As with Handel, a century earlier, the English expropriated Mendelssohn from Germany. It was perhaps inevitable; for surely no-one whom Prince Albert had played to, who had heard the Queen sing “with charming feeling and expression”, and who had discussed with her the future Edward VII, could possibly remain a foreigner? Goethe, who knew Mendelssohn as a boy and as a young man, is reported to have hailed him as a David to his Saul; his nearer contemporaries thought him at least the equal of Bach and Handel; yet by the turn of the century even his most ignorant critic was speaking of him as an overrated confectioner of drawing-room trifles, and his young lady patrons were swept away by their far from romantic daughters – Ibsen and Shaw abetting. Naturally the opponents of what was smugly conservative and sentimental in Victorian England could hardly admit to enjoying the very source of its shallow stream of music. So, like Tennyson, whose vast success and subsequent eclipse were similar to his, and who incidentally was born in the same year, Mendelssohn paid heavily for his drawing-room fame, his faҫile pen and his almost unclouded life. Now, of course, the position is different; and since we are neither romantics fighting conservative tradition nor oppressed children opposing our fathers, we can afford to enjoy Mendelssohn for what he is, without fighting him for what he never intended to be.
After such early adulation it was small wonder that Mendelssohn’s hostile critics took him for a mediocre prig, and remarkable that they were wrong. Every trap was laid for him. Even a present-day cinema “genius” could hardly have a more imposing and treacherous background. His father, a respectable Jewish banker, associated with most of the artists and intellectuals of his day. The grandfather, Moses, after beginning life at the starvation level, finished as a literary critic and philosopher, the colleague of Lessing, and the man responsible for the 18th century Jewish renaissance. One of his daughters married the brother of Schlegel, the great Shakespearean translator, and they both wrote romantic novels, advocated “free love”, and for a time at least acted on their principles. So behind him Felix had commerce, intellect, art, and even licence; and when his parents became Christians, assuming the name Bartholdy, he was brought up a Lutheran.
Taught first by his mother, an accomplished pianist and linguist, Felix then went to Zelter, the conductor of the Berlin Singakademie, and to Moscheles, the great pianist. A prodigy, he had written 13 symphonies for strings by his fifteenth year. This facility of composition never left him, but in some ways it was a doubtful gift; for often his music came too freely for him to discriminate about it, and had he not been at root a great composer he might easily have degenerated into a brilliant Kapellmeister – a fate that anyhow he did not always escape. At twenty he visited London, conducting his C minor symphony with a bâton, and this was still enough of a novelty to astound the Londoners. Mendelssohn also played Beethoven’s Emperor concerto, heard then for the first time in England. He had already begun his life-long championship of the almost totally neglected Bach, whose present day popularity rests entirely on that initiative. At eighteen Mendelssohn had got from Zelter a manuscript of the St. Matthew Passion, bought cheaply, it is said, from the effects of a dead cheese merchant; and though opposed by his teacher, who evidently lacked the foresight of this twenty-year old genius, early in 1829 he had the work performed, and as a result published; and throughout his life he spread the new gospel of Bach, playing the organ and keyboard works whenever he could.
The first book of Songs Without Words appeared in 1832, but was not immediately successful; though finally it was these pretty pieces that crowned Mendelssohn king of drawing rooms and annoyed him by obscuring his more serious works. In 1843 he founded the Conservatory at Leipzig, soon to become the Mecca of all nineteenth-century music students. Here he wrote most of the Elijah, significantly enough first conceived during a visit to England in 1837. Nine years later Birmingham heard the first performance, with the composer conducting; since then not even the depths of the Mendelssohn slump have dislodged this work from British choral societies.
Through only thirty-eight at his death, in a romantic age Mendelssohn avoided excess in both his art and his music. Later generations thought him too good to be true; and only within the last twenty years or so have we learned to mistrust this verdict. Yet even now we err on the side of conservatism, and many of Mendelssohn’s good and interesting works – the Reformation symphony, for example – are unaccountably neglected.
Adapting Shaw we might say that once there were two composers called Mendelssohn, one who wrote sentimental “salon” music, which excellently served its intended purpose, and another who created the Scotch and Italian symphonies, the Hebrides overture, and many fine separate movements in the choral works, string quartettes and concertos. That this second Mendelssohn was rarely able to resist the influence of the first makes discrimination hard; but unless we are to be foolish and dismiss as unworthy both the seventeen-year-old composer of the Midsummer Night’s Dream overture and the young man of the Italian symphony and the violin concerto, then discrimination there must be. And, of course, discrimination there is; for if we no longer idolize Mendelssohn, at least we have no need to hate him, and it is not by chance that now, a hundred years after his death, many of his finest works are still part of every orchestra’s standard repertory. Perhaps Queen Victoria knew best after all.
This article was first published in November 1947 for the Federation of the Women’s Institute magazine “Home & Country”, Home Counties Edition, Volume 29, Number 11, and priced twopence.
Peter’s piece appears on page 192.