In the two decades before his death in 1847, Felix Mendelssohn reigned as Germany’s most famous composer, and he was a favorite in England, because of his 10 trips to the nation and his fluency in English. But in 1850, composer Richard Wagner penned an infamous anti-Semitic screed that attacked Jews in general but specifically targeted Mendelssohn and Giacomo Meyerbeer. Wagner’s words set off a decline in the former’s popularity that was reversed only in recent decades.
“There’s been a return,” said R. Larry Todd, a professor of music at Duke University in Durham, N.C, and one of the one of the foremost experts on the composer. “I think Mendelssohn, now, he’s back to where he should be. There is a lot more attention being paid to him.”
That is certainly true in the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s 2019-20 season, when the ensemble presents four key works by the composer, starting with a Sept. 19-20 program that opens with the Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage Overture. In addition, as part of the Symphony Center Presents Piano Series, Denis Kozhukhin will present selections from Mendelssohn’s Songs Without Words during a June 7 recital.
Unlike, say, Hector Berlioz or Wagner, Mendelssohn was not a musical rebel. Instead, Todd describes him as a “syncretic composer,” who drew on a variety of musical styles and was well versed in musical history. He could write in a Beethovenian vein, as he did in Die erste Walpurgisnacht (The First Walpurgis Night), a dramatic cantata, based on a Goethe poem, for soloists, choir and orchestra, or in an “understated, proto-Impressionist” style as he does in The Hebrides Overture. He also was one of the great contrapuntalists, as he illustrates in his celebrated Octet in E-flat Major, Op. 20, which includes an eight-part fugato at the beginning of the finale. “Because he could be so many different things and write in so many different styles, he is sort of hard to pigeonhole,” Todd said. “He was one of the most versatile composers in history.”
Born into a musical family, Mendelssohn at age 6 received piano lessons from his mother, and his aunt, Sarah Levy, a pupil of W.F. Bach, the eldest son of J.S. Bach. He made his first public performance at age 9 and was considered a prodigy, drawing comparisons to a young Mozart. Perhaps even more impressive than his playing was his flair for composition. He published his first work, a a piano quartet, when he was 14, and amazingly, he wrote his Octet when he was 16, a work that has stood the test of time as one of the great chamber works.
The intellectual facility and polyglot sensibilities that sprouted as youngster carried over to his adulthood. In addition to being one of the top pianists of his time, he also played violin and viola. There is a story of audience at a performance of the Octet waiting to see who the eighth player was going to be when Mendelssohn walked in with his viola case and took his place in the ensemble. Todd calls him the greatest organist of the 19th century, a player who was responsible for reviving J.S. Bach’s significant works for the instrument. In addition, Mendelssohn is often considered the inaugural modern conductor, becoming one of the first to use a baton and employ some of the rehearsal techniques still in use today. If all that was not enough, the composer was a poet and first-rate artist, creating hundreds of drawings and watercolors, and he was fluent in multiple languages, including French, English, Latin and Greek.
As noted earlier, Mendelssohn’s fame at the time of his death was clouded by Wagner’s anti-Semitic rants, which included criticism of Jewish composers’ music as “sweet and tinkling without depth.” These attacks were reprised decades later by the Nazis, who banned the performance and publication of Mendelssohn’s music and removed at least two statues of the composer, including a monument erected in Leipzig in 1892. At the same time, Mendelssohn, who traveled to England frequently and was well known there during his lifetime, suffered from the cultural backlash against the Victorian Era after the death of Queen Victoria in 1901. Critic and playwright George Bernard Shaw, for example, complained of Mendelssohn’s “kid-glove gentility, his conventional sentimentality and his despicable oratorio-mongering.”
Criticisms of Mendelssohn’s music as sentimental and superficial came to be accepted more broadly by people who knew nothing of their anti-Jewish or anti-Victorian origins. “A lot of people bought into that and it stayed on, but it’s changed,” Todd said. When Todd was preparing to write his doctorate in the 1970s, one of his professors at Yale University was amazed that he wanted to focus on the composer. “Why would you want to work on Mendelssohn?” Todd recalls the professor saying. “Everyone knows the Octet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and there’s nothing else to do.” That annoyed the budding musicologist and only made him more determined. He wrote to libraries and quickly discovered that there was a trove of unexamined letters, unpublished music and other archival material to be explored. “I always thought he was much more complicated than he seemed to be at the time,” Todd said.
