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The Teen Genius Who Set the Faith to Music

8 November, 2014 0 Comments

by R. J. Stove, reprinted by kind permission of the UK Catholic Herald.

Mendelssohn’s extraordinary Catholic-inspired works

O for a beaker-full of the warm South – John Keats

Even the freakishly well-read Felix Mendelssohn (he used the double-barrel appellation ‘Mendelssohn-Bartholdy’ with reluctance, when he used it at all) seems not to have known Keats’s poems. But Italy exercised over the composer, as over the poet, an irresistible magnetic pull. During 1830, the year he turned 21, he ceased his efforts at defying it. To his father Abraham, without whom the trip would have remained financially impossible, Felix wrote from Venice in October:

This is Italy! And now has begun what I have always thought… to be the supreme joy in life. And I am loving it. Today was so rich that now, in the evening, I must collect myself a little, and so I am writing to you to thank you, dear parents, for having given me all this happiness.

No stranger to foreign parts (he had already made that voyage to Scotland which moved him to compose The Hebrides overture), the young Mendelssohn prepared himself for Italian climes with typically self-punitive thoroughness. By the time he ventured from home, he had acquired a knowledge of Catholicism’s sacred music – Palestrina’s, above all – which, even then, put many an actual Catholic to the blush. Still more striking is the hold which Catholic culture had already begun to exercise upon his creative imagination when he had not yet left his teens.

We find his sister Fanny revealing as early as Christmas 1827 to a family friend, Karl Klingemann, the present Felix had given her: a motet of his own composition, in no fewer than 19 voices, to the alarming text Tu es Petrus. This marked but one of the numerous instances in which Mendelssohn enriched the Latin liturgy of a religion which he never accepted. Until such recent biographers as America’s R. Larry Todd and England’s Mary Allerton-North supplied the relevant data, Mendelssohn’s Catholic-inspired music could easily be overlooked. This neglect is no longer tenable.

The notion (often the dread) that Felix would swim the Tiber aroused substantial comment in his own day. Fanny worried about the consequences of such a conversion, in terms of Berlin gossip. She fretted without cause, but her trepidation can readily be comprehended. As early as 1822, Felix had produced an extraordinarily profound Latin Magnificat. To a certain extent, he meant this as a tribute to a pair of earlier Latin Magnificat settings by unquestioned Lutherans: C.P.E. Bach’s of 1749, and the much more renowned masterpiece of C.P.E.’s father from 26 years earlier. But Mendelssohn’s setting would be perfectly suited to a Tridentine Rite – on the admittedly optimistic assumption that an orchestra and choir of sufficient fleet-footed professionalism could be obtained – and it contains not the smallest hint of a histrionic secularist ‘slumming’ for ecclesiastical purposes. Most of us were totally unaware of its worth until it appeared on a Naxos CD of 2009. Given that Mendelssohn wrote it at the grand old age of 13 – yes, 13 – its mixture of panache and propriety will inspire in all sensible listeners the same verdict that Dr Johnson’s wife passed upon his Rambler essays: ‘I thought very well of you before; but I did not imagine you could have written anything equal to this.’

Mendelssohn openly disavowed any intention of becoming a Catholic. Yet those who thought they could win his approval by insulting Catholicism soon received a painful shock. He had, as he himself put it, ‘harsh words to say about anyone – such as the people of Rome – who desecrate any of the ceremonies and functions of the Church of Rome.’ Disrespect towards the Eternal City’s great visual art especially exasperated him:

Right in the middle of Michelangelo’s Last Judgment an altar has been erected, so large that it obscures the very centre of the picture, and it ruins the whole … Cattle are driven through the wonderful rooms of the Villa Madama, where Giulio Romano painted the frescoes, and where hay is stored. The people are indifferent and it must grieve these artists more than awful music grieves me; it is no wonder they take no pleasure in art; their spirit has probably been besieged and destroyed. They have a pope and a government, but make fun of them. They have a splendidly beautiful history, but pay no attention to it.

From Mendelssohn’s Italian reportage one gains the distinct impression that Catholicism urgently needed someone like himself in the papal chair, to smack around the sluggards, blasphemers, time-servers and idiots. Clearly, the actual pope at this stage, Pius VIII, could not be trusted with the job. From another Mendelssohn letter home:

The pope is dying, or possibly dead by this time. ‘We shall soon get a new one,’ say the Italians cruelly. His death will not affect the [February] Carnival, nor the Church festivals … They care little, provided the pope’s death does not take place in February.

