Monday, August 31, 2009

The Economy & Social Standing in Mendelssohn's World


Germans in 1800 regarded class as a system of social order and economic organization. Nobility was something that was inherited (only on occasion granted to someone for an accomplishment or distinguished service). Businessmen might earn more wealth but a nobleman had more status.

This may explain why, once he settled in Vienna, Beethoven (see left) liked to give the impression he was descended from a noble family. In Germany, the “von” in someone's name meant noble birth: Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, for instance, meant the great German poet was descended from a noble family even if he wasn't a prince or a count. But the “van” in Ludwig van Beethoven's name came from his distant Dutch heritage and has no special significance. Most of Vienna's nobility would have been aware Beethoven wasn't “one of them” from his manners and attitudes. But a man could lose his fortune and descend into lower-class society even though his ancestors had been aristocrats.

When he had taken his sister-in-law to court over custody of her son Karl, his claim to nobility moved the law-suit to a court that handled cases for noble families and he was granted custody of the boy. A few years later, when the sister-in-law was able to challenge Beethoven's claim to noble status and he was unable to produce the proper credentials, the case was thrown out of that court back into the court system that handled commoner's law-suits where the custody was reversed.

A French observer, herself of the nobility (in France, they used “de” instead of “von”) wrote that “In Germany, everybody keeps his rank, his place in society as if it were his established post,” like a job without chance of advancement or demotion.

The ideas sparked by the French Revolution of 1789 did not affect Germany's nobility. While some – like Beethoven – supported democratic ideals about the equality of men (odd for a man who claimed to be of noble birth, though), Germany as a culture was content to let the same ideas that affected France to simmer until a series of revolutions across Central Europe broke out in 1848.

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Even though Mendelssohn's family was wealthy and might have a more lavish life-style than many a “reduced” nobleman, they were still lower on the social scale regardless of their Jewish heritage (see the earlier post, Mendelssohn & His Jewish Heritage; undated portrait, right, of Felix Mendelssohn). Curiously, in the 1880s, the Mendelssohns running the bank Abraham and his brothers had founded in the 1790s were elevated to the nobility: the family name had now become “von Mendelssohn.”

It didn't help in the 1930s when the Nazis tightened their control and forced Mendelssohn & Co., once one of the most important private banks in Germany, to transfer its assets to Deutsche Bank in 1938, firing all the Jewish employees of the firm. Members of the family had hoped to reorganize the bank after the war but this never happened.

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Because of this class-oriented attitude and the fragmented nature of the German states, the Industrial Revolution which had changed England in the 18th Century was slow to have the same impact on German society. The great rivers of Germany stimulated commerce but when you had customs tolls at the borders with some 300 states and roads varied from state to state – don't forget, railroads didn't connect major cities until the 1840s – trade was very slow. Add to this the diversity of measures, weights, coinage and laws from state to state, it's amazing Germany became industrialized at all.

Imagine what it might be like if the United States had become a loose confederation (like Germany in the 18th and 19th Centuries) where the more powerful states – perhaps New York, Massachusetts and Virginia – had become independent countries but the other states' counties were each independent states as well with, perhaps, city-states like Philadelphia and Pittsburgh also independent. Laws might differ from county to county, you would have to pass through border customs at each boundary and so forth. Even as it was, the roads from Philadelphia to Harrisburg and towns further north in the Susquehanna Valley were difficult enough, moving produce and manufactured items on stage-coaches and wagons. Things would have been very different in the development of our country. Even though this is only conjecture, this is similar to what actually WAS happening in what eventually became Germany during the time the United States was becoming a nation.

(Illustration is of a list of 19th Century Turnpike Tolls in Pennsylvania)


England had a generation's advance on the growth of industry in Germany and forbid the export of its technology to the continent (especially trying to keep it out of Napoleon's hands).

But the constant warfare with France forced Germany to develop industry whose primary function was either to clothe people or kill them. When Napoleon blockaded the continent to keep England from trading with other countries, Germany was forced to provide for itself. Mining and metal industries began developing along the Rhine and in 1811 Friedrich Krupp established a steel factory that under the leadership of his son Alfred (1812-1887; see photo, right) would become the main supplier of military weapons for Germany from the 1840s till the 1940s. Reorganized after the war, the company still exists today as one of the world's largest producers of steel.

(Incidentally, Krupp also instituted subsidized housing and health care as well as retirement benefits for his workers, very unusual for the early 19th Century and something that was first initiated in the United States in 1910, when workers at a Washington State lumber mill were offered a wide range of medical services for a premium of $0.50/month.)

- Dr. Dick

Mendelssohn's Sister and Her World

Felix Mendelssohn's older sister, Fanny, was also a pianist and compoer. She had begun piano lessons as a child and was taking composition lessons with Carl Friedrich Zelter before Felix did. She quickly exhibited admirable talent in both areas.

However, the prevailing prejudice toward women in the public eye at this time in history meant that while it was fine for Felix to pursue a career in music as a performer and a composer, it was not for his sister.

When she was 15, her father Abraham told her that music might be a career for Felix – he was only 11 years old at the time – “but for you, it will be only an ornament.” In other words, she could play and compose as much as she wanted to but she couldn't make a living at it. Her primary role in life was to be a wife and mother. The men earned the money.

In fact, it wasn't so much as “making a living at it” as that she would not be able to earn money by it. She could perform privately as often as she wished – as in their Sunday musicales – but not in public where people would pay to hear her and she would be paid or that critics would criticize her playing in public newspapers.

Two years after his father Abraham died and Felix was now 28 and recently married, his mother Lea asked Felix to help Fanny get her music published. He declined but explained that publishing meant a commitment to continuously be supplying new works to be published. Fanny was not in the habit of writing a great deal (though one wonders if she could have been, given the opportunity). He would assist her if she really felt it necessary (or to please her husband) but he wrote “I cannot encourage her to do what I do not deem right myself.”

People point out that Clara Wieck Schumann had long been one of the major pianists of the day. While she no longer wrote very much music as the wife of Robert Schumann and the mother of eight children, still, she was busy concertizing all across Europe, especially following the final illness and eventual death of her husband.

The difference is primarily one of class. While Berlin was more conservative (and conventional) than Leipzig, Clara was also not from a wealthy upper-middle-class family. Her father, Friedrich Wieck (pronounced VEEK) had planned a musical career for her when she was a child (in fact, he had plans to turn her into a concert pianist even before she was born, but that's a long story and doesn't concern us, here). He even took Schumann to court to keep them from getting married because he did not want him interfering with Clara's career (or the money he would've made from it). But Robert was the composer in the family and when he was busy writing, she couldn't even practice because it would disturb him. And of course there were the children...

In Fanny Mendelssohn's case, being from a wealthy family, it was just unseemly that a woman should earn money, especially upon the concert stage.

It's not the she chafed under this, though at times it irritated her.

There are a series of letters between her and Felix while he was in Paris, complaining about all the music he had to hear and all the composers he had to meet. She practically exploded, being cooped up in the house back in Berlin. What she wouldn't have given to be there with him!

She continued to compose as well as perform at the family musicales. When she married her husband, Wilhelm Hensel – technically, we should refer to her as Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel, by the way – they lived in one of the former “guest-houses” on the Mendelssohn House's property in Berlin. Though given privacy, she was essentially her parents' neighbor and could easily take over managing the Sunday musicales. That was to be her outlet.

Even though she had known Hensel for at least five years - an artist, he had sketched portraits of everybody in the family but tone-deaf (they used to joke, in this musical family, that Hensel couldn't even hum a popular old Christmas carol) - she wasn't sure how her new married life would affect her musical life. Would her husband forbid her to compose music?

The story is told that the day after their wedding, Hensel asked her to sit down at the piano. He placed a blank piece of manuscript paper in front of her, implying she could write whatever she wanted.

