We mark two bicentennial birthdays this month, that of Felix Mendelsohnn (Feb. 3) and Abraham Lincoln (Feb. 12). Lincoln, our martyred 16th president, is being well-eulogized on public television and elsewhere for his great gifts and deeds, so we’d like to draw readers’ attention to Mendelssohn’s.
His protean talents, his gorgeous music, have long drawn conflicted responses from Jewish music-lovers. After all, his parents had him baptized when he was 7 years old and he was a seemingly devout Lutheran. He was also the force behind the restoration to performance life of Bach’s “Passion According to St. Matthew.”
Jews may wish they could call him kin, but they are uncomfortable about his yichus, so to speak.
And yet, it’s pretty clear that he honored his Jewish roots. For instance, against the wishes of his convert father, who wanted him to take the name of a Christian convert uncle, he kept the name handed down by his grandfather, the Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn, though it clearly marked him a Jew.
Also, Ã propos of the “St. Matthew Passion,” Herbert Kupferberg relates in his 1972 book “The Mendelssohns: Three Generations of Genius” that the young composer exulted to the actor Eduard Devrient, who helped him get that work performed, “To think that an actor and a Jew should give back to the people the greatest Christian music in the world!”
The composer Richard Wagner made an issue of Mendelssohn’s Jewishness. As Kupferberg put it, “Wagner himself was too acute a musician to be ignorant of Mendelssohn’s technical talents, so he based his attack on the argument that Mendelssohn, having been born a Jew, was inherently incapable of making high artistic use of his powers.”
Wagner’s “Judaism in Music,” written three years after Mendelssohn’s death, came close to dooming that composer’s works in Germany. The Nazis, of course, banned their performance, burned his scores, and toppled his statue in Leipzig. That’s enough to let him “pass,” for many, into the ranks of his ancestors, whom he never spurned.