MY TOP SHELF

 

[These are serialised extracts of all the fifty books referred to in a book published in 2015 called ‘The Top Shelf, or What Used to be Called a Liberal Education’.  The extracts are as originally published, and they come in the same order.]

10

THE LIFE OF MOZART

Edward Holmes (1845)

Folio 1991; half red cloth with gold lettering and red silhouette on gold on blue cloth front with red slip-case.

For this blessing, I daily thank my Creator, and from my heart wish it participated in by my fellow-men.

Is there any point in reading lives of the great artists?  What we know about Shakespeare can be comfortably set out on an envelope, and none of it tells us anything at all about King Lear.  It was a drama in verse – what can fact or fancy in prose tell us?  Does it help to know that Michelangelo had a fight with a pope or that Beethoven went deaf?  Perhaps; but if you read too much about Wagner, you may never want to hear him again, and you might swear off Parsifal forever.

Well, there may be something to be said for reminding ourselves that even geniuses are, au fond, merely human, and only one man may have had a better claim to genius than Mozart.

Edward Holmes went to school at Mr Clarke’s Academy in Enfield where a boy called John Keats was a pupil.  He learnt music with the very musical Novello family and became something of a music critic.  He idolized Mozart, but this book is useful for the letters of Mozart and contemporary reminiscences.  This Folio copy is beautifully produced.

In a letter to his father, Mozart says that he played to a count for two days.  This one knew how to behave – ‘he always says bravo in those places where other cavaliers take a pinch of snuff…’  He went on to say that ‘on hearing German melodrama, I felt a violent inclination to write.’

The letters contain many references to his love of the German nation, and to his love of the fugues of Bach and Handel.  He put several of the fugues of The Well-tempered Clavier into his own handwriting.

According to Mr Hodge, Mozart always composed in the open air when he could.  Don Giovanni was said to have been composed on a bowling-green, and the principal part of the Requiem in a garden.  In a letter written in a garden, he told how he had arrived in Vienna to find that dinner was served ‘for me unfortunately rather too early’ – 11.30 am!  Mozart sat down with, among others, two valets, the confectioner, two cooks ‘and my littleness.’  (He was only about five feet in height.)  Mozart told his father that there was ‘a great deal of coarse silly joking’ from which he remained aloof.  Perhaps, but we know that Wolfie was big on ‘coarse silly joking’ in a way that may still evoke a mild blush in the matronly glitterati in the concert-hall set.  But all this was far too much for the Victorian sensibility of Mr Holmes.  Against silhouettes of Mozart, Salieri, Gluck and Haydn, Mr Holmes says: ‘That he whose transcendent genius had asserted its empire over the whole musical world, and who even at this time had put forth unmistakeable evidences of his greatness should be put down to table with cooks and valets, is something to marvel over in this retrospect of Mozart’s chequered existence.  But how admirably he bore himself in this situation, silent and grave and keeping aloof from the rude company…’

Here is a trivia question.  Name the opera taken from Comedy of Errors.  Da Ponte turned it into an opera called Equivoci.  The music was written by Signor Storace whose sister played the first Nanette in The Marriage of Figaro, for which Da Ponte wrote the libretto.  Mozart wrote the opera in a month.  The tradition was that the overture to Don Giovanni was written the night before it was first given, and was first played unrehearsed.

An Irish singer called Michael Kelly played in the first Figaro.  He reminisced about Mozart.  ‘Mozart told me that great as his genius was, he was an enthusiast in dancing, and often said that his taste lay in that art rather than in music….He always received me with kindness and hospitality.  He was remarkably fond of punch, of which beverage I have seen him take copious drafts.  He was also fond of billiards, and had an excellent billiard-table in his house.  Many and many a game I have played with him, but always came off second best.  He gave Sunday concerts at which I was never missing.  He was kind-hearted and always ready to oblige, but so very particular when he played, that if the slightest noise were made, he instantly left off.’

Mozart was only thirty-five when he died.  He was working on the Requiem, and had composed the Ave verum corpus, possibly the most ethereal sacred music ever written.  Einstein said of it that, Mozart had resolved the problem of style.  Either work could only have been written by a man of profound Catholic conviction.

We may be allowed to hope that Mozart was at peace with himself when he died.  A few years before that, this man beloved of God (amadeus), wrote to his father: ‘As death, rightly considered, fulfils the real design of our life, I have for the last two years made myself so well acquainted with this true friend of mankind, that his image has no longer any terrors for me, but much that is peaceful and consoling; and I thank God that he has given me the opportunity to know him as the key tour true felicity.  I never lie down in bed without reflecting that – young as I am – I may never see another day….’  Some hold that those who are beloved of God die young.

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.