In 1847, when she was 41, she was in the midst of rehearsing an up-coming performance of one her brother's choral works when she had a stroke and died later that day. Felix himself was so distraught at this early and sudden death, it affected his own health in such away that he never recovered, and he deteriorated until, six months later, he had a series of strokes and died as well.

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They had been very close all their lives. They used to joke about being twins, they were so much alike. He was proud of her musicianship and specifically showed some of her songs to Goethe's wife who then sang them for the great poet during one of his visits.

In order for some of her music to reach a wider public, he even published some of her songs and piano pieces as his own. This wasn't meant that he was trying to steal it or gain anything by not telling the truth about who wrote it: it was just “unseemly” or “unlady-like” for it to have been published under her own name. In fact, Fanny was quite flattered by it. Only a few people knew the true identity of these songs.

(This portrait, right, of Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel was made in 1842).

He wrote to her to tell her an amusing story. When he was in London in 1842, he met Queen Victoria and her husband, Prince Albert, for a social afternoon of talk and music-making. When the Prince mentioned that she loved to sing his songs, Mendelssohn asked her to choose her favorite and sing it for him. The song she chose was actually one that Fanny had written. He told his sister how it delighted him to know this but he was unable to confess the truth to the Queen of England!

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Fanny Mendelssohn performed once in public, playing her brother's 1st Piano Concerto (the work Stuart Malina will be performing with the Harrisburg Symphony in February 2010).

There is another story I had read in program notes for her one substantial orchestral work, a 10-minute overture called, simply, “Overture.” I've not seen it mentioned anywhere else so I'm not sure if it's true but it would be possible.

It was the only time she conducted any of her music in public, at a concert in a city in East Prussia where she was visiting friends. In her honor, the orchestra had programmed an Overture she had composed around 1830 (in fact, it is only known as “Overture”) and at the concert, the conductor asked her to lead the orchestra for it. Whether it was because she was far from Berlin and her social circle, a few years after her father had died and was no longer around to disapprove.

Despite all this, she composed about 250 songs, 125 piano pieces, an occasionally heard piano trio, a string quartet I've never heard, four cantatas and an oratorio called simply “Oratorio on Biblical Themes.” All these were written for and performed in the family's Sunday afternoon musicales.

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If the Mendelssohns had lived in Paris or London, it's possible Fanny's life could have been different. But the class role of a woman in society might not have been very different in a different country.

In the United States, there was a young woman who had been a child prodigy, able to sing counter-melodies to the songs her mother sang to her when she was 2 and composing waltzes at the piano when she was 4. Amy Marcy Cheney only had one year of training in composition, but made her debut as a concert pianist when she was either 16 in Boston. One of the works she performed was a piano concerto by a friend of Felix Mendelssohn's, a German composer named Ignaz Moscheles (pronounced MOH-sheh-less).

Her plans for a career, however, came to a halt when she was married to a Boston physician named Dr. Henry Beach who was 24 years older than she was. She agreed to limit her concertizing to one performance a year, donating the money she'd earn to charity. But he didn't say she couldn't compose.

So that is how she realized her musical needs. She wrote lots of piano music and a large number of songs which could be played at home for her own musicales. But she also composed a large Mass for chorus and orchestra was had quite a public success in 1892 and four years later she composed the first symphony ever written by an American Woman (it's called the “Gaelic” Symphony because it uses Irish and Scottish tunes as the basis for its themes). She signed herself Mrs. H. H. A. Beach.

But soon after her husband died in 1910, she was back on the road, concertizing across the USA and Europe, continuing to perform and compose until she died in 1944.

It is only recently that composers who are women have begun being treated on more equal footings with those who are men. One of the busiest composer today is Jennifer Higdon. A string quartet of hers will be performed this season at the January 23rd concert of Harrisburg's Market Square Concerts. She has an orchestral work on the program with the Harrisburg Symphony the following weekend.

She has many new works being commissioned, including an opera to be written for the San Francisco Opera. Women of the previous generation were breaking through the “glass ceiling,” sometimes having their music performed or getting commissions for new ones because they were women. Composers of this generation are getting performances and commissions because they're composers: the fact they also happen to be women is less of an issue.

Dr. Dick

Mendelssohn & His Jewish Heritage

Felix Mendelssohn was born in the Jewish faith two hundred years ago. His grandfather was the famous philosopher, Moses Mendelssohn. His great-grandfather had been born in a Jewish ghetto in the German city of Dessau.

As you've read in previous posts, the attitude in much of Europe was anti-Semitic. During the course of the 19th Century this may have lessened somewhat but it was never far from the surface.

Even when laws and social attitudes were more tolerant of Jews, still the Prussian government could declare than any Berlin Jew, when he married or bought a house, had to purchase a certain amount of porcelain from the Royal Porcelain Factory. They couldn't even choose what they might have preferred: they were just handed something and told to pay for it. That's how Moses Mendelssohn became the owner of a set of 20 porcelain monkeys. These monkeys became a symbol to future generations of the family until they disappeared in the years before World War II.


During Mendelssohn's life, there was some toleration of the Jews but it did not mean there was an end to discrimination. He saw that if his children were to “get ahead” in the world, they would have to do it as a member of the state-supported religion which, in Berlin, was Protestant Lutheranism.

And so Felix's father, Abraham decided his children should be converted to the Lutheran faith. After all, Moses Mendelssohn had supported the idea of “assimilation,” which meant that Jews would leave the ghettos, blend into the society around them. It didn't mean they should necessarily convert but by placing less emphasis on certain aspects of their heritage and adopting those of the culture they lived in, they would become another faith living among many rather than something more easily scorned.

When Felix was 7 years old, he and his brother and sisters were baptized. It was actually several more years before Abraham and his wife converted.


An maternal uncle who had already converted suggested they adopt the name “Bartholdy,” after a property he had purchased from an important Protestant merchant of that name. And so, Felix became “Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy” (with or without a hyphen).

As an adult on the verge of international fame, Felix was advised by his father to drop the Mendelssohn altogether and just be Felix Bartholdy, but Felix refused, using both names officially (see his signature, left). I'm not sure when it happened that people began to drop the Bartholdy instead, but it was relatively recent and not a decision on Mendelssohn's part, himself.

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They had never been exactly “religious Jews.” Mendelssohn never had firm roots in the faith he was born into. He grew up, basically, as a Lutheran but not a profoundly religious one. Today, the world is full of people who profess a faith but may not go to church. How many people today go to church twice a year, only at Christmas & Easter? In Germany in the 1800s, it was very similar.


But that didn't change the fact that Mendelssohn was born a Jew or “looked Jewish.” His parents were both Jewish and their families had long traditions in the faith, culture and ethnic heritage.

In 1830, Mendelssohn wrote a symphony (later called his “Reformation” Symphony) to celebrate the 300th Anniversary of Martin Luther's Augsburg Confession, an important event in the history of the Lutheran Church. It was not performed even though it included in its last movement one of Martin Luther's most famous hymns, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.” It was rejected from the festival celebrating the event probably because the composer was considered a Jew but it may also have been because it was a little too over-the-top for what the people organizing the festival were looking for. Most likely, it was a little of both. (Anyway, Mendelssohn only performed the symphony once. No one else heard it until it was published and performed again in 1868, over 20 years after his death.)

There is a belief among musicians and scholars that Mendelssohn felt “unanchored” because he had converted to Christianity. Two of his oratorios were inspired by Biblical characters – his most famous was Elijah, one of the greatest of all Jewish prophets; the second was a New Testament figure, St. Paul, who had originally been a Jew persecuting the early Christians until he was converted in a blinding flash "on the Road to Damascus." At the time of his death, Mendelssohn was also working on a new oratorio called Christus.

Mendelssohn was brought up in the Protestant tradition and loved the music of Bach, one of the greatest Lutheran musicians of the 18th Century. He brought Bach's music back into public awareness with a performance of Bach's St. Matthew Passion when he was 20 years old. This was a dramatic work telling the story of Christ's crucifixion, using the Gospel of Matthew as the basis for its text.

