I did a pre-concert talk this past weekend for the Seattle Symphony. After a beautiful opening work by Anna Clyne, the orchestra performed Schumann’s piano concerto and Mendelssohn’s “Scotch” Symphony, easily my favorite of his large-scale works.
An acquaintance who heard that I had given the talk asked what my area of expertise was, and the best I could come up with was “charm.”
Cheeky, I know, but the fact of the matter is, we conductors are generalists who immerse ourselves in research for specific projects for short periods of time, and after enough years and enough projects, all those mini-spates as experts at up to an interesting and personalized view of the repertoire and of music history.
This was a great talk to give because there was so much to explore in the relationship between these great composers. They were total bros! Almost exact contemporaries (Mendelssohn: 1809-1847; Schumann 1810-1856), they both grew up in “Germany,” and they were both on the early edge of Romanticism in music.
And yet, given that narrow set of constraints, they were about as different as you could get. Mendelssohn came from immense wealth and privilege. His grandfather, Moses Mendelssohn was considered the ‘Father of the Jewish Enlightenment’, a period in history when the German states were liberalizing their laws towards Jews, and Jews were liberalizing their stance towards assimilation into German society.
When Moses was born, he was named in the conventional Jewish system as Moses ben Mendel, but he Germanized his surname to Mendelssohn. He raised his children with a very liberal brand of Judaism, such that his son Abraham raised his children—including Fanny and Felix—with no religion at all.
Abraham became a banker, and he went to work at his family’s branch in Hamburg, then an independently governed city-state. There, he set about financing the smuggling operations that would bring an end to Napoleon’s “continental system,” a blockade of goods between Britain and Europe. Fearing retribution when Napoleon’s forces invaded, the Mendelssohn family had to escape Hamburg in disguise under cover of night. Which is how Felix ended up back at his family’s seat in Berlin. (The Mendelssohn & Co. bank lasted well into the 20th century—until, 1938, in fact, when it was liquidated by the Nazis and its assets were folded into Deutsche Bank.)
In Berlin, Abraham and his family were taken in to his wife’s mother’s estate. The maternal line of Felix Mendelssohn’s ancestry is just as interesting as the paternal. His maternal grandfather had been Court Jew to Frederick the Great of Prussia, back when German kings had things such as “Court Jews” (really a type of banker.) Using his clout, this Court Jew was able to convince FGP to liberalize many laws surrounding the Prussian Jewry, including opening up the ghettos.
This grandmother of Felix’s would have an important role to play in music history. The family owned several rare manuscripts, and for Felix’s 17th birthday, she commissioned a new manuscript copy of Bach’s Saint Matthew Passion, which is of course the work with which Felix would inaugurate the modern Bach revival.
Robert Schumann, on the other hand, did not come from a wealthy background. His father was a bookseller, and young Robert’s earliest ambitions were literary. He thrilled to the novels of Jean Paul (whose Titan was similarly adored by Gustav Mahler) and the poetry of Goethe, Rilke, and Heine. He came to music late, and didn’t have a proper piano lesson until he was 19.
His piano teacher was Friedrich Wieck of Leipzig, and it was at Wieck’s house that young Robert would meet a child named Clara. Clara was on her way to becoming a virtuoso pianist; by the age of 18, she would be appointed “Imperial Concert Pianist” to the Hapsburg Emperor. (Another long-gone courtly title, although it should be noted that the Prince of Wales still employs an official harpist.)
After several years in close quarters, Robert and Clara fell in love, and this is where things became challenging. Herr Wieck did not feel that Robert—a poor young piano student with dreams of composing but little to show for himself—was a worthy match for his daughter, already a star on the European musical stage. And thus he launched into a lengthy court proceeding to keep the two apart.
This is where Mendelssohn steps into the story. Robert and Felix had become friends and admirers of one another during the 1830’s, in spite of the fact that when they first met, Mendelssohn was already an adept composer, pianist, and conductor, and Robert had only a few unpublished compositions to his name. (Not to mention the fact that he had rendered his right ring finger totally lame by trying to speed up his muscular development with a hack gadget called the chiroplast.)
And yet, Robert and Clara found a way. They mainly carried out their clandestine romance via musical composition. Clara, as we all know, was herself a distinguished composer. While she was under lock and key, forbidden to see her beloved Robert, she would compose piano pieces that were coded with motifs that had private meanings between her and Robert. Robert would then work these same motifs into his own piano works and arrange to have them delivered to Clara. Old Herr Wieck simply heard Clara practicing new works, and was none the wiser.
Oh right, back to Mendelssohn. Wieck mounted an outright defamation campaign against Robert Schumann, so much that Robert had no recourse except to countersue his father-in-law-to-be. First on the list of character witnesses for the prosecution: Felix Mendelssohn.
Their bromance was one for the ages. They visited and wrote to one another often. Felix likely conducted* the first read-through performance of Robert’s Phantasie for piano and orchestra, which would later become the first movement of the piano concerto. (*Sources differ; some say it was Ferdinand David.) When Felix died at the tragically young age of 38, Robert was one of the pall bearers at his funeral.
The two also wrote pieces that begin in a dreary a minor and end in a triumphant A major, Schumann’s piano concerto and Mendelssohn’s Scotch symphony. (Mendelssohn, however, has the distinction of having the only work in the standard repertoire that begins in major and ends in the tonic minor: his “Italian Symphony.”)
The Scotch is my personal favorite of Mendelssohn’s five symphonies. It’s another one of those cases where the numbering is out of order: though he conceived of it as early as 1829, he didn’t complete it until 1842, making it the last—i.e. the 5th—of his symphonies that he would bring to completion.
The original conception came from a trip that he took to Britain at the age of 20. Mendelssohn went there in order to perform and conduct his own music in London, where he was a huge hit. After that, he and a friend took a pleasure tour of the north of Britain, hitting the major Scottish industrial centers as well as its craggy coasts.
As you probably know, the Hebrides made a major impression on the composer, but so did the derelict ruins of the Holyrood palace chapel.
Of COURSE Mendelssohn was obsessed with this place. It was the most prototypical Romantic-with-a-capital-R site imaginable: a Gothic ruin, decaying and being taken over by nature, not to mention the site of the crowning of Queen Mary, whose story had been immortalized in a play by Goethe. There is literally NOTHING more Romantic that he could have stumbled upon, and so he wrote the opening bars of this symphony as a memento of that visit.
Schumann’s a minor-to-major piano concerto also has a deeply personal story. Naturally, it was written for Clara, shortly after they were married (she played that first, perhaps-conducted-by-Mendelssohn reading while 8 1/2 months pregnant.) The piece can easily be read as a retelling of their courtship. The stormy opening that seems to capture the moment when they were torn apart by Friedrich Wieck. Then the moody opening melody, based on the notes “C-B-A-A,” or in German “C-H-A-A,” which, if you fill in a few gaps, gives you “C-H-i-A-r-A”—”Chiara” or Italian for “Clara”. (I know it sounds far-fetched, but let me assure you: they were into stuff like this.)
The second movement reads as the delicate flirtation between two coquettish people who are taken to flights of fancy together. And of course the finale has the character of a romp, full of joy and optimism, perhaps reflecting their recent nuptials.