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.

Todd’s Mendelssohn is seen through the wrong end of a telescope, and everything else is peered at under a microscope. One looks for the detail that counts. It is interesting, for instance, to learn how obsessive Mendelssohn was as a reviser of his work. For someone with a reputation for quicksilver facility, famous for the tripping inevitability of his scherzos, he was surprisingly reluctant when it came to releasing works for publication. His friend Eduard Devrient recalled his ‘awful reverence for print’, and Mendelssohn himself wrote to a Birmingham engraver of choral parts for Elijah (the work was premiered there) reminding him that he was ‘subject to this dreadful disease of altering as long as I did not feel my conscience quite at rest’. The famous opening of Fingal’s Cave may have been jotted down when Mendelssohn visited the place, but it took years of tweaking before the score was given to the world, and the same is true of the fabulously fluent Fair Melusine Overture, the volatile (posthumously published) ‘Italian’ Symphony, and most of his other work. He had an unexpectedly Brahmsian self-critical anxiety when confronting tradition, and a perfectionism bordering on the censorious. His father, as Devrient noted, feared this latter quality would prevent him from finding a wife or an opera libretto, and though he secured the first he never managed the second. Yet the seamless way his Midsummer Night’s Dream incidental music follows on from the magical overture he wrote 17 years earlier, at the age of 17, suggests a lack of stylistic self-consciousness that is quite bewildering.

Mendelssohn was altogether a bewilderer. His ear and memory were a continual source of anecdote. The precision with which, when conducting, he could hear each member of the orchestra anticipated the prodigious Pierre Boulez, a composer-conductor who has similarly failed (so far) to find a suitable opera libretto, and of whom it could probably be said, as the composer-conductor Julius Benedict said of Mendelssohn, that he communicates his conception of a work ‘as if by an electric fluid’. Mendelssohn had to hear something only once to be able to play it on the piano, as Wagner found when he played the Venusberg theme from his opera-in-progress, Tannhäuser. When Mendelssohn asked what it was, Wagner peevishly replied: ‘Do you think I am going to reveal it to you?’ So Mendelssohn simply played it back to him. This instant absorptiveness led Charles Hallé ‘to the conclusion that he knew every bar of music ever written, and, what was more, could reproduce it immediately’. When he performed in his first piano trio in London, and only string parts had been put out, he nevertheless had someone turn the pages of a quite different piece on the piano in case his memory attracted attention.

Even more impressive were his powers of improvisation. Though he thought extemporising in public an ‘absurdity’, it was his stock-in-trade. In private, on one of his many visits to London, he wowed a nine-year-old pianist with 20 spontaneous variations on ‘Bluebells of Scotland’, embracing ‘two treatments of the theme in canon, two different harmonisations in the minor mode, a left-hand étude-like variation in the style of Chopin, a four-part fugue with the inversion of the melody, a chorale and free cadenza … and culminating march’. At one of his Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra’s pension-fund concerts (there seem to have been rather a lot of these) he played one of the Songs without Words in E flat and one in A and ‘connected them with a masterly improvisation that modulated between the distantly related keys, and somehow transformed the bell-like B flats of the first into the “feathery” arpeggiations of the second’.

The will-to-connect is a dominant aspect of his originality as a composer. Mendelssohn could link things up, make one movement segue into the next, bring back a theme from an earlier movement, build cyclical structures at once solid and elegant. This was a main line of development from Beethoven into Romanticism and beyond. Following Beethoven’s own cyclical initiatives in the Fifth Symphony (where the scherzo is recalled in the finale), the Ninth Symphony (the finale’s roll-call of the foregoing movements’ themes) and the late string quartets, with their unified overall structures, Mendelssohn pursued an ideal of integration that led ultimately to Sibelius’s one-movement Symphony No. 7 (if not to the 12-tone technique of Schoenberg). This pursuit began in his teens – indeed, was consummated then. The scherzo in his Octet for Strings is reinstated in the finale – suddenly materialising amid the general bustle – in a way that leaves one permanently wondering how it was done. His transformation, at once supersubtle and blatant, of Beethoven’s A minor String Quartet, Op. 132, into his own A minor String Quartet (No. 2), written at the age of 18 (only two years after the Beethoven), is equally uncanny.