When he was 28, he fell in love with the daughter of a French Protestant minister. In fact, it was many months after the wedding until he took his wife home to meet the family.

Throughout his life, Mendelssohn was neither dogmatic nor pious about his religion, new or old. Just as they never attended temple when he was a child, he rarely attended church as a Christian. He might chose a church to attend more on the basis of what music was being performed, how well it was being performed or if they had a good pipe organ he wanted to hear or play, rather than how the faith was interpreted to the congregation by its preacher.

When a German critic complained about the “Hebraic elements” and music from the synagogue he heard in Mendelssohn's music, the French composer Hector Berlioz wrote in one of his newspaper articles if the critic would have made “such a foolish statement” is he hadn't known the composer of St. Paul and Elijah was a grandson of a man named Moses? “It is hard to see,” he continued, “how these [Jewish musical traditions] could have influenced the musical style of Felix Mendelssohn since he never professed the Jewish religion. Everyone knows he was a Lutheran and an earnest Lutheran at that.”

When he conducted at a German music festival in a city on the Rhine, there were demonstrators, students, who paraded in front of the concert hall with a placard reading “Christian Music for Christian Musicians.” They were dispersed by the police and probably Mendelssohn never even knew about it. Such public attitudes may not have been rare but they weren't the standard reaction to Mendelssohn or his music.

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Richard Wagner, who was openly anti-Semitic, was no great friend or supporter of Mendelssohn during his lifetime (by then Wagner had completed his opera, Lohengrin). A few years after Mendelssohn's death, Wagner published a newspaper article under a pseudonym entitled “Judenthum in Musik” which is best translated as “Jewishness in Music” though to be less offensive it's often called by the less pejorative word, “Judaism in Music.”

He attacked two composers in particular – Mendelssohn (who was already dead) as well as Giacomo Meyerbeer, a Jewish composer of German birth who preferred the Italian form of his first name, Jakob, and had added his maternal great-grandfather's name Meyer to his original last name, Beer (his father was also a banker; in fact, Meyerbeer also studied for a time with Zelter who had been Mendelssohn's principal teacher).

Wagner expanded and republished it as a book in 1869, about five years after Meyerbeer's death. The original article, published in a magazine with a circulation of about 1,200 readers, was mostly an embarrassment to Wagner's friends (like Franz Liszt who thought it was a passing phase) and an annoyance to Mendelssohn's fans. Wagner had hoped it would create a sensation and advance his career as a writer and make him lots of money. In this sense, it failed completely.

Wagner felt that Mendelssohn's conservative musical style was “in the way” of his own more advanced style which some were already calling “Music of the Future.” Meyerbeer was one of the most powerful men in the European musical world and had a great deal to do with the failure of Wagner's earlier operas to get produced, especially in Paris where he ruled the opera house. With many of his other essays and articles discriminating against Jewish musicians and their supporters, this book became an embarrassment to people who supported him or liked his music, several of whom were Jewish. Many people dismissed Wagner's prose writings (and with it, these political manifestos) with the expression, “He was a great composer but a terrible writer.” Most people dismissed it as “sour grapes” and musically political, trying to destroy the music of his detractors, than anything socially viable.

It also isn't likely these writings, not well known to later generations, were ever part of Hitler's readings or those of anyone formulating the politics of the growing Nazi party. Though it had been reprinted in the 1930s in Germany, there was little interest in it until after World War II.

But still, looking back on the history of the 19th Century, the attitude of Wagner remains. It was also a symptom of the society he lived in. Not to be too light about it, it is another form of discrimination and one that had tragic consequences difficult to analyze rationally.

Dr. Dick

Celebrities in Music

Today, popular music is full of celebrities who are idolized by cheering fans.

It may seem hard to believe that in the 19th Century, the concert virtuoso – a musician who played at an extremely high level, called “virtuosity” – was regarded as a cultural icon much like rock stars are today. People clamored to buy tickets for their performances. After the performance, the musician could be met by a cheering crowd who would lead him back to his hotel through the city streets.


Vienna went crazy for the violinist Paganini when he performed there in the 1820s. He was tall, pencil-thin, had long hair and could do things on the violin that no one else ever imagined doing. Some said he had sold his soul to the devil in order to play like that. He dressed in black to accentuate his thinness. He often showed up in a black carriage drawn by black horses. It helped that he was a phenomenal violinist but the rest sold tickets and brought him fame.

(Just a side note: this fame or notoriousness backfired on him. The story about selling his soul to the devil? When he died, he refused last rights not because he didn't believe in God but because he didn't believe he was going to die just then. Unfortunately word got around it must have been because he'd sold his soul to the devil. The priest would not allow his body to buried in 'consecrated ground' which was about the only place you could be buried. His coffin remained in the basement of his house for five years while the landlord rented out his old rooms. Then they put it in the basement of a nearby hospital. His son finally took the coffin back to his home town but they were not allowed to enter the city, so they stored it in the tower of a friend's country estate. The gardener charged tourists money to view the corpse. ” People claimed to hear a violin playing in the middle of the night. His body was moved around a few more times, sometimes being buried in a garden but not a real cemetery. It took 36 years and a decree from the Pope to allow him to buried properly in a cemetery! So much for “Rest in Peace”...)

People often describe other great artists performing on other instruments as “The Paganini of the Double Bass” or something like that. In fact, today, you could call Paganini the “Michael Jackson of the Violin.” He did things that no other artist could do. While Michael Jackson would “moon-walk,” Paganini might play an especially difficult passage using a certain technique that only he could play, and the audience would break into applause or cheers.


Franz Liszt as a young concert pianist was the first pianist to perform with his profile to the audience. Before that, the sat with their backs to the audience. Why did Liszt make this change? Well, for one, he was a very handsome man and young ladies in the audience would want to see this. He also felt that, as he played emotional music, audiences wanted to see the expression on his face when he played it.
In fact, Liszt would come out to the piano wearing gloves. After he'd sit down, he'd take these gloves off in such a way, young ladies would “swoon.” In those days, a woman showing her ankle in public was considered “erotic,” so perhaps the idea of peeling off gloves like this implied something erotic.

Think of Michael Jackson and his habit of wearing just one glove. Or the different kinds of physical moves that singers and dancers would make that might be considered “sexy.” It may seem pretty tame compared to some guy coming out and peeling off a pair of gloves, but lots of other things have changed between the middle of the 19th Century and the beginning of the 21st!


Johann Strauss Jr., known as "The Waltz King" in Vienna, had so many fans not just asking for his autograph but for a lock of his hair, a very common celebrity souvenir in the 19th Century. It was said he joked about going bald to satisfy his fans, so he got a black Newfoundland dog whose hair was similar in color and texture to his own. Whether the dog went bald or not, I have no idea.

Composers were celebrities, too. Fans of Beethoven had gathered to hear his concerts. When he wrote “Wellington's Victory” to celebrate the defeat of Napoleon's troops in Spain in 1813, everybody wanted to hear it, everybody talked about it. Beethoven was a “popular” composer in a way a composer of symphonies and quartets could NOT be. But people went out and bought his music so they could play his sonatas in their own homes or they'd buy tickets to go hear an orchestra play his latest symphony. And in that sense, Beethoven was able to use this popularity to earn more money.

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Mendelssohn, though not the virtuosic showman that Liszt and Paganini were, also had his fans. One of them was Queen Victoria of England. When he first met the young Queen and her husband, Prince Albert, in 1842, she sang some of his own songs for him to show how much she enjoyed his music. People flocked to hear Mendelssohn's concerts when he would perform a piano concerto or conduct the orchestra whether he was in England or in Germany. Works like the “Overture to A Midsummer Night's Dream” on a program would guarantee more tickets would be sold.

When Mendelssohn was in Leipzig, ill and dying, the news that he was close to death brought large crowds of people out into the streets around his house, a vigil as people waited for the inevitable. When they heard that he had just died, hundreds of people stormed the house and tried to get into the room where he was lying. Friends had to push people out of the room so that Mendelssohn's own family could get into the room themselves (the children had been asleep at the time) so they could have a private last moment with him.

