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What was eating Wagner?

How Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy's early death left "underdog" Richard Wagner to wreak a bitter revenge. By Martin Geck

As unlikely as it may sound, compared with Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy, whose 200th birthday is being celebrated this year on February 3rd, Richard Wagner regarded himself as the underdog. This might help explain why, after Mendelssohn's early death in 1847, he wreaked bitter revenge, lashing out furiously at the little Jewish prince whenever he could.

"Little Jewish prince": in Wagner's case this should be taken literally – just compare their boyhood careers. Wagner's childhood, according to his autobiography, was anything but boring. But the many "theatrical" stimuli, be they from the side of the stepfather or his older siblings, included moments of make-up and glitter alongside more serious ones. One of Wagner's earliest memories is of "appearing as an angel in tableau vivant in a knitted costume with wings on my back in a difficult, studied, gracious pose." And in the same context, it says in "Mein Leben", "While I tried to imitate a production of "Der Freischutz" with my peers and zealously applied myself to making costumes and masks with grotesque painting, the more delicate costumes of my sisters that I frequently watched my family absorbed in making, stimulated my imagination most subtly; and mere contact with these objects sufficed to elicit severe palpitations, even fear in me."

The young Wagner certainly had a keen interest in Sophocles, Shakespeare and modern history, but he was not a particularly good pupil. In the autobiographical sketch that he embarked on in 1835 in the "Red Pocketbook", he had the following to say about the years 1828 to 1831: "Neglect school. - Summer 1829 alone in Leipzig. Drop everything, make music without supervision. Compulsory school attendance. - Become slovenly. - Leave the Nikolai School. - Retreat into myself. - Thomas School. - University. Slovenly. - Play Faro. Dreadful slovenly time throughout the summer." Wagner eventually left the academy with the notation "Studiosus Musicae" – a second-rate academic qualification.

At this point in time, he had had few regulated composition lessons, although autodidactically he had composed – among other things the missing "Political" overture - which refers to the July revolution of 1830 in Paris, as well as songs based on excerpts from Goethe's "Faust". He also finished a painstaking rendition of Beethoven's Ninth for the piano, but found no one to publish it. He must have been particularly stung by this because he had an almost mystical view of himself as Beethoven's successor – naturally, of course, without such "presumptuous" ideas being shared by the world around him.

The opposite could be said of Mendelssohn. He wanted for nothing in his well-to-do parental home – not least the strict working discipline to which he was subjected at an early age. His childhood friend Eduard Devrient remembers: "Less pleasant work had to be done at Rebecca's children's table in his mother's room. When he was allowed a break from work for supper he would come and eat it in the front room with me, but if he chatted longer than it took to finish eating, his mother would send him scurrying off into the back room again with the casual remark: "Felix, are you doing nothing?"

Before long he was assigned a private tutor, one of whom, Johan Gustav Droysen, went on to become an eminent historian, and the other, Wilhelm Ludwig Heyse, later the father of a literary Nobel Prize laureate (the German poet Paul Heyse). Instead of his matriculation, one of the papers Mendelssohn submitted was the translation of a comedy by Terence, "The girl from Andros". It was immediately published and sent post-haste to Goethe who, just a few years beforehand, had said of the child prodigy Felix: "You are my David, and if I am ever ill and forlorn, you must banish my bad dreams with your playing, and I shall never hurl a spear at you as Saul did."

After his first visit to the poet prince of Weimar, the twelve-year old Mendelssohn reported back to his family: "Every morning the author of Faust and Werther gave me a kiss, and every afternoon my father and friend Goethe gave me two kisses. Imagine that!! In the afternoon I would play for Goethe for over two hours, partly Bach's fugues and partly my own improvisations. (...) When I was finished I would ask him for a kiss, or steal one myself. You cannot imagine his goodness or friendliness, or the wealth that this polar star of poets has in minerals, busts, etchings, statuettes, large drawings etc. etc. "

