Mendelssohn, Wagner and Popular Taste

Written on February 20, 2009 by Rolf Strom-Olsen in Arts & Cultures & Societies

Rolf Strom-Olsen


This month marked the 200th anniversary of German composer Felix Mendelssohn's birth (February 3rd, 1809). In addition to the the usual array of celebratory concerts around the globe that one might expect to mark the occasion, there was also a reflection on the curious fate the befell Mendelssohn's music after his untimely death at the age of 38 in 1847. Within a decade, many of his formerly popular pieces had disappeared from the concert hall, a decline made all the more dramatic since, during his lifetime, his had been among the most frequently programmed music.

This fall from favour is typically viewed as something other than the inevitable progression of popular taste, the same dispassionate process that today leaves the novels of John Galsworthy unread or tomorrow the plays of Harold Pinter unseen (I'll take bets on that last one). Instead, it is generally accepted in musical and cultural history that Mendelssohn's disappearance from the concert hall was precipitated by the rising tide (or better, perhaps, resurgence) of anti-semitism that swept over continental Europe in the second half of the nineteenth century.

Exhibit A in this argument is an overwritten, frequently incomprehensible tract penned by the gifted but (by most accounts) quite disagreeable composer Richard Wagner. His scabrous essay "Das Judenthum in der Musik" or "Jewishness in Music" appeared in the pages of the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik in 1850 under the pen name of "Freigedank," or "Free thinker". The essay is as ridiculous as Wagner's self-important pseudonym. Here's a taste:

Here, then, we touch the point that brings us closer to our main inquiry: we have to explain to ourselves the involuntary repellence possessed for us by the nature and personality of the Jews, so as to vindicate that instinctive dislike which we plainly recognise as stronger and more overpowering than our conscious zeal to rid ourselves thereof. Even to-day we only purposely belie ourselves, in this regard, when we think necessary to hold immoral and taboo all open proclamation of our natural repugnance against the Jewish nature.

Or, from the original German, "Wir haben nicht erst nötig, die Verjüdung der modernen Kunst zu bestätigen; sie springt in die Augen und bestätigt sich den Sinnen von selbst." Wagner aspired to the language of the Aufklärung aesthetic of the late eighteenth century, exemplified by figures like Wackenroder or Goethe when they went weak in the knees in the face of classical Greek statuary and the like. But Wagner's subject matter does not match his clumsy attempt at lofty expression.

The washiness and whimsicality of our present musical style has been, if not exactly brought about, yet pushed to its utmost pitch by Mendelssohn's endeavour to speak out a vague, an almost trifling content as interestingly and spiritedly as possible. Whereas Beethoven, the last in the chain of our true music-heroes, strove with highest longing, and wonder-working faculty, for the clearest, most certain expression of an unsayable content through a sharp-cut, plastic shaping of his tone-pictures: Mendelssohn, on the contrary, reduces these achievements to vague, fantastic shadow-forms, midst whose indefinite shimmer our freakish fancy is indeed aroused, but our inner, purely-human yearning for distinct artistic sight is hardly touched with even the merest hope of a fulfilment.

And this faintest of praise for Mendelssohn is reserved for him alone; as for the other Jewish composers, forget about it! Those others, by the way, would include Giacomo Meyerbeer, the popular opera composer of the mid nineteenth century whose success irked Wagner immensely. I mean, really got to him. Phrase as he might his anti-semitic attack in the language of high aesthetic principle, Wagner was just mud-slinging against someone more successful than he was.

However, the question remains whether Wagner's iteration of the idea that "jewish" music was somehow inferior to "unsrer wahrhaften Musikheroen" like Bach and Beethoven helped push Mendelssohn's works off the concert stage. It would be foolish to deny that such sentiment did not have an impact on the way in which conductors programmed their concerts. But I note with interest that the pieces of Mendelssohn which survived in popularity with concert-going audiences in the nineteenth century are still his most frequently performed and recorded works today.

Frankly, they are relatively few. Indeed, they can be easily listed: The octet Op. 20, the overtures Midsummer's Night Dream and Fingal's Cave (Hebrides), the 3rd and 4th Symphonies, the Violin Concerto and the Piano Trio No. 1 in D minor. Mendelssohn's reputation is anchored by those seven masterpieces, and despite the changes in popular taste, they have never fallen out of fashion. Other works, however, that enjoyed huge success during Mendelssohn's lifetime, such as the 2nd Symphony "Lobgesang" or the Oratorio "Elijah", have never regained anything like their former lustre. That is not to say that they are not played, but compared to the popularity of those seven works, they remain in the shadows. 

And why not? Tastes progress, audiences move on, other music comes along. Wagner's essay is an interesting cultural artefact of the times, but the idea that Mendelssohn's reputation was dismantled by such self-serving efforts overstates the case. (Besides, Wagner's essay is unreadable, except for the truly committed.) Instead, I think the fate of Mendelssohn reveals how, over time, an artist's output earns an implicit ranking. Within a decade of his death, the choices of the concert hall still reflect the implicit evaluation of Mendelssohn's music today, measured by the number of recordings of his music.


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