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Rather than look back on a year that most of us would prefer to forget, let’s look ahead to the biggest celebration of classical music for almost quarter of a century.
Early in the 1980s some bored soul at the Council of Europe noticed that 1985 would mark the tercentenary of the births of Bach and Handel, a coincidence worthy of declaration as European Music Year. Stamps were minted in every member state, speeches were made and schedules cleared. Two channels of BBC TV put out 180 hours of classical music – half an hour for every day of the year, much of it at prime time.
Do not expect anything like as much on multi-channel telly in 2009, but the year’s four towering anniversaries - Purcell (born 1659), Handel (died 1759), Haydn (died 1809) and Mendelssohn (born 1809) – will command respectful attention in most civilised media. BBC Radio 3 will broadcast two Haydn symphonies a week – so thoughtful of him to have written exactly 104 – and every major opera house will find a Handel opera to put on stage, with the notable exception of the Met in New York, which must have lost him on its database.
BBC2 will present The Birth of British Music in four parts, BBC1 will show Messiah on Songs of Praise, while the Barbican, Glyndebourne and Covent Garden will all have productions of Purcell: King Arthur, The Fairy Queen and Dido and Aeneas, a possible embarrassment of courtly goings-on. Baroque 09 is the name of the year, but between the cracks of its impressive plans one important figure is in danger of getting lot – as usual, I might add.
What is it about Felix Mendelssohn that so habitually slips the mind? For most of the 19th century, Mendelssohn was considered the equal of Beethoven and Bach. For much of the 20th, his music was known to at least as many listeners as the Beatles – if not the Anglican hymn O for the Wings of a Dove, then the obligatory Wedding March. His violin concerto is the saccharine test for every virtuoso and his Scottish Symphony is that country’s best-known musical evocation.
Any of these masterpieces, not to mention the two great oratorios, Elijah and St Paul, and the unsurpassed octet, ought to gain Mendelssohn a place in the pantheon, yet each season when the concert programmes drop through the door his is the name that gets oddly left off. I cannot remember when an orchestra last gave the five Mendelssohn symphonies or when the six string quartets and two quintets were done as a cycle.
The omission is all the more mysterious in England, where Mendelssohn invented the model of a universal composer beloved by all classes, from Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, who had him over to play piano at the palace while they sang his melodies, to working mens’ singalongs at the Old Bull and Bush. He came here ten times between 1831 and 1847, and wrote Elijah for Birmingham, where the Times acclaimed it as ‘one of the most extraordinary achievements of human intelligence.’ The whole of Victorian England cannot have been wrong. So what happened to push Mendelssohn out of the front row of great composers?
Set aside, for the moment, the small matter of his Jewishness. A grandson of the philosopher Moses Mendelssohn, who was the first Jew to be accepted as a German intellectual (he is lionised in Lessing’s play, Nathan the Wise), Felix was baptised at birth by his banker father to escape any stigma of Semitism and earn unfettered entry to society.
As a child, his musical fertility matched Mozart’s and the content was by no means inferior. The 13 string symphonies, written between the ages of 12 and 14, erupt with melodic ideas and boyish brio. The octet, composed at age 16, is a double-or-quits challenge to the Schubertian quartet: beat that, Vienna. His sister, Fanny, four years older and formidably gifted, was discouraged from composing by her parents and confined to the piano while Felix courted fame. Neither sibling was content with that decision.
As he travelled the continent, collecting impressions for his symphonies, Felix painted beautifully in watercolours. He communed with the poet Heine, the philosopher Hegel and the scientist Humboldt. He was a man of all the talents, a little too widely spread. As a conductor, he restored Bach’s oratorios to public performance and made Leipzig a musical magnet once again. Devastated by Fanny’s early death in May 1847, Felix died six months later of a series of strokes, aged just 38.
Except in Nazi Germany, there has never been a time or place where Mendelssohn fell completely out of use. Every leading conductor has performed him, and no less a critic than George Bernard Shaw wrote (of his octet) that he ‘astonished the world by a musical style at once fascinating, original and perfectly new.’ All true, yet one senses in Mendelssohn a certain inhibition that stopped him some inches short of greatness.
He did not, for instance, extend the capacity of the orchestra or piano in any form. The grandeur of his oratorios, the full-throated volume, cannot quite compensate for the absence of raw passion. Felix Mendelssohn was trained from infancy to be polite to the banking classes. It is a shortcoming that he never fully overcame.
And then there is the intensity of his love for Fanny, too close for comfort and evidently repressed. Often in Mendelssohn we hear elegance when the music suggests something more. He was not prepared, as Beethoven was, to go to the very edge of experience, beyond conventional expression. It may also be that as a Jew, albeit Christianised, he was unwilling to frighten the cavalry horses.
For all that we know of his very public life and works, the inner Mendelssohn remains a psychological mystery. It is 35 years since anyone published a biography and there is much that a new century might help us put into context. The only way we can grasp this elusive character is if one music channel or other in the bicentennial year gives us the chance to hear the 120 numbered works, kid stuff to deathbed, without the pomp or prejudice of past times. That is something seriously worth wishing for in 2009.
Violin concerto in E minor – Milstein (DG), Heifetz (BMG), Perlman (EMI)
Scottish Symphony – Leipzig, Masur (Warner), LSO, Abbado (Decca)
Italian Symphony – Berlin PO, Tennstedt (EMI), LPO, Haitink (Philips)
Octet – Academy of St Martin’s (Philips)
Elijah – LSO, Hickox (Chandos)
Songs Without Words – Barenboim (DG)
Fanny Mendelssohn's The Year - Lauma Skrida (Sony)
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Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]