Why Mendelssohn’s Music Is So Honourable ー Vol.2 (04.Apr.2019)

In the previous blog, we briefly looked at examples of some of the most primary music written by Felix Mendelssohn.

What we found was 1) the reason why Menelssohn’s music is more readily available around us than we might believe, 2) how the simplicity of the motives of his music has the elasticity to develop further to a bigger and richer whole, and 3) how the post-Romantic composers might have benefited from Mendelssohn’s stylistic outlook.

Now, let’s move on to talking about Mendelssohn’s music in terms of religion and having an in-depth observation around its influence on his artistic stance.

Felix Mendelssohn, born on Feburuary 3, 1809 was under the care of a family who’d followed a Jewish genealogy including Moses Mendelssohn (1729~1786) ー a renowned philosopher, Abraham Mendelssohn ― a successful banker and father, and Lea Mendelssohn, singer/piano tutor and mother.

In the attempt of assimilating more to the European society, however, the Mendelssohns makes a critical decision in 1822 ー to begin the process of conversion to Lutheran Protestantism. Just three years later, Felix aged sixteen writes a lengthy “confirmation confession” for Pastor Wilmsen who he received religious instructions from.

*Confirmation confession is a sacrament one needs to go through after being baptized in order to finalize the conversion process.*

Mendelssohn’s confirmation confession, which unfolds with [John 3:16] “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” , reflects a broad and deep understanding of his responsibility and his relationship with God, touching upon following the voice of Christ, sacrifices for the God and the love for the unhappy and the enemies.

You can discover the entire volume of this confirmation confession in Clive Brown’s “A Portrait of Mendelssohn”  (published by Yale University Press, 2003).

Although Wilmsen accepted the confirmation confession, he felt he needed to remind 16-year-old Mendelssohn of staying faithful to the “spirit of truth” above all importance. This, as it seems, would evidently become the underlying factor for the development of his individual and artistic profile.

His faithfulness to the “spirit of truth” is best encapsulated in the account of Edouard Devrient (1801~1877), a dramatist who had close contact with the Mendelssohn family; that Mendelssohn was never able to tolerate one’s misdeeds not only to a human but also to animals such as fish, and one day Mendelssohn admonished his brother Paul to put the fish back into the water that he’d just taken home to have fried for himself, which he eventually did.

So, what’s really there in his own music that we can perceive from his early religious training?

On explaining the parallel between Mendelssohn’s theological identity and his music,  Julius Schubring (1806~1889), a clergyman who was a good friend of Mendelssohn and the librettist for his oratoriospoints out that the first page of every one of his compositions bears impressed on it the initial letter of a prayer.

EX1. The Chorale in the fugue from the “Prelude and Fugue” Op.35 No.1 in E minor


For instance, in the Prelude and Fugue Op.35 No.1 in E minor (of six that he wrote from 1832 to 1837 existing aside from those separately written and published afterwards),  Mendelssohn devotes his time writing the first part of the fugue “as he watched through the night by the bed of his dying friend, Hanstein, and describing the progress of the disease as it gradually destroyed the sufferer, until he made it culminate in the chorale of release in E major” as found in the Ex.1.

Whether the friend passed away or was miraculously saved from the illness at the end is unknown.

Ex2. No.36 Aria from Paulus (St Paul) Op.36



Schubring then goes on to mention that the very best touches in his oratorios result from his delicate tact with reference to Paulus (St Paul) Op.36 completed in 1836.

The words for the air of Paul during the days of his blindness, when he had just been converted before Damascus, for which Mendelssohn, dissatisfied with everything proposed to him, himself hit upon the  51st Psalm, that seems as though it had been written on purpose.

And how did Mendelssohn himself view the link between religion and his artistic dedication?

Mendelssohn once said that sacred music, as such, did not stand higher in his estimation than any other, because every kind of music ought, in its peculiar way, to tend to the glory of God.

There is no clear indication that Mendelssohn often went to church to hear his pastor perform Divine Sevice. However, as we’ve discovered, his music ― in and out of itself, ― manifests his Christian faith in a most spontaneous manner possible. And this is exactly what such magnifient power of his music lies behind.

Quotes: Schubring, Julius “Reminiscence of Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy” On His 57th Birthday, February 3rd 1866″



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