Monday, August 31, 2009

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