His birthday came and went in February without my mentioning it, but 2009 is the 200th anniversary of the birth of Felix Mendelssohn, one of the most important composers in the history of Western music, though not necessarily one of the greatest. (Though he was great, at his best.) Mendelssohn has many pieces that are still in the repertory today and wrote several melodies that are among the best-known of all time: the “Spring Song,” the Wedding March from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. His “Hebrides” overture famously became the theme for the Mynah Bird in Warner Brothers’ “Inki” cartoons.
He was perhaps the greatest child prodigy in musical history. The page I linked to compares him to Mozart, but Mozart didn’t become a great composer until he was in his 20s; as a young-‘un he was a prodigy, but not an exceptional one for his time. Mendelssohn, on the other hand, was a fine composer as a child and was composing genuinely great music by the time he was in his teens: his Octet, one of the seminal chamber music works of the 19th century, was written when he was 16 years old — here’s a documentary about a quartet’s attempt to record the piece with only the four of them — and his overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream was written when he was 17.
The overture was really a revolutionary piece in many ways; it was rooted in the language of composers Mendelssohn admired, like Beethoven, but to capture the world of the fairies and magic from the play, Mendelssohn created sounds that hadn’t really been heard from an orchestra before, particularly the famous opening and closing chords that demonstrated the power of harmony — divorced from melody, rhythm and anything else — to conjure up a unique sound-world. Those chords, along with the fairy music that follows, helped to create the style of music now known as “Romantic,” and paved the way for a lot of music that followed it, well into the 20th century.
Mendelssohn also wrote choral works, chamber music, piano music, symphonies — basically everything except opera. (He wrote an opera, the Marriage of Camacho, when he was young; it was a failure and he decided he wasn’t interested in that line of work.) His five symphonies include a programmatic choral symphony that went well beyond Beethoven’s 9th in combining vocals with the symphonic form, and paved the way for Mahler and other composers to re-define what a symphony was. His most famous symphony is the fourth, the “Italian,” and my favourite is the third, the “Scottish,” which has a scherzo melody that is completely irresistible:
In addition to his work as a composer, Mendelssohn was also one of the most influential conductors of his time, both in his conducting style (conducting, as an art as opposed to just time-beating, was still a new thing then) and in his choices of repertoire: he’s generally credited with being one of the conductors who was most influential in the re-discovery of Bach, whose St. Matthew Passion and other then-rare works he championed in concert.
The thing that’s usually said about Mendelssohn, as a composer, is that he didn’t develop very much. He wrote good music in his thirties and beyond, but some of the music he was writing later sometimes seemed less inclined to take chances than his early work. Although he died young, his later music almost seemed like the music of an older man, well-crafted but a little staid. And because his late works were very popular in England, especially the still-popular oratorio Elijah, he was sometimes attacked as the symbol of musical Victorianism — partly because all the Victorian English composers were heavily influenced by him. (Sullivan, of Gilbert and Sullivan, shows Mendelssohn’s influence in almost everything he ever wrote.) Of his oratorio St. Paul, George Bernard Shaw wrote: “But to me, constitutional scoffer that I am, the prostitution of Mendelssohn’s great genius to this lust for threatening and vengeance, doom and wrath, upon which he should have turned his back with detestation, is the most painful incident in the art-history of the century.” The idea that he had irreversibly declined wasn’t entirely fair; one of Mendelssohn’s most popular pieces, the Violin concerto, is a late-ish work and an extremely influential one.
Still, much of Mendelssohn’s music from his last few years suggests that he hadn’t quite lived up to the incredible promise of his youth; unlike Mozart or Schubert, who died young at their peak, Mendelssohn died young a little past his prime, and his reputation took a hit for that. And his repuation also took a hit thanks to Shaw’s favourite composer, Richard Wagner, who wrote his infamous pamphlet “Jewishness in Music” not long after Mendelssohn was dead, and used Mendelssohn as Exhibit A of a talented composer who, being Jewish, couldn’t write great, truly German music. Wagner had two reasons for wanting to tear down Mendelssohn’s reputation, apart from his hatred of Jews. One, he had to diminish Mendelssohn’s reputation as a composer and conductor in order to build up his own status in both fields. And two, he was demonstrating his insecurity over the obvious debt his music owed to Mendelssohn; every time he was influenced by someone, he lashed out to prevent this from being pointed out. The influence of Mendelssohn is most obvious in the prelude to Wagner’s Ring, which portrays the flowing of the Rhine; the motif is very similar to, heavily influenced, by the river motif that opens Mendelssohn’s overture The Fair Melusine.
Still, with Wagner’s disciples turning up their nose at him, and with his Victorian fans seeing him as a cosy, conventional composer, Mendelssohn’s reputation took a long time to recover fully (though his works have always been popular). There has always been a tendency, even among his admirers, to play his music as if it conforms to the stereotype that Wagner created, of sweet, cute, gentle music. But Mendelssohn’s musical language, which is both forward-looking and backward-looking in his nods to then-unfashionable composers like Bach, is often quite muscular; what makes his music interesting is the combination of his melodic gift, which was indeed sort of sweet and pretty, with his overall language, which was rougher and craggier.
Here is a complete performance (I already posted the scherzo above) of the original version of Mendelssohn’s “Scottish” symphony — like many of his works, he revised and impoved it somewhat later; he was a notorious reviser — performed by the orchestra he conducte from the 1830s until his death, the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra.