On Wings of Song by Wilfrid Blunt

Hamish Hamilton


As the title indicates, this is not aimed at Musical Times readers. Actual musical quotation for example, or anything on those lines, is not merely staved off but ruled out. Mr Blunt is writing for those who “instinctively recoil” from such things. His readers are however assumed to be instinctively drawn to pictures, whether black and white (130) or full colour (32). Against so graphic a background the text reads rather like a long caption, in which technical terms too are shunned like the plague; indeed, like the plagal cadence, which is cited as one example of a vocabulary alien to the audience aimed at.

     One can't help wondering whether Amen would really stick in the throat of the lay reader. But at least the doctrine is consistent. An occasional unguarded comment has escaped the author; thus an early symphonic Andante is said to be like a stroll through the woods in spring. But even such innocent excursions are generally forbidden; and elsewhere the book is even more successful in its declared attempt to say nothing of note about Mendelssohn's music.

     Due respect is however paid to that topic. Indeed, it is hoped that the book may reawaken an interest in Mendelssohn the Man and hence in Mendelssohn the Composer. This sounds to me like a vain hope in more ways than one. Despite repeated readings I can find nothing of substance about either the man or the composer (my small letters). This seems doubly a pity. The time is ripe for a reappraisal, with the availability of new and significant source material; Mr Blunt, with his easy style and sympathetic approach, could have tackled the task so well. No doubt a recourse to German archives seemed foreign to the book's purposes. But there was surely room for some consideration of Mendelssohn's religious beliefs, or his political convictions, or his state of health (what was that terminal illness?). There is at least some modest assessment of Mendelssohn's emotional life, namely that he “thought music more important than sex”. But this is pure (not to say puritanical) invention. Agreed, most of the evidence remains below the surface; and the tip of an iceberg may well suggest frigidity. But will six words really suffice as the sole coverage of any vital aspect of “Mendelssohn the Man”, which is explicitly declared to be the primary topic of the entire text? Balanced against some less weighty claim,' this book would not have been found seriously wanting. It is well compiled from familiar sources diligently studied and accurately expounded. The illustrations are sumptuous and profuse; the format is attractive and the price reasonable. If there are people who wish to have their interest in this field cultivated by top-dressing rather than tilth, then here is the very work for them. It is hard to see how this biography could have been very much better within its limitations ­ but easy to see that it would have been very much better without them.           


The Musical Times, Oct. 1974 (p. 849) © the estate of eric sams