At the funeral service, a chorus of 600 sang a chorale by Bach and a chorus from his oratorio, St. Paul. That night, a thousand people, many carrying torches, accompanied the casket to the train station. Wherever the train stopped on its way back to Berlin, in the middle of the night, the train was greeted by hundreds of people singing tributes to Mendelssohn. (Just writing this now, I'm thinking of having watched news coverage of the funeral of Senator Edward Kennedy).

(At left is the statue of Mendelssohn standing in front of the Leipzig concert hall where he conducted the Gewandhaus Orchestra. Erected in 1892, it was destroyed by the Nazis in 1936. It was not replaced until October, 2008, but relocated to the front of the St. Thomas Church which had once been Bach's church.)

A performance of one of Mendelssohn's recent works, the oratorio Elijah, had been long been scheduled in Vienna, to take place ten days after his death. But instead of being a joyous musical occasion, their first chance to hear a new work by “the master” that had been highly acclaimed after other performances, it became a memorial tribute. The musicians' stands were all draped in black, the singers were dressed in black, the conductor's podium where Mendelssohn would have stood was draped in black with a laurel wreath resting on the score. The man who conducted the performance stood on a podium lower than that in deference to Mendelssohn's memory. It was a solemn occasion and people wept openly.

Queen Victoria, after writing a personal letter to Mendelssohn's widow, wrote in her journal:

“We were horrified, astounded and distressed to read in the papers of the death of Mendelssohn, the greatest musical genius since Mozart & a most amiable man. He was quite worshipped by those who knew him intimately & we have so much appreciated & admired his wonderfully beautiful compositions. We liked & esteemed the excellent man & looked up to & revered the wonderful genius & the great mind, which I fear were too much for the frail delicate body. With it all, he was so modest & simple...”

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One of the great composer-celebrities of his time was the composer Richard Wagner (pronounced in German, VOG-n'r). He was far from being “modest & simple.” He was controversial because he wrote difficult “new” music that not everybody liked. There were fans who loved his music and felt it was definitely the direction music should be going in (more modern) and those who hated what he composed and felt he was destroying music completely.

He was extremely egotistic and a very unpleasant person to deal with. He had an affair with a woman who was the daughter of Franz Liszt and the wife of a conductor who championed Wagner's music. She had two children by Wagner even before she left her husband. They lived together for years and had another child before the divorce became final and they could legally marry.

He had been charged with treason during the 1848 revolution in the Kingdom of Saxony where he lived and had to flee for his life to avoid arrest. If he ever returned to Saxony, he would have been arrested and possibly executed.

He was outspokenly anti-Semitic and wrote many articles full of nasty accusations against Mendelssohn because he had been born a Jew. In fact, after he died, Mendelssohn's fame began to diminish as Wagner continued to campaign against what he called “Jewishness in Music.” Many of the heroic characters in his cycle of four operas called “The Ring of the Niebelung” - based on ancient German legends similar to those in Tolkein's “Lord of the Ring” (different ring, though, but same idea) – are represented by stereotypes of German culture: the villains are characterized with stereotypes of Jewish culture.

(You can read more about Wagner's anti-semitism and the impact of anti-Semitism on Mendelssohn life in this post.)

Years after Wagner's death in 1883, Hitler was one of those fans who loved Wagner's music and believed in the same political and anti-Semitic attitudes. When he came to control the political party known as the Nazis, he imposed Wagner on them as a cultural ideal (even though many of his government's leaders slept through the operas he forced them to attend). And so Wagner has long been associated with Nazi Germany and the Holocaust.

Until recently, it was forbidden to perform Wagner's music in Israel. In 2001, Jewish conductor Daniel Barenboim added a piece by Wagner to a program when he was conducting a Berlin orchestra during an Israeli tour. It created an international furor. Anyone programming Wagner's music in Israel today would still face considerable controversy.

People who love the music usually have difficulties separating the man and his personal philosophies from the music.

When Michael Jackson died recently, much of the media attention focused on negative aspects of his life – the child molestation accusations and trials, the strangeness of his behavior and all the little details and flaws of a person that might get in the way of saying “this was a great artist.” And yet he was a great singer and dancer and one of the most celebrated popular musicians during his lifetime. How much should this personal life determine how history views him? It's not an easy question.

It's not that Wagner's “negative issues” are comparable to Michael Jackson's. But it raises a question about how you separate Life from Art.

Something to think about.

- Dr. Dick

Background: Classical & Popular Music

It's difficult to say when “Music” divided into “Classical Music” and “Popular Music.” There was always some music that was more popular than others but there was never the distinction made between one or the other until the 20th Century.


The history of music deals primarily with music that has been written down. The process of notation that we know of today, though, looking at a piece of music you can play on a piano, did not really develop until into the 14th Century, changing gradually over the next several centuries before it became standardized in the 17th Century.

By the 9th Century, musicians in the Christian churches of Europe began using symbols adapted from the old Jewish system of marks and symbols that, like letters, had to be learned – one symbol meant a particular pattern of notes; another symbol a different pattern of notes. It was a kind of musical short-hand placed underneath the text in smaller characters. The cantor would memorize these so he could reproduce the musical declamation of a line of sacred text. Otherwise, it was handed down from generation to generation and learned by rote.

Today, we can only assume (or guess) what these symbols might have meant so long ago and how they changed over the centuries.

But there was always music.

People sang when they worked in the fields. People danced when they celebrated a successful harvest. This music, though, was never written down. It was also passed on from generation to generation by rote. Parents would sing it, their children would hear it and then sing it so their children would hear it. This is called “the oral tradition.” It is the same way legends and poems, the rituals of daily life and the beliefs of the early religions survived from one generation to the next before there was a system for writing it down.

When the music for the Roman Catholic church service – especially for the sacred texts of the liturgy (the texts and music used during the service) – was being written down, they probably adapted songs that people knew from their daily lives. A melody associated with the harvest might become the basis for a chant sung to words of the liturgy (perhaps the Sanctus or the Lord's Prayer). Musicians in the 12th Century playing for a celebration of the harvest might take a fragment of something everybody knew from church and turn it into a dance. The priests might think that was inappropriate (or scandalous or downright heretical) but there probably was some kind of back-and-forth between music used in the sacred part of ones life and in the secular or everyday part of ones life.

The music for the church was completely vocal – religious texts that were sung. Instruments were rarely allowed. The music of the people – therefore called “popular” - was both sung and played on instruments.


Music had two basic functions – the sacred music of the religious service and the secular music that was associated with every-day life. This secular music was usually “practical.” It accompanied a function – whether it was celebrating the hunt or helping women pounded grain into flour. A song for one thing would not have been sung for a different function.

It wasn't mean to be sung for entertainment: it was sung to help make the work go more easily. In travel films today, you can see women in an African village pounding grain singing something rhythmic to help coordinate the continuous flow of their actions. People might add new text – advice women might want to pass on to their daughters, for instance, or maybe village gossip – in between a refrain about making bread. It helped pass the time.

Later, as people in Europe wanted to be entertained, music was sung or played after dinner. Dances now had no particular practical use beyond enjoying the movement of dance – not just about celebrating the harvest. Some of these were folk-dances from the country-side; others may have been specifically urban dances: they all had specific patterns, rhythmic sounds and national identities. Considering all the kinds of popular dances we have today, they had many different kinds of dances that became popular thousands of years ago.

Eventually, many of these in the 13th or 18th centuries, for example, became more stylized dances, like the 18th Century Minuet (right). This eventually became “art music” that eventually could be played in a concert that no one would have actually danced to. Music was now no longer “functional” but became “entertaining,” what is often called “decorative art.”

The music that survived from these very old times was the music that was written down. This was music to be played for feudal lords of the Middle Ages and their society of aristocrats. Rather than being as earthy as the music the townspeople might have danced to, drinking in a tavern, they became more representative of their economic class, more 'refined,' along with what was more acceptable social and moral behavior.