By this time, thanks to his composition lessons with Carl Friedrich Zelter, Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy had already written a complete Singspiel, "Die Soldatenliebschaft", and on his twelfth birthday his parents had it performed for him by a full orchestra. Members of the Royal Chapel would also visit the house and pull strings to facilitate private premieres for the young genius. The boy never had to worry his little head about publishing his juvenilia: Publishers were queuing up to get their hands on his brilliant overture based on Shakespeare's "Midsummer Night's Dream", which was the talk of the town after its 1826 premiere. Three years later, all the right people were talking about Mendelssohn's "rediscovery" of the "Matthäus Passion": At an epochal premiere in Berlin's Singakademie, Berlin's intelligentsia appeared almost in its entirety. Seated in the audience were the philosopher Hegel, with whom Mendelssohn would diligently attend a number of lecture courses, the theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher, the historians Droysen, von Raumer and Loebell, Heinrich Heine and his correspondent Rahel Varnhagen von Ense.

But the twenty-year old did not feel obliged to tackle only Bach's legacy; he was hot on the heels - naturally with the utmost respect - of the recently deceased Beethoven: Mendelssohn's String Quartet Opus 13 continues with disconcertingly authenticity, where Beethoven's late Quartet Opus 132 left off. Wagner at the same age was rather awkwardly copying Beethoven's heroic style. Was some latent envy towards the polished gemstone already smouldering away in the rough diamond? At any rate, there can be no ignoring a game that began in 1829, which in Wagner's subjective vision must have had echoes in the Brothers Grimm story of the hare and hedgehog – with Mendelssohn as the hedgehog constantly calling out "I'm here already!"

In 1829, after a number of university semesters, Mendelssohn had the fortune to be able to set off on a three-year Cavalier's Tour, a moneyed middle-class version of the Grand Tour, which in earlier days had been the preserve of young aristocratic males. Along the way, the journey took him to England, Italy and France and at every port of call the young artist was able to further his education and meet the rich and famous. One of the last stops was Paris, where he sojourned shortly before the popular uprising in June 1832. He was bored by parliamentary debate and wanted nothing to do with politics. He also felt alien to his intellectual, pompous compatriots who had made Paris their home. And the moderate Ludwig Börne, "with his laboured notions, his fury about Germany and his French freedom phrases [was] as repugnant to [him] as Dr. (Heinrich) Heine and his kind".

Forces of the Weltgeist

Richard Wagner, meanwhile, could ill afford a Cavalier Tour. He started earning money at the age of twenty, and had a comparatively hard time boxing his way through life as a choir director in Würzbug, a conductor for the Bethmann Theatre Group, music director at the Königsberg Theatre and an opera conductor in Riga. But most of the money came from his wife, Minna, a popular actress who had no trouble finding work. The term Grand Tour might be used ironically to describe Wagner's flight from his creditors, which took him from Riga to London and on to Paris. In these two European music capitals where Mendelssohn had made his mark as a composer and virtuoso, seven years later Wagner had to eke out an unheeded existence, even going hungry at times.

As far as Paris was concerned, there were a number of fundamental similarities between Mendelssohn and Wagner: Both were disgusted by the superficiality of the music and opera business there. Mendelssohn considered Giacomo Meyerbeer's "Robert le Diable" to be a piece of pure effect, "cold and heartless"; and the music in particular lacked "warmth and truth". As far as vaudeville and theatre were concerned, he believed that "politics and lewdness were the two key concerns around which everything else revolved".

Wagner was no less harsh in his criticism; he might have showed an initial curiosity in the various strands of Parisian musical theatre, but the longer he longer he stayed, the more his contempt for French and Italian opera deepened. He regarded the former as a "lusty harlot", the latter as a "coquette" which thrives on a "thieving egotism" that draws its "lifeblood" from "frosty coldness". In such a climate he yearned for German earnestness and truthfulness, composed an overture with the revealing title of "The Lonely Faust" and wrote a melodramatic novella called "An End in Paris", in which a German musician suffering from consumption departs prematurely from a life wasted on a thankless music business with the words "I believe in God, Mozart and Beethoven".

