Mendelssohn Hero or Has Been? Or Did Wagner Really Do It?

Written By The Wagnerian on Monday, 25 November 2013 | 7:19:00 pm


"For critics like Marx and Brendel, this task could only be fulfilled by a progressive art fully reconciled with the strivings of the age. Adolf Bernhard Marx, in a classic statement of this perspective in The Music of the Nineteenth Century and its Culture (1855), argued that 'enjoyment and a feeling of happiness are no criterions of progress; in art as in every other concern of the spirit, a higher perception is the only proof of advance'. [37] For both Marx and Brendel, Mendelssohn's music was inimical to this new aesthetic. On the contrary, it served as a symbol of the aspects of German musical culture that stood in the way of progress" Sinead Dempsey 2004

Our editor, finds a fascinating paper on the very different reception to Mendelssohn 's music in England and Germany. However, proceeds this with a long introduction that can be happily ignored. 

Unlike Wagner, I like Mendelssohn and so I was naturally drawn to the following paper "Hero or Has Been? Mendelssohn Reception in England and Germany in the 1840s" . It has now been long assumed that Mendelssohn's reputation was destroyed by Wagner. His attack upon Mendelssohn in Judaism in Music is especially vehement and there are a number of other reasons - apart from being Jewish - that it is thought Wagner set out to destroy Mendelssohn's reputation.  In an article written in 2009,  common of those "blaming" Wagner, Tom Service wrote:

"How did this genius composer come to be synonymous with the worst aspects of 19th-century music - its conservatism, nostalgia, sentimentality and superficiality? I think it's all Wagner's fault."

He goes on to explain: "The reason for Wagner's vitriol was simple: he felt threatened. In the years after his death, Mendelssohn's influence made him the most important figure in German musical culture. Before Wagner could launch his musical and social revolutions, he needed to destroy Mendelssohn.

And that meant turning him into the anti-Wagner. Where the new German music should be strong and ambitious, Mendelssohn's was deemed effeminate and vague; where orchestral performance should be flexible and expressive, his conducting was "flabby and colourless"; where a composer should be part of an emerging German nationalism, Mendelssohn, as a Jew, was "outside the pale of German art-life".

And indeed there may well be some truth in this - although i think it too a simplistic an argument. However, is it possible that Service, and the general consensus, gives Wagner to much influence in this matter?

There are certainly complex reasons for Wagner's "sudden" attack on Mendelssohn (He had not always been so unreceptive- see for example Martin Geck's essay, "What Was Eating Wagner"). But all of these critics seem to assume that in this matter,Wagner worked in some sort of intellectual vacuum. Yet outside the composition, in general,  of his music, I  am not convinced this is the case. All of the evidence we have is that Wagner was an intellectual "sponge" soaking up ideas from the intellectuals - and pseudo intellectuals - of his time. Indeed, entire forests have been laid bare to produce books and papers to successfully support this argument. He may have read and then reformulated these idea's in his own "idiosyncratic way - and thus truly "made them his own" -  but in most cases the sources for his theoretical writings can be found elsewhere - outside of himself. This is, certainly the case with the one the idea assigned to him alone with such frequency that it has grown to be thought of as "his": the Gesamtkunstwerk.(I would argue that Wagner's true genius, and I don't think I would be alone in this, is in part, his skill at synthesising ideas - often unrelated. Indeed the  dialectical process (in the Hegelian sense) seems central to his works and thought process. This might, in part, explain the continuous contradictions found  in his writings and thoughts - perhaps). What is certain, is that one of the few things, in private, that Wagner claimed was his alone was:

"I recognise now that the characteristic fabric of my music (always of course in the closest association with the poetic design), which my friends regard as so new and so significant, owes its construction above all to the extreme sensitivity which guides me in the direction of mediating and providing an intimate bond between all the different moments of transition that separate the extremes of mood.

I should now like to call my most delicate and profound art the art of transition, for the whole fabric of my art is made up of such transitions: all that is abrupt and sudden is now repugnant to me; it is often unavoidable and necessary, but even then it may not occur unless the mood has been clearly prepared in advance, so that the suddenness of the transition appears to come as a matter of course.


So, if Wagner was so influenced by the ideas around him, could that have been the case with his thoughts on Mendelssohn also. And not only those all to common at the time, the thoughts of the antisemite? This seems to me to not be an unreasonable assumption.

