Here and there – The faith of Felix Mendelssohn


When I told a friend of mine, an Anglican vicar, that I was reading a big biography of the German composer Felix Mendelssohn, he asked me to tell him what the views of the author were about the religious faith of the great composer. As it happens, the book, R Larry Todd, Mendelssohn, A Life in Music (OUP, 2003), merely confirmed what I already believed – that Mendelssohn was a devout Christian of the Lutheran variety.

Apart from the music to A Midsummer Night’s Dream (the overture to which Mendelssohn wrote at the age of nineteen) and the violin concerto, Mendelssohn may be best known to concert-goers for his five symphonies.  Two of those have choral movements squarely within the Lutheran tradition.  The second symphony is called the Hymn of Praise, and the choral part features the hymn Nun danket alle Gott (‘Now Thank We All Our God’)The fifth symphony is called the Reformation, and the choral part features Luther’s own hymn Ein’ feste Berg ist unser Gott (‘A Mighty Fortress is Our God’)This is sacred music – its spark is obviously felt to be divine.  It could only have been written by a very devout Lutheran, and one intent upon glorying in his faith – or by the greatest imposter unhanged.  There is not the slightest basis for suggesting any bad faith against Mendelssohn.

Mr Todd informs us that the composer was a practising Lutheran all his mature life, and that he frequently began messages with the initials of a prayer.  But Mr Todd also discusses the question of the faith of Mendelssohn in the context of his Jewish background.

Felix Mendelssohn was born in 1809 in Hamburg to Jewish parents – his father was the son of the distinguished philosopher Moses Mendelssohn.  His parents, Abraham and Lea, did not have Felix circumcised, and they would renounce their faith, and accept baptism.  Felix was baptised into the Reformed Church in 1816.  The family also adopted the name Bartholdy – Abraham wanted his break with his past to be complete.  ‘There can no more be a Christian Mendelssohn than a Jewish Confucius.’  Well, that may depend on your adherence to tribalism, but I am not aware of any ground – at least any decent ground – for suggesting that Mendelssohn’s conduct as a German Lutheran was somehow different to that of other German Lutherans.  To suggest that Felix may have been different because of his Jewish ancestry would in my view be to take a step on the path that leads straight to Gehenna (Hell).

And yet toward the end of this long book, Mr Todd tells us:

What are we to make of Felix’s pairing, in the last year of his life, of Elijah and Christus, the Old and New Testaments, the faith of his grandfather and his own professed Christianity?  The conclusion, developed by Sposato in the epilogue of his study, is that Felix’s attitude toward the oratorio….shifted during his career as he struggled with issues of his Jewish ancestry and adopted Christian faith….Though all the evidence suggests Felix was a sincere, devout Protestant, in the eyes of his contemporaries at some level a ‘Jewish identity had been etched indelibly into his being, character and life.’

This to me is speculative hogwash, and it gets no better because it is referred speculative hogwash.  It is worse than that.  To suggest that a man may be indelibly etched or branded by his racial history is plain evil.  We are not talking about a conversion.  According to the sources, Abraham and Lea never introduced Felix to the Jewish faith.  His first faith was his last – he just came to it later than most kids.

But even if Felix were a convert, what does it matter if his ancestry was Jewish, German, Irish, Blackfella or Hottentot?  And what do we make of the catty epithet ‘sincere’?  I am aware that Jews turning to Christ in Germany then, or elsewhere at other times, may have been seeking a change of civil status – but that obvious fact does not authorise speculation of the most pernicious kind.

And what’s with this concern about the difference between the Old Testament and the New Testament?  When Christians take the oath on the bible, they swear on both testaments.  A lot of the New Testament is there to show that the new dispensation was foreseen or authorised by the Old Testament.  A form of Christianity that sought to annihilate or annul the Old Testament would, to put it softly, be unlike anything we have ever known.  And the best known religious work of musical art, the Messiah of Handel, is largely based on the text of the Old Testament.

If anyone has any doubt about the Lutheran inspiration of this composer’s art, they should acquire a disk by a French choral and instrumental group called Accentus Ensemble Orchestral de Paris – the disk is called Christus, Cantates, Chorales.  It consists of an oratorio, Christus, that was unfinished at the death of the composer.  It is an invocation of the Saint Matthew Passion of Bach, which Mendelssohn had revived at the age of about twenty.  (Had he done nothing else, this would have earned him immortality.)  In addition there are two short cantatas.  The second is based on wording of Luther, and celebrates the great hymn O Haupt voll Blut und Wunden (which many know as ‘O sacred head sore wounded’).  People who can listen to any of this art unmoved have been dealt a heavy blow by providence.  Yes, the inspiration is God, but this art is of the highest – with or without God.

But even in the sleeve notes to this wonderful recording, we get:

The first full chorus [of Christus] sets a prophecy from the Book of Numbers, ‘Es wird ein Stern aus Jacob aufgehen’, that must have appealed to Mendelssohn, who, though Lutheran by baptism and confirmation had not forgotten his Jewish heritage and sought frequently to ally the two faiths.

Has this learned commentator also forgotten that the bible of the Christians comes in two parts?  If so, the omission is not insubstantial.

If you run into someone coming out of St Peter’s in Rome who says that he did not even look at the Pieta of Michelangelo because this was Catholic art and he was not Catholic, you would know that you had a five star nut on your hands.  It is, or should be the same, with all those ‘religious’ artists.  Take El Greco, my favourite.  He and his great art were dedicated to the Counter Reformation.  What effect does that have on me?  Nil, nix, nought, and nothing.  Zilch.  Rien.  

The art of Bach and Mendelssohn, whether inspired by or devoted to the celebration of God, are part of the title deeds of civilisation and the comfort of mankind.  The Saint Matthew Passion of Bach is up there with the Iliad, Divine Comedy, and King Lear in the Alps of the West.  The works of Mendelssohn I have referred to are not in the valleys.  Regardless of our faith or ancestry, they are part of the heritage of all of us.  Those who wish to obscure that simple faith do us no good service.

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