher's.”70 Despite his admiration for individual works, Moser concluded that Mendelssohn was “a talent of perhaps the greatest mechanical polish, yet certainly no true genius in our sense.”71

More remarks along these lines, but infinitely cruder, were published after the rise to power of the Nazis in 1933, and within a short time critical condemnation was reflected in an almost total cessation of public performances of Mendelssohn's music in Germany and Austria; what repeated denigration had never been able to achieve was quickly accomplished by dictatorial decree. Distasteful as it is, a representative example will aptly illustrate the kind of diatribe that accompanied the forcible suppression of Mendelssohn's music in Germany. A couple of extracts from a book by Karl Blessinger, published in Berlin in 1939, illustrate the tone and absurd illogicality of such polemics.

The history of music in the nineteenth century is not yet written. The enormous bulk of available factual material about this period has not yet been organized from more elevated points of view, and methods of musical scholarship employed until now break down with respect to this problem, since with the traditional approach the whole picture dissolves into a multitude of individual developments, which seem only to have an extremely loose inner connection. If we direct our attention to individualism, which is especially characteristic of the nineteenth century, we still gain nothing decisive by doing so. For we see yet again that in the background a unifying stage management is operating, which from the beginning determines (p.495) the direction of the development and which sought, at least, to decide the success or failure of individual people and trends. Although the difficult battle that individual, especially German, masters were forced to engage in to establish their worth may initially appear to the observer as the personal struggle of genius against an unsympathetic environment, we must ultimately recognize, if we want to look deeper, that it was not this environment itself, but its secret rulers that so constantly hindered the rise of these genial masters. Here, however, we then come up against Judaism directly, which since the beginning of the century also began to infiltrate into the development of music as a self-contained power, partly directly and partly indirectly, and proceeded outwards concentrically from various positions so as eventually in 1918 to control almost completely the musical life not only of Germany but of the world.

It was precisely these different points of departure that contributed a decisive element to the growth of Jewish hegemony. Because of the fact that representatives of individual “tendencies” were externally in conflict with one another the presumption was therefore made that a non-Jew who opposed one of these tendencies would inevitably fall into the arms of the others. The most tragic case of this kind is the case of Schumann, who in his celebrated criticism of Les Huguenots stood out manfully against Meyerbeer under the banner of righteousness, but in the same breath committed himself to Mendelssohn, who externally represented a tendency other than Meyerbeer, yet precisely like the former worked not for German music but for the establishment of a Jewish musical hegemony in Germany.

And referring specifically to Mendelssohn, Blessinger wrote:

In discussion of the Jewish question in music one is time and again confronted with the assertion that Mendelssohn, (p.496) for instance, was nevertheless a great master. Against this it must be stressed that the question of mastery as such is absolutely irrelevant to the matter under consideration here. It is self-evident, objectively considered, that it required the application of mastery and achievement to make it possible for Judaism to conquer and destroy the centuries-old German musical culture in such a short time. Yet only a, so to speak, baseless, i.e., Jewish, science can make this viewpoint the starting point for its judgment. For us, the question of who might have wielded this mastery and what the aims are that it serves must be in the foreground.

The fact now becomes clear that mastery and skill are things that certainly do not necessarily need to be united with creative power. And it is precisely the Jews who took care to acquire every kind of superficial skill from their host peoples, without thereby being in any way creatively gifted in our sense of the term, and we shall see that here too Mendelssohn was no exception; furthermore, it becomes absolutely clear, if one considers the phenomenon of Mendelssohn in connection with his family, that he used his mastery exclusively in the service of pan-Judaism and that his effectiveness, despite apparent harmlessness, decisively furthered the subversion of German musical life.

After sections on Mendelssohn and Bach, Mendelssohn as interpreter, and Mendelssohn as composer, all of which are exclusively negative, Blessinger ended his diatribe:

And if today musicians and music lovers still regret that their favourite compositions, i.e., the Midsummer Night's Dream overture, the Hebrides overture, the Violin Concerto, etc., have disappeared from the programme, we may first counter that it is infinitely more regrettable that highly significant works by German composers, such as the Schumann Violin Concerto, threatened to disappear (p.497) completely because of Jewish intrigues.72 And we may, secondly, assert that before the war [1914–1918]the music of Mendelssohn was universally no longer taken seriously in musical circles, that one used to pass it over as a matter of course with a deprecatory shrug of the shoulders, and that only after the fatal November 1918 did this music come into the foreground again. Before the war, apart from the “Songs without Words,” in the music portfolios of young ladies, and the chorus “Wer hat dich schöner Wald,” Mendelssohn was as good as forgotten. It was the Jews of the post-war period who tried to make him immortal at last. Let us once and for all get rid of this Jewish insinuation that the abandonment of Mendelssohn signifies an impoverishment of our music.73

