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Mendelssohn, the Nazis and Sheila

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Jessica Duchen Jessica Duchen | 14:59 UK time, Monday, 20 July 2009

whisky.jpgI took a little break to get over my dose of rather plural pleurisy, while Rick was tramping the highways and byways as only he could. I'd have looked pretty ridiculous in that get-up meself anyway, and Solti didn't fancy being carried in his box all the way to Fingal's Cave, so it was much better to stay home and watch! Rick, I'm glad you had a good time and you have earned yourself an extra-large helping of haggis, to say nothing of the single malt.

Meanwhile, if anyone missed the superb and very unusual documentary the other night on BBC4 entitled Mendelssohn, The Nazis and Me, I can't recommend it highly enough! You can still access it by the BBC iplayer at this link: http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b00l7rg2/Mendelssohn_the_Nazis_and_Me/

Sheila Hayman, Mendelssohn's four-times great-niece (she's a direct descendent of Fanny), set off on a personal exploration of what Mendelssohn's Jewish background meant to the family then, since and now. For her, a sense of 'not belonging' appeared to be the result of the intermingling of races that so confused the Nazis. The issue of mixed-race Germans hasn't often been explored in WWII TV documentaries so it was fascinating and very disturbing to see the precision with which the regime decided to impose its own figuring-out of who was technically Jewish and who wasn't. Sheila interviews her own family about their experiences during the war, arriving in Britain as refugee children; and the story of the fate of Mendelssohn's music is all the more poignant for this.

She outlines the way in which Felix, himself a fervent Lutheran, tried to distance himself from his roots in his first oratorio, Paulus; then the rapprochement in Elijah which seems to seek the reconciliation of one religion with the other. And it was Elijah itself that helped to sustain hope and faith amid the Jewish Kulturbund and, tragically, even in Terezin.

It is touching, moving, illuminating and well worth a watch. And a reminder that even now Wagner's disgusting platitudes are echoed and re-echoed by those who declare Mendelssohn shallow or over-hyped (I kid you not - I read this somewhere just the other day) even when he's still struggling for adequate recognition! This was beautifully expressed in the programme by Steven Isserlis, Felix's No.1 friend and advocate, who said that when one critic decided Mendelssohn was a "baa-aa-aad" composer, all the others started bleating too....

The Mendelssohn family experience is very close to home over here, since my own in-laws shared much of it, having arrived in Britain as Jewish teenagers from Berlin in the nick of time - my mother-in-law on the Kindertransport and my father-in-law to well-timed boarding school. He was later interned on the Isle of Man - along with three-quarters of the Amadeus String Quartet - and when that came to an end, he joined the British army, where he changed his name to Evans and was posted to India. He was short and dark, so everyone thought he was Welsh and called him Taffy. This despite the fact that to this day (he is 88) - he has a strong German accent!

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