Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy: eine Lebenschronik compiled by Peter Ranft
Deutscher Verlag Breitkopf
Following the fashion now abroad (if only abroad) for re-measuring Mendelssohn by the methods of Marxist musicology, to which this book duly pays tribute, he can now apparently be seen in his true colours, i.e. pink, or in some lights, red. Study him carefully, and you can discern the clenched fist in the kid glove.
It is true that the Marx and Mendelssohn circles were intersected by common chords; Heine and Hegel are major examples. And there are certainly radical overtones in works such as Elijah; indeed, its hero is the people. Admittedly, no one has yet called it a mob oratorio, or suggested that the prophet himself was modelled on the young Marx (despite such evident resemblances as a tendency to overthrow mighty kings). But some of the parallels are perhaps worth underlining and sharpening as pointers to the life and works. In this modest aim Peter Ranft's compilation seems entirely successful. It is directed towards a public so unpolished as to need glosses like “grand scandale (grosser Skandal)”. So the chosen field is naturally broad rather than deep. A little more delving would have unearthed many more dated autograph songs, for example, than are mentioned here. The plates too are very much a matter of course. Any pessimist who feels that all, all are gone, the old familiar faces, need only glance at the 43 illustrations to be wholly reassured. Again, the usefulness of the book would have been much enhanced by an index of works mentioned. Whatever the genesis of Elijah, laymen are much more likely to look up his name than that of (say) Marx, Adolf Bernhard. But as a readable month-by-month chronicle of Mendelssohn's life, assembled from a wide variety of sources, this 110-page account could hardly be better-balanced or more creditable. Many of the details will be found unfamiliar, even surprising. Mendelssohn was not only politically but physically an activist. Like Byron, he expressed in such pursuits as swimming and riding his interest in progressive movements. He too was inordinately fond of his sister, and capable of deep emotional friendships with men; he too was the darling of the gods. Not only was he born rich and gifted, but honours and presents rained upon him. In a quite typical few months in 1830 for example (pp.23-4) he was given a Faust manuscript page by Goethe in Weimar, and then a Beethoven sketchbook by a collector in Vienna: next he was off to Pressburg for a quick coronation (Ferdinand's; but it might easily, one feels, have been his own); and within another week or so he appears in Florence and Rome, taking a long and well-informed look at the picture-galleries.
Yet under this smooth surface of high society and fine art there were (as both Schumann and Wagner detected) radical contradictions. Mendelssohn may have had liberal sympathies; but his music votes conservative. No wonder there were divisions and opposition. First he was idolized; then execrated for his feet of clay; and now he is raised again to golden calf level. Indeed he has become, or so Peter Ranft assures us, a worthy representative of the German national musical tradition. If so, it is a mighty achievement, against massive odds. This book is well-designed to lend colour to this new and rosier picture of Mendelssohn and set it in a fitting documentary frame and historical perspective.
The Musical Times, Dec.1972 (p. 1185) © the estate of eric sams