This kind of twaddle stands in sharp contrast to the measured and thoughtful reassessment of Mendelssohn's historical significance and importance that the American musicologist of Hungarian birth, Paul Henry Lang, included in his Music in Western Civilization just two years later. While accepting some of the received wisdom about Mendelssohn's position in the canon, Lang's assessment must be counted among the freshest, most objective, and most favourable among important musicologists of his generation. He observed: “There can be no question that in many of Mendelssohn's works there is missing that real depth that opens wide perspectives, the mysticism of the unutterable. A certain sober clarity permeates his music, not the clarity of mood and conviction, but that of the organizing mind. His balanced proportions are the result not of a classic outlook on life but of a remarkable intellect and refined taste…. While we cannot help noting the limitations of Mendelssohn's music, largely due to his nature and his social philosophy, his frail figure becomes gigantic if we glance at the musical world around him. What he created is not overwhelming, it does not carry us away; he was not one of the very great, but he was and remains a master, and he has given us much that fills us with quiet enjoyment and admiration.” Lang accepted Schumann's dictum that Mendelssohn was “the one who has most clearly recognized the contradictions of the time, and the first to reconcile them,”74 commenting: “The dual personality of the romanticist is present (p.498) in Mendelssohn, but it does not lead to internal struggle, sapping the physical and creative strength of the artist. Calm and clarity accompanied him throughout his life; a certain inborn feeling for orderly expression was seldom missing; the two personalities lived together and found expression alternately.” Lang, writing almost a hundred years after Mendelssohn's death, was able to take a more detached view of Mendelssohn's place in the development of German music, and, having no direct connection with the period dominated by Mendelssohn's imitators, discerned that “in the hands of his lesser followers this art froze into sentimental academicism; what was brilliant craftsmanship and noble and truly artistic conception became mere formalism accentuated by sentimental pseudoromanticism.”75

The period immediately following the end of the Second World War in 1945 was characterized by a steady increase of scholarly engagement with Mendelssohn, resulting partly from a reaction to the Nazi proscription and partly from the interest engendered in 1947 by the hundredth anniversary of Mendelssohn's death. The quantity of biographical and critical studies and new editions of his music that has appeared during the second half of the twentieth century is impressive. Many studies have been published in scholarly journals and collaborative books and as monographs, many more of Mendelssohn's letters have become available in reliable versions (though a complete publication of the surviving letters remains a task for the twenty-first century). A projected complete edition of Mendelssohn's works, which began in 1960 and made available many unpublished early works for the first time, ceased publication in 1977, but work on a new scholarly edition was set on a sound footing again in 1997.76 Attempts at a serious reappraisal of Mendelssohn and his works in general were given a boost by the publication of Eric Werner's Mendelssohn, in 1963; but despite his obvious sympathy, Werner's judgments on a substantial part of Mendelssohn's music frequently reflected older negative opinions, and, as a work of scholarship, the book is vitiated by inaccurate quotation and the absence of adequate referencing. One of the issues tackled in Werner's study—Mendelssohn's relationship to his Jewish origins, its effect on his life and its connection with his work—became a major focus for discussion, especially in the last couple of decades of the twentieth century, and has, inevitably, provoked a degree of controversy. (p.499) The identification of a Mendelssohn “problem” by Carl Dahlhaus in 1974 focused sharper attention on the vicissitudes of Mendelssohn's reputation and their relationship to changing aesthetic criteria as well as the extra-musical factors that influenced the reception of his work.

In general books of music history many of the old stereotype views have regularly reappeared, freshly packaged but clearly recognizable. The almost unremittingly negative appraisal in Man and his Music (1962), by Harman and Mellers, for instance, even mimics Shaw's tone, as well as his prejudice, commenting on the oratorios: “We can take a little Tennysonian honey, so long as we are not simultaneously bullied with a pietistic morality that seems to us irrelevant.”77 In 1984 Leon Plantinga remarked towards the end of his cautious and rather conventional consideration of Mendelssohn that the “very qualities of amenity and regularity” that made his music popular in his own day made it “seem pallid by the end of the century, when the potently expressive musical language of Wagner and the Wagnerians had become the norm.” But he concluded, perceptively, with the observation: “In the twentieth century, when all the styles of the nineteenth century seem historical, there are clear signs of a reawakening interest in the work of this extraordinarily gifted composer.”78 During the last two decades of the twentieth century a considerable number of substantial scholars devoted themselves extensively to Mendelssohn studies. Collections of essays (including eleven volumes of Mendelssohn-Studien [1972–1999] dealing with the Mendelssohn family in general), publications of conference papers, individual critical studies and biographical studies have offered stimulating and often bold reinterpretations of Mendelssohn's position, both historically and artistically.79 And as Larry R. Todd pointed out at the end of his article on Mendelssohn for the second edition of The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, (2001) investigation of the still extensive unpublished materials “for the first complete edition of Mendelssohn's music and letters will undoubtedly reveal much new information about this critical figure in 19thcentury musical life.”80

