Famous Composers: Felix Mendelssohn
Almost alone among famous composers Felix Mendelssohn underwent no struggle to achieve fame or fortune. Born in 1809 in the outskirts of Hamburg and brought up in Berlin, he was the son of Abraham Mendelssohn, a wealthy banker who was better placed than the impecunious Franz Weber to attend to the requirements of a child prodigy in the Mozart class. Whereas in boyhood Carl Maria von Weber had picked up hints from strolling musicians, young Felix Mendelssohn was sent to the most expensive teachers in Berlin and Paris - and moreover was supplied by his fond parents with a private orchestra which he could conduct whenever he wished; he was soon composing sonatas, symphonies, cantatas, operas even, some of which are still preserved in manuscript.
As it turned out many were competent little works deserving recognition on then merits, and when at seventeen Mendelssohn startled everyone with the Midsummer Night’s Dream overture even the sternest moralist had to admit that he had used his worldly advantages to excellent purpose.
He was never obliged, as was Weber, to seek regular employment. Indeed when pressed to accept resident directorships he often declined them, and the only permanent post which he occupied for more than a year or two was that of conductor at the Leipzig Gewandhaus; as a rule he preferred to indulge in the extensive travel which he could well afford. Not that he was ever idle; far from it : he helped to rescue the name of J. S. Bach from oblivion by reviving that great master’s works all over Germany, and furthermore composed, played and conducted his own music wherever he went, whether it was Austria, Switzerland, Italy, France or Britain - to which he paid no less than ten visits and where he found himself completely at home. He toured the remoter parts of Scotland and Wales and was enchanted with their scenery; as for London, he compared it favourably with Naples (‘it is indescribably beautiful when the roses of Piccadilly gleam in the sunshine’); he even went so far as to write that he was ‘delighted’ with Birmingham: no wonder our countrymen hailed him as a genius. But the strain of continual wayfaring in all sorts of weather - by crowded stage-coach, bumpy post-chaise, tossing channelboat - eventually undermined a constitution which had never been robust and he died in 1847 (at Leipzig) at the age of thirty-eight.
Apart from being a composer Mendelssohn was a man of letters, a classical scholar, a fine linguist and a painter of considerable ability. Jewish by race and German-Protestant by religion, he cherished family affection and was particularly devoted to his elder sister Fanny, an accomplished pianist who married the artist William Hensel. Instinct drove him to play down his wealth and avoid any show of extravagance, and although friendly by nature and lionized wherever he went his character remained unspoilt; by contrast with many of his colleagues he was the epitome of upper-middle-class respectability. In 1837 he married Cecile Jeanrenaud, eighteen-year-old daughter of a Lutheran minister from the Swiss-Jura village of Motiers in the val de Travers (canton Neuchatel); she proved a good wife - and he a good husband. But although excessive popularity never corrupted the man it tended to demoralize the composer: success came so easily that in course of time he lost the power of discrimination, and since his intuition was less sure than Weber’s he slipped more frequently into melodic triviality and the facile use of harmonic cliches; he knew that his admirers were not interested in unconventional modulations (a la Schubert) or surprising strokes of dynamic originality (Beethoven) - and he was careful not to offend their susceptibilities. It was not so much that he prostituted his talent in return for public recognition as that he let it develop along lines which ran parallel with contemporary requirements; he did not sin against the Holy Ghost, but he sinned sufficiently to have incurred some measure of retrospective disapproval.
Mendelssohn’s technique was admirable (few composers before or since have better understood an orchestra), and professional expertise was apparent even in such early works as the Rondo capriccioso for piano (1824), the string octet (also 1824) and the Midsummer Night’s Dream overture (1826). This youthful masterpiece was later surpassed only by the Hebrides overture (of which more presently), and so far as orchestral pieces are concerned was matched only by the Midsummer Night’s Dream scherzo and nocturne (composed sixteen years after the overture), the ‘Italian’ symphony, and possibly by the ‘Scottish’ symphony and the violin concerto - which is still the standby of every virtuoso violinist. (Neither of the piano concertos is of comparable merit.)
For about eighty years Mendelssohn’s Elijah (first produced at Birmingham in 1846) was almost as regular a feature of a British music festival as Handel’s Messiah. Recently it has failed to stay the course, but despite a tendency to squareness in the part-writing it is certainly the most satisfying of his choral works. ‘Is not his word like a fire?’ remains a fine piece of declamation, the lyrical charm of ‘For the mountains shall depart’ is still apparent, and our grandfathers were not far off the mark when they acclaimed the conclusion of Part I (‘Thanks be to God’) as the most stirring climax in all oratorio. Of the string quartets perhaps only that in E minor exploited the medium to advantage - and few people would suggest that Mendelssohn was an outstanding song-writer. On the other hand much of his piano music, if judged by appropriate standards, is excellent. The Songs without Words are admittedly uneven in quality, but it would be unfair to dismiss them out of hand as pretty trifles; not all of them are trifling and I see no objection to prettiness - in moderation. The Variations serieuses display unexpected authority in a specialized field, and the prelude and fugue in E minor (op. 35 no. 1) - closing with a chorale in E major - is masterly. (The keys of E minor and E major often brought out the best in Mendelssohn: it is no coincidence that of the self-contained works which I have singled out for praise about half are in either one or the other - or a mixture of both.)
That Mendelssohn is normally assigned to the romantic school of composers is largely because he appeals to cosy sentiment; he was not a romantic in the true sense of the term, since he always - or nearly always - preserved a classic sense of detachment. One rarely comes across a subjective expression of emotion such as one often finds in Schubert (especially in the songs), and the attempts to evoke atmosphere a la Weber usually have a touch of artificiality about them - not that they are necessarily for that reason any the less effective in their context. The fairy music from A Midsummer Night’s Dream is captivating, but it suggests not so much fairies as a well-drilled troupe of dainty ballerinas; Bottom, when translated to Eeyore, is not written down an ass - he is a stage comedian wearing an ass’s head. Yet elsewhere Mendelssohn proved that besides being a classic (a romantically inclined classic, if you insist) he was also a superb impressionist. Nobody who, like the composer himself, has been to Fingal’s Cave on the isle of Staffa (off the west coast of Mull) - and few of those who' haven’t - could deny that the Hebrides overture, while perfectly fitting the concept of sonata form, was at the same time the first great tone-picture in music and therefore a landmark in the history of the art; not even Wagner or Debussy later surpassed its imagery - the eternal swell of the ocean, the surging of the waves round the rocks, the intermittent calm and storm, the cry of the sea-birds overhead. (Mendelssohn exploited the same flair, though less consistently, in the concert overture Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage, which is a finer work than the more familiar Ruy Blas.)
A crowd of Mendelssohn’s compositions - including the oratorio St Paul, Walpurgisnacht, the Hymn of Praise and the ‘Reformation’ symphony (all highly esteemed in the nineteenth century) - are already as good as dead; in course of time Elijah, too, may sink into further and undeserved oblivion and pianists no longer think it worth while to expend their energies on the Rondo capriccioso or the Songs without Words; even the enchanting Midsummer Night’s Dream music may eventually find itself out of favour in the brave new world of Benjamin Britten. But for the sake of the Hebrides overture, if of nothing else, the name of Felix Mendelssohn will surely be honoured so long as mankind remains capable of recognizing consummate artistry.
Extract from 'Famous Composers' by Gervase Hughes (1961) courtesy of the publisher.