Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1897) was a musical prodigy who went on to become one of the most gifted and influential musicians of the 19th century. A virtuoso pianist and organist and composer of Romantic music of great beauty, he is credited with restoring the oratorio and with changing the way music was composed, played and heard. The prolific composer created an amazing body of work, particularly given his untimely death at age 38, including four oratorios, symphonies, sacred music, piano compositions, and the beloved violin concerto, a perfect example of the fusion of the classical and romantic forms. His greatest work, however, is arguably Elijah (1846), which many music authorities consider to be the supreme oratorio of all time.
Mendelssohn also played a key role in advancing the fledgling art of conducting (among other things, he was among the first to use a baton) and he enjoyed great success as a conductor at music festivals throughout Europe. He was also polymath fluent in French, English, Italian and ancient Greek; a skilled and talented visual artist; a prolific writer; and an accomplished gymnast, swimmer, and equestrian.
Born into a family of means and privilege, Mendelssohn’s own life might aptly serve as a metaphor for the conflicting social attitudes of his era. Understanding his life and work necessitates addressing the fundamental issues of his assimilation, conversion and dual religious identity, beginning with his grandfather, the renowned Moses Mendelssohn, and his father, Abraham.
Moses Mendelssohn (1729-1826), the preeminent Jewish philosopher of the German Enlightenment, was a rabbinic scholar referred to as “the German Socrates.” He became best known for his personification of the conflict of the modern Diaspora Jew seeking integration into broader secular society while maintaining a strong commitment to preserving his Jewish identity. The leading fighter for Jewish civil rights in Germany, he used his respect and renown to assist individual Jews and entire communities in disputes with the German authorities and he facilitated the revocation of many antisemitic laws. Though he was a great defender of traditional Judaism in the face of Christian challengers, he undermined it by applying the intense rationalism test of the Haskalah (the Jewish “Enlightenment”).
Throughout his life, Felix exhibited great respect and affection for his grandfather, who died 23 years before he was born. Some of his earliest works were based upon Moses’ biblical translations; he supported his uncle’s efforts to publish a complete edition of Moses’ work (albeit behind the scenes); he requested that a plaque be placed at his grandfather’s Dessau home; and he was proud to be introduced as the “grandson of Moses Mendelssohn.” Some commentators maintain that the themes of the two biblically-inspired oratorios that he composed in the year before his death – Elijah, in which he exhibits strong pride in his Jewish heritage and demonstrates his affection for the Jewish Bible and Jewish tradition, and Christus, in which he manifests his embrace of the New Testament and his affection for his family’s Protestant faith – reflect his attempt, conscious or otherwise, to follow in Moses’ steps in endeavoring to reconcile the spiritual and religious aspects of his dual identity.
Early Haskalah reformers found in Moses’ radical ideas justification for secularism, emancipation and assimilation at the expense of their Judaism, which led to assimilation and to the loss of Jewish identity on a massive scale as Jews concluded that they could retain their Jewish ethnicity while accepting Christianity and adopting German culture. Among the assimilated and converted were four of Moses’ six surviving children, two of whom converted to Catholicism and two – including Abraham, Felix’s father – joined the Reformed Lutheran church.
After Abraham (1776-1835), a successful banker who founded the Mendelssohn Bank with his uncle, married Lea Salomon, the daughter of a wealthy and prominent German family, in a synagogue ceremony, the couple worked diligently to maintain a strictly secular household and to completely separate the Mendelssohn family from the Jewish community. Felix was not circumcised, there is no record of his ever being given a Hebrew name, and his birth was not listed in the Jewish register of Hamburg births.
Abraham was opposed to all faiths that postulated the existence of the supernatural and, as such, he likely chose Lutheranism because, as the least inflexible of all Christian denominations, it did not constitute a great leap from Reform Judaism, which is little more than Christianity without Jesus. He baptized Felix in the Lutheran Church on March 21, 1816 – ironically, Bach’s birthday (Felix played a leading role in the revival of Bach’s church music) – when the child was only seven years old but, notably, he did not do so until after his mother (Moses Mendelssohn’s wife) died. Abraham and Lea did not themselves convert until six years later, when – manifesting some modicum of shame – they secretly ran off to Frankfurt to be baptized rather than undergoing the rite in Berlin, where they and their Jewish relatives lived. Abraham never advised his mother about his conversion and, when she found out about it, she disinherited him.
