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.

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.

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.

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.

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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