For the listener, Mendelssohn's works have never been so easily or so comprehensively available as they have become through modern recordings; and the growing interest in historical performing practice, sweeping away many of the accretions of later traditions, has played an important (p.500) part in providing a new aural experience that seeks, however speculatively, to recapture Mendelssohn's own conception of his music. These circumstances create fertile ground for continuing reassessment. The twenty-first century may truly be able to view Mendelssohn's life and work afresh, throwing off the shackles of inherited notions of originality and derivativeness, profundity and shallowness, sentiment and sentimentality.


(44.) Lenz, Beethoven et ses trois styles, 1: 39–40.

(45.) See Marx, Music of the Nineteenth Century, 89, for instance, where Marx claimed that Mendelssohn's example caused his contemporaries to flee from “everything indicative of strength of character and decision”; blaming him for encouraging their “undecided and effeminate aspirations.”

(46.) Schlüter, General History, 323–34, 327, 348, 350.

(47.) Reissmann, Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, 317, 310, 311.

(48.) The word puritain was often used as synonymous with Protestant.

(49.) Barbedette, Mendelssohn Sa vie, 150–51.

(50.) Niecks, “On Mendelssohn,” Monthly Musical Record 5 (1875): 162–64.

(51.) Musical Times 18 (1877): 209.

(52.) Loeper, “Mendelssohn-Bartholdy,” 21:344.

(53.) Haweis, Music and Morals, 90–91.

(54.) Crowest, Great Tone Poets, 315.

(55.) See section 46 and 47.

(56.) Paine and Lewis, “Music in Germany,” 592.

(57.) In a review of 23 February 1889, reprinted in The Great Composers Reviews and (p.531) Bombardments by Bernard Shaw, ed. Lewis Compton (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1978), 122.

(58.) Dwight “Mendelssohn”, 424, 431, 436

(59.) Dole, Famous Composers, 2nd ed., 347, 375, 374.

(60.) Manchester Guardian, 3 Feb. 1909, reprinted in Ernest Walker, Free Thought and the Musician (Oxford, 1946), 30–34.

(61.) Graves, Post-Victorian Music, 149, 146–48.

(62.) Stanford, A History, 284.

(63.) See above, note 43.

(64.) Encyclopedia Britannica, 11th ed., 18:124.

(65.) Encyclopedia Britannica, 14th ed., 15:244.

(66.) Adolf Weissmann The Problem, 16, 29.

(67.) Abraham, Hundred Years, 9–10, 70–71.

(68.) See Graves, Post-Victorian Music, 150.

(69.) Ursprungen und Zielen unserer Kulturentwicklung (Origins and aims of our cultural development) (Gütersloh, 1875); and Die Judenfrage und ihr Geheimnisse (The Jewish question and its secrets) (Gütersloh, 1881).

(70.) Phillipp Friedrich Silcher, 1789–1860, a folk-song collector who “also composed some 250 songs modelled after Mozart, Weber and Mendelssohn but folklike in style.” (Luise Marratta-Schär, “Silcher, (Phillipp) Friedrich” New Grove, 2nd ed.). Moser seems to have thought that Mendelssohn modelled his songs on Silcher's.

(71.) Moser, Geschichte, 2: 153, 164.

(72.) Joseph Joachim, wholly in the spirit of reverence for Schumann's memory, had advised against the concerto's publication.

(73.) Blessinger, Mendelssohn, Meyerbeer, Mahler, 7, 9, 42.

(74.) See section 47.

(75.) Lang, Music in Western Civilization, 811.

(76.) Leipziger Ausgabe der Werke von Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy.

(77.) Harman and Mellers, Man and his Music, 833.

(78.) Plantinga, Romantic Music, 254.

(79.) Extensive lists of recent scholarship will be found in New Grove, RISM, and in John Michael Cooper's Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy: A Guide to Research (New York and London, 2001).

(80.) New Grove, 2nd ed., 16: 410.