Do All Styles Become Historical? Or Just Those of the Nineteenth Century?

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Mendelssohn, Schumann

In Leon Plantinga’s survey of musical romanticism, “Romantic Music: A History of Musical Style In Nineteenth-Century Europe” he gives vastly greater weight to Schumann than to Mendelssohn.  In fact, he essentially promotes the time-worn and insupportable dismissal of Mendelssohn from the ranks of the truly great, for the time-worn and insupportable reasons of Mendelssohn’s supposedly “conservative” style, considered to have been fueled by the aesthetics of the past, his fortunate social and financial position, and the flawless perfection of his compositional technique, which is almost seen (implicitly, I grant you) as a liability.

But at the very end of his inadequate and even somewhat condescending passage on Mendelssohn, which focusses mainly on the overture to “Midsummer Night’s Dream” and the scherzo from the d minor Piano Trio, he makes a really provocative and interesting comment: “In the later twentieth century, when all the styles of the nineteenth seem historical, there are clear signs of a reawakening interest in the work of this extraordinarily gifted composer.”

Can you imagine a textbook (and that is what this book is, being part of the Norton “Introduction to Music” series) saying that Beethoven, or even Brahms, for heaven’s sake, was “extraordinarily gifted”? Of course not. That would be like saying that water is wet. But when that phrase is applied to Mendelssohn, it either means:

1. Actually, you know, Mendelssohn really wasn’t that bad. His music is sort of good afterall! or,

2. Mendelssohn wasn’t really a great composer.  He was just exceptionally talented.

In fact, Plantinga’s book is excellent on the whole; lucid, informed, and remarkably wide-ranging for an introductory text.  But the only interesting part of Plantinga’s Mendelssohn commentary is the suggestion that styles can “become historical”, which implies that we hear things differently over time, which does seem obvious, and platitudinous to boot, but really isn’t, because by specifying styles of the nineteeth century, he leaves open the notion that styles from other eras are capable of achieving a sort of timeless relevance denied to the romantic era. But it’s also possible that Plantinga is obliquely referring to a general reaction against Romanticism in the first two thirds of the twentieth century, at least among academics, among whom Plantinga is counted, obviously.  I remember being really annoyed in my conservatory days when more than one of my fellow students would make a silly pronouncement to the effect that they didn’t like anything between Beethoven (or even Bach!) and the moderns.  And they would say it with pride. This isn’t personal taste.  It is either ignorance or immaturity.  Or more probably, pretentiousness, which is in fact a sort of immaturity at all times, and at least some of the time it bespeaks ignorance as well.


Schumann’s greatest music is undeniably eccentric.  Mendelssohn’s music is not, because when we apply the standards of the nineteenth century to (for us) strange conceptions such as the yoking of religious sentiment and virtuosity, or pseudo-baroque oratoria, we make allowance for the zeitgeist of the times. Charles Rosen discusses this in his Mendelssohn chapter in The Romantic Generation. For most of the twentieth century, critics (almost unanimously) and many listeners made a cult of “personal style”, which almost by defininiton implies something like eccentricity, or at least, uniqueness.  So perhaps Plantinga is trying to say something along these lines:

“When Schumann’s music was composed, it appeared that its intrinsic eccentricity distinguished it in a way that would allow for the suspension of a historical context, because the music was so inextricably bound up with the unique personality of its creator, as opposed to Mendelssohn, whose aesthetics were, so to speak, more general. But with the passage of time we can see that this was not so, at least for the Romantics.  This means that Mendelssohn’s style is capable of posthumous “rehabilitation”, because the avant-garde quickly becomes the “derriere-garde”, and therefore composers who were formerly considered reactionaries are now in the same boat with the erstwhile ‘experimentalists’.” 

In our own time, it is impossible to tell what is reactionary and what is progressive.  One may scoff, and say “It’s just music. It’s either good or bad, and the application of such categories is meaningless.” I totally and vehemently disagree with that.  The history of style and the relationships between styles, and evaluation of these relationships is a vital part of understanding art.  Brahms, Puccini, and Rachmaninov are no longer old fashioned.  Vivaldi, Scriabin, Cage and Babbitt are newly old fashioned.  And a generation from now? Who knows.  Mendelssohn’s friend, Goethe, said: “The surest sign of sincerity is craftsmanship.” Pretty applicable to the “extraordinarily gifted” Mendelssohn, eh?