- Mendelssohn, the Organ, and the Music of the Past: Constructing Historical Legaciesed. by Jürgen Thym
In the first chapter of this volume, R. Larry Todd connects Hector Berlioz’s criticism of Felix Mendelssohn, that he was “a little too fond of the dead,” to Mendelssohn’s abiding passion for the music and compositional practices of J. S. Bach (p. 16). More than simply a devotee of Bach, though, Mendelssohn was a musician and music scholar whose activities contributed to the promotion of German musical tradition, in an era largely concerned with the establishment of a unified German culture.
Indeed, Jürgen Thym, in his introduction, explains that the early nineteenth century was an age that favored monuments, markers commemorating German achievements of the past, which, by extension, also constructed historical legacies (p. 1). [End Page 565]Mendelssohn’s role in such commemorative activities is exemplified in his advocacy for a stone monument to honor J. S. Bach at the St. Thomas Church in Leipzig, no less than in his performance of a recital, in 1840, featuring Bach’s music, in an effort to raise funds for that monument. This recital, like the earlier, famous performance of the St. Matthew Passion, in 1829, was a sort of monument “cast in sound not stone” (p. 5).
The collection of essays here under consideration is quite unified in that each author takes up ways in which Mendelssohn engaged the past as a contemporary response in a wide range of musical activities. This volume extends from the conference “Mendelssohn and the Contrapuntal Tradition,” in 2009, organized by the Eastman Rochester Organ Initiative. The 2009 conference included a performance reenacting Mendelssohn’s Bach recital of 1840, on the Craighead-Saunders Organ in Christ Church, Rochester, NY; the concert was repeated in 2012, and a recording is freely available online at: http://www.esm.rochester.edu/organ/mendelssohn (accessed 18 September 2015).
Several chapters (especially 1, 4, 5, and 8) consider how Mendelssohn came by his esteem for Bach’s music, through several channels. Pedagogically, his teacher C. F. Zelter studied under J. P. Kirnberger and C. F. C. Fasch, who were both taught by J. S. Bach himself. It was through these sorts of teacher–student relationships that many of Bach’s compositions were transmitted for years after his death, in 1750. In addition, Mendelssohn had access to a large number of Bach manuscripts through his family; his father and mother acquired a large portion of the Bach estate (including over 100 autograph scores) in 1805, thinking to donate the music to the Sing-Akademie in Berlin (p. 216).
The supposed discrepancy between Mendelssohn’s sacred liturgical music and his secular instrumental music is considered in chapters 2 and 11. While chapter 2, by Siegwart Reichwald, is very focused in parsing historic Catholic influences in the op. 23 and 39 motets, chapter 11, by Benedict Taylor, reads Mendelssohn’s compositional output in terms of the choice proposed by Søren Kierkegaard, his near contemporary, in Either/Or: “Either, then, one has to live aesthetically, or one has to live ethically” (p. 302)—applied here as a supposed choice between art–religion or religious art. In the end, for Taylor, it is an oversimplification to divide Mendelssohn’s works into sacred and secular, for a religious impulse lay behind them all, though expressed differently as Mendels sohn grew and matured.
Chapter 3, by Peter Mercer-Taylor, offers a close analysis of Mendelssohn’s “Reformation” Symphony, composed for the tercentenary celebration of the Augsburg Confession. Taylor reads this symphony, which quotes the Lutheran chorale melody “Ein Feste Burg ist unser Gott,” as an engagement with Bach’s St. Matthew Passionand especially Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, both of which include vocal music.
Mendelssohn’s work as an organist is surveyed, in chapter 4, by Wm. A. Little. Mendelssohn preferred to practice the organ at least an...