Now, in her defence, in the paper below Sinead Dempsey does not in anyway set out to answer the question I am proposing. Instead, she notes the common assumption that Mendelssohn was revered in his time and that this quickly changed after his death. However, she finds that they way Mendelssohn's music was received and considered, was very different in English and German intellectual circles. More interesting, is the response to Mendelssohn's output in those figures that feature frequently in discussions about Wagner and of who he was more than familiar at the time: Eduard Hanslick and Heinrich Heine! ( Wagner had of course, meet both by this time. Indeed, for those familiar with Wagner, there are many fascinating links in this paper to his later work and thoughts - far to many to mention. Although, Hanslick's mention of Gotthold Ephraim Lessing has to be noted in light of Cosima's later, infamous, diary entry regarding a performance of "Nathan the Wise").

It is however, fair to say that my thoughts above are simply a "stream of consciousness", that was bubbling along as I read Dempsey's highly interesting paper. Keep them in mind or not as you read this. Indeed, perhaps in reverence to the author's intent, ignoring them completely will provide it with the most justice. However, whatever you do, I do suggest that you read it.

Hero or Has Been?
Mendelssohn Reception in England and Germany in the 1840s


SINÉAD DEMPSEY
UNIVERSITY OF MANCHESTER
Published in: British Postgraduate Musicology (2004)

Central to the generally accepted picture of Mendelssohn reception is the notion that his reputation declined sharply in the years following his death in 1847. From the 1960s to the present, Mendelssohn scholars have portrayed a composer who was held in high regard during his lifetime but posthumously downgraded and even derided. As George R. Marek put it, Mendelssohn was 'lifted too high by his contemporaries': thus it was 'inevitable that a reaction should set in. So it did, shortly after his death'. [1] Similarly Eric Werner contends that the fate of Mendelssohn's music after his death was infinitely more controversial than during his life; [2] an oversimplification of this issue is present even in the Preface to The Mendelssohn Companion (2001), where Douglass Seaton remarks that Mendelssohn was 'within his own lifetime perhaps more admired than any other composer in history', [3] and that it was only after his death that opinion about him varied between 'idealising hero worship' and 'vicious denigration by self-conscious progressives'. Significantly, this notion can also be found in the writings of several mid-nineteenth-century commentators. As early as 1850, the pianist and conductor Hans von Bülow identified a decline in Mendelssohn's reputation in similar terms:

People overvalued Mendelssohn during his lifetime . . . no living artist had received so many tokens of veneration and enthusiasm from all quarters. At present, after his death, people undervalue him, and worthless men – who flattered him during his life – are now beginning to belittle his merits and to diminish the public's regard for him through their malice and envious spite. [4] FN

Heine argues that the defining feature of Mendelssohn's music is overcalculation; this feature, the product of insincerity, is reflected in Mendelssohn's excessive dependence on classical models In a report from 1844, he criticises the manufactured nature of Mendelssohn's music, arguing that the finely crafted externals are like empty husks, products of indifference rather than authentic expression:

Certainly, the years following Mendelssohn's death witnessed aggressive assaults on his reputation on the part of Eduard Krüger[5] and – notoriously – Richard Wagner. [6] Yet a close examination of nineteenth-century German musical discourse reveals that a negative trend can be seen in assessments of the composer from significantly earlier: from the early1840s, influential critics – such as Heinrich Heine, Eduard Hanslick, and Franz Brendel – questioned whether Mendelssohn's pre-eminence was justified. Indeed, many of the themes which shaped the decline of Mendelssohn's posthumous reputation – such as those of genius versus talent, and spontaneity versus calculation deployed by Richard Wagner in his 'Judaism in Music' (1850) – were already articulated by these critics during Mendelssohn's lifetime. Significantly, the situation in the English musical press was markedly different: indeed, to some extent it accounts for the cliché that the decline in Mendelssohn's reputation did not begin until after his death. This article explores why these competing views of the composer emerged, and examines the broader aesthetic and ideological trends underpinning them. [7] FN

