<br><h3> Chapter One </h3> The Aesthetics of Assimilation and Affirmation: Reconstructing the Career of Felix Mendelssohn <p> LEON BOTSTEIN <p> <p> The Mendelssohn Problem <p> Since the end of World War II, attempts to restore the stature of Felix Mendelssohn and bring more of his music onto the concert stage have become increasingly frequent. Among the reasons for this phenomenon is the postwar German guilt about the Nazis who sought to desecrate Mendelssohn's memory, suppress his music, and falsify his role in history in accordance with theories concerning race and art. The postwar reaction to the Nazi campaign was significant, considering the extent of collusion by the musicological community in these efforts. Interest in Mendelssohn since 1945 has spurred significant research and discoveries, which in turn have helped to strengthen Mendelssohn's reputation, particularly in view of the vitality and novelty of the early musical works that have entered the repertoire. <p> The Nazi interpretation of Mendelssohn was not exactly novel. It culminated a long history of antipathy, particularly in Germany. Even though some contemporaries, including Schumann and Berlioz, maintained certain doubts about much of Mendelssohn's output, the anti-Mendelssohn campaign began in earnest in 1850 with the publication of Wagner's essay "Judaism in Music." The success of the contemptuous Wagnerian view of Mendelssohn the man, his music, and its social and cultural influence was profound. Wagner's aesthetics were framed in explicit opposition to Mendelssohn. Wagner even succeeded in obscuring the extent to which he, as a composer, was indebted to Mendelssohn's musical work. <p> The triumph of Wagnerianism by the end of the century created a barrier to wide-ranging appreciation of Mendelssohn's music. By the early twentieth century, much of the music had vanished from the repertory. Some—the piano music in particular—had been relegated to the category of well-written music adequate for amateur performance but lacking in profundity. The concert canon circa 1900 included a few overtures, the Third and Fourth Symphonies, the Octet, and the E-minor Violin Concerto. The programs conducted by Gustav Mahler in his career from 1870 to 1911 and performed by the Rosé Quartet in the years 1883-1932 exemplify this phenomenon. <p> The transformation of aesthetic taste during the second half of the nineteenth century lent Mendelssohn's music an undeserved and pejorative symbolic meaning. After the 1880s, in England, Germany, and also America, the tenets of cultural modernism were linked to a generational revolt and a rejection of middle-class conceits of culture and art. This triggered an aversion to Mendelssohn. His music, in part because of its affectionate refinement and the relative ease of performance and comprehension, had come to signify glib amateur music making—a facile consumption of an art of optimism by educated urban classes, an art that neither questioned nor resisted the presumed smugness of bourgeois aesthetic and moral values. <i>Elijah</i> and <i>St. Paul</i> and the <i>Songs without Words</i>, for example, were viewed as emblematic of a vacuous and affirmative tradition of music making, undertaken thoughtlessly within a hypocritical and exploitative world. George Bernard Shaw's 1889 denigration of Mendelssohn as "not in the foremost rank of composers" must be seen in the context of cultural politics of an era in which George Grove's enthusiasm can be placed at the opposite end of the spectrum. Shaw decried Mendelssohn's "kid-glove gentility, his conventional sentimentality, and his despicable oratorio mongering." At Mendelssohn's best, Shaw argued, his music was merely touching, tender, and refined. Even George Grove accepted the idea that cheerfulness and the absence of any hints of "misery and sorrow" characterized Mendelssohn's achievement. After all, Grove wrote, "surely there is enough of conflict and violence in life and in art. When we want to be unhappy we can turn to others. It is well in these agitated modern days to be able to point to one perfectly balanced nature ... whose music ... is at once manly and refined, clever and pure, brilliant and solid." <p> The failure to penetrate the surface of Mendelssohn on the part of these notable English advocates and detractors can be compared with Nietzsche's oft-cited but misconstrued comment about Mendelssohn in the eighth section of <i>Beyond Good and Evil</i> (1886). With characteristic irony, Nietzsche mirrored dialectically why Mendelssohn "was so quickly forgotten," as well as why Mendelssohn's fate was undeserved. Nietzsche, himself an accomplished musical amateur, in his anti-Wagnerian phase recognized the dimensions of Mendelssohn's unique greatness within musical romanticism overlooked by most of Nietzsche's contemporaries. For Nietzsche, the lightness, elegance, and purity of Mendelssohn's music made him the beautiful "interlude" (<i>Zwischenfalt</i>) in German music—better than Weber, early Wagner, Marschner, and others—which was why his music was so quickly honored and then so rapidly abandoned. In the same section, Nietzsche took care to link—in a positive sense—Mendelssohn with Beethoven, whom he declared had been a "passing occurrence" (<i>Zwischen-Begebniss</i>) in music history. <p> Most of Mendelssohn's music, unlike that of his contemporaries (Schumann or Chopin), still fails to elicit loyalty from critics and listeners. Philip Radcliffe and Eric Werner published Mendelssohn biographies in 1954 and 1963 respectively. Although these books were overt attempts to make a new case for the composer, both