And so “popular” music – music of the people – developed more freely. “Art” music developed along similar lines but for a different demographic, as people in marketing would say today.

Popular Music is something we can listen to easily because we understand its context - we ARE its context.

Art Music usually requires an "introduction" because we're not part of its immediate or original context. Art Music usually demands more concentration to understand it.

Until the Industrial Revolution, there were basically two classes of people: those who ruled and the people they ruled. There wasn't much chance for people from the lower level to move into the upper one. Wealth and power were handed down through the family: a child would inherit the money and attitudes of his family. These became the noblemen of Europe, the aristocrats.

Even before the Industrial Revolution and the rise of Capitalism started creating a Middle Class, people who worked in as merchants or later in factories could rise to a higher economic status by hard work and become managers or owners of new factories. People in the town who sold the material the factories made became merchants who could make their money when other people bought their merchandise. Some made more than others. This money, too, and the ownership of factories and stores might be passed from generation to generation but it was more fragile and less restricted than the inheritance of the aristocracy.

And once people had money and became wealthy, they wanted to “show off” this wealth by building nicer houses, wearing better clothes and, imitating the aristocrats, developed a liking for art and music. A merchant of the “upper middle class” could have his portrait painted or employ a string quartet or maybe a small orchestra just like a prince could.

Felix Mendelssohn's father Abraham was a wealthy banker. They had a large home with a salon or music room that could seat a large number of people where they gave concerts for their friends on Sunday afternoons. Many of these performers were the Mendelssohn children: both Fanny and Felix played the piano and composed music (Felix also played the violin and the viola); Rebekkah sang and Paul played the cello. But they also had other friends who would come and play with them and, for several performances, Abraham might hire an orchestra or singers. Keep in mind that Felix's grandfather had been a philosopher and his great-grandfather had been a simple peddler.

Most people couldn't afford to do that, so instead orchestras went “public” and people would buy tickets to go hear them in concerts. Musicians now could make a living playing in an orchestra that made its money by selling tickets.


Lots of people enjoyed music and enjoyed making the music themselves. It was considered standard for young ladies to be able to play the piano and sing to provide their husbands and families with "live entertainment" in the days before radio, television or sound-systems. In a novel like Jane Austen's "Pride and Prejudice," many scenes describe the daughters of the Bennett family entertaining their friends after dinner.

As the 19th Century progressed into the more democratic 20th Century, it was not necessarily an either/or class-oriented system, which type of music people could enjoy. Factory workers might have been accused of "putting on airs" if they went to concerts to hear Beethoven just as wealthy people would have been accused of "going beneath their station" if they were caught in the taverns and cabarets to listen to gypsy music or what became jazz.

Today, there is no reason anyone can't like any kind of music they want to.

In the 19th Century, composers probably made more money from the sale of their sheet music to amateur players who would gather in their homes to play the music for themselves and each other. They weren't thinking of the concert hall: just their own enjoyment of the music they played.

Musicians who were better than the average orchestra musician might become soloists and play a “concerto,” standing in front of the orchestra. The best became famous and people would buy tickets to hear their favorite performers. Some became so famous, they became “celebrities.”

You can read more about them in this post.

- Dr. Dick

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Child Prodigy Meets Great Master: Mendelssohn & Goethe

In November, when Mendelssohn was 12, Zelter his composition teacher took him to meet the poet, Goethe (pronounced GER-teh), who was a friend of his.

It's difficult to describe how significant this would have been for a German child. There is no equivalent in today's world to explain what it would be like to meet Goethe. He wasn't just a poet: he was THE Poet, the greatest living German writer who is still regarded as one of the most important writers in the world - of all time. That sounds like over-the-top marketing in today's world, but what Shakespeare is to people who speak English, Goethe is to people who speak German. His drama, Faust – the story of a man who sells his soul to the devil – is regarded as one of the greatest works of the 19th Century. There was probably no more highly regarded man in Germany – and he had agreed to meet a 12-year-old composer.

In addition to being a poet, dramatist and novelist, Goethe was also a philosopher and scientist, and also wrote about theology and humanism. His interest in music was primarily scientific – the science of sounds – though he enjoyed music. He had played the cello and the piano in his younger days but was puzzled by Beethoven and not at all interested in Schubert. In fact, in 1816 Schubert had sent Goethe a package that included 16 songs he'd written setting some of Goethe's best-loved poems to music but Goethe didn't even bother opening it.


Mendelssohn's teacher had no sooner gotten past the introductions when Goethe opened the lid over the piano keys and asked him to play something.

His composition teacher, Zelter, hummed a tune he had suggested but the boy said he didn't know that one. So the teacher played it for him. Mendelssohn then played it back to him note perfect, then improvised a fantasy on it – as another person there described it, a wild, surging, torrential fantasia “that poured out like liquid fire.”

Everyone was amazed. Then he played some Mozart, played at sight something by Beethoven that was in manuscript (“looking like it had been written with a broomstick [not a pen] and then he smeared his sleeve over the ink”) but Felix figured it out without too many problems.

Some musicians from town were brought to Goethe's house. They didn't know the name Mendelssohn which they saw on the music in front of them. Zelter told them they would meet a boy who so far hasn't heard much praise or criticism so he hoped they would not go over-board one way or the other and just accept him as a young child beginning his career. “Up to now, I have been able to protect him against vanity and conceit, these two enemies of artistic progress.”

The boy came in, sat at the piano and played a new Piano Quartet with the string players. This is the scene represented in the drawing (see right): Felix Mendelssohn sits at the piano, Goethe stands facing him with his hands clasped behind his back.

Goethe complimented him, told him the expressions of the other musicians must let him know how pleased they were – then he sent him out into the garden to cool off (“you're perspiring”) and without a word, the boy ran outside.

Goethe told the others – in words of much higher praise – what he thought of young Mendelssohn when Zelter said “And yet you heard Mozart when he was 7 years old.”

Goethe was only 12 years old himself at that time, but comparing what Mozart was playing at 7 to what Mendelssohn was playing at 12, he said, was the difference between baby-talk and adult speech.

Of course, Mozart improved by the time he was 12 and also greew up to become one of the great composers, so Zelter said “Yes, many began like Mozart but no one ever reached him.”

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There would be several friendly visits between young Mendelssohn and the great poet. The last one was ten years later but Goethe was by then old and ill. Mendelssohn was now 22 and on his way to Italy for an extended holiday. He described the poet as “an old lion who wants to go to sleep.”

The young man played him the first movement of Beethoven's 5th Symphony at the piano. Goethe had never heard the work before (it was premiered in 1806 and Beethoven had only recently died). The old man still found it quite unnerving: “It is tremendous but quite mad. The whole house might collapse – imagine a whole orchestra playing it!”

Goethe wanted him to expand his interests to science and natural history “to avoid a one-sided mentality.” He angrily left the room when Mendelssohn expressed no real interest in these subjects. Felix then began to improvise quietly at the piano. Goethe came back into the room to listen and told him, “You have enough. Hold on to what you have.”

They continued to correspond while Mendelssohn was in Italy, but Goethe died the next year at the age of 82.

- Dr. Dick

The Child Prodigy

When Felix Mendelssohn was 9, he performed a piano concerto at a public concert to considerable acclaim.

His mother had started him with piano lessons when he was 4. When he was 6, he started studying the piano with a man who was one of the most respected pianists and teachers in Berlin at the time. When he was 10, he also began studying composition with a man named Zelter who was the principal of the best music-school in Berlin, called the “Sing-Academy.”

The oldest of the four Mendelssohn children, Fanny, was four years older than her little brother Felix. She had been studying there with the same teachers already and its quite possible whatever his big sister was doing, he wanted to do, too.


It's not uncommon for a child to begin lessons that young – I know I took my first piano lessons shortly after I started first grade – but it is unusual for them to become so good they can be performing in concerts at such an early age (I never did...).