The fact that such antithetical assessments of Mendelssohn existed even during his lifetime is suggested in an unlikely source – an obituary of the composer written by the German critic Johann Christian Lobe. Lobe documents Mendelssohn's many visits to England and the enthusiastic manner with which his works were received: from his first visit to London in 1829 during which the public were 'invigorated' by the English premiere of the overture to A Midsummer Night's Dream, to his final visit in April 1847 when Elijah was performed to 'ever-increasing applause'. [8] In addition, Lobe describes the 'spirited reception' of the Second Symphony at the Birmingham music festival in September 1840;[9] the performance of the A minor symphony in London two years later (the impression of which, as Lobe put it, 'surpassed that of all earlier works');[10] and the numerous performances of the oratorios St Paul from 1844 and Elijah from 1846. In summary, Lobe notes that the English public eagerly awaited Mendelssohn's visits, and 'his appearances brought life to all musical spheres'. [11] FN

Significantly, however, Lobe's obituary of Mendelssohn also reveals another side to his reception. He argues that some critics disputed whether Mendelssohn deserved the level of fame that he had attained, questioning the value of his output. A central theme in these critiques was the view that in Mendelssohn's works, as Lobe put it, 'intellect and technical expertise take the place of imagination' (in seinem Werken überwiege Verstand und Wissenschaft der Kunst die Fantasie). [12] While the English critics lavished praise on Mendelssohn, it will become evident that it was primarily German writers who proffered this negative assessment of the composer. FN

See the conquering hero comes! Sound the trumpets, beat the drums!

Meirion Hughes and Robert Stradling assert that 'by 1847, early-Victorian England had long since settled for Mendelssohn with relish'. [13] While this is incontrovertible, their subsequent contention that it was the premiere of Elijah in 1846 which confirmed 'Mendelssohn's complete domination of English musical life' needs to be challenged. [14] Although the event was admittedly represented as momentous by contemporary critics, English performances of Mendelssohn's music throughout the 1840s were in general highly charged, atmospheric occasions. In 1843, the Symphony no. 3 'was received, from beginning to end, with repeated bursts of applause'; [15] similarly, during a performance of A Midsummer Night's Dream (1844), 'Mendelssohn was constantly cheered and applauded to the echo – and he retired amidst a veritable hurricane of approval'. [16] Accordingly, by the time of the first performance of Elijah, Mendelssohn was already a household name in England. Such superlatives strongly uphold Lobe's version of events. Indeed, throughout the 1840s, the pages of The Musical World are filled with references to Mendelssohn's eminence, invariably according him the status of being 'one of the greatest musicians the world ever produced'. [17] FN


Several consistent themes dominated his reception at the hands of the English press. In the following review of Sechs Lieder Op. 57, it was the originality, simplicity and accessibility of these works that the critic found most appealing:

We think Mendelssohn must take the highest place among all the modern Germans as a vocal, as much as he undisputedly does as an instrumental, composer. His songs are marked by a profusion of rich and natural melody, while his accompaniments are at once original and characteristic... Mendelssohn has achieved the triumph of simple expression. It must be universally loved – because it touches a string whose vibrations are the many-voiced emotions of the human heart. [18]

English appraisals of the composer exhibit no trace of the notion that erudition or intellect were higher forces than imagination or inspiration in Mendelssohn's creative endeavours. On the contrary, many critics illustrated how Mendelssohn was fully able to reconcile these features in his works. In 1836 Henry Fothergill Chorley contended that Mendelssohn's works exhibit not merely 'the subtlest intellectual refinement', but also 'the brightest genius'. [19] Other critics also celebrated Mendelssohn's supremacy in all aspects of composition. A review, from 1847, of the Violin Concerto again focuses on its ideal combination of erudition and imagination:

Mendelssohn's violin concerto... is one of the most perfect and beautiful compositions of the great master. It is full of genius... It abounds in melody throughout, as new as it is exquisite, and this is set off and enriched by harmonic and orchestral treatment in which consummate learning and prodigal fancy go hand in hand. [20]

In 1844, the idea of genius was defined in The Musical World as 'an original tone of expressing thoughts, all of which are not compelled to be entirely new, but which are invariably productive of a freshness of effect, from the manner in which they are expressed by the individual genius of the composer. [21] Even in critiques of the composer that do not explicitly acclaim Mendelssohn as a musical genius, it is implicit by virtue of their focus on the themes of freshness and originality. Of course, this definition is not too far removed from the notions of genius common in German philosophical and aesthetic writings,[22] and yet – as will become evident – there was little of this kind of high praise for Mendelssohn from his countrymen in this period. FN