writers were shockingly brutal in their criticism of much of the composer's music. They echoed the commonplace charge of sentimentality, superficiality, excessive regularity, weakness of invention, and sheer thinness. Their criticisms were applied even to such works as <i>St. Paul</i>, the D-minor Piano Concerto, and the <i>Lobgesang</i> Symphony-cantata {<i>Hymn of Praise</i>). <p> It is as if the aesthetic of Wagnerian criticism, shorn of its evident political and racist content, still reigns. There is perhaps no composer in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries whose premortem reputation and popularity have undergone such difficulty in being restored postmortem. A locus classicus of this overhang of Wagnerian and post-Wagnerian musical expectations—without a crude political agenda—are Ludwig Wittgenstein's comments on Mendelssohn. Wittgenstein's musical tastes, despite their somewhat rigid conservative antimodernisms, reflected a fine and discriminating training not untypical of the Viennese fin de siècle. In notes written during the 1930s, Wittgenstein remarked that for him Mendelssohn did "half rigorously" what Brahms did completely. Mendelssohn, just a "reproductive" artist, lacked the ability to write a "courageous melody." He produced no music "that is hard to understand." Mendelssohn was "like a man who is only jolly when the people he is with are jolly anyway, or like one who is only good when he is surrounded by good men; he does not have the integrity of a tree which stands firmly in its place whatever may be going on around it." Wittgenstein concluded this observation with the confession "I too am like that and am attracted to being so." <p> Perhaps Wittgenstein (ironically, like Mendelssohn, the scion of a prominent, highly educated and wealthy family of Jewish origin) was right. If so, then an analogy between the two only heightens our need to locate Mendelssohn's greatness, as we already have that of Wittgenstein. Is the capacity to connect with one's proximate public necessarily a sign of superficiality? Perhaps the failures Wittgenstein attributed to Mendelssohn and himself are residues of Wagnerian notions, internalized by Wittgenstein and still broadly accepted as normative sixty years later. <p> The distinction between the individual with a fixed inner integrity (a rooted tree) and one who meets the expectations of those around him reflects the claim that in order to be great the artist is obliged to stand firmly and bravely apart from his audience somehow. Discordance between one's work and one's audience, a degree of difficulty in understanding on the part of the audience, and the derivation of inspiration from some original, individualistic source overtly out of step with the world in which one lives become, in this view, hallmarks of the creative genius. <p> These prejudices are in large measure the work of Wagner's self-image as expressed in his writings, particularly about himself, the public, and the significance of Beethoven in music history. That these Wagnerian views were in part hypocritical and dishonestly self-serving did not prevent their having an enormous influence on Wittgenstein's generation. The failure to grasp integrity, courage, and originality in Mendelssohn—in meanings understood perhaps in different terms from those shared by Wagner and even Brahms (who admired Mendelssohn greatly)—still represents the essence of the current obstacle to a broader and more admiring Mendelssohn reception. <p> Indeed, as the standard critique of Mendelssohn—echoed by Richard Hauser in his 1980 effort to show how, in <i>Die erste Walpurgisnacht</i>, Mendelssohn fell short of Goethe's text—makes plain, an overlay of musical and political interpretations that have developed since 1850, and still have not been understood adequately, must be taken apart." This process should begin with another look at the Wagnerian critique. An analysis of the relationship of Mendelssohn's musical intentions to his Jewish identity and his social and economic position can generate new insights. Subsequent generations may have been so put off by the Biedermeier and (later) Victorian attributes of the many Mendelssohn enthusiasts that they were unable to penetrate to the power of the music. By reconstructing Mendelssohn's aesthetic, ethical, and musical ambitions—the cultural project centered on music that Mendelssohn assumed for himself—a fresh vantage point from which to hear and evaluate Mendelssohn's music may be created. The hypothesis of this essay, therefore, is that, freed of the quite arbitrary aesthetic and implicidy ideological (in the political sense) assumptions that have been applied to Mendelssohn's music since the middle of the nineteenth century, the audience at the end of our century might be able to recognize once again the invention, depth, significance, and emotional power of practically all of Mendelssohn's music. <p> <p> The Wagnerian Critique <p> Richard Wagner's intense lifelong preoccupation with Felix Mendelssohn was more than the result of principled aesthetic misgivings on the part of a younger man. In her diaries, Cosima Wagner documented her husband's nearly obsessive engagement with Mendelssohn. Until the last year of his life, Wagner regularly returned to playing Mendelssohn's works on the piano to his entourage only to demonstrate their "poverty of invention" or their "Semitic excitability." Wagner repeatedly referred to <i>A Midsummer Night's Dream</i>, severely criticizing it. At the same time he remarked on the flawed but gifted painterly dimensions of some of Mendelssohn's overtures. In 1879 Wagner woke