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A Key Moment To Reconsider Mendelssohn

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.

There was plenty of continuity in his own work, too -- so much so that many claim he never progressed from his adolescent brilliance. (The other breakthrough work of his teens was the "Midsummer Night's Dream" Overture, though he later went back and added more music to it.) But this seems an unfair charge to level at someone who died young and maintained a busy life in music outside of composing.

Some of the criticism of Mendelssohn is not unlike that of Leonard Bernstein, who like Mendelssohn was active as a conductor and educator as well as a composer, and whose reputation has also had to struggle with the idea that he failed to fully live up to his own promise.

Issues of religion and class continued to dog Mendelssohn long after his death. The class issue actually stymied Felix's gifted sister Fanny far more than it did Felix himself. Where he, as a gentleman, had to prove himself as a working composer (in England, he was long called an amateur, simply because people of his social standing were not supposed to get paid for work as a composer), the family basically barred Fanny from putting her work forward, because it would be unseemly for a woman of her standing. Felix, though extremely close to his sister, was particularly unhelpful: He discouraged her from publishing her compositions long after the rest of the family was willing to consider it.

The real issue, though, was the family's Jewishness. A grandson of the Enlightenment thinker Moses Mendelssohn, Felix was the scion of a wealthy banking family whose members increasingly embraced conversion to Christianity as a means to gain legal privilege denied to Jews. Felix, never raised as a Jew, was baptized at 9 (the surname Bartholdy was subsequently added as a counterweight to Mendelssohn, which was thought to sound more Jewish).

But this made no difference to Richard Wagner, whose 1850 essay "Das Judenthum in der Musik" particularly targeted Mendelssohn as a composer incapable of artistic originality (the fact that he never wrote an opera after he reached maturity was, to Wagner, a telling sign). Or to the 20th-century American critic Paul Rosenfeld, who claimed that Mendelssohn, among other things, failed to come to terms with his own Judaism; this repression led to his "producing a musical jargon that resembles nothing in the world so much as Yiddish." The Nazis banned Mendelssohn's music altogether.

Outrageous as they were, early critics' allegations long had at least a tacit influence on the view of Mendelssohn. His light touch was branded lightweight; his exploration of the past, a lack of sufficient revolutionary zeal or originality.

Ironically, Mendelssohn strove to overturn prejudices and live up to his role as a representative of great German art by working in all the requisite large musical forms except opera: the symphony, the piano concerto (his first of which presents an exuberant display of rather conventional virtuosity), the oratorio.

Yet while his organizational abilities in music were considerable, his real knack, it seems to me, is for the telling small moment. His "elfin" music stands out because it is like a magnifying glass focused on the crisp edges of things, displaying the intimate and intricate on a larger canvas -- whether he is writing for solo piano or full orchestra.

Orchestral programs may be the best way to celebrate this pioneering conductor. Still, the 13-concert Washington series, co-presented by the Library of Congress, the Smithsonian, the National Gallery of Art and the National Academy of Sciences, and continuing through Feb. 27, offers a good cross section of his music: both piano trios, four of the quartets, the complete works for cello (which Mendelssohn thoughtfully created so as to fit nicely onto a single CD or concert program), excerpts from "Paulus" and more. Such an exploration of Mendelssohn's own past seems a fitting tribute to a man whose sense of history was one of his most forward-looking traits.

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