Are We Running Out of Victims?

Scripps-Howard News Service 2.12.02
Balint Vazsonyi

We must be running out of victims among the living. Can it be that everyone who feels unappreciated has been accounted for and handed out the place, position, honor, or title coveted?

It must be so, because some people are looking among the dead for the next victim to be adopted as a cause. Their choice, I must admit, seemed weird at first. As any reference book will inform you, Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, epitome of the "golden youth," was as gifted, brilliant, wealthy, fortunate, revered and celebrated as anyone could wish in their wildest dreams. One of the greatest pianists of all time, a composer of immortal masterpieces, a splendid translator of William Shakespeare, and worthy - at the age of 12! - to be presented to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, to whom he proceeded to introduce Ludvig van Beethoven's later symphonies.

At 20, with the revival of Johann Sebastian Bach's "St. Matthew Passion" on the centenary of its first performance, he restored Bach in particular, and liturgical music in general, to the place they have enjoyed ever since. A few years later, the linen merchants of Leipzig turned over their warehouse to him, and he used the opportunity to establish the kind of concert series that, to this day, serves as our model for "a season at the symphony." He combined presenting the best of the old and the new, with a view of educating an audience. The building, called "Gewandhaus," remains a place of pilgrimage.

So why Mendelssohn? He needs discovery about as much as Abe Lincoln. Slowly, it began to dawn on me. Even though his branch had converted to the Lutheran faith, the family was Jewish, famously so, revered far and wide. Still, that opens the possibility of spraying charges of "anti-Semitism" around - a favorite knee-jerk device, second only to "racism." Feminists may be expected to join in, since Felix's beloved sister, Fanny, having received the same exquisite training, went on to compose some good pieces, but - presumably because of the oppressed state of women - nothing remotely comparable to those of her brother.

Environmentalists will claim that Mendelssohn's "Fingal's Cave" Overture was an early attempt to draw attention to the erosion of bedrock by the budding Industrial Revolution. La Raza may not be able to produce a credible Hispanic angle, but credibility has never been of undue concern for that organization. Perhaps they can "uncover" evidence that the famous "Italian" Symphony was meant to be a Mexican symphony.

Enough of the sarcasm.

The sad part of Mendelssohn's story is at the end. He died very young - age 38 - literally of a broken heart. In fairly rapid succession, he lost his parents whose home had always provided refuge, and the sister he adored. He survived her only by a few months.

The rest had to do with composition. Typically, the greatest composers either start with a bang and sustain that level for the rest of their lives, or grow, develop and mature to unimaginable heights, producing their best toward the end. Mendelssohn fits neither mold. Even though he remained prolific, the astonishing brilliance of his earlier works casts a permanent shadow over many of the later ones. Great musician that he was, he knew it. And that is sad, but no amount of Hollywood packaging can change it. Nor does it make him a victim.

Mendelssohn has always had his prominent place in history, as he did in the concert hall. But come now two musicologists (I am not citing names because what these men are doing is a symptom of our times, rather than individual folly) who wish to "correct the record" and create a veritable Mendelssohn industry. Others have been quick to attach themselves.

The disturbing aspect is their contention that Mendelssohn's stature has been sabotaged by the anti-Semitism of Franz Liszt and Richard Wagner, and his treatment by the National Socialists of Germany. They might as well claim (and, perhaps, they will) that Thomas Jefferson's ownership of slaves prevented Mendelssohn from fulfilling his gifts to an even greater extent.

The mere twelve years of Nazi rule seemed interminable for the millions who perished as a result. But in terms of music history, it was less than the blink of an eye. As for Liszt and Wagner, they were engaged in what is known as the "War of the Romantics," between those who retained classical forms for the romantic content (Mendelssohn, Robert Schumann, Johannes Brahms and their followers), and those who - in Liszt's words - argued for "new flasks for the new wine" (Hector Berlioz, Liszt, Wagner and their followers). It was a debate about the future of music, between conservatives and progressives. Characteristically, today's progressives will beat up on yesterday's progressives in a flash if it suits their agenda of the moment.

Surely, the Mendelssohn brigade is familiar with the facts. They also know what history - their expertise, supposedly - teaches us: that life tends to present a bill to those who, like Mendelssohn, seem to have it all at an early age. By soiling the halls of Pantheon with demagoguery, they join the sickening trend of our time: forcing "oppressed minorities" into every discussion.

Worse still, as one who has seen and lived the horrors these men know only via the television screen, I am terrified that some day History will present a bill and, as always, innocents will have to suffer for the rampaging of those who are in our face day and night.