up and recounted a dream about Mendelssohn, whom "he addressed in the second person singular." As the dream progressed he found himself unable to guide a pontoon across a body of water. Cosima wrote, "no one could tell him how, and R. turned to General Moltke with a military salute; but he was a total simpleton and R. said to himself, 'What false ideas people have of him!'" A cursory analysis of this dream (much less a more ambitious psychoanalytic speculation) reveals the main themes of Wagner's obsession. Mendelssohn was the authority and the overt object of envy, with whom intimacy was sought. Help with a dangerous task (i.e., composing), however, was not forthcoming. In the dream, Wagner unmasks both his own fear of failure and his wish to reveal the fraud and illegitimacy of the reputation for excellence associated with the authority figure, who shifts from the Jew Mendelssohn to the quintessential German military hero, Moltke. Wagner's dreamwork mirrored Wagner's characteristic amalgam of musical and nationalist ambitions. As late as 1855, eight years after Mendelssohn's death, Wagner proudly described himself in a letter to Otto Wesendonck as having achieved the status of becoming Mendelssohn's "rival." <p> Wagner's struggle at self-definition always possessed a link to the figure of Mendelssohn. In Wagner's first significant foray into polemics, his 1834 article "German Opera," he crudely tried to describe a new German national agenda for musical and dramatic art. Foreign influence needed to be fought. In writing this essay—as Glasenapp, his "official" biographer, noted—Wagner had already identified the enemy, the "other," as Felix Mendelssohn. From the start of his career, Wagner's conception of the new aesthetic agenda was measured, often artificially, against the example of Mendelssohn.' <p> Leipzig, Wagner's birthplace, which remained relatively resistant to his early attempts at recognition, was Mendelssohn's adopted home, the place where Mendelssohn created a conservatory, led the <i>Gewandhaus</i> concerts, and dominated much of the city's cultural life. In creating the narrative of his life, Wagner accused Mendelssohn alternately of slighting him and of being envious. Wagner recognized that Mendelssohn had been the most powerful man in German musical life. Wagner, one of the few who truly grasped the scale of Mendelssohn's ambitions, sought consciously to outdo Mendelssohn. <p> The family histories of the two men could not have been more different. Wagner lost his father early in life. Wagner's life and work reflected an ambivalent engagement with intimacy and family. In contrast, Mendelssohn was intensely close to his family, particularly to his father and his sister Fanny. Family framed his artistic and moral existence. If Wagner had little instinct for privacy and the intimate, Mendelssohn possessed it in excess. After marrying Cecile Jeanrenaud, his personal habits (externally at least) approached nearly the Biedermeier ideal: love of wife and children and a growing penchant for the pleasures of domesticity. As an adult, Mendelssohn sought to replicate the attachment to home life and the familial intimacy with which he had grown up. As many contemporary observers noted, both he in Leipzig and his father in Berlin achieved in their respective generations an enviable and widely admired model of domestic tranquility, graciousness, and bliss. Although Wagner appeared externally to be the more complex personality, when compared to Mendelssohn, whose headaches, odd sleep patterns, and mood swings suggest a far more opaque psyche than is usually accounted for by biographers, Wagner may turn out to have been the more easily understood figure. <p> Mendelssohn, as all scholars have noted, was wealthy and well educated, privileged since childhood by money and all the access money could purchase. The residue of distinction accorded the Mendelssohn name since the time of his grandfather (enhanced in part by his aunt Dorothea Schlegel) combined with the family wealth to permit Felix to study with Zelter and Heyse and to enjoy direct contact with Schleiermacher, who attended the first performance of Mendelssohn's opera <i>Die Hochzeit des Camacho</i>, and Goethe. The letters of Mendelssohn are filled with hints of the ease and the conveniences of life and travel afforded by wealth and close contact with banking families and houses all around Europe. The circumstances of Mendelssohn's youth stood in sharp contrast to the childhood experiences of all his professional musical contemporaries. It was a source of resentment and jealousy not only for detractors but also for Schumann, who counted himself among Mendelssohn's greatest admirers. <p> The musical careers of Wagner and Mendelssohn presented an even more striking study in contrasts. Mendelssohn, as Wagner knew, had been second only to Mozart in terms of his childhood success as player and composer. Wagner possessed no comparable early signs of talent, as either a performer or a composer. He lacked the depth of Mendelssohn's early musical and general education. Wagner succeeded in spinning these contrasts into a coherent social and political theory of culture and history that would explain his own difficulty in achieving recognition early in life and at the same time could undermine Mendelssohn's reputation. <p> <i>(Continues...)</i> <p> <!-- copyright notice --> <br></pre> <blockquote><hr noshade size='1'><font size='-2'> Excerpted from <b>MENDELSSOHN AND HIS WORLD</b> Copyright © 1991 by Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.<br>Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.