Also representative of English opinion is a lengthy review by George MacFarren of the Third Symphony, which appeared in a series of essays examining great works and their composers. The fact that this work was seen to merit inclusion in this series is significant in itself. MacFarren designates Mendelssohn's Third Symphony as one which will 'raise the author to the highest level of musical repute' and will advance the course of musical art. [23] For him, Mendelssohn is not an outmoded artist but a 'new star in the firmament of genius'. [24] Furthermore, he stressed the depth of human passion and feeling of the work. Following its first performance in 1842, he wrote:

the symphony is, on the whole, the most pathetic composition of the kind and of the length I ever heard.; and by pathetic... let me be understood to signify that deep, intense, and soulful feeling which dives down to the bottom of the human heart, and there enthrones itself the emperor of passion. [25]

In MacFarren's view, the originality of style which Mendelssohn has achieved in this work makes him the equal of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven in the realm of instrumental music. FN

Mendelssohn clearly enjoyed hero status in England. The following excerpt from an article written shortly after his death neatly encapsulates the English view of the composer, his character and his artistic significance:

He was the eyes with which Music saw; he was the brain with which Music thought; he was the voice with which music spoke; and now the eyes are put out, the brain paralysed, the voice dumb... He was not merely the greatest genius, but the most variously accomplished and profound musician of his time. An original thinker, his originality declared itself in his youth... the very first efforts of Mendelssohn gave indications of a new style in musical composition; a style that depended not on a departure from the forms exhibited in the great models left us by Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, but of a manner of thinking, and a method of development, distinctly individual and peculiar to the young composer. [26] FN

Mendelssohn's popularity in England continued for many years after his death. As the German writer Malwida von Meysenbug noted on attending Wagner's second Philharmonic Concert on 26 May 1855, Wagner's unfavourable reception by the English was largely due to the fact that they were 'saturated with a Mendelssohn cult'. [27] FN

Originality versus Epigonism

A different picture can be found in the writings of German critics from this period, who contended that Mendelssohn was no longer at the forefront of artistic developments, and that his style and mentality had been superseded. In 1850, for instance, the aesthetician and critic Eduard Krüger identified an increasing disenchantment with Mendelssohn over the course of the previous decade. Focusing in particular on Mendelssohn's incidental music to Sophocles's Antigone, Krüger notes that the rapturous enthusiasm following its premiere in 1841 was gradually displaced by scepticism and antagonism. Krüger goes on to forecast a trajectory of decline for Mendelssohn's music, predicting that in a few years time the church music will have been entirely eclipsed, leaving only the early lieder and a handful of instrumental music in the repertory:

What were things like a few years ago? All the papers rejoiced over [Mendelssohn's] Antigone and its reception by the enlightened Berlin public; even though a couple of eccentrics murmured faintly that it would be condemned as tedious, these views were ignored. A few years later such opinions were aired openly... It is arrogant to play the prophet. But I predict that in only a short while, perhaps a generation – and I will publicly revoke this opinion if time contradicts me – Mendelssohn's religious works will have faded from view. Beethoven departed this life a generation ago and Mozart two generations: no one regards their works as obsolete since they may still resound in our midst. Of the works of the gentle, chaste Felix, the sweet youthful lieder will endure and are eternal; aside from these, perhaps a few but by no means all of the splendid instrumental works; but little or nothing of the so-called church music. Let time have the final word! [28] FN
Hanslick develops this idea by comparing Mendelssohn with the poet and dramatist Gottfried Ephraim Lessing, arguing that both figures owed their prominence to zealous study rather than to genius
A more complex picture is presented in Eduard Hanslick's review of Mendelssohn's Third Symphony, which provides a useful basis for a comparison between English and German assessments of the composer. While he compliments Mendelssohn on the remarkable progress made since his First Symphony, and is appreciative of certain compositional features, Hanslick's general impression of this work is not favourable. In contrast to MacFarren's assessment of this symphony as original and highly expressive, Hanslick considers it to be more a product of labour than of inspiration. Indeed, in pursuing this argument, Hanslick uses almost the exact phrase Lobe cited in his obituary: that the triumph of intellect over feeling is a key characteristic of Mendelssohn's output (dieses Ueberwiegen der Verstandesthätigkeit über das Gefühl). Hanslick develops this idea by comparing Mendelssohn with the poet and dramatist Gottfried Ephraim Lessing, arguing that both figures owed their prominence to zealous study rather than to genius. Furthermore, Hanslick argues that while both author and composer possess a deep true feeling, it is more the feeling of philosophers than poets. Similar concerns are evident in the writings of other critics. In a review from 1844 of the Cello Sonata Op. 58, an anonymous critic praised Mendelssohn's compositional technique, yet noted that the work gave little evidence of the composer's emotional involvement or inspiration. [29] Such comments are significant, since when considered from the perspective of contemporary aesthetics, it is evident that both this critic and Hanslick regarded Mendelssohn as deficient in an attribute regarded as essential to genius. In commenting on the philosophical nature of Mendelssohn's artistry, Hanslick appears to share the views of Hegel, who considered such one-sided calculation to be inimical to art. In Hegel's view, art must be the product of genius in a state of inspiration; while the genuine artist must utilise both his intellect and innermost soul in his creative endeavours, reflection and technical expertise alone cannot produce great art. [30] Viewed from this perspective, it is evident that Hanslick's veiled comments represent a serious challenge to Mendelssohn's status as the leading musical figure of the day: he denies Mendelssohn an attribute that English critics bestowed on him at every opportunity:


