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Music in the Nineteenth Century


CHAPTER 3 Volkstümlichkeit
Richard Taruskin

As already hinted in Schumann's comparison with Mozart, Felix Mendelssohn was arguably the greatest composing prodigy in the history of European music. He was not exploited by his parents the way Leopold Mozart exploited Wolfgang. He was not taken on concert tours as a child and did not develop an early freakish fame. Nor, though coming close (with fourteen symphonies for strings and one for full “classical” orchestra completed by his sixteenth birthday), did he quite have the child Mozart's amazing facility. But it was not until the age of nineteen, with his violin concertos of 1775, that Mozart began writing music in a style, and of a quality, that was entirely his own, while Mendelssohn produced works as early as the age of sixteen that have to be considered mature masterpieces, the equal of anything anyone was writing at the time.

His Octet (or double quartet) in E♭ major for strings, op. 20 (1825), and especially his Overture to Shakespeare's Midsummer Night's Dream, op. 21 (1826), originally written as a piano duet, treat extended forms with complete mastery, and are stylistically original to boot. The Overture, particularly its opening section with its depiction of Shakespeare's fairies, sounded a new note of “fantastic romanticism”—a light, scurrying, “elfin” style to which Mendelssohn returned repeatedly in later life (almost always, curiously enough, in the key of E), and that, though widely imitated, remained his virtually patented property (Ex. 3-20).

His infatuation with Bach and Handel, nurtured by his rigorous, counterpoint-saturated training with Zelter, is also reflected in his earliest compositions, not only in purely academic exercises (for example, a long series of fugues for string quartet) but also in his first masterpiece. The climactic moments in the Octet's fugal finale (Ex. 3-21) are crowned by exuberant quotations from Handel's Messiah (“And He shall reign forever and ever” from the Hallelujah Chorus), which are later subjected to a very rigorous and complicated contrapuntal development.

Epilogue: Two Prodigies

ex. 3-20a Felix Mendelssohn's “elfin” style, opening of Midsummer Night's Dream Overture, Op. 21 (1826), mm. 8-15

Epilogue: Two Prodigies

ex. 3-20b Felix Mendelssohn's “elfin” style, opening of Rondo capriccioso, Op. 14 (1827), mm. 1-4

Epilogue: Two Prodigies

ex. 3-20c Felix Mendelssohn's “elfin” style, Violin Concerto, Op. 64 (1844), beginning of last movement, mm. 3-10

Epilogue: Two ProdigiesEpilogue: Two Prodigies

ex. 3-21 Felix Mendelssohn, Octet, Op. 20, IV, mm. 22-33

These examples, impressive as they are, have a down side from the most exigently romantic point of view. They give evidence that Mendelssohn never outgrew his precocious youthful style. Like many musicians from highly cultured, affluent families, used to having his material and emotional needs easily met, he remained stylistically conservative and expressively reserved, disinclined to use his music as an outlet for the display of “inwardness” or strong personal emotion, and feeling no need to attract attention with a display of “revolutionary” novelty. Throughout his short career he remained comfortably faithful to the musical status quo—that is, the “classical” forms, as they were already thought of by his time. His version of romanticism, already evident in his earliest works, consisted in musical “pictorialism” of a fairly conventional, objective nature (though exquisitely wrought), and in a predilection for a “national character” that was as often exotic as German.

Thus two of his five mature symphonies, in the spirit of Herder, incorporate volkstümlich souvenirs from countries to which he had traveled: no. 4 in A major (1833) ends with a finale in tarantella style and is called the “Italian,” while no. 3 in A minor (1842) incorporates highland tunes and is called the “Scottish.” (As the dates indicate, Mendelssohn's symphonies were published in an order that had little to do with their actual chronology.)

The one genre in which Mendelssohn could be regarded as a pioneer arose to suit a need created by his practical activity as conductor and concert programmer: the so-called concert overture, a freestanding, poetically titled orchestral piece (usually in something akin to “first movement” or “sonata” form) that served as a curtain raiser to a concert rather than an opera. The one most frequently played today is another Scots-inspired piece, Die Hebriden (The Hebrides; also known as “Fingal's Cave”), composed in 1830, when Mendelssohn was twenty-one. In 1842, Mendelssohn added several additional pieces, including the famous Wedding March, to his Midsummer Night's Dream Overture to make up an incidental score that could either be used to decorate the play or be performed in its own right as a suite.

Mendelssohn, in short, although he played a highly visible part in the general discourse of romanticism (especially its nationalistic strain), was anything but a “poète maudit.” His was the music of a well-adjusted, self-confident social animal, embodying civic virtue in his public works and the bliss of domesticity in his private ones, particularly his numerous albums of Lieder ohne Worte (“Songs without Words”), gently lyrical (and not too difficult) character pieces for piano that spread his fame into countless homes. Until its sadly premature expiration, his was a dream career like Haydn's, pursued under altogether different social conditions, but just as successfully.

