Saturday, September 5, 2009

Beethoven & Mendelssohn: Super-Hero & Human

If there were a group of super-heroes made up entirely of great composers of classical music, who would they be?

The most daring composers, probably, the ones who took the biggest risks and the ones who challenged their listeners with music that demanded their attention. These would be composers whose personalities were strong, “larger than life.” Who would be the Super-Heroes of Classical Music?

Beethoven would certainly be one of them. Mendelssohn probably wouldn't.


Beethoven was often shabbily dressed (he was once arrested for being a bum and the police couldn't believe he was the Great Beethoven) but many people thought he was a colossus, like a giant striding across the musical horizon of Europe. But that was the kind of age it was, full of strong emotions and powerful convictions during all those years of Napoleonic Wars.

There were political struggles with the aftermath of the French Revolution but also many huge changes in the way people lived. The Industrial Age was creating a new class of wealthy middle class people but it was an age when poor people might become poorer. Many of the aristocrats were losing their power and wealth. Ideas had been “large” and focused on great issues. People took risks. The way to realize a great adventurous life was to be in the military and fight the enemy.

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No one would have considered the neatly dressed, mild-mannered Mendelssohn a colossus. (Maybe more like Dr. Who, left.)

His music was not “colossal.” The time he lived in was not good for such colossal ideas. People wanted to maintain the status-quo. After years of warfare and financial instability, people became more conservative in their politics, their ideas, their issues. Rather than debate the humanitarian issues of the Napoleonic Era, they were more concerned about, say, fashion or how to make a good enough living to leave money and property to their sons, about having their daughters married to good men who could provide for them.

Rather than deeper, intensely personal issues like “the meaning of life,” people discussed what material things could give their life meaning. Rather than looking for adventure, men sought lives in business rather than the military. People didn't want that kind of excitement in their lives.

So, this may explain why Mendelssohn's music sounds “pleasant,” has “nice” tunes, doesn't challenge our ideas very much, is more likely to be happy than sad and why, when it IS sad, it doesn't sound really really sad or tragic (so it's called “sentimental”). His music never seems very “dark” though it can be cloudy or even stormy.

This doesn't mean his music isn't as good as Beethoven's. It's different. He felt that life and art were not two different, separate things. And for people who think Beethoven is too big, too “over-the-top,” too “overblown” for their emotional needs - perhaps too much art, not enough life - Mendelssohn may be just the right balance: something comfortable, more down-to-earth – a human rather than a giant.

He is most famous for bright sunny sounds – like the opening of his Italian Symphony (you can hear it here, in this video from an earlier post) or his “elfin music,” a quick wispy sound like elves and fairy-sprites scurrying just outside our awareness of such supernatural things. His most famous example of that is the scherzo from his Octet (you can hear it here in this music video from another post).

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In an earlier post – The Ages of Music: How Composers Make a Living – I mentioned that Mendelssohn earned his income from performing and from selling printed music.

He was from a very wealthy family – you can get an idea about his mother's family from this earlier post, but his father was already pretty wealthy, too, by the time Mendelssohn was born.

That just means Felix Mendelssohn didn't need to worry about “earning an income” to survive.

He's one of the few great composers who was born to wealth. Other composers may have become famous and at least financially secure if not actually “rich” in that sense, but many composers in the 19th Century dealt with poverty throughout their lives.


Mozart's father was employed as a violinist at the court of Salzburg's ruler, the Archbishop of Salzburg. If Mozart had found a similar job, he might have been better off, but when he couldn't find a count or prince who would hire him as a court musician, he went to Vienna “to seek his fortune.” He was 25 and not yet married. Vienna was the musical center of Europe – like New York City is the musical center of the United States – and so he figured if he couldn't get hired by the Emperor, the Emperor might hear his music, hear him perform and hire him after all. Meanwhile, he would give concerts, he would get performances, he would teach piano lessons and hopefully earn enough money, especially after he married and he and his wife had a family to raise.

The Mozarts were not very good with their finances. They both loved nice things and money that came in often quickly went out. So when the money wasn't coming in as much as it had, Mozart would write to his friends asking for loans. When he died at the age of 35, things were beginning to look a little better and of course he thought he had his whole life ahead of him.


Franz Schubert was born into a poor family. His father was a school teacher who ran a neighborhood school in his house. It was expected the sons would go into the profession, too. Schubert hated teaching and dreamed of becoming a famous musician.

He never really got the recognition he had hoped for. Today, he is one of the most popular composers of classical music. Even though he was often on the verge of bankruptcy, he enjoyed life with his friends and wrote an amazing amount of music, most of it never heard. His friends said he wrote music as naturally as an apple tree produces fruit. But beyond a circle of friends and some fans who heard his music along the way, most people in Vienna never really knew who he was.

Schubert's health was not good, either. He was only 31 when he died, but he had written some incredible music. A lot of this started to become better known after his death, sometimes 10, 20 or even 40 years later. Only then did people start to realize what a musical talent he had been. Only it was too late to help him.

Schubert was not the only one to suffer bad health and a precarious existence.


Beethoven's life lacked financial stability, too. He might get an income from some noblemen who supported him, but it wasn't really enough. He wasn't a spend-thrift like Mozart had been. But he started to go deaf when he was still a young man – in his early 30s, he wondered how it was possible to be a musician and be deaf. Even though he was emotionally distressed about his health, he wrote music that never showed his anxieties, that rose above his situation. He wrote music on a large emotional scale: it wasn't just dramatic, it was VERY dramatic. It wasn't just heroic, it was VERY heroic. Even when he was happy, his music sounds VERY happy – like his 7th Symphony. And when it was tragic, it was VERY tragic. His music is often marked by these kinds of extremes.

Mendelssohn lived a comfortable life. His music sounds comfortable. Even when he's writing sad music, it never rises to the level of tragic. Some people call it “sentimental” which is a negative term for “superficially emotional.” Nostalgia is a kind of “sentiment.” Pity is, too, and while it's nice when people can pity someone in a less good situation - “there but for the grace of God, go I” - it's usually not a constructive or helpful emotion: rather than helping the person in trouble, pity merely compares your better situation to theirs.

People assumed that because Mendelssohn had such an easy life, financially, and never suffered illness to the extent it seriously impacted his life or his career, he couldn't really FEEL these emotions as deeply as Schubert or Beethoven or Mozart had done.

But it's also as much a part of the age Mendelssohn lived in. The “Biedermeir” Age in Germany – very similar to the Victorian Age in England later in the century – was an era when people didn't express their emotions in public. It was a “comfortable” age when you wanted stability, not adventure. People didn't want to take risks because you might lose what you had. Rather than being emotional, they were sentimental. (You can read more about this in an earlier post, Being German in the 1800s.)

- Dr. Dick