This is how Wagner settled his score with a city which he wished could be mucked out like the Augean stables. In the context of the hotly awaited revolution of 1846/49, he wanted to see Paris reduced "to rubble". Of course he could scarcely allow himself such strong words during his first stay in Paris in the years 1839 to 1842: Then he had to fawn over Meyerbeer as the overlord of the Grand Opera. When his compatriot was generous enough to get him a seat at a rehearsal of the "Faust Overture" performed by the orchestra of the Parisian Conservatoire, his gratitude knew no bounds: "I know already that I shall be following you from eon to eon to stammer out my gratitude. Rest assured that I will still be stammering out my thanks from Hell. Yours, with a heart and blood that are forever in your debt, Richard Wagner."

Of course this was meant to sound ironic, but it is the bitter irony of the subordinate, from a man who, in 1843, was finally able to rise to the position of musical director in Dresden. But again Mendelssohn the hedgehog could call out "I'm here already!", because not only had he been the conductor of the Leipzig Gewandhaus, since June 1841 he had also been director of music at the court in Dresden, without regular duties. What would have happened if he had decided to accept a full post in Dresden at that time? Would there have been room at the Dresden court for Richard Wagner as well, who soon afterwards performed "Rienzi" and the "Flying Dutchman" there?

As head of concerts at the Gewandhaus, Mendelssohn had little to do with the opera and he was not getting very far with his own opera plans, but this only spurred him on to lofty heights in the area of instrumental music. Wagner, meanwhile, was keeping a beady eye on him from neighbouring Dresden; in "Mein Leben" he outlines the huge impact Mendelssohn was having on Leipzig's orchestra culture, with a mixture of respect and scepticism. "While I was launching my conducting career by blithely losing myself in Magdeburg's frivolous theatrical tastes, Mendelssohn-Bartholdy in the role of conductor of the Gewandhaus concerts was ushering in a new epoch for himself and musical taste of the city of Leipzig. The naivety of the Leipzig audience was truly a thing of the past."

The "naive" Leipzig audience had good memories of Wagner too, after the friendly applause it gave to his early Symphony in C Major in 1832. He also offered this work to Mendelssohn, shortly after he took on his post in Leipzig, with the polite phrasing: "I implore you to accept the enclosed symphony, which I composed at the age of 18, as a gift; I could not wish it a better fate." But it was never performed under Mendelssohn. Indeed Wagner had to wait until 1846 before Mendelssohn actually included one of his works – the "Tannhäuser Overture" – in his programme and even then it was a flop. This may have enforced Wagner's "dislike of anything that in in any way affects a classical fragrance."

But at least he was an observant witness to Mendelssohn's strategy of introducing so-called "historical concerts" to his subscription programme in order to consolidate audience tastes. These were mostly German 18th century classics. During the years 1845 to 1848 Wagner used Dresden's "Palm Sunday Concerts" to showcase not only Bach and Gluck, but to go as far back as Palestrina. And Mendelssohn and Wagner were at least agreed that they should regularly present audiences with Beethoven's symphonies as the essence of "German" music, and not shy away from the Ninth which was still considered extremely difficult at the time. They even shared a preference for faster tempos.

Both were in fundamental agreement regarding questions of music education. It wasn't just that Mendelssohn and Wagner shared the desire to propagate a "Classicism" dominated by German-Austrian composers as a foundation of the contemporary music business, in order to stop it from fixating on formalities and thereby sinking into arbitrariness. They were also pioneers in advocating serious concert programs in the sense of today's "symphony concerts"; they advocated intensive rehearsal periods and fought against the sloppy treatment of musical scores. And because, on top of this, there was a need for well-educated and decently paid musicians, Mendelssohn and Wagner both worked on behalf of professional reforms. The former founded the Leipzig Conservatory in 1843, considered by some to be the oldest music institute of its kind in Germany. The latter followed suit by suggesting a thorough reform of the royal orchestra to the king of Saxony, and by later convincing the Bavarian King Ludwig II to found a Royal School of Music.

