Saturday, 31 January 2009

Mendelssohn, "Hasse die Frohen!"

Felix Mendelssohn was cursed in life and death. His forename means “happy”. He had everything, immense talent, love, a rich and influential family, a gentle personality. As a small boy, he was feted by Goethe. For his birthday, his granny gave him a rare manuscript of the St Matthew Passion. No wonder he attracted such jealousy. Remember what his greatest fan (not) wrote in the scene where Alberich invades his son’s dreams, poisoning his sleep;

Hagen mein Sohn! Hasse die Frohen!”

Now we know why Alberich was a troll!

"Hass' ich die Frohen! freue mich nie!"

A productive way to be.

Mendelssohn, on the other hand, was anything but an Alberich. His grandfather was Moses Mendelssohn, an important figure in the Enlightenment. Felix’s background predisposed him to idealism, refinement, learning and improvement. No one committed to such values ever has it easy. Far from being “happy” and mindlessly content, Mendelssohn was a driven man. There are even hints that he was subject to depression quite early on – not at all surprising given his intelligence and sensitivity.

Even in his own time, Mendelssohn provoked nastiness. When they were both young in Rome, Mendelssohn looked after Berlioz. But when Mendelssohn tripped and fell down a flight of steps, Berlioz mocked his religious faith. Then there’s the famous incident when Berlioz bullied Mendelssohn into exchanging batons. Except it wasn’t a brotherly gesture. Mendelssohn had to hand over his elegant whalebone baton for an enormous cudgel of lime tree with the bark still on. Berlioz made light of it with a note that among other things referred to “Le mien est grossier, le tien est simple”. Berlioz pretended it was a joke but it was still vicious.

Mendelssohn in many ways carried on Enlightenment values. How he would have adapted to the cataclysmic changes in society after 1848, mere months after his early death we’ll never know, but he wasn’t a wimp in an ivory tower as the popular myth might have it. Then along come Liszt and Wagner who defined Mendelssohn primarily by race, not artistry. Indeed, so much of Mendelssohn's bad press pertains to factors other than his music or personality, and reflect more on those who wanted him eclipsed.

For some time now, the Mendelssohn Project has been working on Mendelssohn’s unpublished works, as nearly half of the composer’s 770 works have never been performed. Read about what they’ve been doing and their plans to record the lot. We haven’t even begun to appreciate who Mendelssohn really was.

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