Mendelssohn and His World edited by R. Larry Todd

Princeton University Press



Was anyone ever more accomplished than Jakob Ludwig Felix Mendelssohn? As a composer, he achieved perfection in such diverse forms as oratorio, concerto, symphony, incidental music, string quartet, piano piece and song.  He was also gifted or pre-eminent as a gymnast, chess-player, linguist, classicist, translator, correspondent, travel writer, prose stylist, draughtsman, water-colourist, manuscript collector, musicologist, critic, administrator, teacher, conductor, violinist, organist and pianist. He found time in his thirty-eight years to become the acknowledged and revered leader, inspirer and innovator of English as well as German musical culture. As a devoted husband and father, model citizen and sincere pietist he united Jewry and Christendom.

   His posthumous reward has included neglect and indeed contempt for his art's alleged lack of national roots, instead of veneration for his uni­versality. To this day, he has failed to find an adequate advocate. There is not even a standard critical selection from his c7,000 letters; his best biographer is still Ernst Wolff (1906); much manuscript material lies in Berlin, Oxford, New York, Washington and other library archives.

   Meanwhile, here is the New York Bard College Mendelssohn symposium, inspired (as the editor puts it) by a Bard Music Festival and featuring contributions from the Bard President, a Bard Vice-President, and a Bard Visiting Professor. The other collaborators include Professors from Cornell, Duke, Pittsburgh, Princeton and Virginia. But the main contents are the translations from nineteenth-century memoirs, letters and cri­tiques that constitute Parts Two, Three and Four respectively. The seven new essays of Part One certainly illustrate the extreme range of the modern scholarly spectrum, from the infra-red of detailed technical analysis to the ultra-violet of vague aesthetic and historic speculation. But the reader will discern little visible light in between.

    Both the editor’s preface and Leon Botstein’s lead article on aesthetics begin by seeing red about anti-Semitism. Perhaps this is what blinds them, for example, to Bernard Shaw’s avowed reverence for the best Mendelssohn (“nobility and pure fire”) in a well-known passage which they both crassly misrepresent. Botstein also repeatedly deplores the failure of others to penetrate the surface of Mendelssohn, and vaunts his own success in doing so. But he has left no evidence behind him, so far as I can see; and the surface surely provides the only sound observation-post for a sonorous art-form. Appeals, however impassioned, to parallels with visual art, ethics and theology are just as irrelevant as anti-Semitism to the measurement of musical merit.

   David Brodbeck competently analyses a known anthem; the editor disinters and skillfully dissects an obscure fragment of a piano sonata. Claudio Spies begins by saying that comments about beauty in music must lack substance, a thesis which he then proceeds to challenge, if not disprove, with his own samplings of beauty in Mendelssohn. All these three essays on the music are especially valuable for their detailed documentation of Mendelssohn’s compositional processes, including his assiduous rewriting and thrifty re-use of thematic material. Martin Staehelin demonstrates the close relationship between “Es ist genug” in Elijah and “Es ist vollbracht” in Bach’s St John Passion. Nancy Reich is rewardingly informative about Mendelssohn’s sister Fanny, in an impressively well-researched article. William Little devotes twenty pages to the rather unrewarding speculation that Mendelssohn’s rejection for the directorship of the Berliner Singakademie may have been attributable to factors other than the entrenched anti-Semitism reported by Devrient, which is the only evidenced cause. The perceptive commentary on Antigone offered by Michael Steinberg is so densely complex that it criticizes George Steiner for over-simplifying that subject.

   The non specialist will turn with some relief to the directly relevant nineteenth-century background material taken from the memoirs of J. C. Lobe, A. B. Marx, J. Schubring, C. Horsley, F. Max Müller, E. Rudorff, Hanslick and B. Hake, and the critical writings of F. Brendel, Heine, O. Jahn, F. Niecks, and Bülow supplemented by thirty letters from Mendelssohn himself (twenty to A. Fuchs, ten to W. von Boguslawski). The editor describes the first four memoirs as "relatively little-known", though they have been duly recorded in the New Grove bibliography and elsewhere for many years, and the Schubring and Horsley texts were both originally in English. But the Lobe and Marx reminiscences, like all the letters and most of the critiques, are in every sense freshly translated, by Susan Gillespie; and these texts should indeed prove both unfamiliar and interesting to an English readership. We see and hear the unselfconscious and diligent servant of music, who sincerely sought divine guidance, yet obsessively revised and rewrote his works, even the most ostensibly effortless. In his art as in his life he earnestly strove to find, formulate and follow the moral and aesthetic rules and laws that govern humankind. Such attitudes are not merely Victorian; they will always have relevance and validity for some minds and temperaments in every era. These are the true Mendelssohnians, and their needs have never been met. They deserve a detailed Documentary Biography on the scale of the Deutsch Mozart or Schubert volumes. A good start was made in 1972 by Peter Ranft in Eine Lebenschronik and Margaret Crum in her Bodleian picture-book. Perhaps the scholars of a united Germany are planning a large-scale project. Meanwhile this handsomely produced and reasonably priced volume, with an autograph facsimile and a dozen extensive musical examples, is among the best compilations currently available. But its dozen misprints or errors in text or index (thus the Wolf mentioned in 1855 was Ernst Wilhelm, not the unborn Hugo) are far too many for a University Press.

Times Literary Supplement, 24 April 1992 (p. 19) © the estate of eric sams