Felix Mendelssohn's Bicentennial: A Key Moment to Reconsider His Contributions

Felix Mendelssohn, who displayed brilliance in his teens, died at 38.
Felix Mendelssohn, who displayed brilliance in his teens, died at 38. (Associated Press)
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By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 11, 2009

Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, whose 200th birthday is being celebrated this year with concerts around the world and, starting today, a chamber series in Washington called "Mendelssohn on the Mall," was a thoroughly modern musician.

Which is to say he was the first composer with a strong focus on the music of the past. He revered Bach, studied Handel and programmed orchestral concerts less around his contemporaries than Beethoven and Mozart. The legacy he left classical music is one of conservatism. The field has adhered to it ever since.

The general rap on Mendelssohn is that he peaked early. The scarily brilliant Octet, written when he was 17, stakes out his distinctive musical terrain, down to the "elfin" writing in the Scherzo, with whirling fingerwork scudding through the strings like blowing leaves. It's often said he never reached such heights again.

I have tended to think of Mendelssohn as the perfect generic classical composer, the person who writes attractive melodic pieces that people like to have on in the background (apart, perhaps, from the overplayed-on-lite-radio "Wedding March"). So his anniversary seems like a perfect time to reevaluate someone who, at the very least, helped shape the experience of classical music as we know it today.

Mendelssohn certainly didn't lack for praise during his lifetime. He was born in 1809 in Hamburg to an affluent family of Berlin-based bankers who staged private readings of their talented child's operas and symphonies, and he was publicly lionized, especially in England and Germany, until his death following a sequence of strokes at 38.

But since then he has proved an oddly easy target for criticism. "He began as a genius and finished as a talent," the 19th-century conductor Hans von B├╝low is supposed to have said. "The epitome of the wealthy German bourgeois," sniffed Harold Schonberg. "The inventor of religious kitsch in music," declared Charles Rosen.

The pendulum has now swung back, to a degree. Today, the composer is praised for what used to be described as deficits: his "Songs Without Words" seen no longer as salon music but graceful miniatures; his big, overstuffed oratorio "Elijah" redeemed from its status as Victorian monstrosity. Well, not redeemed, exactly; it's just that culturally, we are more open these days to finding the merit in Victorian monstrosities.

The stereotypical image of Mendelssohn, and his music, is facile and a little patronizing: good-looking, sunny, abundantly gifted and equanimous. "His was the music of a well-adjusted, self-confident social animal," writes Richard Taruskin. Think of all those hummable melodies, or the eminently gracious, even ingratiating lyricism of the "Italian" Symphony.

But the composer was also high-strung, thin-skinned and prone to outbursts on the podium when his orchestra didn't give him what he wanted. And his oeuvre features fully as much minor-key melancholy as sunniness: No less typical than the uplifting start of the D Major Cello Sonata are the dark gusts of the F Minor Quartet.

Certainly Mendelssohn harked back to forms of the past. He is justly credited with having given a huge boost to the oratorio craze in Germany when he offered, at 20, the first performance of Bach's "St. Matthew Passion" in a century. He followed it up seven years later with his own wildly popular "Paulus" (or "St. Paul"), which remained his most famous work for most of his career, though it was ultimately somewhat eclipsed by "Elijah."

But he also explored more contemporary avenues, writing illustrative quasi-tone poems cast as overtures, like "Hebrides," which was received, in its day, with bewilderment. Romantics such as Schumann and Berlioz admired him greatly. And contradicting his reputation as a crowd-pleaser is a vignette of the elderly Rossini, the ultimate populist musician, advising the younger man that he might want to work in a more popular style.

Popular or no, Mendelssohn certainly set a few enduring precedents. As conductor of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra for 12 years, he practically codified the modern classical concert. He was an early adopter of the modern conductor's baton. He focused programs so that they included a few big pieces -- an overture, a concerto, a symphony -- performed sequentially: The movements of a symphony were played together rather than interspersed with arias and chamber pieces. He reintroduced major works by dead composers, a practice that had theretofore scarcely figured in musical life. He founded the Leipzig Conservatory. Mozart, were he to return today, might not recognize many aspects of classical music as it is now practiced, but Mendelssohn could find elements of continuity.

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