Mendelssohn the Christian
(from a recent article in 'European Judaism' magazine)
……….Meyerbeer's life and work speak of a Jew who would like to believe, despite his own pessimism and misgivings, of a world which could peacefully be co-inhabited by all men sharing a common humanitarian goodwill, whatever their private beliefs. It is an attitude naturally evolving from the ideas of the philosopher Moses Mendelssohn:
Whoever does not infringe public happiness, whoever honestly observes the civil laws, let him speak as he pleases, let him call to his god in his own way or the way of his fathers, and let him find his salvation where he hopes to find it.
Mendelssohn however had not conceived the idea of someone living as a Jew but outside the parameters of a traditional Jewish community and practices; nor had he foreseen the (imminent) day when the state might be a guarantor of religious freedoms in general, but might at the same time endorse inimical social or political attitudes. These changes left his ideals superficially attractive, but actually irrelevant, and the belief that they could be simply applied in the more complex world of the nineteenth century led in fact to what Mendelssohn would have abhorred, the collapse of traditional German Judaism in favour of conversion or reform.
In Meyerbeer's case, for example, while he forged an identity which retained his Jewishness and his Judaism, his daughters converted and married Gentiles from the artistic circles in which their family moved; perhaps not least because the Judaism he personally had cherished had demonstrated little of value to them: its sole mark on his life, in retrospect, was as a source of vilification and disrespect.
They chose the alternative response to Mendelssohn, and indeed the one adopted by the great man's own offspring; that with the prospect of emancipation the story of Judaism was over, and that in consequence one should seize the opportunity to seal it off by conversion - at the very least this was what Heine was to call the `ticket of admission to European culture'.
Abraham Mendelssohn, who adopted the additional surname Bartholdy from a family property, indeed pleaded with his son Felix, in a passionate letter of 1829, to drop the name Mendelssohn altogether from his concert programmes:
The name Mendelssohn acquired a Messianic import and a significance which defies extinction. This, considering you were raised a Christian, you can hardly understand. A Christian Mendelssohn is an impossibility. A Christian Mendelssohn the world will never recognise. Nor should there be a Christian Mendelssohn, for my father himself did not want to be a Christian. `Mendelssohn' does and always did stand for a Judaism in transition… I reared you without religion in any form [….Eventually] I was obliged to do the choosing for you. Naturally when you consider what scant value I placed on any form in particular I felt no urge to choose […] Judaism, the most antiquated , distorted and self-defacing form of all. Therefore I reared you as Christians [.…] I should have discarded the name Mendelssohn immediately [….] I repeat, there can no more be a Christian Mendelssohn than there can be a Jewish Confucius [….]
It is difficult not to have some sympathy with Abraham, who is reported to have said `Once I was the son of a famous father; now I am the father of a famous son'. His arguments proceeded (in his view) from strict logic and social common-sense. But behind his words one senses a fear, almost a paranoia, of his Jewish origins, an angst which was to haunt the Neuchristen (as the converts were known) through their generations until their fears became horribly realised. Nor was it unjustified, even at the time; once again we may turn to Robert Schumann, in print and in public always a firm, sometimes enthusiastic supporter of Mendelssohn, but who wrote in 1840 in the marriage diary he shared with his wife Clara:
`For years I have contributed so much to promoting him [Mendelssohn], more than almost anyone else. In the meantime - let's not neglect ourselves too much. Jew remain Jews; first they take a seat ten times for themselves, then comes the Christians' turn. The stones we have helped gather for their Temple of Glory they occasionally throw at us. Therefore do not do too much [for them] is my opinion'.
To which Clara meekly replied:
`I have sometimes, silently, had similar thoughts, but out of great admiration for Mendelssohn's art have again and again adopted the old excessive attentiveness towards him. I will take your advice and not degrade myself too much before him, as I have done so often'.
Felix of course retained the name Mendelssohn despite his father's protests, and though undoubtedly a sincere Lutheran, retained a respect for his Jewish history. His professional and social success may have emboldened him to be more forthrightly pro-Jewish than other converts, even more than other members of his own family. In London he attended with great interest the House of Commons for a debate on extending the civil rights of Jews. When he went to hear the Hasidic klesmer and xylophone virtuoso Gusikow, who had an astonishingly successful European tour in 1835-6, he was enchanted by his skill and musicality. His sister Fanny however was clearly disconcerted by Gusikow's overt Jewishness, which she mentions in her letters with a mixture of irony and distaste.
Nonetheless, Mendelssohn's oeuvre - and in particular the substantial part of it which is represented by church music and religious oratorios - together with the constant reference to the Lutheran tradition (in, for example, the `Reformation' Symphony or the first fugue of the set op. 35), and with his commitment to the revival of J. S. Bach's music, indicate the seriousness of his intentions in developing and reinforcing a German musical culture, very much in line with the conservative nationalism of the Biedermeyer period. In Michael Steinberg's provocative formulation:
“Germany” as an idea was produced by Christians and Jews. In this quite literal `production of Germany' the Mendelssohn family, in its multigenerational, multicultural and multiprofessional eminence plays a key role.
Many have sought ingeniously, but I think vainly, to demonstrate Jewish melodic sources in Mendelssohn's music. Others have sought to refute the damaging critique of Richard Wagner, which has become over the years part of the conventional wisdom. Wagner, granting Mendelssohn ability and facility, condemns his output condescendingly as an
`endeavour to speak out a vague, an almost nugatory content as interestingly and spiritedly as possible'.
The simplest refutation of Wagner is perhaps just to listen to the music afresh, especially the chamber works; but Leon Botstein's comment is a propos:
[Wagner's] critique of Mendelssohn's music was wrong, but his exploitation of Mendelssohn as a symbol of the modern European assimilated Jew was perverse, brilliant and historically appropriate.
Mendelssohn, - who spoke and wrote fluently in three European languages, who was a fine figure of a man, who researched seriously the history of German music - and commented on the irony that he as a Jew should be the reviver of Bach's St. Matthew Passion - , who sparkled in conversation and in improvisation; this Jew was far more serious a threat to those concerned with the supposed purity of German culture than the obvious outsider Meyerbeer, with his mauscheln accent, short-sightedness, flat-footedness, valetudinarianism, and concern for commercial success. The two men were indeed aware of their oppositeness, and took pains to avoid each other. When a mutual friend commented to Mendelssohn on his facial resemblance to Meyerbeer - they were both descendants, by the way, of Rabbi Moses Isserlis - Mendelssohn immediately went and had his hair cropped savagely short.
Just ten minutes' walk from the new Jewish Museum in Berlin you will find the Cemetery of the New Jerusalem Church, and there Felix Mendelssohn, his parents, his siblings and their families, the famous Berlin salonnières Rahel Levin Varnhagen and Henriette Herz, and many other Neuchristen lie at rest. Everything they thought they stood for, in overcoming or reconciling Judaism for their age, was torn to shreds within a century of their deaths. Doubtless Felix like the rest of them would have been dismayed to find out how irreducibly Jewish he was in the consciousness of the society he warmly embraced. But, that the Neuchristen chose to be buried together in itself spoke, and speaks, volumes………