At the suggestion of Lea’s brother, himself a Protestant convert, Abraham added the name “Bartholdy” to the centuries-old family name. He would later put tremendous pressure on Felix to cease entirely using the Mendelssohn name; as he explained to Felix in a letter, “There can no more be a Christian Mendelssohn than a Jewish Confucius; if your name is Mendelssohn, you are ipso facto a Jew, and that is of no benefit to you, because it is not even true.” Nonetheless, Felix insisted on maintaining the Mendelssohn name and, walking the middle line between respect for his grandfather and obedience to his father, he signed his name as “Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy.” (Felix’s siblings loathed the name “Bartholdy,” his sister Rebekka even going so far as to write her name as “Rebekka Mendelssohn medem (“never” in Greek) Bartholdy.”
Not only did Felix never receive any semblance of a Jewish education, he was raised in a family environment where his father disparaged Judaism as an “antiquated, distorted and self-defeating religion and an obstacle to their integration into the wider community” and where he was prohibited any contact with the Jewish community. More significantly, he was raised as a Christian. As Abraham later explained, “I had to choose for you. Given the scant value I place on all religious forms, it goes without saying that I felt no inner calling to choose for you the Jewish, the most obsolete, corrupt and pointless of them all. So I raised you in the Christian, the purer form accepted by the majority of civilized people.” On the occasion of the baptism of Felix’s sister, Abraham wrote to her that “we have educated you and your brothers and sister in the Christian faith because it is the creed of most civilized people.” With that background, there can be little surprise that Felix intermarried with the daughter of a Reform Church clergyman.
The Mendelssohns lived in a very difficult time for Jews, and Abraham made the same “compromise” as many Jewish families did at the time: to convert to Christianity to gain citizenship and public acceptance. The situation was perhaps best described by the great poet, Heinrich Heine, also a Jewish convert, who characterized baptism as the “ticket of admission” into European culture.
However, as has always been true throughout Jewish history and as will undoubtedly be the case in the future until the Messianic era, Jews cannot escape their Jewishness and even baptism cannot remove the “taint” of Judaism; as the Nazis illustrated for all time, a Jew remains a Jew in the eyes of antisemites. As such, Felix’s conversion protected neither him nor other “New Jewish Christians” from antisemitism, including that of his “friends” and teachers.
For example, after his baptism, Felix witnessed the 1819 “Hep-Hep” pogroms, in which Germans opposed to Jewish emancipation in the German Confederation murdered Jews and destroyed Jewish property while police stood idly by. A royal prince spat at his feet and exclaimed, “Hep, hep (the pogroms’ rallying cry), Jew boy” and he was subjected to antisemitic taunts. Carl Zelter, Felix’s early composition teacher, intimated that it would be rare indeed “were the son of a Jew to become a great artist,” and his organ teacher, August Bach, responded to Felix’s request to play a Bach fugue by testily admonishing “Why does the young Jew need to have everything? He already has enough!”
Nor did Mendelssohn’s conversion benefit his legacy. Although he was idolized by his contemporaries during his lifetime, Richard Wagner effectively destroyed his public stature when, only a year after his death, he published Das Judenthum in Der Music (“Judaism in Music”), a racist and vitriolic essay directed primarily at Mendelssohn, whose work he maintained was derivative and lightweight because he was a Jew. He held Mendelssohn up as an archetype for how even a Jew with great talent and polish was incapable of creating great music, and he played a leading role in persuading the public that Mendelssohn was little more than a hack.
Mendelssohn’s reputation was even further eroded by the Nazis, who banned his music and tore down all statues bearing his likeness. In one comical incident, Hitler ordered the removal of the Mendelssohn statue from the roof of the Prague opera house, but the workers mistakenly took down the statue of Richard Wagner, whom they believed to be Jewish because of the size of his nose. It was only after the Holocaust that music scholars began to recognize Mendelssohn’s genius and to revive his oeuvre and popularity.
