Felix Mendelssohn (1809 – 1847) needs no introduction as a Romantic composer whose output is quite phenomenal. He continues to be rediscovered in the musical world, and many of his works were published as late as the 1960’s. Because of his Jewish origins, his music was banned in Germany during the Nazi era and anti-Semitism reigned in Europe in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
As a schoolboy, I was familiar with two anthems drawn from his larger choral works: O for the Wings of a Dove and I waited for the Lord. My copy of his six organ sonatas, bought in about 1974, was a part of my training as an organist. It is now falling to bits and I am tempted to buy a new copy to replace it. I almost never mark my scores as I once did. My favourite was the third sonata in A major, having heard it played in York Minster by Dr Francis Jackson. It begins with a maestoso passage, followed by a fugue, a fast passage in semiquavers played on the Swell, a return to the Great organ with plenty of diminished sevenths and other dramatic effects before a pedal solo and the recapitulation of the maestoso opening passage. I must have been about sixteen when I worked extensively on this piece with my teacher, Mr Noel Pemberton at St Peter’s School. After not playing it for many years, I tried it a few weeks ago on my little house organ, and did reasonably well.
It was also in the 1970’s that I bought a copy of two volumes of a book of organist’s humour, a great way to get back at sanctimonious clergy or cantankerous choirmen. One such quip spoke of the chromatic clash of Reger and the mellifluous mush of Mendelssohn. The quip stuck in my mind. I began to perceive this composer as an insipid sort of Romantic and almost a pastiche of Bach. In the world of modern music, pastiche is a cardinal sin, maybe even unforgivable. When I was a seminarian and chapel organist at Gricigliano, I found disapproving attitudes when I played Mendelssohn, partly because of anti-Semitism and also because he was more modern than seventeenth-century French music! I turned my attention elsewhere, to great Germans like Brahms and our own Englishmen – Elgar and Parry, and that most English of Irishmen, Charles Villers Stanford. Bach of course remained my mainstay at the organ, but also his cantatas, passions, oratorios, concertos and keyboard music. For harmony and counterpoint, we were all brought up on Bach.
I decided to go to Youtube and give Mendelssohn another hearing from a standpoint of greater openness to music other than what is sung or played in church. I downloaded the symphonies, three piano concertos, the magnificent string octet, the extremely popular violin concerto and his oratorio Elijah. This is where I found the passionate fire of the Romantic era in his development from Bach, but less anguished than the later works of Brahms. The counterpoint is dazzling and many of his chord progressions in homophony are reminiscent of Bach. There is nothing insipid about this Romantic who died aged only thirty-eight! Go for the great recordings of Otto Klemperer who brought it all so alive even for the modern listener.
As a man, there is every sign that he had an extremely tidy mind. His music was incredibly popular in the Victorian era, and he befriended the Queen and Prince Albert during his long stay in England (they all spoke German as their native language). Some of his works have become quite hackneyed like the Wedding March played at most people’s weddings as a final voluntary. The Christmas carol Hark the Herald Angels Sing is sung to a tune called Mendelssohn, and written by him. Though he was a Protestant, as a son of a convert from Judaism, he wrote the magnificent Lauda Sion.
Like many Romantics, Mendelssohn travelled. He particularly loved Scotland. The Hebrides Overture is so evocative of the rough sea and the battered harshness of Fingal’s Cave. One day, I’ll take a boat up there, but the conditions are very difficult… We have the roles of nature, the imaginations and the melancholic yearning for the things of God.
Mendelssohn was no mere dreamer. He worked incredibly hard as a composer and music teacher. He was said to have had a quick temper and was certainly less placid than the impression we get from his portraits. Mendelssohn once described death in a letter as a place “where it is to be hoped there is still music, but no more sorrow or partings“. I entirely share that view.
I encourage my readers to discover this fine music, the less known as well as the old favourites.