Mendelssohn, The Nazis and Me

by Geoffrey Clarfield (May 2012)

In the 1950s and early 1960s as a student of classical singing at the Royal Conservatory in Toronto I was exposed to the full range of European Art music, from Bach to Rachmaninoff. There I learnt that Bach, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Brahms and Bruckner had all come from Germany but so did my pediatrician for that matter, a German Jewish refugee from Hamburg,

Only when I was fifteen and I read a history of the Jews, did I finalize discover that the great German composer, Felix Mendelssohn, was the grandson of the greatest Jewish philosopher of the enlightenment, Moses Mendelsohn. This did not surprise me as I had grown up in a community with a number of schoolmates with the name Mandlsohn or Mendelssohn or variations thereof.

So it was with some sympathy and engagement that I have watched the documentary film Mendelssohn, the Nazis and Me, written and directed by British filmmaker Sheila Hayman in 2009. And what makes this exploration of Mendelssohn’s Jewish identity all the more intriguing, is the fact that Felix Mendelsohn is the great, great, great, great uncle of the filmmaker.

The film explores the Jewish and Christian nature of Mendelssohn, the fate of his relatives during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and the cultural and political reception of his music from the time of his debut as a boy wonder, to the aftermath of WWII. The film goes back and forth between Mendelssohn and his musical/cultural legacy and the fate of his descendants in 19th century Germany, Nazi Germany and up to the present day.

Moses Mendelssohn was the first modern Jewish intellectual (perhaps after Spinoza). He was a brave defender of the equal validity of the Jewish faith to that of the reigning 18th century Lutheran creed that still approved the legal and political subjugation of the Jews of Germany. Given his passionate belief that Judaism was the theological equal of Christianity, we should not be surprised that after he died his son Abraham converted to the Lutheran faith, for baptism was also the key to citizenship and freedom in early 19th century Germany.

His son Felix was a musical child prodigy, recognized by the musicians of his time as a talent equal to that of Mozart. On his 17th birthday his once Jewish grandmother commissioned a hand written copy of Bach’s St. Mathew’s Passion and gave it to the young composer. Mendelssohn was captivated and began the Bach revival that is still with us and which was and is the foundation of this last century’s early music revival.

Mendelssohn said that, “Bach transformed every concert into a church” suggesting that Mendelssohn was devoutly dedicated to his Christian faith as we can see from the viciously anti Jewish nature of his oratorio St. Paul, where the Jews are portrayed as bloodthirsty men and women who cry out for the death of this early evangelist. Some experts argue that later on Mendelsohn made peace with his Jewish origins in his more sympathetic work Elijah. And, there are those who even detect synagogue melodies in other instrumental pieces that he wrote like Songs Without Words.

Mendelsohn died at the age of 38 of a stroke and within a year a young Richard Wagner began to criticize his music. As Germany was caught up in romanticism and soon after 19th century anthropological pseudo science, Wagner argued that Mendelssohn, although a talented musician, lacked depth, as he was not a real German.

The Nazis who ethnically cleansed his music and other German Jewish composers from the concert halls of Germany took up this theme. Yet they allowed Jews to perform his music at the Nazi fabricated Jewish Cultural League during the 30s thus transforming Mendelsohn from a German Christian composer back into a Jewish one. However, they had a harder time finding a substitute for the wildly popular wedding march from Mendelssohn’s musical adaptation of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer’s Night Dream. The Nazis commissioned more than fifty composers to do the job including collaborating composer Karl Orff, but none stuck, and that melody long ago entered Hollywood films and American ritual as the classical background music for a church wedding.

Much of the rest of the documentary shows how Mendelsohn’s descendants, who had all intermarried with Christian Germans for more than a hundred years, barely survived deportation to the concentration camps, for as they were officially labeled ‘half breeds’ by Nazi racial pseudo science, they spent much of the war trying prove that they were less than 50% Jewish.

Although the film maker portrays her father, aunts and uncle as lovable and tragic characters their inability to come to terms with the fundamental nature of the antisemitism of the Nazis and the fundamental goodness of Judaism (the moral opposite of Nazism) is sad, to put it mildly. Her father, brought up to think he was German, discovered as a child in the 30s that the Jews were bad, then discovered that he was a Jew and luckily found refuge in England before the war. During his life he has defined himself at various times as being a Lutheran, Anglican, Quaker or Muslim.

The Nazi assault on Jewish German composers has ancient roots. The development of Western European sacred music gave rise to an ideology that mirrored the theology of Christian supercessionism. Jewish Synagogue music was seen as hostile and immoral noise as contrasted with the serene and blessed harmony of the music of the Church. Jewish music, by implication, had something of the mark of Cain about it in the eyes of Western European Christians.

In her profound treatment of this formerly unrecognized theme in Christian/Jewish musical relations Israeli musicologist Ruth HaCohen (herself a daughter of a German Jewish mother) shows us the complex social history of this Western European theme in her book The Music Libel Against the Jews, Yale University Press, 2011.

The book explores in great depth what she calls the “musical libel…a variation on the Passion Story that recurs in various forms and cultures in which an innocent Christian boy is killed by a Jew in order to silence his ‘harmonious musicality.’”

However there is a deeper irony to the story of Mendelssohn. In 1963 Eric Werner wrote a biography of the composer. Werner himself was a German Jewish composer and musicologist who had escaped Nazi Germany and came to New York during the 30s. His remarkable book The Sacred Bridge makes a strong case for the fact that the Gregorian Chant of the Catholic Church is itself a form of Christianized early Synagogue music and that the Cantus Firmus which forms the basis of most Western European art and sacred music from about 1000 -1500 AD therefore has its musical roots in the Synagogue.

It would appear then that no matter how hard the Nazis tried to get rid of a Jewish influence on Western European art and sacred music, it is nearly impossible to separate the music of the Synagogue from that of the Church, for as Werner argued, they are linked by an unbreakable and most often, unrecognized sacred bridge.


Geoffrey Clarfield is an anthropologist at large.


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