- The Price of Assimilation: Felix Mendelssohn and the Nineteenth-Century Anti-Semitic Tradition
The latter-day flourishing of scholarly and general interest in the music and life of Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy gained its initial impulse after World War II, as the musical world began to recognize the injustices propagated on grounds of politics but in the name of art during the century's volatile early decades. Building on new momentum that emerged at the 1959 sesquicentennial of the composer's birth, the early 1960s witnessed the publication of Eric Werner's Mendelssohn: A New Image of the Composer and His Age (London: Free Press of Glencoe, 1963), the first book-length biography to acknowledge the cultural import of the composer's Jewish heritage substantively rather than polemically, and to portray his career and output as having been crucially informed by that heritage. Having adduced many unpublished documents and offering an overall perspective largely consistent with postwar sympathies and interests, Werner's biography and its revised and expanded German edition (Mendelssohn: Leben und Werk in neuer Sicht [Zurich: Atlantis, 1980]) remained for the rest of the twentieth century the essential starting-points for scholars and general readers alike in surveys, biographical inquiries, musical analysis, and documentary and reception-historical studies.
Unfortunately, a great deal of the scholarly effort expended in building on Werner's studies had to be corrective in nature, for Mendelssohn specialists quickly began to realize that many of the documents and musical sources that underlay his "new image" were either misrepresented or untraceable; some were demonstrably fabricated or falsified. The result, unfortunately, was widespread confusion. On the one hand, Mendelssohn scholarship gained many insights through indirect follow-ups on Werner's research—either corrections of points made in his contributions, or more detailed explorations of issues that were of necessity dealt with briefly in them. But in the meantime general studies continued to cite Werner's work chapter and verse, perpetuating his errors as well as his insights. Some headway toward raising awareness of the risks attendant to using Werner's scholarship was made by a spirited debate in the Musical Quarterly in 1998–99, launched by an article by Jeffrey Sposato and continued with further contributions from Leon Botstein, Michael P. Steinberg, and Peter Ward Jones. Only with [End Page 275] the publication of R. Larry Todd's authoritative new Mendelssohn biography, however, did a new resource become widely available that promised to provide a foundation for general and specialized inquiries alike (Mendelssohn: A Life in Music [Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003]).
Sposato's The Price of Assimilation is the latest milestone in this new world of Mendelssohn scholarship—one that in many ways typifies the powerful cross-currents that have been unleashed by the richness of Mendelssohn's life and works, the complexity of his posthumous reception, and the problematical brilliance of Werner's "new image." Most immediately, Sposato's inquiry is about Mendelssohn's career-long engagement with the genre of the oratorio, specifically with the crafting, selection, and revision of the texts that articulate those works' dramatic and theological content. More broadly, it is about how that series of projects functioned as public creative proclamations of theological identity from a staunchly Lutheran composer whose family name immediately announced his descent from late eighteenth-century Europe's most eloquent and influential philosophical advocate of Jewish/Christian assimilation. Sposato draws on a wide range of unpublished and otherwise obscure documents as well as familiar ones, transcribes and translates the obscure ones meticulously, and interprets all with unflinching sensitivity to nuance and general accuracy.
The resulting perspective on Mendelssohn's oratorios and his creative personality in general is in most regards diametrically opposite the one submitted by Werner and most other subsequent interpretations. In making cuts to Bach's St. Matthew Passion, Mendelssohn stopped well short of making cuts that would be dramatically or musically judicious, given the...