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Vol. LXIII, No. 9
Wednesday, March 4, 2009
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Record Review

Imagining Mendelssohn: A Bicentenary Odyssey

Stuart Mitchner

When Felix Mendelssohn died in 1847, he was mourned in Germany as a national hero. An elaborate statue of him was erected in Leipzig, where for more than a decade he’d conducted the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra. In 1936, visiting Leipzig on a tour with the London Philharmonic, Sir Thomas Beecham planned to pay homage to the composer by laying a wreath at the foot of the statue, unaware that the Nazi city government had deemed “the monument to a Jew” a symbol of “the damage” done to the “cultural heritage by Judaism.” When Beecham arrived with the wreath, there was no statue. It had been pulled down and hacked to pieces.

I discovered that story only after deciding to write a column on the occasion of the composer’s bicentenary. The more I hear of Mendelssohn’s music, the more I wonder why it took a 200th anniversary to open my ears. If you’d mentioned his name to me a week ago, my first thought after the “Wedding March” would have been the scene in James Joyce’s Ulysses where the Citizen Cyclops’s anti-semitic blustering provokes Leopold Bloom to cry, “Mendelssohn was a jew and Karl Marx and Mercadante and Spinoza.” Given the context and the speaker, I wonder why a writer as devoted as Joyce was to the finest nuances of language neglected to capitalize “Jew.” Put that seemingly insignificant slight next to the posthumous defamation suffered under the Third Reich by a creative genius Brahms called “the last of the great masters” and it suggests the presence of a subtle but deeply active strain of prejudice equal to a virus in the culture. That same bias has no doubt played a peripheral role in the degrading of the composer’s stature outlined in Alex Ross’s recent New Yorker piece (“The Youngest Master”), which suggests that Mendelssohn’s “upright,” “wellbred” gentility contributed to his demotion from “the ranks of the truly great.” That demotion may also explain why it’s taken me so long to discover this indispensable music.

Searching YouTube

For the past week I’ve been making up for lost time. Besides gorging on chamber music, symphonies, and choral works from the CD collection at the Princeton Public Library, I embarked on a YouTube odyssey that began with a clip submitted by a 43-year-old emergency room nurse who had set up a camcorder to film herself playing The Venetian Gondola Boat Song. After that I was audience to grade school piano trios in San Diego, high school string quartets in Beverly Hills, college string quartets in Chicago, a student ensemble in Tokyo, an octet in Sao Paulo with a second violinist who, from a distance, looked like Penelope Cruz. I found the variation in dress and manner and seating arrangement from group to group almost as interesting as the music; some were dressed to the nines, others in jeans and sweatshirts; some performed in practice rooms, others on a stage, and with the players’ attitudes ranging from studious to yearning to polished to theatrical, it began to seem that they were attempting a group seduction of the will o’ the wisp spirit of the composer. Listen to the music he composed for A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Fair Melusine and it’s obvious that Mendelssohn knew a thing or two about the motion of spirits.

Among the stand-outs, the Brentano Quartet performed with the wicked gusto of a chamber music version of the witches in Macbeth furiously stirring up an incendiary brew roughly located in the space between their weaving and thrusting forms — you half-expect the instruments to catch fire. They seemed determined to disprove the accepted wisdom that Mendelssohn could be faulted for never quite letting go, for being the “gentle genius” cited in the title of George F. Marek’s 1972 biography, for lacking, as the saying goes, the “fire in the belly” of Schubert or Berlioz or Beethoven.

If you imagine that musicians are in some sense striving to summon the approving presence of the composer’s spirit, it is possible at times to imagine an atmosphere called Mendelssohn coalescing in the space around the players, fading in and out, glowing faintly or vividly according to the dynamics of the performance. Take the YouTube appearance (no doubt engineered by parents or publicists) of a piano trio of Asian-American children, a girl of 12 at the keyboard, a girl of 10, her sister, on violin, and a boy of 13 on cello. It’s hard to imagine Mendelssohn being anything but charmed by the pianist’s way of flashing proud smiles and proprietary glances at her little sister. Regardless of the commercial back story, the beauty of the scene — the sisters at once natural, poised, and touchingly self-conscious in their pretty pink strapless gowns — not only complemented but enhanced the music.

Three Refugees

The best is yet to come, however. All it takes is a click of the mouse and you’re in a musician’s living room, the French doors open to a sunny Southern California afternoon — you can almost smell the garden and feel the drowsy, gentle ambience of the air. Three men are sitting in close proximity to one another, a cellist, a violinist, and a pianist. “D-minor trio of Mendelsson” says the cellist matter of factly before they begin to play. He has a Russian accent. He’s magnificent, a musical warrior in a dark suit with a white shirt open at the neck. This is Gregor Piatigorsky. The man playing the violin is Jascha Heifetz. The fellow whose hands are dancing across the keys of the piano is Arthur Rubinstein. The intimacy of the scene is immediate and compelling. The three seem to be warming themselves over the music as if it were a fire. Rubinstein’s hands are cantering and prancing as he rides off with the melody, giving the lie to that cliche of the cool, collected composer. Mendelssohn’s in the room, no doubt about it. He’s come down from his box seat in the beyond.

The long look Piatigorsky gives Rubinstein as the pianist begins playing the second movement is beyond affection or comradely respect. It’s eerie, mysterious, almost erotic. So is the music that follows. Halfway through you can see a figure standing in the garden looking in, listening, apparently entranced. At first I thought it might be an apparition, some angelic being. No such luck. It’s probably the Japanese gardener, but who cares? That figure listening beyond the French doors evokes a moment out of Proust, Marcel standing dazed on the path in Combray, transported by a snatch of music, Vinteuil’s “little phrase.” A moment later Rubinstein’s whole staff is peering in, the housekeeper, another gardener who looks Italian, a black caretaker, a sweaty, stocky handyman, all caught up in the spell. Such audiences trump the concert hall. And after playing the last note of the second movement, Rubinstein, with gentle, old-world delicacy, asks, “Would you like a drink?” Heifetz says no thanks. Piatigorsky says, “A little water, Arthur.”

The year is 1953. Two world wars are history and the Ukranian Piatigorsky; the Lithuanian Heifetz; the Pole Rubinstein are safe in sunny California, and I’m still thinking about what the Nazis did to the statue of Mendelssohn.

That precious YouTube interlude was submitted by someone called Johnny Angel. Both the Aubrey Beardsley caricature of Mendelssohn and the 1839 portrait by James Warren Chide are from Marek’s Gentle Genius: The Story of Felix Mendelssohn. The Princeton Library has a good assortment of the composer’s works on CD, including Murray Perahia’s outstanding performances of the piano music and Neville Marriner’s recording of A Midsummer Night’s Dream with the Philharmonica Orchestra.

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