Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Felix Mendelssohn and the Leipzig Tradition

Today is the bicentennial of Mendelssohn's birth. Last night I attended the talk "Felix Mendelssohn and the Leipzig Tradition," a part of New York Philharmonic's Insights Series curated by James M. Keller. 

Leipzig at the time of Mendelssohn's arrival from Berlin was a busy commercial center of population 45 000. It boasted a long musical tradition centered around St. Thomas Church, and the Gewandhausorchester. As Kapelmeister of the Gewandhause, Mendelssohn started a series of concerts that focused on important composers of the past. The practice was innovative since concerts then usually presented new works. Keller pointed to the music conservatism in the canonization of certain composers. For Mendelssohn, the three gods were Bach, Mozart and Beethoven. 

Mendelssohn would found the Conservatory, as a kind of third pillar of the scene, or as Masur describes it, as part of the music oikos. The motto of the Conservatory could be translated as "Joy is a very serious matter." Mendelssohn would invite composers and musicians to his house every weekend to make music. Relationships were close, and exchange was constant. 

Kurt Masur spoke about his long association with Leipzig and Mendelssohn. He described the chilling poverty he and other young musicians suffered as students of the Leipzig Conservatory in 1946/47. He and his friends would play dance and jazz music to make a living. In the 1970s and 80s, as the Kapellmeister of the Gewandhaus, he revived respect for Mendelssohn's music.

R. Larry Todd, who wrote the standard biography of the composer, explained the reasons for the decline of Mendelssohn's reputation after his death. Wagner attacked, with devastating effect, Mendelssohn's judaic ancestry, claiming that Jews could only write superficial music. Then, Mendelssohn's identification with English Victorianism did him no good when the modern reaction against it, led by writers like George Bernard Shaw, set in. 

Mendelssohn is often seen as a music lightweight. Masur defended him last night on the basis of his versatility and variety. He is never sentimental, according to Masur, but conductors and players tend to interpret him sentimentally. Masur is conducting Anne-Sophie Mutter in an all-Mendelssohn concert this week, and I am really looking forward to hearing the composer and the violinist. 

Musicians from the Philharmonic and the Julliard played the Scherzo and the Finale of the String Octet. The Octet was composed in Berlin, 1925, when Mendelssohn was sixteen, and premiered in Leipzig, 1836. Todd said that Mendelssohn's sister explained that the Scherzo was inspired by a scene in Goethe's Faust. Happening upon a witches' Sabbath, Faust and Mephistopheles listened to an insect orchestra. The Finale, however, quotes Handel's Messiah ("And he shall reign forever and ever"), as if to balance the diabolic with the sacred, resolving the two in the end. 

The Scherzo is noteworthy for its myriad textures. At times sounding like a concerto, and other times sounding like a symphony, and yet other times sounding like two quartets playing against each other, it ranges from 8-part counterpoint to eight-part unison. Last night, the music sounded virtuosic but also passionate, and dashing. Michelle Kim, the Assistant Concertmaster of the Philharmonic, gave a scintillating performance. The music from her violin sang, whispered, and praised.

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