Skip to Main Content
Have library access? Log in through your library
A Portrait of Mendelssohn

A Portrait of Mendelssohn

Clive Brown
Copyright Date: 2003
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 586
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    A Portrait of Mendelssohn
    Book Description:

    Since his death in 1847, Felix Mendelssohn's music and personality have been both admired and denigrated to extraordinary degrees. In this valuable book Clive Brown weaves together a rich array of documents-letters, diaries, memoirs, reviews, news reports, and more-to present a balanced and fascinating picture of the composer and his work. Rejecting the received view of Mendelssohn as a facile, lightweight musician, Brown demonstrates that he was in fact an innovative and highly cerebral composer who exerted a powerful influence on musical thought into the twentieth century.Brown discusses Mendelssohn's family background and education; the role of religion and race in his life and reputation; his experiences as practical musician (pianist, organist, string player, conductor) and as teacher and composer; the critical reception of his works; and the vicissitudes of his posthumous reputation. The book also includes a range of hitherto unpublished sketches made by Mendelssohn. The result is an unprecedented portrayal of the man and his achievements as viewed through his own words and those of his contempories.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-12786-7
    Subjects: Music

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-x)
  3. Preface
    (pp. xi-xiii)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xiv-xiv)
  5. A Checklist of Mendelssohn’s Life and Principal Works
    (pp. xv-xxiii)
  6. Biographical Notes
    (pp. xxiv-xxxiv)
  7. ONE The Man
    (pp. 1-34)

    In the opinion of most of Mendelssohn’s contemporaries, none of his portraits succeeded in conveying the mercurial qualities that so frequently made his features fascinating and arresting. The impression he made on observers was strongly conditioned by his relationship to the observer and by his state of mind. One of his closest English musical friends, William Sterndale Bennett, recalled “that Mendelssohn’s personal appearance was often insignificant, not such as would attract passers-by in the street—but that, at other times, he had the appearance of anangel.”¹ Subjective reactions could range from Thackeray’s reported comment, “His face is the most...

  8. TWO Multiplicity of Talent
    (pp. 35-54)

    Nineteenth-century composers were much more likely than their eighteenth-century predecessors to engage actively in wider artistic and intellectual pursuits. Spohr showed talent for painting, Weber, Schumann, Berlioz and Wagner for literature, Brahms became involved in editing older music. In addition, these and other contemporary composers saw themselves, and were seen, as the intellectual equals of the scholars and thinkers of the day. Even among his most cultured colleagues, however, Mendelssohn stood out for the range, depth and quality of his talents. This resulted partly from his exceptionally rigorous and comprehensive education, which was strengthened by the stimulating cultural milieu in...

  9. Illustrations
    (pp. None)
  10. THREE Family Background, Childhood and Education
    (pp. 55-80)

    Mendelssohn’s genetic inheritance and the circumstantial factors that moulded and developed his character, outlook and abilities were, by any measure, extraordinary. His name, later to be the subject of one of his few differences of opinion with his father, emphasized the association with his grandfather, Moses Mendelssohn, the celebrated Enlightenment philosopher and powerful reforming influence on Judaism in Germany.¹ But his maternal inheritance, too, was exceptional. His mother’s grandfather, Daniel Itzig, had been one of the richest men in Prussia and as financier of Friedrich II’s wars had been granted privileges, unique for Jews in Prussia before the enactment of...

  11. FOUR Religion and Race
    (pp. 81-112)

    There can be no doubt that Mendelssohn’s Jewish background, like his sincere, if undemonstrative, Christian faith, was a significant factor in his upbringing, his outlook, his social relationships, his relationships with contemporary musicians, and the critical reception of his music in Germany. It is also impossible to understand Mendelssohn’s own moral and religious views except in the context of his family’s experience. Conversion to Christianity, which Heine acerbically called “the ticket of admission into European culture,” may have ostensibly put the Mendelssohns on the same footing as their fellows, yet their racial origins continued to set them apart from those...

  12. FIVE Professional Career
    (pp. 113-198)

    The family’s financial circumstances would have made it feasible for Mendelssohn, like Meyerbeer, to have concentrated on composition without unduly concerning himself with pecuniary considerations. It had always been Abraham Mendelssohn’s firm intention, however, that if his son were to devote his life to music he should not do so from a position of complete financial independence but should have proper professional appointments, thus putting his gifts at the service of society. Felix Mendelssohn undoubtedly shared his father’s belief that his talents and material advantages laid him under an obligation towards his fellows, which he should not shirk for the...

  13. SIX The Practical Musician
    (pp. 199-258)

    When Wagner, in conversation, referred to Mendelssohn as the “greatest specifically musical genius that appeared in the world since Mozart”¹ and remarked to Cosima, “Such an enormous talent as Mendelssohn’s is frightening, it has no place in the development of our music,”² he was merely giving voice to a feeling, almost of awe, that appears to have affected virtually all musicians who came into direct contact with Mendelssohn. Whatever view might be taken of the significance of Mendelssohn’s compositions, his extraordinary abilities as an executant musician invariably made an indelible impression on those who had the opportunity to witness them...

  14. SEVEN The Teacher
    (pp. 259-308)

    Mendelssohn, if not quite a reluctant teacher, was certainly not an enthusiastic one. As with so much else in his life, he saw teaching as a task that, although not really congenial, he felt himself duty bound to undertake, for the sake of his art. Nevertheless, there is every indication that he was successful in stimulating and guiding the composition and performance studies of talented musicians, always encouraging them to strive for self-development, and that he derived satisfaction from their progress. It may be taken for granted that, whatever misgivings he may have entertained about his aptitude as a teacher,...

  15. Illustrations
    (pp. None)
  16. EIGHT The Composer
    (pp. 309-322)

    Unlike his younger contemporary Wagner, Mendelssohn showed little interest in speculating about the nature and purpose of music. In his view musicians would be better writing and playing music than talking about it. His letters to family and intimate friends, however, and the comments of his contemporaries provide many indications of his aesthetic attitudes and convictions. He was motivated by what Schumann characterized as “ambition in the noblest sense,”¹ and his guiding principle was a determination always to achieve the finest of which he was capable. Thus he was unwilling to release for wider circulation anything that did not meet...

  17. NINE Critical Reception
    (pp. 323-424)

    Between 1818 and 1823 the LeipzigAllgemeine musikalische Zeitung,at that time the most widely circulated and in-fluential music journal in Germany, contained several brief references to Mendelssohn’s public appearances as a performer.¹ Its first mention of any of his compositions occurred in connection with Carl Möser’s concert on 26 April 1823: “A symphony² by the gifted young Mendelssohn Bartholdy deserves notice; its rich invention, unity of design, and attentive study of effect promises much for his future works.”³ Reviews of his early publications in theBerliner allgemeine musikalische Zeitung(founded in 1824) were scarcely enthusiastic, however, despite the personal...

  18. TEN Posthumous Reputation
    (pp. 425-500)

    Mendelssohn’s death inevitably called forth many obituaries, and although these were to a large extent seen as occasions for honouring his memory, rather than for sophisticated critiques on the value of his legacy, they provide useful insights into his status around the time of his death. Among German obituaries, that by Gustav Kuöhne, editor of the Leipzig journalEuropa, stands out as particularly perceptive. It is dated the day after Mendelssohn’s death and reflects the opinion of someone who, though not a member of his intimate circle, had observed his career in Leipzig at first hand. This obituary also has...

  19. Notes
    (pp. 501-532)
  20. Bibliography
    (pp. 533-540)
  21. Index
    (pp. 541-551)