The question of the extent to which Mendelssohn identified with Judaism is still passionately debated, as authorities continue to argue about his self-identification as a Jew, as a Christian convert, or both. Most agree that he believed that Christianity “modernized” Judaism but did not replace it and that his conversion was one of convenience and adaptation rather than religious conviction, but there can be little doubt that he was a committed Christian with strong beliefs in his faith. Nonetheless, he was comfortable acknowledging his Jewish roots; he retained a real sense of his Jewish identity; and his works evidence a high regard for Jewish scripture. He barely mentioned Christianity in his 5,000 letters; in none of them does the name “Jesus” appear; and many of his letters to his family included Yiddish expressions.
Mendelssohn also manifested interest in some Jewish matters, including particularly the issue of Jewish civil rights, which he most likely absorbed from grandfather Moses. For example, after an 1833 visit to England where he observed a House of Commons debate about the adoption of a measure that would reduce remaining restrictions on British Jews (the proposed law was ultimately rejected by the House of Lords), he reported to his family that “a lot of Jew haters had spewed forth all kinds of drivel” but that, nevertheless, Jews were generally better off in England. In a correspondence to his sister, Fanny – herself a musical protégé who composed some 400 works – he condemned those who fought against Jewish civil rights as rohsche (“rasha” in Hebrew, or “evil person”).
The commentators still argue about whether Mendelssohn’s music may be properly described as “Jewish.” He used the traditional melody for Yigdal arranged by Leon Singer, the cantor at the Great Synagogue in London, in one of his string symphonies, and some contend that many of his other works, including the allegro of the Violin Concerto, are distinctly Jewish. Other authorities propose that his Variations Serieuses were suggestive of a blessing sung by Jews during Passover and that the main motif of the chorus of Section 34 of Elijah (“Behold! [G-d] the [L-rd] has passed by!”) uses a melody sung during Yom Kippur services when the Thirteen Attributes of G-d’s Divine Mercy are recited and repeated. There is no evidence that he ever entered a synagogue, but some commentators hypothesize that he must have done so, given his apparent familiarity with some of the cantorial prayers.
Others see Mendelssohn’s Psalm 114 (“When the Jews came out of Egypt . . .”) as a re-affirmation of his Jewish roots and celebration of the triumph of his forefathers. Still others see in his choral music an attempt to bridge Judaism and Christianity as, particularly after his father’s death, he commenced revision of the text of some Christian prayers to deemphasize their antisemitic passages; this is particularly so in the oratorio Elijah, which some see as Mendelssohn’s “return to his Jewish roots.”
The most clearly “Jewish” of Mendelssohn’s works, however, is almost certainly his Die Erste Walpurgisnacht (“The First Walpurgis Night,” published in 1843), a German celebration somewhat analogous to Halloween. It was based upon the famous poem of the same name by Goethe, who deeply admired Mendelssohn, had met him several times, and deeply admired his work and compared him to Mozart. Mendelssohn’s theme in the piece is the triumph of a subjugated and oppressed people in their occupied land, an unmistakable metaphor for the Jewish condition through Jewish history. He also presents Christianity in a negative light, further underscoring the confusing duality of his religious identity.
Mendelssohn was asked in 1843 by the Jewish Neues Temple, a Reform temple in Hamburg, to set some Psalms to music to mark its 25th anniversary. Temple leaders, who apparently had at least some basis to believe that the composer might accept the project, advised him that it would be most appropriate for him to write music for various Psalms using his grandfather’s German translations. Mendelssohn agreed to write a piece for Psalm 100 and he borrowed a copy of Isaac Nathan’s Hebrew Melodies, which certainly suggests that he might be considering writing some music specifically on Jewish themes but, for reasons unknown, it never came to be. (Nathan wrote Hebrew Melodies, which used melodies from the synagogue service, for which Lord Byron enthusiastically wrote the lyrics.)
Even today, the public perception of Mendelssohn’s faith as Jewish or Christian remains unclear, even to the likes of Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, one of the greatest contemporary antisemites and the man who infamously called Judaism “a gutter religion”; Farrakhan played Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto at a music festival, unaware that the composer was Jewish.
At the end of his life, Mendelssohn was planning to compose an oratorio, Moses, which he unfortunately was unable to complete. His Christian funeral, attended by many admirers, featured a 600-strong chorus singing “Christ and the Resurrection.” He was buried in the cemetery of Holy Cross Church in Berlin, and a huge cross marks his grave.