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What I've learned about Mendelssohn ...

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Jessica Duchen Jessica Duchen | 12:27 UK Time, Tuesday, 2 March 2010

Jessica Duchen was Radio 3's Mendelssohn blogger in 2009. Her review of the year was held over for editorial timetabling reasons and is published, with our thanks, now.  

mendelssohn.jpgAll right, I admit it: I thought I knew something about Mendelssohn when the Mysterious Maestro who controls this website asked me to be Felix's blogger for a year. What I've learned is essentially that I knew next to nothing, and after the whole of 2009 I've still only scratched the surface of what made Felix Mendelssohn such a great composer, so influential a personage and such a sunny and generous-hearted individual who was adored by all who knew him.

I've found it especially fascinating to explore his cultural and religious background and its context, from his grandfather Moses Mendelssohn to his 4x great-niece Sheila Hayman, whose documentary on the subject featured prominently in these screens. I had not realised previously the depth and idealism of Mendelssohn's spiritual outlook; his was a genuine conversion, and for some of us who fancied we shared some of his roots, this can at first be uncomfortable to take on board. I found myself facing head-on the conundrum that some genuinely fabulous music, notably his oratorio Paulus, has fallen into obscurity largely because its power was put - and by its composer - at the service of sentiments about spiritual and cultural superiority that today we find unpalatable. But I will still stick out my neck and say that I feel that Paulus is a more exciting and inspired piece of music than Elijah - which, despite repeated attempts, I have not yet learned to love.

The issue of Mendelssohn's romantic sensibility and classical strictures is almost as fascinating - and mirrors his spiritual aspect in many ways, since one outlook is encased within the attributes of another. The formal structures of classicism, throughout Mendelssohn's works, are filled with the skittering shadows of the supernatural, deriving from the imagery of ghosts and fairies that he encountered in the poetry of Shakespeare and Goethe. I've learned that it's impossible to understand 19th-century German music without a thorough knowledge of Goethe, and have thus landed myself with a hefty project that may require several decades of reading and some intensive language courses to work itself out. Noticing that Goethe's cult classic of Romanticism, The Sorrows of Young Werther, was published as early as 1774 tends to cast all that followed in a different light. Every sentence or verse of Goethe is full of insight and wisdom - and this man was a formative influence on our Felix when the composer was just a small boy.

Mendelssohn preceded the split that later occurred between the two directions of Romantic music - for him there was no conflict between classical form and the inspirations of literature and nature. That makes him and his friend Schumann perhaps the purest, most integrated manifestations of absolute Romanticism. I've now become fascinated by exploring the true origins of that split, though that's a story for another time - maybe Liszt year in 2011...

Of course, it's become clear that the side of Mendelssohn that attracts more people in Britain to him than any other is the fact that he visited Britain ten times, was friendly with Queen Victoria and Prince Albert and perfected a tuneful, sentimental style for certain types of work that they simply adored. Well, whatever floats your boat...I tried, I honestly did, to build up the thrills of that mass rendition of 'Hear My Prayer', but frankly it is still not quite my personal tankard of bier: I always plump first and foremost for the chamber music, the concertos, the symphonies and the more obscure choral works (in German, please). I wouldn't argue with the importance of Mendelssohn to British musical life in terms of active oratorio singing et al, but I might feel even more convinced had there been a group of eager young composers who clustered around him whenever he turned up, hanging on his every note and eager to learn from his example about how to produce perfectly turned, exquisitely imagined and terrifically appealing music...hmm.

My last Mendelssohn concert treat of the year was courtesy of the London Philharmonic and Vladimir Jurowski's unconventional Christmas concert, which featured one of those obscure choral works: the Christmas cantata Vom Himmel Hoch. If Bach had been reincarnated in 1809, perhaps he would have written it himself. It is structured much like a typical JSB cantata, but with Mendelssohnian spirit pouring out through every breath. The soprano aria was gorgeous, and Lisa Milne sang it with ideal purity and power. It is one of many works that languished in obscurity for far too long - and makes you wonder how much else there is awaiting discovery and rehabilitation in the oeuvre of a prolific composer who was perhaps over-careful about what he published.

My last book treat is R. Larry Todd's brand-new biography of Fanny Mendelssohn, every bit as lucid, detailed and fascinating as this prime Mendelssohn scholar's previous works would lead us to expect and a worthy successor to his definitive biography of Felix. It's available now from OUP.

And one little footnote...what of The Jenny Lind Story? What indeed! It's one of the most extraordinary pieces of information that has ever come my way, and its provenance (the head of the Royal Academy of Music at the time) was rock-solid. Echoes of Goethe's Werther came to mind. But without the cooperation of those wielding control over the essential piece of paper, it's hard to progress with anything more definitive. Given efforts from our friends Icons of Europe who have been researching the possibility that Lind wanted to marry Chopin and would like to prove that her alleged association with Mendelssohn was a mask for an affair with a Swedish prince, this is a plot that could carry on thickening... In some ways, the story is a sideline: our joy in the music itself is not affected, even if our understanding of some of Mendelssohn's later-in-life motivations could be significantly transformed. But I suspect we haven't yet heard the last of the tale.

Far from overdosing on Mendelssohn's works during 2009, now I love them more than ever. So, to close, a plea. Just because Mendelssohn Year has drawn to a close, please don't let him vanish from our concert halls and recording schedules. There's no point in having an anniversary year if it doesn't leave a strong legacy. I think Felix's will.

  • If you've enjoyed Jessica's writing in this blog, she has her own well-established and lively blog, which you can find by clicking this link


  • Comment number 1.

    We know less than nothing, Jessica, although let us hope that someone else knows something.


  • Comment number 2.

    Re #1 Another Kleines Kuagmire! What are you going on about? What does "less than nothing" mean?

  • Comment number 3.

    Less than nothing means less than nothing, Krompetz40.

    As for Felix Mendelssohn, Jessica, did he revive Bach's St Matthew Passion?

    Sir Simon Rattle is doing much the same for Performance on 3 this evening.


  • Comment number 4.

    Re #3 Yes. M was given a score of the Passion when he was 15 & prepared & conducted an abridged version at the Berlin Singakademie in 1829 (he was 20). It is said to have been the first peformance in Germany for 100yrs & greatly enhanced JSB's reputation.
    Rattle was not trying to "revive" the Passion. It is one of the giants of choral music, revered, regularly performed & needs no promotion.

  • Comment number 5.

    Let us therefore promote Mendelssohn's music instead, Krompetz40. I propose some toast: to Jessica!


  • Comment number 6.

    "Though everything else may appear shallow and repulsive, even the smallest task in music is so absorbing, and carries us so far away from town, country, earth, and all worldly things, that it is truly a blessed gift of God"-- Felix Mendelssohn
    Ah, the joys of musical transcendence. Yes, Mendelssohn was indeed a very spiritual man.
    Last week I had the pleasure of visiting the Mendelssohn-Haus in Leipzig. Besides the few mementoes on display and the lovingly recreated rooms every bit as tasteful and elegant as much of Mendelssohn's music, seeing his beautiful watercolors and attending a Sunday morning concert in the lovely, late Biedermeier music room was especially rewarding. The famous Magnus portrait, commissioned by none other than Jenny Lind, hangs there too.
    I toast you too, Jessica, for your entertaining and informative blogs! If Leipzig was any indicator of the composer's popularity, I think he and his music will be loved and appreciated well beyond our lifetimes.


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