Admittedly, Mendelssohn did find congenial spirits among a few local priests: Giuseppe Baini, Palestrina’s biographer, and Fortunato Santini, who sported an unlikely enthusiasm for the St Matthew Passion’s score. But Rome’s German-born Nazarene painters moved Mendelssohn to ‘a particular aversion,’ especially when during the anti-clerical troubles of 1831 they shaved off their hitherto ostentatious New Testament beards and moustaches. To quote Professor Todd: ‘Felix found the tonsorial adjustments hypocritical.’ And he considered the papal choir to be ‘too much for a Lutheran upbringing … born of Jewish parents.’

However that might be, while still in Rome Mendelssohn completed an eight-part, accompanied Ave Maria (included, incidentally, on that same Naxos disc as the Magnificat). No one save Mendelssohn could so well have captured the Baroque religious spirit without mere pastiche. Scarcely a single chord in the work would have surprised any musician of 1700. But by a paradox which Mendelssohn often exemplified elsewhere (above all in the Bach-influenced Six Organ Sonatas), deliberate homages to the past increased, rather than diminishing, his own originality. While this Ave Maria has never been altogether forgotten, too many Catholic choristers are still unaware of it. They should repair this omission.

Near the end of his life, Mendelssohn returned to Latin word-setting for a special occasion so important to him that he even broke off work on Elijah in order to accommodate it. There fell in 1846 the 600th anniversary of the Corpus Christi feast. This feast’s original connection with Liège (given the crucial role played in that city by St Juliana) prompted the local parish of St Martin to give Mendelssohn’s version of Lauda Sion its première. Visiting Belgium especially for the event, the composer bewailed the performance’s shortcomings – not for the first time, he had made insufficient allowance for the non-genius mindset – but voiced the hope that he would hear a more adequate rendition somewhere else. The hope proved vain. A year and a half later he was dead, mainly from overwork. But nothing about his Lauda Sion bespeaks either mortal fatigue or insincere note-spinning. And though he alludes to plainchant melody, he eschews the traps of mere copy-cat antiquarianism as completely here as he did in the Magnificat a quarter-century beforehand.

It is tempting to liken Mendelssohn’s periodic philo-Catholicism to that of another boy wonder from his age: Macaulay, his senior by less than a decade. Alas for Teutonic dreams of ‘elective affinity’, the mainstream literature reveals not a particle of evidence that the great composer and the great historian ever met. John L. Clive’s Thomas Babington Macaulay: The Shaping of the Historian (1973) makes only a fleeting reference to his subject’s Italian voyaging and remains silent about whatever musical enthusiasm Macaulay might have felt. Sir Arthur Bryant, in his much shorter and more populist Macaulay (1932), specifically deplores his subject’s distaste for concerts and opera, a distaste which Bryant understandably found curious, given Macaulay’s beguiling verbal music. But surely it can be argued that Mendelssohn’s identification with Catholicism’s heritage resembled that great vision – once familiar to every literate English schoolchild, however Romophobic – with which Macaulay, despite himself, saluted that heritage?

There is not, and there never was on this earth, a work of human policy so well deserving of examination as the Roman Catholic Church. The history of that Church joins together the two great ages of human civilisation. No other institution is left standing which carries the mind back to the times when the smoke of sacrifice rose from the Pantheon, and when camelopards and tigers bounded in the Flavian amphitheatre. The proudest royal houses are but of yesterday, when compared with the line of the Supreme Pontiffs. … She was great and respected before the Saxon had set foot on Britain, before the Frank had passed the Rhine, when Grecian eloquence still flourished at Antioch, when idols were still worshipped in the temple of Mecca. And she may still exist in undiminished vigour when some traveller from New Zealand shall, in the midst of a vast solitude, take his stand on a broken arch of London Bridge to sketch the ruins of St Paul’s.

Organist R. J. Stove is the author of César Franck: His Life and Times (Scarecrow Press, Maryland, 2012). This article originally appeared in The Catholic Herald [London] on 24 October 2014.

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