The Jew in Felix Mendelssohn (1809–1847)
We all know the enthralling and charming incidental music to Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream, including the Wedding March, which is so often played at weddings. Equally famous is the Violin Concerto in E Minor, which the world's leading violinists until this day treasure as equal to the violin concerti of Beethoven, Mozart, Brahms, Bruckner and Tchaikovsky, as well as the Scottish Symphony and the Italian Symphony.
The composer of these masterpieces was born a Jew, the grandson of the great Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn. His name is Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, better known as simply Felix Mendelssohn. Felix was baptized as a Lutheran Protestant as a young boy. How could this have happened, and what connection did he maintain with Jews and Judaism through his short life?
Felix Mendelssohn was born into a very tortuous period in Jewish history. The French Revolution, which broke out in 1789, inspired by the American Revolution a few years before, had kindled the flame of freedom in Europe. Napoleon, a son of that Revolution, brought with him the ideas of the French Revolution wherever he took his armies, especially in Italy and Germany. In those countries he introduced emancipation and equality for Jews as a matter of priority. Walls of ghettos crumbled and Jews suddenly were given access to European culture.
Even after the French armies were defeated and withdrew to France, the ideas of democracy and freedom stayed on. The old conservative circles in Europe, beholden to the reactionary policies of the Church and the aristocracy, were not amused by these innovations. And their animosity to the new winds of freedom extended to assimilated Jews, who had penetrated the academic and commercial life of Europe and in whom they saw the French enemy. The only consolation to many Christian anti-Semites was that through assimilation, which the emancipation had brought about, all Jews—they thought—would convert and become Christians. That would put an end to the "Jewish problem."
What actually happened? Well, many Jews did convert, but the majority remained Jews. When the converted Jews hoped to be accepted as full-fledged Christians with their Jewish pasts forgotten, they were soon shocked by the emergence of racism, which made being of "pure race," not religion, the criterion for acceptance in Christian society. By the end of the 19th century, this kind of racist anti-Semitism had planted the seeds of Hitler's ideology, and the subsequent Holocaust.
The confrontation between Judaism and European culture thus was the watershed for the Jews of Europe: Would they succumb and convert, or would they bring about an amalgam of Torah and European culture? The three outstanding personalities who had to face that dilemma in the 18th and early 19th centuries were Moses Mendelssohn of Berlin, Chacham Bernays of Hamburg, and Samson Rafael Hirsch of Frankfurt. The first two failed to bring about the continuation of their teaching; their offspring largely converted and disappeared as Jews. Hirsch, however, succeeded totally. At a recent reunion of Hirsch descendants, 3,000 people gathered—all of whom to this day are Orthodox Jews. How can this be explained? The case of Moses Mendelssohn and his grandson, Felix, provides an answer to this question.
Moses Mendelssohn (1729-1788), a hunchback born in Dessau, moved to Berlin in 1743 and there created a sensation with his sharp wit, brilliant philosophical discourses and books. He consorted with all the great minds of his day, almost all Christians. In a contest announced by the Royal Academy in 1753, papers on a philosophical subject were submitted anonymously. Among the contestants were Mendelssohn and Immanuel Kant. Mendelssohn came out Number One, while Kant came out far down on the totem pole.
Mendelssohn wrangled with the reconciliation of his own rationalism with the classical Jewish philosophers, especially Maimonides. In a seminal paper by my late son Jamie, z"l, titled "Maimonides, Mendelssohn, and the Me'asfim," a widely quoted, brilliant study, he established that Mendelssohn revealed his diversion from Orthodox Jewish thinking when he disagreed with Maimonides over the question whether doctrines of faith could be the subject of religious legislation, as in the Mishneh Torah.
Although Mendelssohn for many years pretended that his philosophy was in harmony with that of Maimonides, he finally had to admit that he had strayed from traditional Jewish beliefs. Freedom of belief was paramount to Mendelssohn's philosophy. Thus, even though he is remembered for his translation of the Torah into German, his influence on future generations was not constructive. This can best be seen in the upbringing of his own children.
Of his six children, four ultimately converted—except Joseph and a daughter, Recha. Moses Mendelssohn characterized each of his children, finding his son Abraham to be of mediocre intelligence, while his son Joseph was brilliant. He therefore neglected the Jewish upbringing of Abraham and concentrated all his efforts on Joseph.
A great talmudist, Rabbi Salomon Dubno, a disciple of the famous Rabbi Shlomo Chelma, had come to Berlin to be close to Moses Mendelssohn, who hired him as a tutor in his home. I recently acquired an interesting manuscript: the diary of Rabbi Dubno, in which he meticulously recorded his activities for every day that he spent in Berlin. Therein he lists the lessons he gave Joseph Mendelssohn—mostly Hebrew grammar.
No mention is made of Abraham. As a result Abraham was not armed for the onslaught of the assimilation and lure of Christianity that surrounded Jews at the time. After his father's death Abraham and his children, including Felix, converted to Lutheranism. Abraham even disparaged Judaism as an "antiquated, distorted and self-defeating religion." What a paradox that the son of one of Judaism's great thinkers would have so misunderstood his ancestors' faith! The difference between Mendelssohn and Hirsch can therefore be seen in the stress on education for one's own children: Mendelssohn neglected his own children's upbringing, while Hirsch knew that his own children's education came before that of any one else's.