When children exhibit talent you'd expect from an accomplished adult, they're called “prodigies.” There are prodigies in math, chess, science, as well as the arts.

One example: Lorin Maazel, who at 79 has just retired as the conductor of the New York Philharmonic, started taking conducting lessons when he was 7, conducted the NBC Orchestra on a radio broadcast concert when he was 11 and the following year, toured the country conducting everal major orchestras. The two pictures included here are a Life Magazine photo taken of him when he was 13 and a publicity photo taken of him during his final season at the New York Philharmonic.

Another prodigy is the well-known violinist Sarah Chang. She made her debut recording when she was 10 (this publicity photo, right, was taken when she was 6) and has gone on to become one of the best violinists in America today. Her hometown is Philadelphia and this December, she turns 29. This more recent photo (see left) was taken when she was 25.

She had recently played with the York Symphony to help celebrate the orchestra's 75th Anniversary season.

Other violin prodigies would include Hilary Hahn from Baltimore who recorded works by Johann Sebastian Bach, some of the most challenging repertoire for solo violin (no piano or orchestra, just the violin) when she was 15. She's also 29 this season and won a Grammy Award last year for one of her most recent concerto recordings.

But not all prodigies become great adult performers. Some times, they “burn out” or fail to realize their potential, not growing beyond the talent they had as children. After a child-prodigy turns 18, it seems people tend to judge them as adults and if they can't compete on that level, careers often just “fold.”

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was a child prodigy who started composing when he was 5 or 6. There's some argument whether he actually wrote those pieces, since his father actually wrote them down for him (did he 'edit' them to improve them?). But still, he wrote his first symphony for orchestra when he was 8 and wrote his 25th Symphony – which many people heard for the first time when they saw the movie based on a fictional account of his death, “Amadeus” – when he was 17.

Like Mendelssohn, Mozart had an older sister, too. Five years older than her famous little brother, she's known as “Nannerl,” her family nickname though her real name was Anna Maria. She was also a talented pianist and the story goes that when she would be practicing the piano, little Wolfgang started imitating what she was playing: he could play some of the pieces she'd been working on when he was 4 and hadn't had any lessons himself, yet. He made his first public appearance at the age of 5 and shortly after that, his father Leopold took the two children on a tour across Europe where they played before royalty and before public audiences who were amazed at what these children could both play and compose.

This tour makes us think of a trained circus acts – the children trotted out to perform their tricks – but their father was hoping to get his son's career started (as well as earn some money and show off his own ego as the father of these two brilliant children).

Ever since Mozart's tours in the 1760s, any father who saw a son exhibit that kind of talent hoped to make money on “the Next Mozart.” Beethoven's father had tried it, pushing his son Ludwig to practice hours and hours, sometimes after midnight, to perfect a talent which refused to develop into something as awesome as Mozart's.

Mendelssohn never had to go through this “circus act” phase. He performed at home and people came to him to hear him play or listen to the music he composed.


Shortly after his 9th birthday, he composed a piano piece that seems to have been inspired by Carl Philip Emanuel Bach, the second oldest son of Johann Sebastian Bach. C.P.E. Bach had been an important composer when he worked for King Frederick the Great in Berlin back in the 1740s.

Later that year, Mendelssohn composed 19 more piano pieces (including two sonatas), a violin sonata, a piano trio, a wedding cantata and several songs.

The following year, he started writing a series of short symphonies for string orchestra. His father had agreed to hire an orchestra so they could perform these works on their Sunday afternoon musicales. By the end of the year (1821), the 12-year old composer (see portrait, right) had completed seven of these little symphonies – he had to conduct standing on a chair so the musicians could see him over their music stands. These works all showed his development as he learned the intricacies of form, harmony and other compositional techniques.

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Mendelssohn wrote a sextet for piano and strings in May of 1824, not long after his 15th birthday. It's an impressive work for a 15-year-old but if you compare it to his mature works, it's not as good – a modern critic describes it with words like pleasant and conventional but complains the last movement is “still more vapid.”

His next pieces included a concerto for two pianos, a few sonatas and another piano quartet (dedicated to Goethe). None of these are especially distinguished beyond being “okay for a teen-ager.” No one can explain, then, how the next work he wrote – his Octet for Strings which we'll hear the members of the West Branch Music Festival play on September 16th (I'll write more about the music itself, later) – was so much better, it's considered a masterpiece for a composer of any age!

It's one of the great works in classical music and one of the most popular works in the chamber music repertoire. It is finely crafted and assured as a work by any adult master. It has the vitality of youth, but the accomplishment of maturity.

The 3rd Movement, the Scherzo, became one of his most successful “excerpts” - inspired by the “fairy scene” in Goethe's Faust – the Walpurgis Night Dream sequence (vaal-PURR-ghiss, the German equivalent of Halloween though it occurs at the end of April) – you can hear the Scherzo in this video clip.

What were the next compositions like? He wrote another comic opera, “The Wedding of Camacho,” taking its story from a chapter of Don Quixote (see below for an up-date on its belated public premiere). Then the next year, he added a piano quintet, a piano sonata, a brief work for piano and orchestra and an orchestral concert overture (called the “Trumpet” Overture) to his catalogue.

In July, he wrote to his sister that he was sitting in the garden reading Shakespeare's “A Midsummer Night's Dream” (in English) and “today or tomorrow” would begin composing an overture based on it (as he added, “I have a lot of nerve!”). By August 6th, he had finished it, complete with more sprite-music like the Octet's Scherzo (this kind of “elfin” texture – all lightness and air – became a signature sound of Mendelssohn's), and ideas that sound suitable for the different types of characters in the play. The score is remarkably free of corrections and rewrites which is astonishing for a composer of any age with a work like this.

Again, like the Octet, the inspiration is spontaneous, the craftsmanship assured. Though it doesn't intend to be a scene-by-scene retelling of the story, it fits all the elements of the play into its fairly strict classical structure. It would become one of Mendelssohn's most highly regarded and frequently performed works.

Seventeen years later, the King of Prussia would ask him to write incidental music for the play itself – since he'd already written the overture to it. So at the age of 34 he set about writing new music – including the famous Wedding March, a standard war-horse for weddings ever since – which sounds just as fresh and vibrant as the music he'd composed when he was a teen-ager.

After these two masterpieces it must have come as a surprise when the first public performance of an opera of his, “The Wedding of Camacho,” took place in a Berlin opera-house the next year. Now 18, Mendelssohn had his first major public appearance as a composer among the wider public but the work was a failure. When one of the lead singers became ill and a second performance was canceled, he never bothered to have it performed again – ever.

Perhaps it took some wind out of his sails, but he wrote less that year. One of these pieces was his first mature string quartet (it would end up being published as No. 2, though), patterned after one of Beethoven's last quartets. Beethoven had just died in March and Mendelssohn completed this striking quartet by late October. While it might seem derivative in spots and less self-assured in others, it is a considerably more serious work than either the Octet or the “Midsummer Night's Dream” Overture and shows considerable skill for someone only 18 years old.

By now, he was less of a prodigy and more of an adult. He finished his studies at the Berlin University. The only major work he completed in 1829 was an orchestral overture that combined two favorite poems by Goethe – “Calm Sea” and “Prosperous Voyage.”

He was also planning a performance of something unusual. In an age when most concerts focused on new music or at least music by still-living composers, the Berlin Sing-Academy performed music often heard no where else: old music by long-dead composers like Bach and his sons and their contemporaries.

Mendelssohn had in mind the first public performance of a nearly-forgotten piece by Johann Sebastian Bach which had not been heard since his death in 1750. Mendelssohn would conduct Bach's “St. Matthew Passion” in 1829, the year he turned 20. While Bach was not exactly forgotten, just not as widely performed or as highly regarded as his is now, Mendelssohn is still credited with starting the revival of interest in Bach's music.

By now, he was no longer a prodigy.

