It is hard to believe how much was accomplished by this man, whose life was so short. Just as if we had several “Mendelssohns, ” and not only one. I know at least three of them.
The historians would probably recognize that the most important was the master of Protestant music, the composer of Biblical oratorios: Paulus (St. Paul, 1836) and Elias (Elijah, 1846), the successor of Johann Sebastian Bach in Leipzig, one of the European capitals of music, the city whose patrons are those two composers. Bach was in charge of church music there, from 1723 to 1750, while Mendelssohn was the music director of the Gewandhaus Orchestra in the later era when music moved from churches to concert halls, from 1835 to 1847. Raised in Berlin, Felix was a successor of that city’s Bach tradition. It was there that the master’s disciples venerated his memory in the middle of the 18th century, including the most influential of many of his sons, Carl Philipp Emanuel. It was there that the young Felix received the score of Bach’s masterpiece, Matthäus-Passion (St. Matthew Passion) from his music-loving grandmother. And it was there that in 1829 he conducted the epoch-making performance of the work, an event that initiated the modern cult of that composition and of Bach’s music in general. Upon moving to Leipzig and composing his oratorios there, Mendelssohn brought back to the city the tradition that was cherished and revived in Berlin.
However, that was only one of the “Mendelssohns”. There was also a “Mendelssohn” who continued the classical line in German music, the successor of the great Viennese: Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert, and, next to Schumann, the main link between those composers and Brahms. That was Mendelssohn, the composer of symphonies, especially the Italian (1833) and Scottish (1842), or maybe even more so the composer of excellent chamber music, among others the six String Quartets (1827-47) and two beautiful Piano Trios (1839 and 1845). He also founded the institution that was supposed to ensure the survival of the classical tradition: the Conservatory of Music in Leipzig, the first institution of that type in Germany (the Conservatory started to operate in 1843).
But personally I am most fond of yet another “Mendelssohn”: Felix, the child prodigy. In that area, he surpassed them all, even Mozart, that prototype child genius of musical Europe. Yet even Mozart did not compose at Mendelssohn’s level at the age of sixteen or seventeen. The Octet (1825) and Overture to A Midsummer’s Night Dream (1826): that is the way Euphorion might compose (we remember the young son of Faust and Helen of Troy, a personification of modern poetry in the eyes of Goethe). The vitality, optimism, and youthful charm of that music are unique: as if it were trying to say: “Life is ahead of me! ” With the mature composer, this vitalising energy will appear only from time to time, e.g. in the first movement of the Violin Concerto (1844).
Not everybody likes him; the sophisticated elegance and perfection of form is not for everyone. What Mendelssohn offers is not sufficient for radical spirits or people who would want music to be something more than just music. Since the middle of the nineteenth century until today, in fact, Mendelssohn’s reputation has been shaded by the criticism directed against him by another master from Leipzig, Richard Wagner. Motivated by anti-Semitism and ordinary envy (unlike Wagner, who was often destitute, Mendelssohn stemmed from a rich banker’s family and never had to worry about money), Wagner managed to persuade a large portion of musical Europe that Mendelssohn, despite his unique talents and impeccable compositional technique, did not belong to the artists of the highest rank, that he lacked depth.
Not all who share Wagner’s opinion do it for equally doubtful reasons. The great art historian, Erwin Panofsky, whom we have no reason to suspect of anti-Semitism, once described Memling as the “Mendelssohn of the Netherlandish painting”, and he surely did not intend this as a compliment. Mendelssohn’s art denies all radicalism. It is the art of the nineteenth-century bourgeois civilisation that feels well in an elegant salon, among comfortable furniture and beautiful carpets, not an art suitable for the barricades. It is the art for those who accept the world as it is and do not demand that it should become completely different.
Judging by the introduction he wrote for the last year’s “Days of Felix Mendelssohn, ” the sorely missed Michał Bristiger liked and highly valued our composer (while entertaining serious doubts with regard to Wagner). Indeed, it seems to me that Bristiger liked Mendelssohn’s music because he liked the world, in spite of everything (and we should not forget that in his long life he encountered a lot of that “everything”). Bristiger liked and accepted the world (although he would not mind if it contained less evil, ugliness, and lies). Just the way the music of Felix Mendelssohn likes and accepts the world.