Felix Mendelssohn: A Complex Legacy

It would be impossible to reflect on on the legacy of the composer Felix Mendelssohn without also considering the impact of his Jewish heritage and the deep-rooted anti-Semitism of his times.

Felix was born into a prominent German-Jewish family. His grandfather, Moses Mendelssohn (1729-1786), was a philosopher— a leader of the German Jewish Enlightenment— whose Schutzjude (“Protected Jew”) status enabled him to break out of the ghetto and live with his family in Berlin. 

Portrait of Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy by Eduard Magnus, 1846
(Public Domain)

Several years after Moses’s death, Jews were by edict emancipated across the German Federation. But its protections were either fleeting or in name only, with so-called “emancipated” Jews still excluded from Germany’s intellectual and cultural life. 

The result, not surprisingly, was a wave of conversions to Christianity among wealthy and acculturated Jews, including the poet Heinrich Heine (1797-1856); the revolutionary Karl Marx (1818-1883)(through his parents); composer and Beethoven confidante Ignaz Moscheles (1704-1870); and four of Moses Mendelssohn’s six grown children.

Among the four: Moses’s son Abraham and his wife Lea (née Salomon), who appended the Christian name “Bartholdy” and raised their four children in true privilege—employing esteemed tutors and music instructors who quickly recognized the talents of Felix and Fanny. 

By age fourteen, Felix had already composed over a hundred musical works, including a string symphony, several of them published. At fifteen, he wrote his first major work for full orchestra: Symphony in C minor, leading his instructor, (Beethoven’s friend) Herr Moscheles, to exclaim that he had little else to teach his young student.

At twenty-eight, Felix married the extraordinarily beautiful Cécile Jeanrenaud, daughter of a French Protestant clergyman. By all accounts it was a happy marriage that produced five children, three of whom survived to adulthood.  

Portrait of Cecile Mendelssohn Bartholdy, by Eduard Magnus, 1846 (Public Domain)

And other than a wry exclamation around his re-discovery of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion (“To think it took…the son of a Jew to revive the greatest Christian music for the world!”), little exists to suggest any inner turmoil between Mendelssohn’s Jewish roots and his Christian faith. 

Still, whatever the truth of his religious convictions, even his apparent embrace of Lutheranism could not protect him (or any other “New Christian” for that matter) from anti-Semitic tropes and barbs.  

When, as a young teen, Felix asked to examine a Bach fugue, his teacher, August Wilhelm Bach (no relation to J.S.) reportedly barked,  “Why does the young Jew need to have everything? He already has enough.”

In private correspondence between his acquaintances Robert and Clara Schumann, Schumann warned his wife not to be too solicitous around Mendelssohn because  “Jews will always be Jews… [who] take a seat ten times for themselves” before giving one up to a Christian. 

During his brief thirty-eight years, Mendelssohn created an extraordinary body of work.  He conducted music festivals throughout Europe, and was hosted at salon concerts given by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert (who occasionally sang along). Beyond music, his crowning achievement was the founding of the Leipzig Conservatory—Germany’s oldest university of music. 

But after Mendelssohn’s death in 1847, a rising tide of German nationalism made his music an easy target—his luminous, crowd-pleasing piano compositions branded him a lightweight. Others were swayed by Richard Wagner’s vitriolic screed, “Judaism in Music,” which characterized Jews as incapable of creating great art. He also characterized Mendelssohn as a Jew who stood “outside the pale of German art-life.”

“Outside . . .” That implication would undermine Mendelssohn’s legacy as a composer, and less than a century later, seal the fate of millions of Jews across Europe.

The British music writer Tom Service calls Mendelssohn “the biggest blind spot in classical music.” He encourages listeners to get beyond the impeccable craft of his music, to take in its originality, clarity, and profound emotional sweep. 

Mendelssohn forms a crystalline bridge between the classical and romantic periods. But great music transcends time and place, politics and religion— requiring of the listener neither historical perspective nor erudite analysis. Sometimes all you need to do is get comfortable, close your eyes, and let yourself be transported.

Featured photo by Steffen_F at iStock by Getty Images

This article first appeared on aconyc.org and was reprinted with permission from the American Classical Orchestra.