Last week, I editorialized about Felix Mendelssohn, whose 200th birthday is being marked this year, and how conflicted many Jews feel about this towering talent – truly, a genius – because his parents had him baptized.
He referred to himself, at least on one occasion, as a Jew, and he resisted his father’s demands that he take the name of a Christian convert relative (who had changed his Jewish-sounding name to Bartholdy). Herbert Kupferberg, in “The Mendelssohns: Three Generations of Genius,” notes that his father wrote to him, “A Christian Mendelssohn is an impossibility. There can no more be a Christian Mendelssohn than a Jewish Confucius. If Mendelssohn is your name, you are ipso facto a Jew.”
“Nevertheless,” Kupferberg observes, “Felix continued to use the name Mendelssohn throughout his life. Only in Germany has the composer been invariably listed as Mendelssohn Bartholdy, except in the Nazi era, when his name was banned altogether because he was born a Jew.”
At any rate, the music is marvelous, and Mendelssohn is getting his moment, on the radio, in the concert hall, in the Museum of Jewish Heritage, in The New York Times, and in this week’s New Yorker. Alex Ross writes, in that magazine, words that perfectly express my own feelings about the “Midsummer Night’s Dream” overture, although I have not the musical knowledge and language.
He writes that it is “staggering” and “offers one magical tableau after another: the opening harmonies of winds and horns, their notes gleaming like stars emerging from mist; an elfin scurrying of strings; opulent themes for the royals and a rugged dance for Bottom and the players; and the coda for Puck, which moves beyond comedy into some sphere of transcendent sadness. Rich in feeling, free of excess, it almost sounds like the statement of a wise old man – a musical Goethe, dreaming of youth. That it came from a boy of seventeen essentially defies explanation.”
Go listen, as soon as you get a chance, and try, just try, to keep from dancing.
Meanwhile, I’ve been wondering: I like to blog about classical music and other so-called intellectual arts (even cooking can be intellectual), but can only guess at readers’ tastes. We try to run a diverse arts section, but I’d like to do more, in particular, about classical music. I’d appreciate your input.