Wagner and Mendelssohn were astonishingly similar in their rejection of opera as mere entertainment and in the reforms they advocated to counter the decay of contemporary music. And although Mendelssohn had an international flair without being a German nationalist in the political sense, he shared Wagner's conviction that German musical culture was something to cultivate and develop. Admittedly, their desire for standards and their advocacy of reform had varied and even contrary motives: Mendelssohn was driven by respect for established Classicism and a desire to preserve it; Wagner needed legitimation for the difference and innovation that he embodied. The musical forces of the Weltgeist, according to Wagner's understanding of Hegel, had marched from Bach to Beethoven and onwards, directly into his own camp.

The Ahasuerus principle

Until his early death in 1847, no one got in Mendelssohn's way. On the contrary, in 1843, despite his general condemnation of the genre of the oratorio as a mere "opera embryo", Wagner expressed his approval of the Dresden premiere of "Paulus"; and one year later, Mendelssohn voiced appreciation for the Berlin premiere of "Der fliegende Holländer". The story of the aftermath, however, is long, its consequences far-reaching, and it can be summed up simply: Wagner laid into a dead man. But it would be too simple just to focus on Wagner's poor character; we're dealing with a multilayered phenomenon here that goes beyond the personal.

In the final decade of his life, Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy was the most successful musician in all of Europe - regarded not only as a composer but also as a virtuoso, conductor, teacher, organiser and reformer. The operas of his colleague Meyerbeer may have drawn audiences just as large, but when speaking of "pure" art - however one wants to understand the term - Mendelssohn stood far above him. Three royal houses - the English, the Prussian, and the Saxon - fawned over him. The English audience, almost more than the German, lay at his feet. Cultural historian Wilhelm Heinrich Riehl summed it up a few years after Mendelssohn's death: "He was the first musician catering to 'fine society' - in the positive sense of the expression. He wasn't a cantankerous, self-isolating German townsman like Bach, but rather an eclectically educated, socially adroit, prosperous, well-mannered man". As such, he wrote "in the spirit of this educated society, which now harmoniously extended beyond all classes".

You don't pick a fight with someone like this if you can avoid it - but you can prepare for a reckoning after their death, and this is indeed what started to happen as early as 1848. Franz Brendel, who had already lamented the absence of any "descent into the depths of pain" in Mendelssohn's work, wrote in a critique of his "Elias" oratorio that the time of favouring Jewish material was over. And because this author and Wagner devotee was also the publisher of the respected magazine Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, he could also enable the publication of the infamous pamphlet, "On Jewishness in Music". Wagner published it in 1850 under the pseudonym K. Freigedank, and he made it almost impossible for the reader to encounter his discussion disinterestedly - but even gross polemics are entitled to a disinterested reading.

Jewish prayer music is denigrated as "gurgling, yodelling, and babbling that confuses meaning and spirit", even leaving traces in the opera of the time. Wagner's construction of music history is correspondingly aggressive: After the vigorous "life organism, as portrayed by music up until the times of Mozart and Beethoven," had died off, its "surface elements" were seized upon in order to "subvert" its power: "And then the flesh of this body decomposes in a teeming abundance of worms."

The treatise ends with the oft quoted appeal: "But consider that only one thing can redeem you from your oppressive curse - the salvation of Ahasuerus: Destruction." This sentence has often been misunderstood and - in light of the Holocaust - can still be misunderstood. But for the sake of honouring the truth: This isn't about the annihilation of the Jews but rather the liberation of all humanity from the Ahasuerus principle in the context of a "work of redemption", which is only possible through "self-destruction". Admittedly, Wagner thought that Jews had a particular need for this self-destruction, but he thought that even the Jews were capable of learning: "For the Jews to partake in a common humanity with us means nothing less than: Stop being a Jew. Börne accomplished this. But it is also Börne who teaches us that redemption cannot be achieved conveniently and in indifferently cool comfort; rather, it costs them - and us - sweat, hardship, fear, and an abundance of suffering and pain."