- Dr. Dick

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Classical, Romantic; Left Brain, Right Brain

It's a little confusing, but when we talk about “Classical Music,” we're usually referring to art music as opposed to popular music. Few people like the term because it means that popular music can't be 'art' and classical music can't be 'popular.' People tried calling it “Serious Music” but aren't most musicians serious about what they do, no matter what kind of music they write or play? So we're stuck with “Classical.”

But there are different historical periods of “Classical Music” - one of which is called “Classical.” So it just makes it more confusing. When we're talking about the major historical periods, the basic ones are

Baroque (1600-1750)
Classical (1750-1800)
Romantic (1800-1900)
Modern (1900- )

The dates are only approximate but the important thing is to realize the stylistic differences between what we call these “Classical” and “Romantic” periods. Just to make it more confusing, they can also co-exist at the same time in almost any period, no matter what the period's called.

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The two different halves of the brain control different aspects of the way we think. It turns out that some peoples' personalities are dominated by one over the other; and other people can be a little of both, like a compromise.

The Left Brain examines things in a logical, rational, sequential nature. A Left-brained person is usually more analytical and objective, looking at the parts to understand the whole.

The Right Brain examines things in a more random, intuitive way and rather than analyzing everything, tends to be more subjective, looking at the whole thing first before understanding the component parts.

In the past, scientists described these Left Brain characteristics as being either Apollonian after the Greek god Apollo who was the god of the sun and also of things like logic. The Right Brain characteristics were called Dionysian, after Dionysus or Bacchus, the Greek god of wine. And since drinking wine led to irrational acting and thinking, it seemed appropriate.

So essentially, we could say that “Classical Music” is more Apollonian or Left-Brained – logical, sequential, very structured, leaner textures in the sound of the music, clearer in its form and content. The form is more obvious - you can usually tell where you are in the structure of the piece. Harmony and Form are more important than Melody and Rhythm.

It's also usually abstract - music about music. You might think it suggests something, some other kind of image in your mind, but that's you interpreting it, not necessarily what the composer is implying.

What we call “Romantic Music” is more Dionysian or Right-Brained, tending to be more emotional, not really concerned with following the rules, moving forward intuitively rather than pre-planned (if something unexpected happens, maybe the composer might be thinking "oh, that's cool - wonder where this is going? Let's find out"). The texture of the music might be denser, maybe even “messy” without clear lines where the harmony is going or what is actually the melody. The music can be more dramatic with more contrast or conflict in the over-all sound. Melody may be more important and rhythm is used to propel the music and to create an emotional response. Harmony and Form, two very “structured” elements of music are less rigid. A “Romantic” composer is less concerned about breaking the rules.

It's more subjective and may be inspired by something else - a literary idea or an image of some kind. Basically, we think it might “tell a story” or paint a picture.

Schools generally want you to think “Left Brained” when you're a student because it helps to understand the rules before you break them. Unfortunately, sometimes students don't really learn they CAN be “Right Brained.” Part of that becomes a mature personality, whether it's in music or how you approach your life in general.

People who dress neatly and follow a schedule, who are good at math or science might be Left-Brained people. People who are sloppy in their dress or are usually late might be more creative and good at story-telling (it comes in handy when making excuses) - they are more likely to be Right-Brained.

But it's not unusual for people to be a little of both. After all, if we were supposed to be only one or the other, we'd only need half a brain, right? Wait... let me rephrase that...


Everybody's "wired differently," as they say today.

Mendelssohn was primarily a “classical” person who lived in a “romantic” age. His music sounds different than many of his contemporaries (which I'll get to, later), not as emotional with cleaner textures and simpler sense of harmony and structure. But there was still a sense of emotion, just not as “out there” as some of his contemporaries.

Even though he was writing string quartets while Beethoven was still alive, Mendelssohn's earliest works were influenced by composers of the past – Carl Philip Emanuel Bach who died in 1788 and Mozart who'd died in Vienna in 1791. They were "Classical" composers. Baroque composer Johann Sebastian Bach was almost forgotten not long after he died in 1750, but Mendelssohn played several of his keyboard pieces like the Preludes and Fugues of the Well-Tempered Clavier and liked them very much. There were certain old-fashioned compositional techniques that he found very helpful and he incorporated them in his own music. Other composers writing at the same time didn't find these techniques very important. Today, we don't really think much about it when we listen to all this music from the past – whether it's Mendelssohn's music or Mozart's or Bach's or any of the other composers writing in the 1820s and '30s. But at the time, it sounded different to those listeners.

Not necessarily better. Not worse, either (though some people may have thought that). Just different. It sounded old-fashioned to a lot of people but it was well written and fit in with the whole “comfortable” idea that people in this Biedermeier Age liked. It had elegance and beauty, was based on the old-fashioned traditional forms (none of this new-fangled stuff people couldn't understand on first hearing) and he knew how to add some brilliance to it to make it exciting. That's all part of the “Left-Brain” side.

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But it was also an age of great literature and of pleasant paintings, so he often found himself inspired by literary ideas and with creating musical images of things he'd seen. When he went to Scotland when he was 20, he saw this great cave on one of the Hebrides Islands just off the coast called “Fingal's Cave.” Watching the tide come in, he watched the water flowing into the cave and wrote down a musical figure that represented the waves. Later on, he turned those visual images and that musical depiction of waves into a piece of music he called “Fingal's Cave” or “The Hebrides.”

This, however, is something more “Right-Brained” – more of a “Romantic” idea. And it's something that Mendelssohn did quite a lot: his trip to Scotland gave us this orchestral work called “Fingal's Cave” but also a whole symphony inspired by the landscapes and atmosphere of Scotland which he called (logically) his “Scottish” Symphony. Most people take pictures or buy post-cards: Mendelssohn wrote two musical compositions as souvenirs!

Here are two videos for you – this first one was filmed by someone visiting the Island of Staffa and seeing the cave. It's a cloudy, rainy day (making it more mysterious) and he sweeps the camera around a bit. It's also a little dark looking into the cave but you get to hear someone playing real Scottish bag-pipes inside the cave. Then around 3:00 into the clip, the tide starts to come in: watch the waves but listen to them, too. You only need to watch about a minute of it here, just to get the idea. It's really cool at 5:07, though, where the cameraman is inside the cave, looking out at the sea. Listen to the waves!
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The cave probably hasn't changed much in the 180 years since Mendelssohn saw it and jotted down the thematic idea that eventually became this piece of music. Listen how the music swells, rising and falling like waves.

This video is just the opening 4 minutes, not the whole piece, and it's played by a student orchestra in Belgium. Maybe you can run both of the videos at the same time (starting the first clip around 2:00 in and then starting Mendelssohn's music - you might need to turn the volume down or off on the Cave Video, though)?
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It may not accompany the first video like a film-score, but once you've seen the actual cave and heard the sound of the waves, listen just to the music in the 2nd video and imagine what it is you're hearing the music describe.

This is what we call “program music” - music that tells a story or paints a scene. And this is something that is a “Romantic” (as opposed to a “Classical”) idea.

Now, when Mendelssohn writes an octet for strings – one of the works we'll hear on September 16th – we'll hear an “abstract” work – music that's only about music, not really telling a story. That's a very “Classical” idea.

But when we get to the 3rd movement, the “scherzo” (SKAIR-tzoh), there's a slight change. Scherzo is the Italian word for “joke” - in music, it's something fast, lively, sometimes funny but at least not always so serious.

Mendelssohn told his older sister that this section of the music was inspired by the fairy spirits associated with the old German equivalent of Halloween. It was these lines by the great German poet Goethe (GER-teh) who was also a personal friend of Mendelssohn's: they describe the shadows of elves (or some kind of sprites) barely visible, who then suddenly disappear, as if blown away like leaves in a breeze.

Floating cloud and trailing mist
Are illuminated from above.
Breeze in the foliage and wind in the reeds –
And all is turned to dust.

