All in Class: Mendelssohn & Schumann

A friend lent me Anthony Newcomb’s 1984 article, “Once More ‘Between Absolute and Program Music’: Schumann’s Second Symphony”. The best part of the article is the exhaustive summary of critical reception to the work in the 19th and 20th centuries, and commentaries on the radically different critical climate for Schumann’s work in those centuries.
This may come as a shock to the uninitiated, but conductors alter orchestration all the time, and not just in Schumann. Yes, in Beethoven and Schubert as well, if not usually in Mozart and Mendelssohn. Just go to a rehearsal. In no time you’ll see a conductor ask a clarinet to double a passage for bassoons and horns, or divide the double basses so only half play a scampering figure, or tell the flute to play something an octave lower…
Can you imagine a textbook saying that Beethoven, or even Brahms, for heaven’s sake, was “extraordinarily gifted”? Of course not. That would be like saying water is wet. But when that phrase is applied to Mendelssohn, it either means 1)Mendelssohn really wasn’t that bad. His music is sort of good after all!” or, 2) Mendelssohn wasn’t really a great composer. He was just ‘exceptionally talented.’
Great repertories, such as the mature work of Mendelssohn, the mature work of Hindemith, the mature work of Richard Strauss, almost anything by Rachmaninov, are slighted again and again by the imposition of a progressive narrative on musical history. What’s more old fashioned now, I ask you, Pierrot Lunaire or the Rachmaninov Etudes Tableaux? And I say this as a committed supporter of the aspirations of the so-called “avant garde”; at least where these aspirations are coupled with craftsmanship and sincerity, and as opposed to those composers who attempt facilely to gain a public by making their scores relevant, or as opposed especially to those composers who cynically employ the resources of the past without having been trained in the techniques of the past.
How did Beethoven’s successors respond to his overwhelming prestige, to his inescapable influence? Mendelssohn’s three great Beethoven glosses (Piano Sonata in E Major, op. 6, String Quartets Opp. 12 and 13) are early works. Mendelssohn appears to be more concerned with Bach, Handel and Mozart in most of his latter works, maybe because Beethoven seemed like too big an elephant in the room to the mature Mendelssohn. Is it coincidence that Mendelssohn’s two indisputably great symphonies are placed outside of the Germanic (Beethovenian) orbit, in Scotland and Italy? Is the “Lobegesang” weakened because Mendelssohn is Handelian grandiose, perhaps, but not Beethovenian grandiose?
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…