Insofar as Wagner cites man of letters Ludwig Börne, one of the trailblazers of literary criticism in Germany, as an example of a - so to speak - useful Jew, he indirectly makes it clear that, despite the extremely unpleasant passages in his essay, his anti-Semitism was not of the biological variety, as would later be the case with his admirer, Gobineau. Indeed, he distanced himself from Arthur de Gobineau's Aryan chauvinism. Moreover, he introduced his treatise with reasonable socio-historical lines of thought by explaining the "historic misery of the Jews" in the context of the "rapacious brutality of the Christo-Germanic rulers". This is not far from the line of thought developed by Karl Marx in his 1844 essay, "On the Jewish Question".

In any case, Wagner's anti-Semitism absolutely needs to be viewed in the context of the revolution of 1848-49, and I would hypothesise that he only became a confirmed anti-Semite as a result of it. Afterwards, he searched for the socioeconomic causes of the revolution's failure and came upon capitalism: The "good" powers of the people could not and cannot accomplish anything as long as Capital rules the day; in this sense, one can understand his aforementioned desire that Paris, as a centre of "music capitalism," should be razed to the ground." And yet this irrational formulation suggests that Wagner, while thoroughly representing Communist ideas in 1849-50 in works such as "Art and Revolution" and "Artwork of the Future," did not ground himself a la Marx in analysis and reflection but rather personalised matters from the outset: The real villains were the capitalist Jews. They were corroding society to such a degree that it could only perish and, in the state it was in, as far as Wagner was concerned, it deserved to perish.

Driven into exile after the failed 1849 uprising in Dresden, Wagner felt deeply humiliated and disillusioned. Where he had previously called for "Humanity's Struggle against Established Society" in the leftist radical newspapers of his friend August Röckel, celebrating "Revolution, the sublime goddess", henceforth he would abide the march of history in the superstructure. Not that he completely denied his anarchistic disposition: Up until the Bayreuth years, he remembered Bakunin, his friend from the days of the Dresden uprising, as a "wild and noble fellow". And when Cosima criticised contemporary Russian anarchism, he shot back in rage: "Legitimacy! Does the Tsar have legitimacy? This is about power, about justice as Jus, power as the Romans called it; on the part of the rulers, there is no power, on the part of these conspirators, there is."

But this was nostalgia speaking. Wagner's first campaign upon emigrating was against "Jewishness in Music", and it can be viewed primarily as spiteful rearguard action after losing a battle. After blowing off steam in writing, he continued the battle in the arts. There, he needn't have had any fear of traitors, as he depended entirely on himself and a handful of followers. The great project of "Der Ring des Nibelungen", which Wagner said would never have come about were it not for the revolutionary events of 1849, depicts this situation with an almost alarming exactitude: The world is lost and - apart from a few vague signs of hope - ordained to ruin. That is the message: Things were torn apart by greed for money and power.

Is the Jew the primary bearer of guilt in the Ring? Gustav Mahler viewed the anti-Semitic connotation in the figure of Mime as being self-evident and added that such a "satire" was "intended" by Wagner. Theodor W. Adorno later applied himself to the question at great length. In point of fact there can be no doubt that figures such as Mime and Alberich - staying with the Ring - were understood as Jewish characters no later than shortly after Wagner's death. Wagner himself refrained from taking a clear position on this question: On the one hand, he must have worried that a musical drama could lose its universality as a result of such innuendos; on the other hand, he probably had too much affection for his negative characters to have them be "taken over" by Jews.

But back to "Jewishness in Music": How does it treat his colleague Mendelssohn? "He has shown us," writes Wagner, "that a Jew may possess the greatest abundance of specific talents, the finest and most diverse education, the most elevated, delicately perceptive sense of honour - and yet in spite of all these advantages, never once be able to summon the profound rending of heart and soul that we expect from music." For Mendelssohn, he continues, it was never about the "what" but rather merely the "how" of music: "As a result of Mendelssohn's efforts at expressing an unclear, almost trivial content in as interesting and dazzling a manner as possible, the shapelessness and chaotic arbitrariness of our musical style has been, if not induced, then at least raised to the highest level."

