Mendelssohn: A Life in Music Paperback – 24 Mar 2005
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Professor Todd's imposing tome must surely be the last word on Felix Mendelssohn's life and music. It is a remarkable work of reserch and musical scholarship engagingly written and accessible even to a non-music specialist. (Classic FM, The Magazine)
Professor Todd is our most distinguished authority on Mendelssohn ... His new volume gives not only a remarkably full and detailed picture of Mendelssohn's career, but also a rich and satisfying account of the European culture in which he lived out his short life. (Charles Rosen, Times Literary Supplement)
"A highly readable and authoritative account of a brief but remarkably creative life, and an important contribution to Mendelssohn studies."―Hugh Canning, Sunday Times
About the Author
R. Larry Todd was hailed in The New York Times as "the dean of Mendelssohn scholars in the United States". A Professor of Musicology at Duke University, he has published widely on Mendelssohn and his time, and on nineteenth-century music.
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If this reads like an endorsement, it is. I highly recommend the
volume to all who want to know more about Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy.
This excellent and much needed modern biography of this most important musician was written by R. Larry Todd. The author gave the book a perfect subtitle - "A Life in Music" because Mendelssohn's whole life, since his early accomplishments as a prodigy, was devoted to composing, performing, conducting, and championing past composers such as Bach and newer young composers and performers who shared his views on the musical arts. The book makes very enjoyable reading because of the way Todd intertwines the life and the music that came out of it. Mendelssohn, like some but more than many composers, wrote and modified pieces for specific occasions and for certain performers. I found the numerous musical examples to be well chosen and illuminating. However, if you cannot read music, you can still understand what they author is saying form his clear and to the point prose.
Felix's grandfather was the famous philosopher Moses Mendelssohn and his father, Abraham, was a prominent banker so Felix and extremely talented sister Fanny did not have to struggle to develop their talents. Abraham converted to Christianity and his children were raised with a Christian faith. Felix's Protestant faith was clear in his music to the day he died even though that aspect of his life is downplayed too much nowadays. Both Fanny and Felix were brilliant piano virtuosos and Felix was also a virtuoso on the organ and violin. They both composed well, but more emphasis was placed on Felix because he was the male and, from available evidence, the greater genius.
It was natural to compare Felix to Mozart, as young prodigies are too this day. In Felix's case it was a warranted comparison, even if his art was not as transcendent as Mozart's. Felix was a brilliant improviser. While every well trained keyboardist (especially organists) were expected to be able to improvise any number of pieces and styles upon provided material, or on material they made up, the kind of ability that Mendelssohn had in this area was beyond brilliant. He was not only capable of solving canons on the fly or harmonizing and making variations on a chorale, he could also turn the subject into a fugue, a double fugue, and more.
Then there is also his memory. There was a concert series where he was repeating a Schubert trio that he had performed a month earlier. However, the music for the piece was only on the stands for the string players. No problem, Mendelssohn played the piano part from memory. However, in order to not draw attention to himself and make his memory the point of the performance, he had the page turner just reach up and turn the pages of whatever was on the music rack to make it look like he was reading from the score!
He could also draw and paint beautifully. Professor Todd provides us with many beautiful samples of Mendelssohn's work and it is very beautiful. Fanny also married an artist and it was he who drew Fanny shortly before her premature death and Felix upon his death bed a few months later. Mendelssohn traveled widely. Like many other young men from wealthy families, he went on a grand tour of Europe and met many of the important people of his day, both artists and men of position in government and business. He always impressed people favorably because of his personal grace, great talents, and, well, charisma. It was a different kind of magnetism than, say, a Liszt. But Mendelssohn had it nonetheless. People were excited when he walked into a room. Musicians played better under his leadership.
And though I believe Mendelssohn is no less a victim of a change in taste than was J. S. Bach was in Felix's day, I know he is a great composer who deserves more attention than he gets in the current repertoire. His symphonies are of high quality, his piano and organ music has much merit, and his oratorios were highly acclaimed and widely performed even in the mid-twentieth century. His songs were often sung, and his chamber music delighted both performers and listeners. So, what changed? Personally, I believe it is our present addiction to irony and a kind of narcissistic attachment to extremes. Mendelssohn does not offer this and so doesn't speak to many people. His music is full of great craft in counterpoint and harmony; his texts are full of health, love, devotion, pride, and faith. To some nowadays he sounds a bit corny. Like all great artists, he is a mirror in which we see ourselves clearly, but think we judge the artist who is actually above our judgment. And we come off poorly if we do not appreciate his genius.
So, if Mendelssohn is "forgotten" how does he affect our approach to Art Music (Classical Music) today? Simple. He was one of the first to lead the orchestra with a baton from the front, to great positive effect. He helped in the revival of J.S. Bach including the b-minor mass and the St. Matthew Passion. His approach to editing texts for publication looked toward our current standard of printing only what the composer wrote as an "Urtext" with editorial emendations clearly marked and separate if possible. He also helped form several great orchestras and when he traveled he helped raise the level of performers all over the world. These traditions live on. Would that we honor the man who authored them.
It is true that his own tendencies toward perfectionism prevented him from ever settling on a libretto for an opera, something he had always wanted to write. However, he left us much to appreciate and it is our fault if we don't explore his works and perform it in our homes, amateur ensembles, and professional musical organizations.
There is more that I could write, but most importantly go read this excellent book and listen to the music of this great man and genius of music.
It took me three readings to absorb most of the contents; for this biography is densely written, full of fact and detail and without much prose for its own sake. Nevertheless, it is eminently readable with a flowing narrative style and in no sense is it heavy going. That it took me three readings is a (non)function of my failing intellect rather than a comment upon the authorship. Regardless of the serious nature of the subject, this book really is a "good read" in its own right.
One of this work's many strengths is that Todd paints with a very broad brush. His view encompasses the social history necessary to see the Mendelssohns against the background of their particular time and the author does a superlative job in portraying their circumstances in a largely anti-Semitic Germany. However, the focus always remains on this extraordinary musician with a creative life lived on so many levels and embracing so many artistic and intellectual pursuits. Felix Mendelssohn emerges as a rounded, developed figure and not the slightly colourless aesthete which a distorted history sometimes has chosen to portray him.
This is a scholarly, well-edited and proof-read volume; the only mistake I noticed was Wellington at Blenheim. (I'm not an American so might just as easily have put Washington at Bull Run . . !) However, from a purely personal standpoint, I should like to have had a little more information on the organ recitals given in England. Several references are made to his having performed Bach works which he so enthusiastically championed but very few English instruments (C or G compass) of the period had a pedal division enabling them to accomplish this.
In short, a totally absorbing account of the life of a fascinating member of a particularly gifted family. I thoroughly recommend it.
A very serious study of a great composer.
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