Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Mendelssohn Bicentennial Links

The composer Felix Mendelssohn was born on February 3, 1809, nine days before Charles Darwin and Abraham Lincoln. The celebration of his two hundredth birthday has not been as widespread as that for the other two men, but some people remember, especially in the world of music.

NPR Music has a page full of Mendelssohn links. This includes an 8 minute interview with violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter (it can be downloaded as a podcast from iTunes) discussing the life and work of the Romantic German musician who is commonly remembered for his Scottish Symphony, Italian Symphony, and music to Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, especially the "Wedding March." Though he only lived to be 38, he was a prolific composer, who reached opus number 121. NPR includes for listening selections from Mutter's Mendelssohn recordings.

For readers, a good introduction to the composer is The Life of Mendelssohn by Peter Mercer-Taylor (2000). Mendelssohn was a model nineteenth century musical gentleman. The son of a wealthy banker from Berlin, he received early training in violin and composition and had written several polished pieces by age ten. In his adolescence, he performed with his sister Fanny for audiences across Europe, wrote music criticism, and championed the forgotten works of Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven. In this admiring biography, Mercer-Taylor reveals that the composer's seemingly idyllic life was complicated by fears of anti-Semitism, the demands of royal patrons, and the ill-health that shortened his life. R. Larry Todd goes into greater depth in Mendelssohn: A Life in Music (2003). No major biographies are being published to celebrate his bicentennial.

Mendelssohn had good reason to be fearful of religious hatred. Ironically, he may have suffered more after his death than during, as Richard Wagner maligned him for being of Jewish (though his parents converted the family to Christianity), and the Nazi regime in Germany banned the playing of his music. His popularity has never fully recovered. He does have his champions. The Mendelssohn Project seeks to recover his lost works and increase the frequency that his music is performed. Its website profiles the composer, his sister Fanny, and their family, and includes information on how to help the Mendelssohn cause.

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