The early (despite its number) Symphony No. 5, the ‘Reformation’, written when he was 21 and later rejected by Mendelssohn as juvenilia, is fascinatingly linked together. The slow introduction is connected to the allegro by two lustrous passages from J.G. Naumann’s ‘Dresden Amen’, which recurs still more magically before the recapitulation. The third movement, ending with an allusion to the first, is joined to the finale by a bass G that turns into the treble G of a tiny flute solo, ushering in the chorale ‘Ein’ feste Burg ist unser Gott!’ and the triumph of the Lutheran Church. Todd tells us that this solo was originally a whole recitative, influenced by the finale of Beethoven’s Ninth, but that Mendelssohn found the effect too obvious. The three bars to which he shrunk it have a remarkable salience nonetheless. You don’t expect anything like this at such a point in a classical symphony. The use of the flute’s sonority as a structural pivot recalls the flute chords that open the Midsummer Night’s Dream Overture and recur there in the same way that the ‘Dresden Amen’ recurs here. It is interesting to find a pivotal flute solo as well as a finale based on a hymn (a Scottish prayer for Jerusalem) in Alexander Goehr’s marvellously connected-up Sinfonia (1980), another curious meeting of Jewish sensibility and Nonconformism.

Mendelssohn’s formal experiments are not so bold in his later symphonies, though the return of the slow introduction at the end of the first movement of No. 3 (‘Scottish’) is striking (it has become a slow conclusion); while casting what is essentially a scherzo (the picturesque saltarello) as the finale of No. 4 (‘Italian’) is so bold one hardly notices it. (In his 1834 revision of the last three movements of this work, only recently made available, he significantly links the third and fourth, and smooths the transition from the third movement’s trio to its recapitulated minuet.) The connectivity of the two piano concertos and the violin concerto is overt: each is in three linked movements. In the first piano concerto Mendelssohn helps the listener with little brass fanfares to mark the joins (not so different from what Tchaikovsky does in his Symphony No. 4), but no such crutch was thought necessary for the second, or for the E minor Violin Concerto written two years before his death – a formal miracle to set beside the teenage masterpieces. It is rather alarming to learn that this much loved concerto nearly became a third piano concerto (a score left unfinished). It is, as Hans Keller said, the most violinistic of concertos, its virtuoso passages lying ‘marvellously on the instrument’ and ‘far easier to play than they sound’. The work is easily taken for granted, as it was by Saul Bellow in To Jerusalem and Back. Provoked by this, Keller wrote a whole book on the concerto, and wrote acutely about the composer elsewhere. He gets no mention from Todd, but then his book remains mysteriously unpublished.

Mendelssohn’s liking for linkage and transition is evidence of his skill at construction. Perhaps the greatest pleasure his music gives is the sense that everything, however adventurous (the scherzo reinstated in the octet’s finale), is in its proper place and will be given its proper space. There is a lack of impediment, of earthly constraint, to Mendelssohn’s musical thinking; a lack of self-pity not surprising in a composer who had produced 12 vigorously argued string sinfonias by the age of 14, and who revelled in solving technical problems. It isn’t surprising that he excelled at scherzos. The faster a piece goes, the more we are aware of its overall construction; the slower it goes, the more we notice detail. Perhaps Mendelssohn’s ‘sheer’ musicality comes down to his brilliantly putting the whole above the part. By contrast, an ‘adagio’ composer such as Bruckner moves us intensely from moment to moment but can seem to go on too long – and he was thought by many to lack technique.