Victim of the music business

At any rate, Wagner speaks with great respect of Mendelssohn's concert overtures as finely wrought genre pieces; he finds parts of the "Hebrides Overture" "formidable, beautiful, unearthly". And there is more than irony when, in 1871, while working on "a great aria for Hagen, but just for orchestra", he tells his wife Cosima, "What a bungler I am, no one can believe it, I can't compose at all. Mendelssohn would throw up his hands in horror if he saw me composing." So Mendelssohn's no charlatan like Meyerbeer, and for that reason he even deserves human sympathy, "even if the potency of this sympathy is mitigated by observing that tragedy adhered to Mendelssohn's situation to a greater degree than his suffering (and purifying) consciousness would admit".

In this instance, Mendelssohn appears as a victim - victim of a music business upon which Wagner had hung a label shortly beforehand (namely in his article "On Conducting"). In anticipation of the upcoming Beethoven year,Wagner complained about the kind of conductor who puts considerable effort into producing the most streamlined performances possible but, in so doing, takes insufficient account of what the composer - for example, Beethoven - wanted to say. In the midst of criticism and all kinds of excitations, there's a critical jab at "our contemporary music financiers, who either came out of Mendelssohn's school or who, as beneficiaries of its support, were recommended to the world".

These people would have ensured that the "brutishness and doltishness" of the previous generation of conductors would be gradually weeded out of the music business, but this would merely be substituting one evil for another. Because to end up with a lot of conductors with "possessing an elegant education of a kind hitherto unknown amongst musicians" - a la Mendelssohn - was anything but a guarantee of competent musical presentations.

With the neologism "music financier", Wagner was undoubtedly playing upon the financial career of Mendelssohn's father, but he was primarily aiming at something else, as Hans-Joachim Hinrichsen correctly pointed out in his book, "Musikbankier", from 2001. He was creating a metaphor for the artists corrupted by the capitalistic music business. Wagner was aiming at conductors who - to put it crassly - presented nothing more than the polished surface of music in their slick presentations, so that, in the end, they foregrounded themselves as interpretive artists. Such people had no interest in what music had to say beyond the arts of individual interpretation; rather, they boasted of what they themselves had to offer as conductors.

The market value of music was coupled to those conductors who tried to secure a monopoly position for themselves by virtue of the most brilliant productions possible. The music financiers produced no value for the "real" financiers; rather, they kept the music in circulation as a "commodity". In this way, it lost its use value and retained only its exchange value. If one blots out the anti-Semitic context, Wagner's critique of the conductor as music financier hits a sore spot for the concert business - not only in the nineteenth but perhaps even more so in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Adorno, not exactly a Wagner fan, saw things similarly, even if he emphasized different aspects in his argument.

From today's perspective, it's preferable not to judge individual instances or decide which star conductor engages the work more fully, which one less - especially because it leads to the next question, namely: Just what is the "work"? And, furthermore: Was, say, Furtwängler more passionately interested in the "work" than his younger colleague Karajan, whom he accused early on, in a polemical formulation, of approaching his career as if he were a company chairman?

Beyond these difficult questions, there has been an undeniable trend since the nineteenth century of de-emphasising the potential "message" of works in order to foreground the "event" aspect of a musical production. And one might ask if it promotes understanding when - for example - public discourse focuses on the differences between Furtwängler's and Karajan's versions of "Eroica" instead of discussing Beethoven's objectives. It's almost as if one were to discuss the actors who read for audio books more than the works of literature themselves.

We can't blame Wagner for perceiving this problem with particular acuity in his day because he had an especially difficult time on the music market: A "Ring des Nibelungen" was undoubtedly more difficult to market than a symphony by Mendelssohn or Brahms. What difficulties Wagner had to overcome before producing this Ring in Bayreuth - after 28 years of artistic and organisational work! Yes, in the end, there were patrons and benefactors; the undertaking was nevertheless wrested from the music business under unutterable hardships. And it was clear from the start that the Bayreuth production of the Ring in 1876 would never attain the perfection of, say, Brahms's Fourth performed by the Meiningen Court Orchestra. Hence, it was also clear that Wagner would invite his listeners to consider to an unusual extent the inner flow of the music in the context of the plot, rather than merely paying attention to the pretty sound.

