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Felix Mendelssohn: A Nearly Perfect Life

Felix Mendelssohn was born in Hamburg in 1809 and died in Leipzig in 1847 at the age of 38. During his lifetime he became one of the most famous and best-loved musicians in the Western world. A child prodigy, between the ages of 11 and 14 he produced well over 100 compositions astonishing in variety and quality as well as in quantity. Early creations such as his Octet and Incidental Music for a Midsummer Night’s Dream made him wildly famous as a teenager. His lieder, string quartets, concerti, symphonies, and sacred music were celebrated throughout Europe; his oratorio Elijah, composed a few years before his death, rivaled Handel’s Messiah in popularity.

Beyond the pleasure they brought the listening world, his compositions were always an intellectual event as well as an aesthetic one. His music bridged the classical and romantic eras, blending into the conventions of the past his own structural, harmonic, and conceptual innovations. Many critics and listeners have commented on the three-dimensional, imaginative space his music creates that allows us to explore our own feelings and images. (This quality is also at the heart of the criticism of Mendelssohn’s music, which asserts that it is too beautiful, refined, and cultured to achieve true drama or epiphany.) But Schumann’s famous judgment of Mendelssohn is telling: “He had risen to such heights that we can say that he is the Mozart of the nineteenth century; the most brilliant among musicians; the one who has most clearly recognized the contradictions of the age, and the first to reconcile them.”

Mendelssohn excelled as well in conducting, organ, violin, and viola. His piano playing was legendary. His ability to perform from memory was unparalleled, and his improvisational skills enabled him to sit down at the piano after conducting a concert and pull together themes from all the pieces played into a startlingly new piece all its own. He was also considered one of the premier conductors in Europe. He developed systematic rehearsal techniques that advanced the fledgling art of conducting to an independent discipline. His leadership style, personal yet forceful and always musically flawless, became the standard for conductors in his time and remains so today. His innovative use of the baton allowed him to more precisely control his orchestra, and he is credited with developing the baton as the conducting instrument it is today.

Mendelssohn’s intoxication with music from the past led him to introduce a new form of concert in which historical surveys were part of the program. He would introduce compositions from previous centuries in a way that taught his audiences to appreciate the older works and ask for more. Most famously, he reintroduced the music of Bach. His revival of the St. Matthew Passion was one of the great musical events of the century.

Mendelssohn had manifold talents in other areas as well. His intellectual and artistic horizons embraced drawing, painting, poetry, classical studies, theology, and mastery over many written and spoken languages. He was an equestrian, a gifted athlete, and he loved to travel. He was personally dynamic, involved with humanitarian efforts, a master teacher, a generous colleague, and much sought- after socially. As a child and young adult, he was befriended by Goethe and was called “miraculous” by that great man of letters. He was an intimate of England’s Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, who called him the “second Elijah.”

Fortune smiled upon Mendelssohn in his private life as well. The Mendelssohn family came from great wealth and culture. By all accounts he had a passionate and loving marriage to Cecile Jeanrenaud, and their five children were given ideal parenting. He was devoted to his large and illustrious family, maintaining close relationships with his three siblings and very supportive parents. He had remarkably few conflicts with his peers, although he was a powerful influence on them. Despite his apparent attractiveness to women, there is only scant evidence of a possible affair with Jenny Lind, the great soprano of the age and a devoted friend in any case.

This is not like the usual portraits of great composers. Here is little of the stereotypic interplay between creativity and madness that we have come to expect in our geniuses. Unlike Beethoven, there is no childhood abuse; unlike Mozart, there is no intrusive, narcissistic father; unlike Dvorak and Mahler, there are no tragedies of the deaths of their children; there is no madness, no scandal, no struggle with kings or despots, and hardly a fallow moment in the flow of Mendelssohn’s creativity. All that we know about him gives us the portrait of a man who seems to have lived a remarkably lucky, happy, and successful life. He was a musical genius, an intellectual genius, and a genius in using his many gifts to the fullest and in helping others to find their own gifts. He died too early, but the years he lived were as full and creative as most human beings could hope to achieve in the longest lifetime.

