The Faster the Better

Paul Driver

  • Mendelssohn: A Life in Music by Larry Todd
    Oxford, 683 pp, £25.00, October 2003, ISBN 0 19 511043 9

Felix Mendelssohn, named for happiness, and privileged from birth, was one of the most musical men who has ever lived. He could paint, draw and write almost as well as he could compose. He read Homer in Greek and spoke half a dozen other languages. He had a curatorial flair, playing a large part in the rescue of Bach’s music from oblivion, as well as Schubert’s ‘Great’ C major Symphony, and as a conductor he gave historically informed concerts, performing Handel in something approaching our concept of period style. (He also essentially invented the role of the modern conductor, armed with a baton.) He was instrumental in defining the European musical canon, what we now think of as the standard repertoire, which he had most of by heart.

In his short life (1809-47) he produced a large catalogue of works, though fewer than Mozart or Schubert in their still shorter ones. He found himself early constellated among the ‘great composers’, and seems undislodgably canonical, though plenty of attempts have been made to oust him, most virulently by the Nazis. He stands as the first great Jewish composer, yet was a Christian convert, a practising Lutheran, who quite possibly never entered a synagogue. His grandfather Moses Mendelssohn – who was among Europe’s first significant Jewish philosophers – was a decisive force in the creation of a German cultural environment in which Felix could flourish. He, in turn, created the works – the Songs without Words for piano, the symphonies, above all the choral spectaculars St Paul and Elijah – through which that world could know itself. He was, if reluctantly, an adornment to the Prussian court of Frederick William IV, and a willing favourite of Queen Victoria.

Innumerable biographies of all sizes have been published since his death, and his life is legendary though not unduly eventful. Now we have it in the kind of detail few need. Larry Todd’s book, in the modern academic fashion, is a chronicle of day by day. It is a chronicle, too, of piece by piece, and song by song, both Felix’s and those of his elder sister, Fanny. Todd has also discovered who lived next door to them on Berlin’s Leipzigerstrasse, who used to occupy their own grand residence, and even what James Boswell thought of that previous owner. It is daunting to consider the labour that must have gone into this volume, the archives accessed, scores scrutinised, facts double-checked – and hard, when reading it, not to.

The book takes account of, and often counters, all the latest research, yet does not seem mainly addressed to music specialists. There are numerous examples in musical type, but the technical analyses are not too strenuous, and many examples seem merely for show. The book is hard to read for other reasons: heavy in the hand and weighty with undigested fact. Amid the narrative clutter there’s much of historical interest, and musical insights gleam like lost coins in a field, but nothing is picked up on, and Mendelssohn’s personality lies stillborn.

One problem is simply that Todd never quotes at length from the composer’s letters. Perhaps he does not want to accept their charm at face value, but the Letters from Italy and Switzerland, say – journal – letters with some marvellous drawings that Mendelssohn sent home from the Grand Tour – bring the man immediately before you. It is hard to resist him when he writes (to Fanny) of the Fingal’s Cave Overture: ‘I do not consider it finished; the middle movement forte in D major is very stupid, and the whole modulations savour more of counterpoint than of train oil and seagulls and salt fish – and it ought to be exactly the reverse.’ Todd does resist, with the result that his Mendelssohn is the stuffy, spoiled, Prince Charles-ish stereotype of aloofness that I’m sure he’s trying to get away from.

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