Music Media Review

R. Larry Todd, Felix Mendelssohn: A Life in Music: Oxford University Press, 682p. $45.00 (ISBN 0-19-511043-9)

August 25, 2004 - Cary, NC:

The importance of the definitive biography cannot be overstated. Not only does it cross all the Ts and dot all the I s about the subject's life, putting him or her in the right place at the right time with the right people, but it also provides for the mutual illumination of the subject and the period of history in which he or she lived. In the best such works the entire complex of biography, social matrix and history of ideas can come alive. On the down side, the definitive biography is often written for an audience of scholars rather than for the general reading public and the excruciating details are liable to put non-scholars to sleep. This weakness - if it can be called that - shows up especially when the subject of the biography is not a particularly colorful or interesting personality.

Except for a few masterworks, Mendelssohn's music never achieved the popularity in the late twentieth century that it did in his own time, especially in his native Germany and in England. The central mission Duke University's R. Larry Todd's Mendelssohn is to clarify the importance of Felix Mendelssohn as perhaps the most important European composer in the period after Beethoven.

The biography follows the composer virtually day by day through his entire life, permitting the musicologist to glimpse the experiences and personal and musical interactions that shaped his creative life. Likewise, scholars interested in both the greater and lesser musical and cultural figures of the period can go to this book to pinpoint information about their relationships with one of the dominant musical figures of his time. Mendelssohn's perspective on Liszt, Wagner, Paganini and Schumann flesh out our understanding of these major icons of the period.

During his lifetime, Mendelssohn was as renowned as a performer, conductor and musicologist as he was a composer. His revival of the music of Johann Sebastian Bach and the groundbreaking performance of the St. Matthew Passion is, of course, well known. Without the championing of Mendelssohn, the major works of Franz Schubert might never have come to light. But in his capacity as music director of the Gewandhaus Orchestra in Leipzig and of the Musikakademie in Berlin he was also influential in shaping the art of conducting and concert programming in Germany in the mid-nineteenth century - and, by extension the twentieth century's canon of masterworks.

One feature of Todd's biography is to provide a biographical context for virtually every composition the composer ever wrote - including a slew of unfinished sketches and abandoned efforts. Living as we do in a post-Mendelssohnian time, many of these works, among them the most important during the composer's lifetime, are unfamiliar: for example, the oratorio Paulus , which was immensely popular in its time until superseded by Elijah , is now rarely performed. Todd also includes thumbnail analyses of many of these works, and more extensive discussions of the more important compositions, such as the "Scottish" Symphony (No. 3). For music lovers interested in the nineteenth century in general and Mendelssohn's music in particular, the discussions of the now forgotten pieces can lead to hours of musical discovery. A feature of many these mini-analyses, however, is a concentration on passages that reveal the influences of other composers. For the earlier years of Mendelssohn's career, if we are to rely on Todd, the composer's creativity was often - although with such blazing exceptions as the Overture to A Midsummer Night's Dream and the Octet - hobbled by his tendency to imitation, either consciously or unconsciously.

Todd also offers discussions of Fanny Mendelssohn's music, revealing the musical relationships between the music of the two siblings - including one incident in which Felix pawns off one of his sister's compositions as his own. His insights into Fanny's personality and the nature of her creativity illuminates much about the place of women in nineteenth century Europe, as does the contrast between Fanny and Felix's docile and unmusical wife Cécile.

Unfortunately, the Mendelssohn who emerges from Todd's pages can prove quite tiresome for the general reader, no matter how knowledgeable about music. It's not really Todd's fault. Felix Mendelssohn was a pampered child prodigy whose family raised him to believe that the world revolved around him and every note he played or composed. While extremely affable both as a child and an adult, Felix was simply not very interesting as a person.

Like the Mozarts, the family of Abraham and Lea Mendelssohn Bartholdy included two prodigies. But Abraham, son of the great Jewish scholar Moses Mendelssohn, was a wealthy Berlin banker with enormous intellectual and cultural pretensions and certainly under no circumstances willing to haul his children all over Europe like trained seals. While the parents were proud and encouraging towards both children, it was Felix who received the best musical tutelage that money could buy. Fanny too received a decent musical education, but it was abundantly clear in the Mendelssohn household that her considerable talents as both a pianist and a composer were to be reserved for the entertainment of family and friends only. When, after her marriage, she expressed to Felix a desire to have her own works published, he blew her off, telling her that it was not appropriate for her to publish since [of course] there would not be a steady stream of compositions flowing from her pen. It's at times like this that Felix is revealed not only as uninteresting as a personality but also priggish and downright objectionable.

An important theme running through Todd's biography is Mendelssohn's Jewish heritage, the assimilationist culture of many of Germany's well-to-do Jews in the early nineteenth century, and the anti-Semitism that dogged them no matter how assiduously they attempted to shed their religion by heartfelt conversion (To this day, we doggedly call him by the surname of his Jewish ancestors, rather than by Bartholdy, the surname his father adopted upon conversion.) Mendelssohn's settings of innumerable organ fugues and chorales, Psalms and other religious texts probably had its origin in the need to convince the world of the sincerity of his Protestantism. Todd also possets his attraction to the psalms as a latent yearning for his ancestral heritage. There is, however, little discussion of Felix's unfortunate involvement in the politics of the art scene, an area for which he was singularly ill-trained and ill-suited.

Todd's conclusion of his massive biography with the composer's death and burial results in the work's single major lacuna: the absence of a summarizing chapter covering such questions as the composer's influence on his contemporaries; his waning influence during the remainder of the century; as well as his falling out of favor in the 20th, a time when only a dozen or so works from his vast opus were ever heard by the general public.