Sunday, September 6, 2009

Mendelssohn in Leipzig

After his father's unexpected death at the age of 59, Mendelssohn returned to Leipzig to begin the next phase of his career. He had been named director of the major orchestra in the city which was one of the major cultural centers in the German-speaking lands.

In the mid-1700s, Bach had been music director of the major churches in Leipzig and taught the music students at St. Thomas Church but he and his music were quickly forgotten by most people. While Bach wasn't actually famous in the 1820s, Mendelssohn had conducted Bach's monumental St. Matthew Passion six years earlier which many describe as the beginning of a new awareness of Bach and his music. So how appropriate it was that Mendelssohn now found himself in the same city with a similar musical position that Bach had.


The orchestra is called the 'Gewandhaus' Orchestra – (geh-VONT-house). It was formed by some free-lance musicians in 1743 when Bach was still alive and gave its concerts in private homes – not of the nobility but of the wealthier merchants in the city and soon to the larger space of the “Three Swans Tavern.”

Bach was also responsible for public concerts when he was director of a society that gave concerts of non-church music in Zimmerman's Coffee House. Here, he and his sons performed keyboard concertos and secular works like his Orchestral Suites with a small orchestra. It may well be Bach's “Collegium musicum” as it was called (basically a “collection of musicians”) that turned into the orchestra Mendelssohn would conduct almost a hundred years later.

At any rate, the audiences outgrew the coffee-houses and the homes and the taverns. Eventually it was given one floor of the Cloth Merchants' Guild building (see above) – known as “the Gewandhaus” – which then served as Leipzig's main concert hall until the orchestra moved into a lavish new hall in 1885 (see left). The statue in front of the building is a monument to Mendelssohn that was added in 1892 but removed by the Nazis. The statue was reconstructed and placed in front of Bach's St. Thomas Church only recently.

This building was destroyed during the Allied Bombing Raids near the end of World War II in 1944. The current, more modern hall wasn't opened until 1981. The orchestra still performs there and continues to record and tour around the world.

It is one of the oldest public orchestras in Europe.

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As Jane Austen opens her "Pride & Prejudice" (1811) with Mrs. Bennett's line about a single man with fortune automatically being in need of a wife, Mendelssohn may not have been as aware of this as his mother might have been.

Though Mendelssohn was busy in Leipzig, he still continued conducting and performing around Germany. He was on his way to Düsseldorf for the premiere of his new oratorio, St. Paul, when he stopped at Frankfurt to conduct an amateur choral society there. He was staying with the family of a local minister where he met Cècile Jeanrenaud (right), the daughter of a French Protestant preacher who was staying there. She had assumed he was some old organist and was surprised to find out he was so young... and handsome. He was 27, she was 19.

A few days later, he left for Düsseldorf but returned to Frankfurt on his way home. He had fallen in love with Cècile and on another visit that fall, proposed to her while they were out on a carriage ride. They were married in March of the following year.

While they were on their honeymoon, Mendelssohn composed a string quartet, a setting of Psalm 42 (for soloists, chorus & orchestra, about 25 minutes long) and his second piano concerto which he finished on August 5th and performed for the first time sixteen days later in England along with other performances of the oratorio, St. Paul. (Some honeymoon! But then you've probably figured out he was a workaholic.)

They settled into their new home in Leipzig. Out of this very happy marriage, they had three sons and two daughters.

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With the Gewandhaus Orchestra, Mendelssohn was busy conducting and performing, especially with two new friends of his, the composer Robert Schumann and his girlfriend, Clara Wieck, who would become one of the finest pianists of the century. The two were very much in love but Clara's father was taking Schumann to the law-courts to keep him from marrying his daughter.

Mendelssohn had a little trouble relating to Schumann (see left) who was better known as a music critic than a composer. He had two “imaginary personalities” which he used in both his writing and his music – a passionate, extroverted Florestan and the dreamy Eusebius (you-SEE-b'yus). Often he would write reviews under one name or the other, depending on the mood he wanted to get across. They also appear in some of his pieces both as characters and, less directly, as 'moods.' This may also be part of the Right Brain / Left Brain attitudes mentioned in an earlier post – but for Mendelssohn, these personalities made no sense. Schumann seemed very undirected and Mendelssohn thought an artist needed to control himself more than that.

