The greatness of Mendelssohn
His name looms large in classical music. His works hold a secure place in the repertoire. But there's still the nagging question: Where does Felix Mendelssohn's place among his contemporaries in the first generation of romantic composers?
The answer usually starts by considering what Mendelssohn's music is not. It never approaches the wild individuality of Berlioz. It lacks the poetry of Chopin, the emotional depth of Schumann, the flamboyance and vision of Liszt. As for the egotistical grandiosity of Wagner, who did more than anyone else to drag down Mendelssohn's reputation -- please.
Then, there's the comfortable circumstances of his upbringing, his seemingly untroubled domestic life (though rumors of an affair with Swedish soprano Jenny Lind continue to swirl) and, perhaps most damning, his great popularity in Victorian England. If the Victorians loved him, he must be a reactionary, sentimental lightweight, right? No doubt about it -- Mendelssohn was anything but the quintessential tortured, misanthropic, impoverished, misunderstood romantic genius.
Well, he wasn't fully a romantic at all, if one uses "romantic" to describe composers who forsook classical structures for more poetic and picturesque musical expression. Mendelssohn's métier was the symphony, the concerto, the sonata, the quartet -- the classical forms developed in the eighteenth century, in which purely musical logic takes precedence over extra-musical depiction. In other words, he mostly wrote music that was about music, not about literature, painting or legend. Yes, there are the "Italian" and "Scottish" Symphonies, the "Hebrides" and "Midsummer Night's Dream" Overtures and a few others works that show that Mendelssohn wasn't completely of another time. But like Brahms's, almost a generation later, Mendelssohn's music is exquisitely poised between the classical and the romantic, though Mendelssohn's affinity for classicism was easier and more natural than Brahms's.
And what music! What deftness, grace and mastery! Just listen! Listen to WFCR this afternoon, for instance, to the music for Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream". From the magical opening woodwind chords of the Overture (composed at age seventeen), to the lightness and deftness of the Scherzo, the suave melody of the duet "Ye Spotted Snakes", to the incomparable atmosphere of the Nocturne, to the majesty of the Wedding March -- this is the music of a composer blessed, not cursed, by genius, and who in turn blessed us prolifically and prodigiously with some of the most beautiful sounds ever to caress the ear. If this isn't greatness, what is?