Scherzos run through Mendelssohn’s work from the defining evanescence of the octet’s to the 1843 scherzo that recaptures the spirit of his youthful Midsummer Night’s Dream Overture. Charles Rosen, in a grand chapter of The Romantic Generation, ‘Mendelssohn and the Invention of Religious Kitsch’, lists seven instances, but suggests that Mendelssohn wrote too many scherzos. I would gratefully accept more. For Rosen, the chorales in such pieces as the ‘Reformation’ Symphony and the Piano Trio No. 2, no less than St Paul and Elijah, reflect a new and dubious desire to induce a state of piety in the listener. This led to the religious excesses of Parsifal, for which Wagner cribbed Mendelssohn’s use of the ‘Dresden Amen’. Rosen is more concerned to describe the phenomenon than disparage it; Todd doesn’t really engage with it at all. His view of the oratorios is upbeat but he is shrewd at identifying the nature of their success. He says that St Paul ‘offered a blend of historicism and contemporary musical idioms, of Baroque chorales and fugues with modern orchestration suffused with a Lied-like lyricism, that popularised the complexities and severities of Bach and Handel for a newly empowered, middle-class musical culture’. Of Elijah, he suggests that by forging links between his Jewish identity and an ‘adopted Lutheran world view’, Mendelssohn continued the assimilation project of his grandfather Moses.

Todd has an excellent paragraph on canon formation in action, prompted by Mendelssohn’s historical concerts with the Leipzig orchestra, in which the names of Handel, Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven jostled those of Viotti, Righini, Salieri and Vogler. And he makes some lovely casual observations, such as describing the way the exposed flutes at the beginning of the Midsummer Night’s Dream Overture ‘almost inevitably begin slightly out of tune, lending the music an almost unreal effect … as if Puck leaps from the stage to befuddle our senses as the overture begins’. He says that the mermaid’s music with which The Fair Melusine starts was ‘later adapted by Wagner to depict the Rhine in Das Rheingold’: I’ve always thought so, but to see it confirmed so blithely in half a sentence is a frustration typical of the book. Nothing is made of it, yet it means that a composer Wagner anathematises in his notorious essay on ‘Jewishness in Music’ is one from whom he stole not just a motif but the foundation-stone of the Ring. To which must be added the foundation-stone of Parsifal (the ‘Dresden Amen’), not to mention debts in the overture to the early opera Die Feen (evoking that to A Midsummer Night’s Dream) and the overture for Theodore Apel’s drama Columbus (here he plagiarises Mendelssohn’s Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage Overture), and his internalisation of Fingal’s Cave.

Wagner’s appearances in the book are always telling – telling against him. His relationship to Mendelssohn started badly when the latter failed to acknowledge Wagner’s gift of the score of a symphony he had written. Indeed, Mendelssohn lost it, and Wagner concluded he had destroyed it deliberately ‘because he detected in it a talent that was disagreeable to him’. It is the beginning of an anxiety of influence that, unlike Mendelssohn’s sober, self-chastising version (his ‘Revisionskrankheit’), takes the form of vituperation. Reviewing a performance of St Paul in Dresden, where he was Kappellmeister, Wagner called the work a masterpiece, regretting only, Todd tells us, that it ‘was not joined to a Protestant service, so that its true religious import could reach the hearts of the faithful’. Soon afterwards he conducted an anthem Mendelssohn had written for the unveiling of a royal statue in Dresden, an occasion to which he contributed a part-song of his own, and wrote to his half-sister: ‘It was universally agreed that my own piece, which was straightforward & uplifting, knocked Mendelssohn’s over-elaborate & artificial composition into a cocked hat.’

Mendelssohn was not much less hypocritical about Wagner, embracing him after the Berlin premiere of The Flying Dutchman while feeling ‘totally indignant’ about his music, according to a diary entry of Schumann’s. So far from espousing Wagner’s concept of the ‘total work of art’, Mendelssohn fantasised about ‘operas without music, singers or ballet dancers, in which only the sets would “perform”’. And it is amusing to find him pondering a suggestion from Fanny that he should write an opera on the Nibelungenlied. His chief difficulty, Todd says, ‘was imagining how, with the slaughter of so many Teutonic heroes, the whole affair would end’. This was in 1840, ten years before Wagner began sketching The Ring.