The Mendelssohn family had always been saturated with culture. Many of them created "salons" in Berlin where the intelligentsia of Germany would congregate and exchange gossip and their new ideas. Moses Mendelssohn himself had a keen sense for music and stressed its pursuit in some of his writings. No wonder that Felix grew up in a home where music was an integral part of the home atmosphere. He started out as a pianist, as Mozart had done a few decades before him. Then he turned to composition. He traveled widely and was inspired wherever he went to compose on local themes. After he was received by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert in London, he spent some time in Scotland and the Hebrides Islands, far in the North of Scotland, where he was inspired to compose the famous Hebrides Overture.
Throughout his life Felix stayed in close contact with all members of his family, including his Jewish uncle, Joseph, and his cousins. Abraham and Joseph had founded the very successful Mendelssohn Bank, which flourished until the days of Hitler. Felix Mendelssohn had an especially close relationship with his uncle Joseph, who had been the most scholarly of the Mendelssohn children.
In Felix's voluminous letters there is hardly a mention of Christianity. Felix was a Jew until 1816 when he was baptized at the age of 7, while his parents remained Jews until 1822 when they, too, were baptized. Felix was almost bar mitzvah age in that year.
It is no wonder that Felix's Christianity was no more than skin deep. Lutheranism is the least ceremonial and dogmatic of Christian faiths; therefore, the transition from Reform Judaism to Lutheranism was not a great leap. Even today, Reform Judaism, which has divested itself of all basic components of observance of our commandments, is in a sense nothing more than Christianity without Jesus.
Felix Mendelssohn's father had chosen a new family name after the family's conversion: Bartholdy. But Felix refused to adopt it, in deference to his grandfather and the Jewish family tradition of which he was proud. So he compromised by al- lowing himself to be called Mendelssohn-Bartholdy.
Some of Felix Mendelssohn's music gives hint of his deep immersion in the Bible. His greatest oratorio, "Elijah," is filled with verses from the Bible. He composed separate choral works for Psalms 19, 100, 66, 115, 42, 95, 114 and 98, in this order. And one of his compositions was titled "Israel in Egypt."
Besides his family, Felix Mendelssohn also socialized with the well-known Jewish banker, Salomon Heine, the uncle of the famous bard, Heinrich (Chayim) Heine—also a convert of convenience—who retained his Jewish consciousness very conspicuously throughout his poems. (When a childhood friend once asked Heine if he really believed in Jesus, he answered: "Have you ever met a Jew who has faith in another Jew?")
I recently heard Mendelssohn's String Quartet in E-flat Major, Opus 12, and was struck with the Jewish-sounding themes, especially in the first movement, which could have been taken out of the Kol Nidre melody. It has been said that Felix Mendelssohn had hopes to somehow combine the rationalism of his grandfather with "Christian rationalism." Since the latter hardly exists, it is likely that he was frustrated in his search for an amalgamation of Judaism and Christianity. In short, he was frantically trying to rationalize and justify his parents' conversion, without finding a satisfactory answer.
Meanwhile, he suffered much from anti-Semitism, since the Christians—just as in the case of his contemporary, Benjamin Disraeli, who was also a convert—continued to see the Jew in him. One of his leading enemies was Richard Wagner, who pretended that there was no originality or genius in Mendelssohn's music. Anyone familiar with Mendelssohn's wonderful music, whether for orchestra, chorales or single instruments, knows that only a mind warped by hatred and anti-Semitic prejudice could make such a judgment. As we know today, Mendelssohn's music has remained more popular than Wagner's pompous, muddled and sometimes obscure music.
Mendelssohn was an extremely modest and unassuming man. Although he was aware of his talent, he always thought that his success was also due to an element of luck. In those days a composer needed a sponsor who would finance him and fund the printing of his music. Luck was required to find such a sponsor. I once saw, when I was a very young child, an inscription on a house in Germany, which I have never forgotten: "Ohn' Glück und Gunst ist Kunst umsunst" (Without luck and the favor of a sponsor, art is in vain.)
Mendelssohn was planning to compose an oratorio, "Moses," which, however, he never finished. In it he wrote, "O. that help might befall Israel and G-d save His chosen people." In his oratorio, "Elijah," there are also many verses invoking help for the People of Israel: "G-d's mercies on thousands fall, on all of them that love Him, and keep His commandments." It is certain that Mendelssohn knew what was meant by these "commandments"—the Jewish mitzvot, which Christianity under Paul had discarded.
Felix had a sister, Fanny, who was an accomplished pianist and composer. In the climate of those days, a female composer could not get the share of attention that she deserved. But her brother Felix was very close to her throughout his life. And when Fanny suddenly died in 1847, it was a great shock to him. A few weeks later he, too, died.
Like other great composers—Mozart, Schubert, Chopin—Mendelssohn died in his thirties. We must lament the great loss of further productions that his enormous genius might have produced if he had lived longer. But we must be justly proud and grateful for the great music that this greatest of all Jewish-born composers left behind for us. And that genius was in no small part imbued in him through the genius of his remarkable grandfather, Moses Mendelssohn, about whom some said, "From Moses to Moses to Moses there was none like Moses" (referring to Moshe Rabbeinu, Rambam and Mendelssohn).
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