And yet, even understanding all his difficulties, it is appalling to see how Wagner, as a matter of course, laid the blame for all his troubles with the music market not just on "the Jews" but, in particular, on Mendelssohn as the prototype of a music financier. In no small part, this was a matter of envying a colleague who had had a much easier time of things - notwithstanding the fact that he was no longer alive. Wagner ignored that this colleague, as director of the Gewandhaus concerts, by no means brought all the influence of his "elegant education" to bear for the sake of technically perfect but otherwise meaningless productions; rather, it was for Mendelssohn - no less than Wagner - very much about the substance of the music, even if he defined it differently because of his appreciation of purely instrumental works.

Furthermore, Mendelssohn became increasingly frustrated with his role as representative of classically polished, merely "pretty" music. For the acclaimed production of his "Elias" in 1847, the year he died, he spoke - in private - of the soprano with astonishingly critical words: "Everything about it was so sweet, so pleasant, so elegant, so impure, so soulless, even thoughtless, and the music found so ingratiating an expression - that even today, I could lose my mind just thinking about it."

But should we resent Wagner for finding little understanding for romantic Classicists or classical Romantics, and for only recognising Mendelssohn's concert overtures? At any rate, his sure gaze singled out precisely the genre in which the composer is truly unassailable. Besides, good "German" competitors don't get off any lighter: Hence, Schumann has admittedly pretty constructions but is nevertheless a "despicable dabbler"; in Brahms, Wagner perceives a "pernicious, servile influence upon the educated bourgeoisie." In general, whatever doesn't correspond to his concept of music drama as modern myth seems to sink into subjective worldweariness or formalistic sound combinations.

Incidentally, other composers aren't any friendlier to their contemporaries. For Anton Bruckner, who really posed no threat to him in Vienna, Brahms found the following memorable words: "Here, we're dealing not with compositions but rather with a swindle that in one, two, three years will be dead and forgotten." And more: "His piousness - that's none of my business. But this instability is disgusting, utterly repugnant. He has no idea about musical consistency, no idea about ordered musical composition."

Mendelssohn certainly had that. And when we tune into the musical aesthetic discourse from his viewpoint, we can thank God that there was not only Wagner, trampling everything in sight, but also Mendelssohn, who retained his "composure" right the way through to his late and sinister "String Quartet No. 6 in F-minor." Perhaps it was this trait in particular that Wagner found so intolerable - Wagner, the composer who wrote "Tristan und Isolde" in order to "run wild, musically," as he confided to Mathilde Wesendonck.

Anniversary celebration years for composers are welcomed as an opportunity to dispense with actual or alleged cliches: The "market" expects exactly that. Must we, in the "Mendelssohn Year 2009," have it pointed out to us that Mendelssohn's music had depth and that he himself had a capacity for suffering? Certainly, these characteristics belong in any nuanced portrait of Mendelssohn, and whoever knows only the overtures to "A Midsummer Night's Dream", the Italian Symphony, and the Violin Concerto should perhaps spend some time with the String Quartet No. 6 in F-minor.

But why not highlight the actual strengths of a composer! In Mendelssohn's case, they are not found where German profundity resides. Isn't it permissible for music to be serious and light? Friedrich Nietzsche was not far afield when he described Mendelssohn as "a beautiful interlude in German music" and a "halcyon master... who, because of his lighter, purer, more joyous soul was speedily honoured and just as speedily forgotten". ("Halcyon" for him means: "bestowing bliss"; and his general praise for the European Mendelssohn was coupled with the condemnation of Schumann's parochially German worldweariness.)

Instead of going to great lengths to drag a composer's unknown characteristics to light, perhaps it would be better for us to embrace the fabulous contrasts that music presents in its totality. Just because the Alps were once the sea, that doesn't mean we have to spend all our time looking for mussels in them, or, conversely, searching for mountains in the oceans.


The article originally appeared in Lettre International on 24.03.2009, 2009.

