Caught Between the Hammer and the Anvil: Mendelssohn's Reputation

Felix Mendelssohn is the most underrated master in classical music history.  Not as transcendant as Mozart, not as powerful as Beethoven, not as intimate as Schumann, not as poignant as Schubert, not as idiosyncratic as Chopin, not as quirky as Berlioz, Mendelssohn seems to fall between two stools…at least for many listeners.  His technique alone qualifies him for the pantheon.  And technique matters, and not just to musicians.  It’s pretty facile to say, “oh, well, you know, I don’t care about all that fancy technical stuff, I want music that moves me.”  Counterpoint, instrumentation, formal subtlety are rewarding in themselves.  Plus, Mendelssohn is transcendant, powerful, intimate, poignant, idiosyncratic, etc.  He was just too intelligent, too urbane, too refined to allow his music to be dominated by any single characteristic. He doesn’t “wear his heart on his sleeve”.  Mendelssohn requires a listener who doesn’t need to be blown away all the time, a listener who cares about the craft of musical composition.

It is well known that Mendelssohn’s reputation has been deeply harmed by anti-semitism, most famously in Richard Wagner’s screed, “Judaism in Music”.  And everbody knows that his statue in Leipzig was pulled down by the Nazis and his music banned.   But I don’t really think that antisemitism is the principal reason for the relative undervaluing of his work.  I think many listeners impose the wrong (Beethoven or Wagner) context on him.  The right context (Bach and Mozart) may lead listeners to a greater appreciation of his gifts.

Now, one might say, “What are you talking about, Mendelssohn is a staple of the repertory, in concert and on recording.”  My riposte? Mendelssohn is underrated until such time as he achieves the status of Schumann, Liszt, and Brahms, and perhaps he is deserving of the status accorded to Schubert and Chopin as well.  These rankings are a parlor game, I know.  Individual tastes differ, naturally, but it probably should be acknowleged that Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and Wagner are the untouchable four, comprising the benchmarks against which other greats may be measured.  And why have I neglected to mention Haydn? For shame.