As you might know by now, thanks to all the media hype, 2009 marks the bicentennial birthdays of both Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin. But this year also records the 200th anniversary of the birth of another giant of history.
Okay, Felix Mendelssohn’s influence may not be on the same historic level as Lincoln and Darwin. Still, I’m sure there are very few folks who haven’t heard the first strains of the German composer’s Fourth (“Italian”) Symphony (also see above), or his Violin Concerto, or the ubiquitous “Wedding March” from his incidental music to Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Mendelssohn was like a rock star in his day–and he even died at a young age (38), not unlike so many rock legends. Next to Tchaikovsky, Brahms, Chopin, Dvorak, and Sibelius, Mendelssohn is one of my favorite composers from the Romantic era.
I meant to blog sooner on a fascinating story about Mendelssohn that I heard on NPR last week. Conductor Stephen Somary, the founder of The Mendelssohn Project, is engaged in the exciting task of recovering Mendelssohn’s “lost works.” What’s so compelling–and sad–about Mendelssohn’s story is why his works were lost. As Somary put it, after his death Mendelssohn was “posthumously assassinated” by rival composer Richard Wagner, whose anti-Semitism was aimed squarely at the legacy of the Jewish Mendelssohn (even though Mendelssohn’s family had converted to Christianity when he was a child).
Later, during the Nazi regime, Mendelssohn’s name was put on the list of forbidden artists of Jewish descent, and his manuscripts of his works were daringly smuggled out of Germany and around the world by those wishing to preserve the treasure of Mendelssohn’s music. It’s really a thrilling story, worthy of a grand cinematic treatment; I could see it being done similar to Amadeus, the classic film about Mozart. In fact, I’m not sure why Mendelssohn’s story hasn’t been done already. It has passion, pathos, intrigue, and lots of incredible music for the soundtrack. If there are any aspiring novelists out there looking for a fantastic topic to base your book on, you need to check out the Mendelssohn saga.