If Felix Mendelssohn (1809-47) were able to assess his own life, his only justifiable grievance would be its brevity.
One of four children, (a sister, Fanny, was almost as talented as her brother in composition and piano playing), Mendelssohn led a charmed existence: he was handsome, highly educated, well-read, a talented artist; as well as being an accomplished piano player and organist (so good, in fact, that on one occasion the organ had to be switched off after a service, as noone was going home); composer, respected conductor – and rich.
In short, the full package and a good catch.
I suspect the fact that this child prodigy never had to struggle financially has contributed to some labeling his work as superficial, sentimental, and even mediocre.
And I must confess to having been influenced that way for many years, for which I must lay the blame squarely on my journalist idol, Bernard Levin, who wrote so persuasively and eloquently about many subjects, few more so than music. A passionate Wagnerian, whose music I can only really take in smaller doses (I’m with Rossini on this, who is supposed to have said ‘Monsieur Wagner a de beaux moments, mais de mauvais quart-d’heures!’) Levin once wrote that he didn’t “really see the point of Mahler”; rated Verdi as a rather “ordinary musician” – and questioned why, with all the other talents he had at his disposal, Mendelssohn felt the need to devote his life to music! Having for years heard nothing much more than his big hits of the violin concerto, the Hebrides overture, incidental music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the Scottish and Italian symphonies, I had some sympathy with this view for too long, wrongly asserting it was all just too sugary. What a mistake, but one so easily made when not enough of his other choral and chamber music is played.
And here’s some evidence. The octet which Mendelssohn wrote is the work of a mature musician, but it was performed in 1825, when he was just 16 years old. It is a work of nearly half an hour, and I am attaching the first of its four movements. Eight string instruments unfold almost half the piece with a beautiful violin melody, underpinned with an energetic momentum – and just when you think it’s running out of steam on the final bend, there’s a renewed sprint to the line. When you consider his age, this is the work of a genius, no question. It’s not sugary, it’s a delight.
And so I must respectfully disagree with Bernard Levin on this (as I do on his views on Verdi), however much I admire his writing. And I took some pleasure in stumbling across this quip from Wagner about Mendelssohn in an article entitled Judaism in Music in 1850: ‘Mendelssohn has shown us that a Jew may have the amplest of talents, the finest and most varied culture, the highest and tenderest sense of honour, yet these qualities cannot help him even once to evoke in us the deep heart-searching effect which we expect from art.’ Are not Levin’s remarks a paraphrase of that? Methinks even my own idol may just have been susceptible to the views of one of his own.
Mendelssohn died at just 38 years old, after a couple of strokes which were brought on from overwork. We have much to thank him for: not least editing and conducting Bach’s St Matthew’s Passion nearly eighty years after his death, as well as reviving his music in Europe generally. And it was also Mendelssohn who conducted the first performance of Schubert’s Great C major Symphony in 1839, a work its composer never heard played, and my all time favourite symphony.
The purists do not give him the credit he deserves.