Tuesday, February 3, 2009

On Felix Mendelssohn's 200th Birthday

Joshua Kosman's background piece on Felix Mendelssohn provided excellent contextual reading for his 200th birthday today:

The history of music is replete with dazzling child prodigies, from Mozart to Erich Wolfgang Korngold to Little Stevie Wonder. None of them can hold a candle to the young Felix Mendelssohn.

The composer, whose 200th birthday falls on Tuesday, occupies an awkward middle ground in the musical pantheon now.

He's regarded unquestioningly as one of the classical masters, but not of the top rank. And although his music is a fairly regular presence in the concert hall, Mendelssohn's fame rests disproportionately on a small handful of mature works: the Violin Concerto first and foremost, along with the "Scottish" and "Italian" symphonies and, occasionally, the oratorios "Elijah" and "St. Paul."

But in one arena, at least, Mendelssohn's pre-eminence is indisputable: No teenager - and certainly no tweener - ever composed with a comparable blend of technical prowess, daring and imagination.

This week, Nicholas McGegan and the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra mark Mendelssohn's bicentennial with a program that includes the two pieces that constitute the teen composer's claim to greatness, the Octet for Strings and the Overture to "A Midsummer Night's Dream." To hear those pieces, even in partial form (only one movement of the Octet, alas, is on the program), is to be stunned at the precocity of the young artist.

Mendelssohn is rather sparsely represented in my CD collection; but that collection does include the octet, as well as the full complement of the music written for A Midsummer Night's Dream. The more mature side is represented by the violin concerto, but Elijah shows up only in my Kathleen Ferrier library. I also have a memory of the piano teacher with whom I worked in Santa Barbara. When I started working on the first set of Songs Without Words, she gently but persuasively suggested that my efforts should be focused elsewhere, which, as I recall, is when she first introduced me to the Années de Pèlerinage of Franz Liszt. (Vive la différence, as they say!)

My writing about Mendelssohn on this blog has been even more sparse. For the most part it has involved contextual references to useful background, rather than issues concerned with his music or how it is performed. The only time I dug into those latter issues with any substance was when Michael Tilson Thomas conceived of a San Francisco Symphony program that coupled the violin concerto with the music of Charles Ives. Since the concerto was both preceded and followed by Ives, I described the program as "a bit like serving up a High Tea cucumber sandwich between two massive slabs of thick black bread."

That simile may get at why Kosman places Mendelssohn below "the top rank." The elegance of his precocity never particularly matured. Rather, he just managed it with greater facility; but, in the context of the Romantic movement of the nineteenth century, that facility was more than a little anachronistic. Thus, within that context, his contributions to the revival of the music of Johann Sebastian Bach may have had a far greater impact than any of his compositions, even if that revival begat no end of misconceptions over how that music should be performed. Consequently, if I am to celebrate Mendelssohn at all today, it will probably be with a recording of Bach's St Matthew Passion, along with the gratitude that, had it not been for Mendelssohn, this paragon of the oratorio form might have been condemned to the ash-heap of history.

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