One must be astonished at the enormous progress of this master from his First Symphony to the one in A minor... the instrumentation is uncommonly artful and impressive, truly sumptuous in the scherzo... The fact that this new Symphony is also more a product of artful work than direct inspiration may not appear strange in relation to a work of Mendelssohn, since this outweighing of the aesthetic of intellect over the aesthetic of feeling is inseparable from the individuality of this composer... People have appropriately described Lessing as the poet of reason, and I should like to name Mendelssohn the Lessing of music. Similarly to Lessing, Mendelssohn did not possess extraordinary genius, but rather attained the heights which he at present commands through unremitting study and admirable zeal. [31]FN


The music criticism of the poet Heinrich Heine expresses in a more vehement form Hanslick's reservations about Mendelssohn. In Lutetia (1844) Heine argues that the defining feature of Mendelssohn's music is overcalculation; this feature, the product of insincerity, is reflected in Mendelssohn's excessive dependence on classical models. [32] In a report from 1844, he criticises the manufactured nature of Mendelssohn's music, arguing that the finely crafted externals are like empty husks, products of indifference rather than authentic expression:

Mendelssohn always provides us with the opportunity to think about the greatest problems in aesthetics. In particular he always reminds us of the great question, what is the difference between art and falsehood? We admire this master in the main for his great talent for form, for stylistics, his gift for making the most extraordinary things his own, his charmingly beautiful craftsmanship, his fine lizard-like ear, his sensitive antennae, and his serious – I might almost say passionate – indifference. If we look for an analagous phenomenon in a sister art, we find it in poetry, and it goes by the name of Ludwig Tieck. This master, as well, always knew what were the most excellent things, in order to reproduce them in writing or declaiming; he even understood how to manufacture the naiv... The more gifted Mendelssohn would be likelier to succeed in creating something eternal and lasting, but not in a field where truth and passion are the first requirements. [33] FN


Several of the themes articulated by Hanslick and Heine are also present in the writings of Robert Schumann and his successor as editor of the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, Franz Brendel. As with Heine, Brendel stresses that conscious effort and imitation are Mendelssohn's hallmarks, as well as the absence of emotional involvement. But both Brendel and Schumann lay greater store on Mendelssohn's contribution to the development of music, questioning whether his works confronted the challenge posed by Beethoven's symphonies. In commenting on Mendelssohn's Third Symphony, Schumann argued that 'it has nothing of the traditional symphonic afflatus, nothing of the customary large-scaled breadth, nothing that might suggest a composer set on outdoing Beethoven'. [34] A different historical perspective underpinned Brendel's critique, in which a theme emerges that was subsequently to have a devastating impact on Mendelssohn's reputation: the notion that his music represented the final remnant of an earlier artistic and political era, an art that was now superseded and irrelevant. Crucial to this view was Brendel's rejection of the aesthetic that informed Mendelssohn's composing. Brendel argues that Mendelssohn was concerned merely with corresponding to a classical idea of beauty, ignoring the demand for a progressive art that expressed the modern world-view. Brendel had a very specific idea of how composers should respond to the concerns of the present: 'the task of art is just as much to portray the epoch in its struggle, and to give expression to the highest forces that propel it forward. Mendelssohn has the advantages of the older classical tendency; through this classicity he became the man of the times, but we are also justified in criticising his lack of modern sensibility'. [35]