Not Even Close to Bruckner: Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy

My goal in programming Chorale’s March 16 concert, was to present repertoire that I find very beautiful, and that I thought our singers, and the audience, would enjoy.  I had no intention of presenting a didactic lecture-recital; just music that goes well together, fits well under one umbrella (in this case, Austro-German Romanticism), but offers at the same time some variety and interesting juxtaposition.  Like—a major, accompanied work, juxtaposed to some smaller, a cappella pieces; Catholic music, as opposed to Lutheran; earlier, as opposed to late.  But I find, in the course of studying the music we are preparing-- both the scores themselves, and critical literature about them-- that I am increasingly interested in the split that seems universally acknowledged, right down the middle of the nineteenth century musical world.  Over and over I read about the Wagner wing versus the Brahms wing; the labels, though general and over-simple, really do stick.  And I discover that some of my personal reactions to these composers and their music, over the years and in many different contexts, are illuminated by what I read about this split. Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy (1809-1847) was pretty much an exact contemporary of Berlioz (1803), Schumann (1810), Liszt (1811) and Wagner (1813).  A fertile ten years. These composers knew of one another’s work, mostly were acquainted with one another, were in some cases very close to one another.  Of the five, Mendelssohn was by far the most conservative, while three of the remaining men, Liszt, Wagner, and Berlioz, are identified as founders and leaders of the radical New German School. Schumann, an experimental visionary in some respects and a startlingly original voice, came to be identified with the conservatives in later years, partly because of his support for Brahms.

In his private letters, Mendelssohn expresses his disapproval of the New Germans and their works, for example writing of Liszt that his compositions were "inferior to his playing, and only calculated for virtuosos,” and of Berlioz's overture Les francs- juges, "the orchestration is such a frightful muddle that one ought to wash one's hands after handling one of his scores.”  The Leipzig Conservatory, which he founded, became, under his direction, a bastion of his conservative outlook, training its students in the same time-honored disciplines that J.S. Bach and his peers had learned, and practiced, in the eighteenth century.

Mendelssohn’s wealthy, well-connected family had a connection with J.S. Bach.  His aunt, Sarah Levy, had been a pupil of Bach’s son, W.F. Bach, and patron of another son, C.P.E. Bach. She collected a significant number of Bach family manuscripts, which she bequeathed to the Berlin Singakademie, of which the Mendelssohn family were leading supporters.  As well, Mendelssohn‘s grandmother, Bella Salomon, came into possession of a copy of the manuscript of J.S. Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, which she gave to her grandson. His study of the score inspired him to present a performance of the work with the aforementioned Berlin Singakademie in 1829 (he was only twenty years old, but a famous prodigy, and wealthy enough to make the necessary arrangements)-- the first performance of the Passion since Bach’s death in 1750.  Mendelssohn’s enthusiasm for Bach, and heroic efforts on his behalf, sparked a general rediscovery of Bach‘s music, one which continues even in our own time, and influenced every composer who followed him, on both sides of the ideological divide.  One of the ironies of this divide was, that both sides claimed Bach as forefather: he was big enough to have something to offer to both the radicals and the conservatives.

Mendelssohn, though classed as a Romantic, did not change or grow much, stylistically, over the course of his career; the influence exerted on him by Bach and Handel lasted throughout his short life, and continued to be expressed somewhat literally in the music he composed, while other Romantic composers adapted what they learned from the Baroque and Classical masters, made it their own, and then moved on.   This is not to denigrate the strength and integrity of Mendelssohn’s personal voice; rather, I suggest that he seems to have been content to take only a few steps into the future, and to have remained there.  Some writers explain this by saying that he was so busy with his many projects—travelling, conducting, teaching, composing, writing, editing—that he had no chance to focus on personal growth and change.  He was immensely successful in his own time, and did not live long enough to find himself eclipsed.

Part of what Mendelssohn inherited from his models was a profound love of choral music—both large oratorios in the style of Handel, and smaller cantatas and motets reminiscent of Bach.  Both strains in his composition made him very popular in England, home to a robust choral tradition in both areas. He visited England several times, learned to speak the language, composed music with English words for English singers and listeners, and developed a large following.  In 1832, the Novello publishing house, in London, commissioned him to compose a set of the morning and evening canticles for the Anglican service, with organ accompaniment. He completed a setting of the Te Deum just a few months later, but it was not published until 1846.  In 1847, just a few months before his death, he completed the Jubilate, Magnificat, and Nunc Dimittis movements, which were published later that year by Ewer and Company, with English texts. In a letter to the publisher, Mendelssohn wrote that he did not want the canticles published in Germany.  Who knows why? His wishes were not obeyed; they eventually were published, in German translations but without the organ part, under the title Drei Motetten, Opus 69.

Chorale will sing #1, Nunc Dimittis, but in German, and under its German title, Herr, nun lässesr du deinen Dienen in Frieden fahren. The strength of his melodic material, the clarity of his counterpoint, the harmonic movement—all point to the influence of J.S. Bach, though the actual sound of the music is clearly 19th century, and far too lovely to be purely derivative;  Mendelssohn was a good composer.