Roderick Hart's Reviews > Mendelssohn: A Life in Music

Mendelssohn by R. Larry Todd
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's review
Oct 17, 2008

really liked it
bookshelves: music

This book was so heavy I always had to support it on something to save my wrists. As far as I can tell, it’s an excellent study of the composer. Two small cavils. Despite the fact that Larry, given the subject, had to know about Scotland, he sometimes used English when he should have used British. A case in point is his reference to English Jews (page 283). Plainly, the Act referred to covered Jews throughout the United Kingdom. And although Larry writes well, he has a tendency to inflation. He actually uses the verb ‘asseverate’ at one point, last seen in Dickens and W. W. Jacobs, but the worst case is his use of ‘edentulous’ (page 196). While this word exists, and will die out if not used, its loss will not be mourned. ‘Toothless’ is much better.

What did I learn from this book? A lot. I wasn’t aware that Mendelssohn had so much trouble deciding a piece was finished. He was continually revising compositions, some of his best known included, like The Hebrides and the Italian Symphony. But he had equal trouble concluding many other pieces, including the oratorios. I also learned that he always wanted to write an opera, having written several in his formative years, but could never settle on a subject which satisfied him, though many suggestions were made. When he did it was too late, and you have to wonder if the Lorelei was such a good subject anyway.

It turns out that he started a number of pieces which were never completed, a third piano concerto, a cello concerto (none of which has survived and didn’t impress the cellist who saw it) and a third oratorio on the life of JC. His brother called the sketches for this third oratorio Christus, which is fair enough.

His relationship with Fanny is very tricky. The feminist lobby have a good case here. He not only printed some of her compositions under his own name – a very strange thing to do – but actively discouraged her from publishing anything herself, even after she was married and her husband supported her in doing so. Some have claimed that this was more of a class thing, since it was okay for, say, Clara Schumann to publish, because she was a professional who earned money from her talents. If Clara had been of a higher social standing then she too might have been discouraged. Right, but by the same token a man of higher social standing would not have published - can we think of such a case? However you look at it, this social distinction was squarely based on sex. The feminists are right. Accepting all that, there is no doubt Felix loved Fanny and was never the same again after she died. Felix and Fanny were both susceptible to strokes, probably an inherited characteristic. Perhaps today, with ACE inhibitors and the like, both would have lived a lot longer.

I was unaware that Felix had an extraordinary ability to improvise. And another thing I was unaware of was how influenced he was by Bach. In my view, this didn’t do him a lot of good. On the contrary, he kept on toiling on Psalm this and Psalm that in an antiquated style not his own, and also produced works suitable for the Catholic and Anglican liturgies. I heard one of them this morning, ‘Hear My Prayer’. I can see why it was popular at the time.

I have no interest in how Jewish he was, or how genuinely Christian, or Lutheran. He seems to have been a believer but reluctant to abandon his Jewish roots. None of these problems were of his choosing. As far as I can tell, he handled all this very well. Some commentators of Jewish persuasion obviously work hard mining this seam. These include Leon Botstein, an excellent conductor. They may wish to enlist him posthumously. Not a good idea. As might be expected, Wagner doesn't come out of this well.

I formed a very dim view of Goethe reading this book. He snubbed Schubert and Weber while promoting Carl Friedrich Zelter. Right you are, Johann! I have never recovered from hearing Mahler’s sickly setting of the last scene of Faust, though you could argue that sickly is about right.

Finally, you have to wonder about critics.The book contains weird and wonderful analyses of the Scottish Symphony, not by the author but quoting from others. I have listened to this work several times and now realise it’s better than I thought. The Italian is as good as I thought, and so is the Violin Concerto. The Hebrides is as good as its reputation, but I also like Calm Sea and a Prosperous Voyage very much (even though the poem was by Goethe). The calm sea part is very well done, and if you can imagine trying to convey this in music it isn’t easy. The use of the flute in the transition makes you feel the sudden breath of wind. The whole thing is first class. The Fair Melusina is also very good.

In his youth, Mendelssohn was often compared to Mozart, partly because of his talents and partly because he too was partnered by a talented older sister, though Fanny was surely much more talented than Nannerl. He matured more quickly, it is said, and that is probably true, but Mozart kept on developing, and you can hear the older Mozart in the young Mozart, even in the Cassations. Comparing the two, the fact that Mendelssohn matured more quickly didn’t do him a lot of good. Leaving aside oratorios, which Mozart didn’t write, Mozart is a much greater composer.

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Comments (showing 1-2 of 2) (2 new)

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message 1: by Martha (new)

Martha Thanks, Rod. Thorough and helpful review. I think M is underrated and am looking for a good place to start learning more about him.

Roderick Hart I don't think you could find much more detail on Mendelssohn between one set of covers than this.
For my part I like some of the early works which were given misleadingly late opus numbers after his death. I like the piano sextet a lot, and there's a good performance of it given at the Cylcades Festival available on Youtube.

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