Around this time, Mendelssohn received a letter from Richard Wagner, then 23. He had not yet written any of the operas he'd later become famous for. Wagner had a symphony he wanted Mendelssohn to conduct – Leipzig was his home town, after all – but Mendelssohn had already conducted it once, didn't like it and couldn't see performing it again, so he politely refused.

At that time, who would know Wagner would later become Mendelssohn's worst nightmare?

Meanwhile, Robert Schumann had gone to Vienna, visited with Franz Schubert's brother who gave him a box of old manuscripts left behind when Schubert died in 1828. In the box, Schumann found a manuscript for a huge symphony that had never been performed. He gave it Mendelssohn on New Year's Eve and it was given its first performance, ten years after the composer's death.

In a biography that begins to read more like an appointment book – composing this here, performing that there – Mendelssohn was 30 when he wrote his PIANO TRIO NO. 1 – we'll hear some excerpts from it with Odin Rathnam and members of the West Branch Music Festival on September 16th. (You can hear a classic performance of the 1st movement in this music-video post.)

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Meanwhile, Prussia had a new king. Friedrich Wilhelm IV (see left) had a more refined interest in music than his father had and he tried to lure Mendelssohn back to Berlin, the Prussian capital. His grand plan included a Royal Academy of the Arts with Mendelssohn as its director, far better than the old Sing-Academy could ever have been. He would be resident composer for the Royal Theater, writing “incidental music” for staged plays (the 19th Century equivalent of film scores). He would also conduct the music for the Royal Chapel and be busily engaged as a composer. In fact, he would basically become the Musical Director of the City of Berlin, a very powerful position.

Dubious, Mendelssohn cautiously agreed to a one-year trial run. (Keep in mind, Karl Marx, the philosopher and future writer of the Communist Manifesto, described the king as “being able to talk as persuasively as a traveling salesman.”)

Mendelssohn wrote music for Sophocles' Antigone, an ancient Greek tragedy that the audience, having no familiarity with ancient Greek tragedy, found boring, all this talk about honor and noble character. People didn't want to “see ideas,” they wanted to watch action that told a story.

A performance of Mendelssohn's oratorio St. Paul was coolly received as well. He began work on another oratorio – this one, inspired by the story of Elijah.

But nothing came of the king's ideas for a school. Everyone agreed and talked about it but even a few years later, it was no closer to becoming reality.

Though Mendelssohn agreed to write music for a few more plays for the king, he returned to Leipzig convinced Berlin would never amount to anything. If the king's school couldn't get started there, he'd start one himself in Leipzig.

And so in 1842 he started working on what would become the Leipzig Conservatory, associated with the Gewandhaus Orchestra. It opened the next year.

(Several years after Mendelssohn's death, Richard Wagner brought up the idea of a major music school in Berlin to the king's attention and the king nodded and agreed whole-heartedly. But still nothing ever came of the idea.)

One of the king's projects Mendelssohn couldn't resist, though, was writing music for a performance of Shakespeare's play, “A Midsummer Night's Dream.” He had written the overture for it when he was 17 and now that he was 33, he had the chance to write music for the whole play. He added scene-setting music that would accompany the dances of the fairy sprites or set the mood for a night in the woods. There would be music to introduce different scenes, including the most famous piece Mendelssohn ever composed, the Wedding March.

The performance of the play and his music was a disaster. Intermissions were too long, people lost interest and became impatient with Shakespeare's play. But when the Wedding March started to play, everyone started paying attention. One nobleman told him “wonderful music you wrote – too bad you wasted it on such a silly play...” Mendelssohn just turned around and walked away.

The music he wrote for the wedding scene in Shakespeare's play is still one of the most frequently heard pieces at weddings ever since, though today it's heard less often. Still, people who know nothing about classical music will usually recognize its tune even they've only heard it on TV in movies - or in cartoons.

You can hear it here in this music-video post.

- Dr. Dick