Our book today is R. Larry Todd’s doorstop 2003 biography of legendary 19th century musical prodigy Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy, whose posthumous reputation has been a funhouse-mirror style enlargement of the conflicting extremes he experienced during his own life. On the one hand, critics have always accused him of a certain stylistic vapidity (“moonlight with sugar water,” as one of them put it), a formalistic love of tradition that could lead him to take the easy, safe, and sometimes derivative road in his musical choices. And on the other hand, his major works have always been popular, his concerts packed in audiences to the rafters, and he’s responsible for the single most-played and most-recognized piece of classical music ever written.
He was perhaps the most unfailingly friendly polarizing figure any discipline has sported this side of Einstein. Todd makes elaborate use of Mendelssohn’s letters (and those of his equally talented sister Fanny, who’s of course overshadowed by her brother … as was commented at the time, if she’d been born the only child of some poor farmer and displayed her same prodigious abilities on the piano, she’d have been the most famous performer in the world) and the accounts of his contemporaries, and the picture that emerges is of a genuinely likable and outgoing man, a workhorse performer who never lost his taste for work. Robert Schumann’s memory of meeting him for the first time may stand in for the great majority:
I told him I knew all of his compositions well; he responded with something quite modest. The first impression was that of an unforgettable man.
And the legendary musicologist Sir George Grove concluded his groundbreaking biographical essay on Mendelssohn with this quintessentially Victorian summation:
It is well in these agitated modern days to be able to point to one perfectly balanced nature, in whose life, whose letters, and whose music alike, all is at once manly and refined, clever and pure, brilliant and solid. For the enjoyment of such shining heights of goodness we may well forego for once the depths of misery and sorrow.
And what is perhaps most revealing, he enjoyed a close friendship with our old friend Hector Berlioz, who had fairly rigorous standards for friendship and often wasn’t himself all that easily liked. In 1831 circumstances threw them together in Rome and they spent a chunk of virtually every day with each other, exploring the city, seeing the sites, laughing and talking, and most of all using their extraordinary musical talents to ameliorate the sweltering heat. But even amidst such personal harmony, there was polarization, as Todd dutifully reports:
Personally Felix found Berlioz likable, a skilled conversationalist with stimulating ideas. The two shared an enthusiasm for Gluck, and they escaped the oppressive sirocco by reading arias from Iphigenie en Tauride, with Felix accompanying Berlioz’s singing. Felix played Beethoven sonatas and shared a recently completed, “fine-spun yet richly colored work,” the Hebrides Overture. But Felix could not abide the quirky, temperamental qualities of Berlioz’s musical style.
The feeling was mutual; Berlioz often complained about Mendelssohn’s excessive enthusiasm for the music of dead people. And the tempered professional reservations Berlioz felt were as nothing compared with the famous lengthy, vilely anti-Semitic tirade Wagner published in 1850 – Todd cites that tirade as one of the major factors in dimming Mendelssohn’s posthumous reputation for so long, and he’s certainly right to do so.
Todd’s judgements throughout the book are so balanced, so meticulously grounded on fact and plausible supposition, that the reader finds himself borne along on a wonderful tide of assurances – in a no doubt unconscious echo of his subject, Todd produces a singularly mellifluous, old-fashioned example of the biographer’s art. There are family trees, there are musical explications aplenty, there’s a vast forest of endnotes and bibliographical references (virtually every word ever written on Mendelssohn in any language has been consulted – you’d applaud if it all weren’t so terrifying), there are carefully-chosen illustrations … and best of all, there’s Todd himself, ever the genial host, ushering us through Mendelssohn’s crowded, busy life with unfailing courtesy and a great corrective sense of perspective. For example, after he’s described a series of concerts Mendelssohn gave in February and March of 1838 – one in which “a succession of the most famous masters from one hundred or more years up to the present time” – he tells us why we shouldn’t care about their playbills, and why we should:
Today these concerts seem utterly naïve – Handel and Bach challenged by Viotti, Haydn by Righini, Mozart by Salieri, and Beethoven by the eccentric, (perhaps) charlatan, Vogler. The coupling of musical giants and now largely forgotten figures as “the most famous masters” in fact betrays the beginnings of European canon formation in music. Discernible in Felix’s programming is a main line of German music descending from Bach and Handel through Mozart and Haydn to Weber and Beethoven. Also implicit is the recognition of distinct historical styles – the baroque, classical, and modern (romantic), and further, the notion of a classic-romantic dialectic, under development in the intellectual discourse of the 1830s before it became a conceptual commonplace.
But the best part of Mendelssohn: A Life in Music is also the part Todd should never have needed to include: his repeated defense of his subject’s worth in the face of those polarizing accusations of “moonlight with sugar water.” Even here, his touch is deft:
The persistent idea of Mendelssohn as a genteel lightweight, whose refined music buckled beneath the dramatic cogency of Beethoven’s or elephantine mass of Wagner’s scores, also requires reassessment. We may yet realize that imposing a Beethovenian or a Wagnerian yardstick on Mendelssohn does an injustice to his music. The essentially dramatic model of the Fifth Symphony and Wagner’s revolutionary theories about music drama do not fit Mendelssohn’s music, but not because of its intrinsic inferiority … And as for Mendelssohn’s “excessive” reliance on history, his music concerns exploring the continuity of the European musical tradition more than celebrating its rupture. As a result, Mendelssohn’s music constantly mediates between the past and the present: his revival of Bach and Handel – and his attempt to reconcile the classic-romantic dichotomy by overlaying onto richly expressive music the classical attributes of poise, balance, and clarity – has much to do with restoring and preserving, in an age Schumann decried for its philistinism, timeless values drawn from the exemplars of the past.
But even so, biographies of Bach and Beethoven don’t have to make such disclaimers at all, and I wish Mendelssohn were afforded the same courtesy … especially from critics (Wagner most certainly included) who couldn’t write something as beautiful as the E minor Violin Concerto if their miserable, carping lives depended on it.