What special factors might have supported and influenced Mendelssohn’s remarkable gifts? We want to address two: his Jewish identity and his relationship with his older sister Fanny Hensel.

Mendelssohn’s grandfather was the great Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn, revered by Jews and non-Jews alike. Felix was strongly influenced by his grandfather’s ideas about how Jews and other minorities could integrate into the dominant society of their time. Moses counseled social emancipation, and his son Abraham, Felix’s father, taking advantage of the social climate that allowed for the assimilation of Jews into the upper classes, followed through on Moses’ philosophy by baptizing his young children in the Lutheran church. Felix lived as a Lutheran all his life; his sacred music is redolent with the harmonies and rhythms of Lutheran hymns.

However, Felix’s Jewish background remained a strong legacy. His father suggested adopting his conversion name, Bartholdy, in order to erase the obviously Jewish name Mendelssohn from his son’s identity. Felix would have none of this and retained Mendelssohn as his surname, although to please his father he added Bartholdy to his published works. While Felix’s Jewish background always set him apart from most of his colleagues and countrymen, it was principally after his death that his Jewish identity was used against him. Richard Wagner’s anti-Semitic tract, Jewry in Music, claimed that Mendelssohn and other Jewish composers were incapable of true musical greatness because of their Jewish heritage. Almost a century later, Adolph Hitler tried to expunge Mendelssohn’s music from the German repertoire entirely. He even urged German composers to write new music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream to replace Mendelssohn’s own early masterwork. But during his lifetime Mendelssohn’s genius was able to flower because he did not have to remain an outsider in his own culture, and he could pour all his gifts into mainstream society. These lines from Goethe, which Mendelssohn set to music, are at the heart of his relationship to his life and times: “And if we are robbed of our old customs, Who can rob us of thy light?” (1)

Mendelssohn straddled two religious cultures, Jewish and Protestant, as well as the classical and romantic periods. In both areas, he was able to reconcile the divisions with his usual brilliance and grace. In music, he developed his own aesthetic: reformist rather than revolutionary, centrist rather than innovative. As a citizen in anti-Semitic Germany, his many talents and irresistible personality enabled him to bridge the great social and religious divisions of his time.

The unique influence in Felix’s life was his older sister Fanny. She, too, was a musical prodigy, although her identity as an upper-class woman profoundly limited the way she was able to use her amazing gifts. Most of her life she composed only smaller musical forms for her intimate circle. While her musical salons were famous, she only wrote music for the drawing rooms rather than large works for the concert hall. In the past 50 years, feminist scholarship has repopularized many of Fanny’s works and unearthed others.

The presence of Fanny in his life was the most important influence on Felix as a musician and composer. From earliest childhood, Felix had a playmate, a partner, a friend, uniquely attuned to his sensibilities in music. There was almost no one in the musical world, child or adult, who would have been able to keep up with him except Fanny. Felix and Fanny were pupil and teacher to each other in the egalitarian space of a close family. He was never alone with his prodigious talents, as is so often the fate of children with special gifts. Rather, brother and sister were connected in love by their world of music, a reality beyond each of their personalities, which bonded and supported them. They were allies in their phenomenal abilities; as children they played, sang, and composed together. When Fanny was 17 (and Felix 13), she wrote: “He has no musical adviser other than me, also he never puts a thought on paper without first having submitted it to me for examination.” Throughout their lives they were each other’s foremost musical colleagues, critics, and confidants. When Fanny died of a stroke conducting his music at a rehearsal, Felix went into deep mourning; six months later he, too, was dead of a stroke.

Mendelssohn’s music almost always sounds as if it emerged from a place of joy and delight, and his relationship to Fanny was undoubtedly central to that quality. In his lifetime he found many friends in music, including the greatest composers and performers of his time, but none could equal his sister, and that may be the greatest gift and determinant of his creative life.

(1) Goethe, “Erste Walpurgisnacht” (1831).

— Arthur Colman and Pilar Montero

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Copyright © Arthur C. Colman