Martin Geck has been the head of the International Bach Symposium at the University of Dortmund since 1996. His book on Bach (Bach: Leben und Werk) won the Gleim Literature Prize in 2001.

Translation: lp and Daniel Mufson

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What, yet another neglected genius?

Tuesday 27 July, 2010

This year's theatre festival in Bregrenz hosted the world premiere of Mieczyslaw Weinberg's Auschwitz opera "The Passenger" from 1968. His biographer David Fanning introduces the life and music of this incredibly prolific composer, whose work somehow failed to emerge from the shadows of the Iron Curtain.
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Composed in delirious time

Tuesday 22 June, 2010

TeaserPicRobert Schumann was born 200 years ago on June 8. The conductor and composer Heinz Holliger, who has devoted his life to the study of Romantic master, talks to Claus Spahn about the his labyrinthine imagination, erudition and incredible modernity. He also dispels a string of clichees that have consigned so much of the Schumann's work to musical oblivion.
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The apathy and the ecstasy

Friday 22 January, 2010

Riding the retro wave, singers from across the spectrum of popular music have brought back falsetto with a vengeance. While this is mostly in homage to bygone styles and idols, it has also introduced new nuances of meaning. Ueli Bernays traces falsetto's high-pitched passage from expression to gimmick and back.
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Julia Fischer: Virtuosissima!!!

Thursday 10 January, 2008

At the New Year's concert in the Alte Oper in Frankfurt the audience's excitement was palpable. It was patently clear to all assembled that they were either about to witness the disgrace of one of the world's greatest living violinists, or the triumphant birth of a new piano virtuoso. By Arno Widmann
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Kylwyria - Kálvária

Wednesday 24 October, 2007

Ligeti the gesamtkunstwerk, Ligeti the Socrates-Ligeti, Ligeti the volcano. Hungarian composer György Kurtág spoke at a memorial session of the Order Pour le Mérite in Berlin about his lifelong friend, György Ligeti, who died on June 12, 2006.
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In the cradle of the Phaedra myth

Thursday 27 September, 2007

Hans Werner Henze's fourteenth opera "Phaedra" almost cost him his life. Now the premiere has taken place in Berlin. Volker Hagedorn visited the eighty-one-year-old composer at his home above the Tiber valley, where he has lived and worked since 1953.
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Nonchalance out of the depths

Wednesday 26 September, 2007

Benjamin Biolay is France's new Serge Gainsbourg. He is pioneer of the "Nouvelle Chanson," even if he rejects the term. And basically he sings about one thing: love, nothing but love. By Elke Buhr (Photo © Bruce Weber, courtesy Virgin Records France / EMI)
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Tradition, revolution and reaction in Bayreuth

Monday 30 July, 2007

Probably never before has there been so much hype around a premiere at the Bayreuth Festival. Because the director of this "Mastersingers of Nuremberg" is Katharina Wagner, great granddaughter of Richard Wagner, who could one day take over as festival director. By Marianne Zelger-Vogt (Image: Katharina Wagner. © Enrico Nawrath, courtesy Bayreuther Festspiele)
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Mann and his musical demons

Wednesday 18 July, 2007

Thomas Mann was enchanted by German classical music but was also wary of its seductive powers. In his novels, he anticipates its instrumentalisation by the Nazis, who used it as the gateway to bourgeois German hearts and minds. By Wolfgang Schneider
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La Scuola Napoletana sings again

Friday 25 May, 2007

Conductor Riccardo Muti describes rummaging through Naples' venerable music archive, where he discovered a number of slumbering opera manuscripts, among them Domenico Cimarosa's "Il ritorno di Don Calandrino," which opens the Salzburg Whitsun Festival tonight.
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Arnie of the ivories

Wednesday 2 May, 2007

After brilliant beginnings, bodybuilding pianist Tzimon Barto's career crashed as spectacularly as it started. Now the bizarre mixture of rancher, writer and keyboard collossus is back, with a fabulous new recording of Ravel. By Kai Luehrs-Kaiser
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