Mendelssohn’s reputation began to rise again in the 1980s and 1990s with the help of such conductors as Christopher Hogwood and Kurt Masur, who championed his music. The latter, who served as music director of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, a position that Mendelssohn held more than a century earlier, also helped secure the preservation of the composer’s final residence in Leipzig, which opened as a museum in 1997. Further aiding Mendelssohn’s cause was the famed Emerson String Quartet’s 2005 release of the complete set of the composer’s string quartets, a compilation that received two Grammy Awards, including one for best chamber music performance.
Here is a quick look at the works to be featured at Orchestra Hall this season:
Sept. 19-20, Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage Overture, Riccardo Muti, conductor: Nineteen years old when he composed this concert overture in 1828, the composer was interested in exploring how music could depict extra-musical ideas. It is based on two short poems in which Goethe describes a dangerous moment when the sea becomes totally calm and a sailing ship stalls until the eventual return of the wind and continuation of the voyage. The music in the first section is “murky and submerged” with static harmonies, Todd said, and second section has a Beethovenian flavor. Indeed, Beethoven wrote a cantata of the same title in 1815 that was inspired by the same two poems. Todd calls it a “fabulous piece,” one that is making a comeback. “For some reason, it was not viewed on the same level as The Hebrides Overture or A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but I think it is.”
Oct. 10-12, Piano Concerto No. 1 in G Minor, Op. 25, with pianist Sunwook Kim and conductor Kirill Karabits: Written in about a week, this work was premiered in Munich in October 1831 with the composer at the keyboard, a program that also contained his Symphony No. 8 and A Midsummer Night’s Dream Overture. The piece became immediately popular, and it remains a repertory standard.
On the same program is Capriccio brillant for piano and orchestra in B minor, Op. 22. Mendelssohn originally wrote it as a solo work but later orchestrated it. Like other composers of the 19th century, Mendelssohn explored ways to connect movements without interruption, something he does in all of his concertos. He modeled this two-movement work after Carl Maria von Weber’s Konzertstücke, a popular piece from 1821 with four sections that flow into the next.
June 4-6 and 9, The Hebrides Overture, with conductor Nikolaj Szeps-Znaider: After a visit to England in 1829, Mendelssohn toured Scotland with his traveling companion Karl Klingemann. He was particularly struck by Fingal’s Cave, a basalt sea cave on the island of Staffa. In a missive to his family, he laid out the opening bars from what would become this overture, writing, “In order to make you understand how extraordinary the Hebrides affected me, I send you the following, which came into my head there.”
According to Todd, Mendelssohn experienced synesthesia, in which a sensory perception triggers an automatic response via another sense. Alexander Scriabin and Olivier Messiaen were two other composers who wrote music based on their synesthetic responses to visual stimuli.
June 7, selections from Songs Without Words, by pianist Denis Kozhukhin: Mendelssohn’s wordless “songs” were written between 1829 and 1845, and published in eight separate volumes. The origin of term, “song without words,” is unclear, but the composer and his sister, Fanny, another gifted composer and pianist, experimented with this form. When these songs first were published, they caused puzzlement, with some people thinking they used syllables or other vocalizations instead of words. “That’s not what Mendelssohn had in mind,” Todd said. “What he had in mind was to create effectively German lied but just only using the piano.”
In reviewing these works, Schumann suggested imagining a beautiful text being set to music and then imagining that text being erased. Mendelssohn gave titles to a few of the works, such as Venetian Boat Song, and some other titles were added later by publishers. “They’re quite beautiful pieces,” Todd said. “They’re quite subtly done. They’re pieces that have to be played with a nuanced style. They can’t be overplayed. That basically kills them.” The songs fell out of favor in the 20th century but are making what the musicologist called an “amazing comeback.”
Good sources of further information on Mendelssohn and his circle are Todd’s books: Fanny Hensel: The Other Mendelssohn (2011) and “Mendelssohn: A Life in Music” (2003).
TOP: Felix Mendelssohn (far right) oversees a lesson. | Photo: Wikimedia