Happy Birthday to “Happy” Mendelssohn
You have likely heard of Johann Sebastian Bach, the Christian German composer in the Baroque era. But have you heard of Felix Mendelssohn? Without him, you might not have heard of Bach.
Mendelssohn was born today, February 3, in 1809. A professing Christian Jew, he proved in childhood to be a genius in writing and performing music, with masterpieces at least as good, if not superior, as Mozart’s.
This Octet he wrote at age 16:
He married Cecile Jeanrenaud; they had 6 children. He knew four languages fluently and mastered visual arts. The photo below shows one of his paintings.
Felix loved the music of Bach, who had died in poverty and obscurity. Having access to Bach’s manuscripts at a time when relatively few did, Felix sought to rescue the music from obscurity. In 1829, at age 20, he and a friend succeeded in scheduling a performance of the St. Matthew Passion, which had not been performed for almost a century.
At the first performance, someone accidentally put an incorrect score on his conductor’s stand. He conducted the music from memory, even turning the pages of the incorrect score so as not to alarm the players. And so began, thanks to Mendelssohn, the “Bach Revival.”
Felix died at age 38 in 1847.
Sadly, most people, to their own loss, do not appreciate him or his works. One may speculate as to the causes, but anti-Jewish prejudice was not a small factor in the decline of his posthumous popularity.
For example, three years after Felix died, Richard Wagner — whose music I do not especially admire — wrote a pamphlet, first published under a pseudonym, entitled ‘Das Judenthum in der Musik,’ or “Judaism in Music.” In this pamphlet, Wagner spewed his spite against Jews, vilifying Mendelssohn, and lamenting:
“The Jew, who is innately incapable of enouncing himself to us artistically through either his outward appearance or his speech, and least of all through his singing has nevertheless been able in the widest-spread of modern art-varieties, to wit in Music, to reach the rulership of public taste.”
Decades later, German National Socialists banned Mendelssohn’s music and tore down the statue of him in Leipzig.
Amongst Jews nowadays, I wonder if Mendelssohn is out of favor because he was a Christian, and for many Jews, a Jew who believes in the Messiah is no longer a Jew. And Mendelssohn’s profession in Christ showed his faith in music—e.g., he put various Psalms to music, and wrote two oratorios, “Elijah,” and “St. Paul,” and began a third, “Christus,” which he died before completing.
Music is a universal language, and in a letter, Mendelssohn eloquently articulated my view on the profound communication of music:
People usually complain that music is too many-sided in meanings; it is so ambiguous about what they should think when they hear it, whereas everyone understands words. For me it is exactly the reverse. [...] The thoughts that are expressed to me by the music I love are not too indefinite to put into words, but on the contrary, too definite. And I find every effort to express [in words] such thoughts legitimate, but all in all inadequate...
Oh Felix, the Happy in name, nature, and legacy, I look forward to meeting you someday -- and Lord willing, hearing you play and sing.