This music goes up to 4:22 - the rest of the clip is the last movement of the octet.
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The fact it's inspired by a visual or literary image makes this “Romantic” (a typical Classical composer from the 18th Century wouldn't have done that) but the fact the sound and texture is so clean and the harmony so clear makes it very “Classical.”

You could say this is Mendelssohn using BOTH sides of his brain.

Oh, and did I mention Mendelssohn was 16 when he composed the Octet?

- Dr. Dick

Moses Mendelssohn, the Composer's Grandfather

Into our story, now, comes Moses Mendelssohn, born in 1729 to a poor Jewish peddler known locally as Mendel. German Jews had no right, at that time, to “formal names” and so when the boy was given the name Moses (perhaps the most common boys' name among the Jews of his town), neighbors called him “Moses, Mendel's son.”

Regardless of the family's poverty, the father was determined the boy would have as much education as possible. Eventually Moses studied law – which is what most students studied if they wanted to achieve the most well-rounded education available.

Trained in the art of speculation in the Talmud, Moses found the Enlightenment – where you examined a question “like an insect imbedded in amber, put under the microscope, turned this way and that, disassembled and reassembled before you could be sure of the answer” – a natural fit for him.

(In this drawing, Mendelssohn, seated on the left, discusses an idea with two fellow philosophers.)

While treating religion this way may affect a person's faith, philosophers found the Enlightenment gave them nothing to believe in instead, having taken away the comfort of even a mild faith where religion – if not its dogma – gave comfort and meaning to the “big questions” of our existence and our direction.

But in his Phaedo (written in 1767), “three dialogues [after Plato] on the Immortality of the Soul” – essentially a translation of Plato into German but with up-dates – Moses Mendelssohn argued that Reason in fact led to Religion, that God did exist (when others argued, because He could not be seen, He did not exist) but that “the religious instinct may not serve as a reason to enforce acceptance of any one specific religious doctrine.” He believed in Judaism because, to him, no other religion contained as many admonitions to lead believers toward “justice, piety, obedience to law and state, human warmth (humanity).” In reality, he wrote, it made no real difference what religion one chose:

“All religions are partly theoretical and partly practical. Their theoretical side has no influence on morality. Men often have constructed false moralities from true theories and true morality from false theories... Religion makes it easier to do good because it cites motives for doing so. Any religion does that if it holds out the promise to man that doing good will please God and the evil will displease Him. Yet the definition of what is 'good' is impeded by the prejudices of various religions. You ask me which religion is least impeded? I answer, the religion which permits the greatest freedom to Reason.”

Later, he also wrote that he believed the Jews had helped separate themselves from the society they lived in by holding their services in Hebrew. He felt they should adopt the language of the country they lived in rather than the language of their heritage. Keep in mind Catholicism still maintained its religious services in Latin – the use of the “vernacular” or language of the location was still controversial when it became a reality following the 2nd Vatican Council (Vatican II) which met in the 1960s.

Moses Mendelssohn also opposed the idea of a Homeland – the Zionist dream of returning to what is now Israel was already gaining popularity in the 18th Century – believing that “Home lies where your home is.” “The wall of the ghetto must be torn down by men working from inside as well as from outside.”

He began translating the first five books of the Bible (the Pentateuch) into German. But rabbis declared this translation an act of heresy (it should be read only in Hebrew), proposing a series of punishments for Jews caught reading it. The Danish king, Christian VII, for one, came out in favor of Mendelssohn's work and made it illegal to carry out the rabbis' plan.

(By the way, in 1820, Franz Schubert set Moses Mendelssohn's translation of the 23rd Psalm to music for women's voices and piano.)

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Though these ideas were controversial, Moses Mendelssohn's works were popular with the general German public and he was highly regarded. That didn't mean people like Frederick the Great or members of his government couldn't still get away with anti-Semitic statements and acts.

For one, it had been decided early in 1761, that when Jews married or bought a house, they were required – by royal edict – to buy certain amounts of porcelain from the Royal Porcelain Factory in Berlin. The Jewish buyer could not even choose what they might want: it was just handed to them.

When Moses Mendelssohn married, he had to buy twenty porcelain monkeys which became a symbol in the Mendelssohn family, passed on from father to son as a reminder, until the 1930s and the rise of Hitler. After that, the monkeys disappeared.

(I don't know if these are similar to the Mendelssohn Monkeys or not - they were also made at a different porcelain factory - but they date from around the period. I saw a trumpet-playing monkey from this set listed on-line for sale at $1,862
. I also doubt it was the Mendelssohn Monkeys that were the inspiration for Warren Zevon's 2000 song, 'Porcelain Monkeys' from his album "Life'll Kill Ya".)

This edict was repealed in 1787 and in 1808, “deserving Jews” in Berlin were awarded citizen's privileges, including the right to be elected to honorary posts. In 1812, shortly after Abraham Mendelssohn brought his family to Berlin, Prussia issued the “Emancipation Edict” declaring all Jews full-scale citizens.

Moses Mendelssohn, who had earned the king's favor as a “Protected Jew,” had died in 1786.

In 1813, his son, Abraham (see drawing, right), was honored as a public benefactor for helping to finance the army that defeated Napoleon in that year's war. He was then appointed to Berlin's Municipal Council. Imagine what his own grandfather, Mendel the Peddler, would have thought of that!

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The story passed down in the Mendelssohn family about how Moses met his future wife may or may not be true, but it's a wonderful story.

In 1762, when Moses was 33 years old and already well-known, he visited Hamburg where he met a 24-year old blonde, blue-eyed Jewish girl named Fromet Gugenheim, the daughter of a merchant. She knew him by reputation and had read some of his books but was surprised when she first saw him. He was short, frail-looking and humpbacked. She burst into tears.

Mendelssohn asked her, “Is it my hump?” he asked. She nodded. Then he continued, “Let me tell you a story, then.”

“When a Jewish child is born,” he began, “proclamation is made in heaven of the name of the person that he or she is to marry. When I was born, my future wife was also named, but at the same time it was said that she herself would be humpbacked. ‘O God,’ I said, ‘a deformed girl will become embittered and unhappy. Dear Lord, let me have the hump, and make her fair and beautiful.’”

Fromet (see drawing, left) was touched by the story, and in June 1762, they were married. They had nine children, six of whom grew to adulthood (considering the mortality of children in the 18th Century, this was a luckier family than many).

Another story was told, that when Moses was out walking with two of his young sons, they were attacked by some men who called them names and threw stones at them. One of his sons asked his father, “Papa, is it such a disgrace to be a Jew?” He wrote to a friend that he lowered his eyes, sighed and thought to himself, “Men, men – where have you led yourselves?” On the other hand, he was able to rent a large private garden where he and his family could walk without being molested.

The eldest child, a daughter named Brendel (later changed to Dorothea), married a merchant chosen for her by her father (typical of the day but rather old-fashioned for a modern thinker like Moses Mendelssohn). After bearing four children to her husband, she met the young philosopher and writer Friedrich Schlegel, son of a Protestant clergyman. They fell in love and she ran away with him, living together until they got married four years later. They both converted to Catholicism a couple of years after that. Dorothea also became a writer and novelist.

The family's three sons founded a banking corporation in Hamburg, the main German port. This became one of the major banks in Germany. The second youngest son, Abraham, established himself with the firm in Paris in 1797 before moving back to Hamburg in 1804, then moving back to the family's home in Berlin in 1811 (see A Mendelssohn Chronology). It was in 1809, during their years in Hamburg, that Abraham's son Felix, the composer, was born. (The photograph at left shows the entrance to the Mendelssohn Bank, in a building opened in 1820.)

Once Felix had become one of the most internationally famous composers and a busy conductor, Abraham Mendelssohn (whose own success in the field of commerce was considerable) quipped “I am the son of my father and the father of my son.”

A biographer later wrote of the three generations of Mendelssohn men: “One wrote books, one wrote loans, the other wrote music.”

- Dr. Dick