Saturday, August 29, 2009

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.)

*** ***** ******** ***** ***


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!

*** ***** ******** ***** ***


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