It was different with the Mendelssohn family's other musical prodigy. By the time Felix Mendelssohn was born, his older sister Fanny (1805–47) had already shown signs of unusual gifts. She began piano studies in 1812, after the family had moved to Berlin, first with her mother and later (together with her brother) with Ludwig Berger, the Prussian capital's most distinguished teacher. She also underwent the same training in theory and composition as her brother, with Zelter, and enrolled in Zelter's Singakademie to study voice in 1820. Her first composition, a song in honor of her father's birthday, was written in 1819, when she was fourteen. Felix's earliest compositions, stimulated by her example, date from the next year.

It was Fanny Mendelssohn who originated the genre “Songs without Words,” originally called Lieder für das Pianoforte or “Songs for Piano” and modeled at first on some cantabile (singing-style) études by Berger. She produced in all more than 500 compositions, including 250 songs, more than 125 piano works, a string quartet, a piano trio, and an orchestral overture. Her most extended works, like her brother's, were choral, written at a time when she was conducting an amateur choir that gave regular concerts in Berlin. They included two cantatas for soloists, chorus, and orchestra: Hiob (“Job”) and Lobgesang (“Hymn of praise”), the latter bearing the same title as Felix's Symphony no. 2, which like Beethoven's Ninth has a choral finale. Her magnum opus is the Oratorium nach den Bildern der Bibel (“Oratorio on biblical scenes”), completed along with the cantatas in 1831, the most active year of her composing career, when she was twenty-five (and a year before Felix began composing Paulus, his first oratorio, on which he frequently consulted with Fanny).

Epilogue: Two Prodigies

fig. 3-7 Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel, drawn in 1829 by her husband, Wilhelm Hensel.

Virtually none of Fanny Mendelssohn's music became known during her lifetime beyond the circle of her family and the friends who frequented her Sunday salons; and after her marriage (to the Prussian court painter Wilhelm Hensel) and the birth of her son (Sebastian, named after Bach), she experienced a severe falling-off of inspiration (or “the mood to compose,” as she put it in a letter to Felix). Both her isolation and (probably) her creative blocks were the result of the discouragement she received, from her father and later from her brother, when it came to pursuing a career. Her father forbade her to publish her music or perform in public lest she become ambitious and compromise the feminine virtues of “love, obedience, tolerance and resignation” (read: submission) on which the stability of family life depended, as he put it to her in a letter (the grim italics were his).24

Instead, eight of her lieder were published in 1827 and 1830 in books of songs by her brother, and under his name. Once only, after her father's death, did she appear as a concert pianist, performing a concerto by Felix at a charity affair in 1838. Only in 1846, a year before her death, when she was forty years old, did her thirty-seven-year-old brother give her permission to accept the invitation of two Berlin publishing houses to issue small albums of her lieder and her Songs without Words. A few more publications, including the Trio, appeared at Felix's instigation after her death (like her brother's, from a sudden stroke), so that her catalogue includes eleven “opuses.”

Her music, like her brother's, is the product of their social background and training: stylistically conservative, technically polished, and emotionally reserved. In the genres that she cultivated extensively (basically the “women's” or “salon” genres of keyboard miniature and lied) her output bears entirely favorable comparison with his, as the two songs given in Ex. 3-22 will show. They were printed side by side in Felix's Zwölf Lieder (“12 songs”), op. 9 (1830). One of them is by Fanny (but which?).

Epilogue: Two Prodigies

ex. 3-22a Ferne (text by J. G. Droysen), Op. 9, no. 9, mm. 1-12

Epilogue: Two Prodigies

ex. 3-22b Verlust (text by H. Heine), Op. 9, no. 10, mm. 1-19

Many, in fact, regarded Fanny as Felix's potential peer. One was Goethe, who ended a letter to the sixteen- year-old Felix Mendelssohn with “regards to your equally talented sister.”25 Another was the French composer Charles Gounod, who met her much later in life, on vacation in Rome in 1840, and was amazed to discover her “rare ability as a composer.”26 The life of Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel is compelling proof that women's failure to “compete” with men on the compositional playing field has been the result of social prejudice and patriarchal mores (which in the nineteenth century granted only men the right to make the decisions in bourgeois households), not the “natural” deficiency that defenders of the status quo dependably allege. The matter is especially poignant in the case of the Mendelssohns, who epitomized enlightened, emancipated, and assimilated Jewry, since Fanny's fate exposed the limits to emancipation, and the internal resistance to it, just as the posthumous backlash against Felix exposed the limits, and the external resistance, to assimilation.


(24) Quoted in Nancy B. Reich, “The Power of Class: Fanny Hensel,” in Mendelssohn and His World, ed. R. Larry Todd (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991), p. 91.

(25) Goethe to Felix Mendelssohn, 18 June 1825; Felix Mendelssohn, Letters, p. 34.

(26) Charles Gounod, Autobiographical Reminiscences with Family Letters and Notes on Music, trans. W. Hely Hutchinson (London: William Heinemann, 1896), p. 91.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 3 Volkstümlichkeit." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 3 Sep. 2015. <http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-003013.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 3 Volkstümlichkeit. In Oxford University Press, Music in the Nineteenth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 3 Sep. 2015, from http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-003013.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 3 Volkstümlichkeit." In Music in the Nineteenth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 3 Sep. 2015, from http://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume3/actrade-9780195384833-div1-003013.xml