Wagner was the most outspoken anti-semitic critic of Mendelssohn, but he wasn’t the only one. Mendelssohn’s teacher Carl Friedrich Zelter was not above such asperities in his letters to Goethe, and even Schumann, with whom Mendelssohn was on warm terms and whom he supported as a conductor, made anti-semitic comments (not specified here) in diaries he shared with his wife. Dislike for Mendelssohn’s Jewishness is strangely mixed up with disapproval of his Victorianism in later years. He is a Disraeli figure, admired but slightly suspect. Bernard Shaw may have only been campaigning against the spirit of the age when he made his much quoted gibe about Mendelssohn’s ‘despicable oratorio mongering’. ‘Despicable’ might be better applied to Carl Orff, who accepted a Nazi commission (turned down by Richard Strauss, Hans Pfitzner and Werner Egk) to replace the much-loved incidental music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream. His alternative to what he called Mendelssohn’s ‘moonlight with sugar water’ was due to be premiered in a Frankfurt opera house when Allied bombs destroyed it. Few musical anecdotes are chillier than that of Sir Thomas Beecham in 1936 returning with members of the London Philharmonic to lay a wreath on Mendelssohn’s statue outside the Leipzig Gewandhaus, which he had visited the day before, only to find the statue gone.

Todd tells this story in an 11-page preface packed with much of the interest of his book. He outlines the reception of Mendelssohn’s music, raises pertinent issues, and defines a space for aesthetic judgment. He never quite enters this space, and presumably thinks he shouldn’t, but the result is a work that seems to begin with its conclusion and taper off for seven hundred pages. It is a formidable biography that slows an unnaturally accelerated life down to relentless minutiae. The question of where we should place Mendelssohn today hangs over it like a raincloud that never bursts.

He is still too easily patronised, it seems to me, yet one has to concede some of the Victorian mustiness. I can only with difficulty listen to the choral works that form such a large part of his output, or extract much pleasure from the Songs without Words, or, indeed, those with. The Mendelssohn of ‘Hark! the Herald Angels Sing’ (its tune taken from his 1840 Festgesang after his death), of the (Midsummer Night’s Dream) Wedding March played in churches since 1858, of the scholarship established in his name at the Royal Academy of Music, or the reverential article by Sir George Grove in the first edition of his Dictionary of Music and Musicians – this Victorian paragon of correctitude and charm is not so easy to separate from the composer of the octet, the Midsummer Night’s Dream and Fingal’s Cave Overtures, the early string quartets and quintet, the last three numbered symphonies, the violin concerto. Even at its deepest, his genius is one of discretion, propriety, reserve.

His time was one of profound musical change – from the classicism of Haydn and Mozart to the romanticism of Wagner and Liszt – yet he displays none of the artistic turbulence that marked his contemporaries: Berlioz with his lurid textural revolutionism, Schumann with his literariness and irony, Brahms (coming later) with his titanic stoicism. Mendelssohn, true to his Christian name (he was baptised), finds a happy medium between the old and new. He can combine the vivid tone-painting of Fingal’s Cave and the ‘Italian’ and ‘Scottish’ Symphonies with rigorous yet innovative classical structure. His invention of a faery scherzo world never takes him – as it does Berlioz in the ‘Queen Mab’ movement of his Romeo and Juliet Symphony – altogether into the uncanny. He could be said to have turned his gaze from suffering, but his genius for abstract construction affords us an experience as deep as any. Given his affinity for the Baroque – fugues, organ sonatas, oratorios and the like – on top of his romantic classicism, one can picture him as a unique figure at the dead centre of musical history, history that has come to a stop. But I prefer to think of his work as resembling one of his own formal masterstrokes, itself the most wonderful transition.