Friday, October 28, 2011

Music of the Great Composers – Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847)

Here and here are previous postings concerning Mendelssohn.

In our survey of the great composers, we have made a sweep from J.S. Bach through Hector Berlioz, Bach born in 1685, Berlioz in 1803, a span of only 118 years. In the scheme of things, that's not very long. To give you some idea, if Berlioz had been born this year, Bach would have been born in 1893, which to some of us with a greater concept of time, just wasn't that long ago.

Anyway, we march ahead to the year 1809, the year Haydn died and Mendelssohn was born. In that year, Beethoven was 39 years old. Mendelssohn would only live 38 years. He was to become one of the pivotal people in the history of this art form euphemistically called “classical” music; besides a prolific composer, Mendelssohn made contributions as publicist, teacher, conductor, performer, and musicologist. Felix Mendelssohn and Abraham Lincoln were born the same year.

Certain features of Mendelssohn come down to us. He was the embodiment of musical talent (an agile pianist), intelligence (he is known to have spoken 4 languages fluently) and grace (unless he lost his temper and began arguing with you in English! instead of his native German.). He had a tremendous drive to succeed, exuding a kind of nervous energy. He had an emotionally symbiotic relationship with a similarly musically talented older sister: they died within months of each other. At the core of his personal life was his family and his ethnicity. Here we have another first, Mendelssohn was the first ethnically Jewish composer to attain international recognition. He wouldn't be the last. Indeed, Mendelssohn was the grandson of a famous scholar and his family was involved in banking, had an international business (until Hitler closed it down) and they knew many famous, interesting and important people all over Europe who would come to visit them in their home. Among them were many musicians and here is where young Felix and his sister Fanny would have their first opportunity to participate in making music with other talented musicians; playing music together in their home.

We can and do wonder at this cultural crucible that was the Mendelssohn family and ask ourselves whether their accomplishments merit the serious emulation of others. We will encounter many stories of such families that got behind their talented children to propel them into outstanding careers. Indeed, it was until a generation or so ago, a normal and expected natural aspiration for any family. We have observed this as a model of human relationships, the family supporting its talented members with the ardent intent of delivering their flowering to the world, remuneration or not, which luckily for Mendelssohn, wasn't ever going to be a problem.

Felix Mendelssohn and his older sister Fanny were incredibly talented, incredibly smart, incredibly (usually) happy, the flowers of a kind of “salon civilization” that blossomed and still blooms in some of the homes of the wealthy and influential to this day. In Paris and other large European cities, some of these salons were hosted by the nobility, those out of power, but not out of funds or prestige. It is curious that Mendelssohn was himself so conservative that for many years he shunned Paris and its salons, some would think for good reason. At a typical event, sometimes there would be hundreds of people, and food and drink was served, more often there would be the usual 20 to 25 guests for something lighter, while the entertainment might be going on in the background or might be featured; people were asked not to talk and actually listen to what the musicians were playing. After all, there was even back then differences in music, some being more for background or dancing while other music, especially of older styles or out of date composers, was for serious listening. The same salon tradition had a long history in London, where Haydn, when in his 60's, had his great international success as a composer. Felix Mendelssohn was later to enjoy a particularly grand success there as well. In fact to many Englishmen, their great composers include Handel, Haydn and Mandelssohn, all of whom have “societies” there to perpetuate interest in their music.

Mendelssohn's Gewandhaus
In his relatively short life, Felix Mendelssohn accomplished many firsts that had a lot to do with the public venues that promoted the music of his own time as well as the music of older composers whose music had not been heard in 79 years, particularly the music of J.S. Bach. But the truth is that we also probably owe our knowledge of Schubert to Mendelssohn as well, as it was Mendelssohn who produced the first performance of Schubert's Great C Major Symphony (called his 9th). Mendelssohn was in fact for some of this time in Leipsig, Germany, the town where Bach had lived out his life. Leipsig was also known then as a publishing centre and a few of the largest music publishers were located there. In 1835, at the age of 26, Mendelssohn became the Gewandhaus Kapellmeister, and set himself to improving and expanding the musical life of the city. Perhaps to Mendelssohn, we owe the idea of a public concert in a concert hall attended by the general public, at which music by a variety of contemporary and older composers would be featured together. These concerts were intended almost at the outset to be intellectual rather than merely social events.

Mendelssohn was keenly interested in something else however, and considering his background this would not be too surprising, he was always keen on preserving and at the same time giving greater strength to a musical tradition, or if one didn't exist, he would have to invent one. Like it or not, we may owe the entire concept of “classical music” embodying the entire tradition of music composed and written down in a universal musical notation, so that its products could be passed down to the next generation and performed by succeeding musical talents who might perceive something new in each performance of music that would become essentially eternal, to Felix Mendelssohn. There is nothing like tradition to ensure a kind of immortality. It's not that Mendelssohn had been unique in having this vision, a serious music that was taken seriously by both musicians and audiences, that would rise to a level of such universality that it would bring people from all over the world together. That had been Bach's realization about himself, it had been Mozart's belief too and Beethoven's personal crusade. But it was to Mendelssohn that fell the opportunity to organize and project it forward. During this time, Mendelssohn wore many hats and travelled too, he was always busy and in 1843, he was 34, he founded the Leipzig Conservatory of Music (which after his death a few years later was re-named after him).

Meanwhile all through this busy time, Mendelssohn had a family life of his own, a wife and five children! Four of the five would grow up to become the kind of pillars of the community that one used to expect in civilized societies; a historian, a chemist/inventor, or when women, raised to become partners of successful pillars. But in 1847, a series of strokes, a medical condition that affected other members of his family, ended his busy and productive life.

Mendelssohn's music is on one level unmistakeably the natural extension of the music of the so called First Vienna School; the corps of composers comprising the “classical” tradition of composing within certain recognizable musical forms; the sonata allegro, Symphony, string quartet and other chamber music, piano music of the same character, songs that were set to popular or famous poetry but reserved in development of musical ideas. But on the level that is particularly his, I have always been amazed and fascinated by both his cleverness and taste as a composer, all resting on a base of deep understanding of the musical ideas and idioms of the masters who went before him. If it were on the basis of mere quality of design in itself, Mendelssohn's music would be about the best there is. Incredibly, considering his busy life, he left us a lot of it. So much that there is probably many works by him that I have yet to hear. That's always a good thing as there are and will be composers who were lucky to be remembered widely for only a few pieces.

The one I'm featuring here has long been one of my favourite pieces of symphonic music, his Italian Symphony Op 90 which was finished in 1833 on commission from an orchestra in London that would become the Royal Philharmonic Society. He conducted the première in London and it was an instant success and has remained so ever since. The main reason is its energy. This music is supposed to express something about Italy, and it really does! We will have occasion to encounter more music suggestive of particular places as we proceed. I've chosen the performance that is currently available (for how long who knows?) conducted by Leonard Bernstein, here conducting the New York Philharmonic way back in 1953. Enjoy!

Felix Mendelssohn - Symphony No. 4, "Italian" Op. 90 (1833)

Part 1: Allegro vivace
Part 2: Andante con moto
Part 3: Con moto moderato
Part 4: Saltarello: Presto


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