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Mendelssohn and Victorian England (review)

From: Notes
Volume 67, Number 3, March 2011
pp. 540-543 | 10.1353/not.2011.0011

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Felix Mendelssohn's bicentennial celebrations, ultimately spanning three years (2008-10), have led to a flurry of heavily programmed Mendelssohn concerts, publications, events, and conferences around the world. Germany, for example, saw the publication of a variety of books, monographs and collections of essays honoring Mendelssohn and his contribution to Western art music. Surprisingly, this revival has had little effect on Mendelssohn scholarship in North American musicology. The influential contributions of R. Larry Todd, Jeffrey Sposato, and Clive Brown in recent years has prepared for a significant increase in Mendelssohn studies coinciding with the composer's two hundredth birthday. Sadly, few authors effectively continued this legacy; notable exceptions include the Mendels sohn in Performance collection edited by Siegwart Reichwald (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2008) and R. Larry Todd's Mendelssohn Essays (New York: Routledge, 2008). Due to this lack, Colin Timothy Eatock's Mendelssohn and Victorian England deserves special mention.

Successfully finding a relatively unexplored niche in Mendelssohn studies, Eatock joins Todd, Sposato, and Brown in continuing to investigate Mendelssohn's influence on the surrounding European society. Taking the reader through detailed accounts of Mendelssohn's ten trips to England between the years 1829-47, Eatock's focus on Mendelssohn's evolving and lasting effect on the music and culture of Victorian England strives to fill an important gap in Mendelssohn scholarship. Simply put, Eatock explores Mendelssohn's essential connection to the "development of classical music in Victorian England" (p. ix).

In the preface, Eatock explains the distinction in approach to England between Mendelssohn and other European composers, stating that he "cultivated what might be called a philanthropic interest in the country, and actively sought to aid the cause of English music and musicians by transmitting his own artistic values to England" (p. x). Throughout the book, Eatock continues to portray him in this humanitarian light, so that in essence he serves as a prophet of music to England. Only in the concluding chapter does Eatock finally explicate the benefits Mendelssohn received from such a favorable relationship with England. Eatock explores the social, historical and cultural environment in England at the time of Mendelssohn's first visit (chap. 1), the overall success of this visit (chap. 2), the evolution of his fame and the beginnings of his lasting effect on English music (chap. 3), followed by the peak of his celebrity in the 1840s (chap. 4), and concluding with the outburst of popularity and influence he achieved with Elijah and the details of his last trips to England until his untimely death in 1847 (chap. 5). Eatock's aptly titled chapter 6, "Apotheosis," and closing chapter 7 explore Mendelssohn's lasting legacy in England and its subsequent effect, both positive and negative, on his reputation.

This complete image of Mendelssohn is further complemented by Eatock's skillful incorporation of primary sources into the narrative. These primary sources consist principally of correspondence between Mendelssohn and his family and friends, concert reviews, and other texts from the time. Sources of the latter group range from minutes of London's Philharmonic Society meetings to various letters, recollections, and writings of English music critic Henry Fothergill Chorley. With this additional information, the reader is now able to peer into Mendelssohn's emotional state, at times from the composer's own perspective.

Eatock provides a well-rounded portrait of Mendelssohn's musical life in England through the continuous reference to musicians and composers from whom he received visits and with whom he worked on a regular basis, along with the sorts of forums in which he often performed (such as his customary performances at composer Ignaz Moscheles' salon and busy concertizing schedule). These details effectively add to the description of Mendelssohn's success in achieving such a long-lasting influence on English music and culture.

Eatock illustrates his authority as a Mendelssohn scholar through the strongest chapters of this book, the concluding two, chapters 6 ("Apotheosis") and 7 ("Fragmentation and Legacy"). Here Eatock describes Mendelssohn's legacy and overall effect on English music and culture. Chapter 6 explores Mendelssohn's growing fame in England and English society's reaction to his early death: from the commemorative performances of Elijah; to the scramble of English publishers...



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