Like Tony Curtis failing to be aroused by Marilyn’s kisses in ‘Some Like It Hot’, I’m finding the current demands that we embrace Mendelssohn as a ‘great’ composer surprisingly resistible. This is partly because they are so often based on ad hominem arguments - as though his (alleged) amorous sufferings, his loss of his sister Fanny, and his posthumous racist character-assassination by Wagner, automatically confer greatness. No, the man is one thing, and his music is quite another.
Some qualities, of course, are undeniable. His personal charm and decency, his elevation of conducting to an art form, and his campaign to rescue Bach’s Matthew Passion from oblivion - all these earn him mountains of brownie points. His precocity was phenomenal, with the string symphony he wrote at 14 being even more astonishing, in its sustained persuasiveness, than the celebrated Octet he wrote two years later. With the Violin Concerto, he found a gorgeous vein of lyricism; his Midsummer Night’s Dream weaves airy magic, while the Hebrides Overture evokes landscape as music had never done before.
But certain thoughts keep recurring to me, which I also sense lurking behind the guarded encomia of his more discriminating apologists. Granted, his music is immensely gratifying to perform: having sung Elijah as a boy chorister, I can vouch for the sheer pleasure of it at an amateur level. The violinists and pianists who devotedly play his concertos – and the list is long and distinguished - find them perfect vehicles for their virtuosity. But rather than simply dwelling on the vehicle’s sleek lines, it can be instructive to look at the works under the bonnet.
Mendelssohn was, as we know, a superb craftsman. Elijah shows how faithfully he absorbed the rhetoric of Bach’s oratorio style, while the string quartets suggest he swallowed late Beethoven whole. But if you place Elijah alongside the Matthew Passion – yes, I know it’s not ‘fair’ – you see the glaring and uncomfortable truth: he got the mechanics of the recitative-duet-chorus mode absolutely spot-on, but somehow they just remain mechanics. We know how rousing this is to sing, but there’s nothing genuinely visceral about the way the chorus express their grief, anger, and hope. Meanwhile, not even Bryn Terfel can breathe the requisite fulminating life into the prophet. Bach’s Passion grows like a giant tree with endlessly proliferating branches, but Mendelssohn’s Elijah – for all its popularity - remains a skilled piece of cabinet-making.
And to lay the chamber music alongside Beethoven’s – yes, again unfair - is to make another painful comparison. There is at all times a muscular, organic quality in Beethoven’s music; despite Mendelssohn’s characteristically manic energy, the driving force in his music seems to be a will disconnected from the gut. When he finds a theme he likes, he has a tendency to flog it to death – transposing it, re-colouring it, restating it till we’re sick of hearing it, as in the first movement of the Octet, where repetition does not equal development.
Mendelssohn also has irritating mannerisms – most notably those trite little staccato runs which sometimes pass for themes (as in the first piano concerto). And what the Germans like to call his ‘elf music’ can tip into self-parody, and can be as trying on the nerves as that unreal and forced facetiousness with which Shostakovich can interlard his grandest, gravest moments. Moreover, for a musical climax to work, it must be ‘earned’ - through a mixture of preparation and organic growth: Mendelssohn’s climaxes can come out of the blue, and disappear back into it, leaving no residue in the mind. He is now being hopefully bracketed with Schubert, but the sad truth is that he doesn’t have a tenth of Schubert’s emotional power. None of these caveats are new, but in the present atmosphere they need restating.
Having had good times with Mendelssohn, I’m not going to put him in the stocks with the glib label ‘shallow’ hung round his neck: surface charm is not nothing, even if it’s a slender justification for a lifetime’s work. But on Mendelssohn the symphonist, contrapuntist, and composer of oratorios, the jury – even after the promotional blitz of the last two weeks – may be out for ever.
Perhaps, in the last analysis, the problem is a psychological one: Mendelssohn was wonderful at expressing the emotions of childhood – wonder and awe – but he never felt at ease with adult emotions. He lost touch with his own genius.