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Rediscovering Mendelssohn

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Music scholars mark bicentennial of composer who fell out of favor for nearly a century

Much attention is being given this year to the 200th anniversary of the births of Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin.

For music scholars, 2009 marks another important bicentennial − the birth of German composer Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy (1809-1847).

Although Mendelssohn was quite well known in his day, his reputation faded as anti-Semitism rose during the late 19th and early 20th century in Europe (Mendelssohn was born to a prominent Jewish family that later converted to Christianity).

“Generations of people were programmed not to take Mendelssohn seriously,” says Michael Cooper, holder of the Margarett Root Brown Chair in Music at Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas. “People didn’t begin to take him seriously until after World War II as the 150th anniversary of his birth started coming up and people realized the nature and extent of the wrongs committed by the Nazis.”

The decline in Mendelssohn’s fame after his death was compounded by the fact that he was notoriously reluctant to publish his music. Of the 400 or so pieces he wrote, only about 160 survive today in published form.

“Mendelssohn only published enough to keep his name out there,” Cooper says. “He didn’t like to publish his music because once it was published, he lost control of it and couldn’t change it. Mendelssohn was an incurable tinkerer – he liked to rework and rework his music.”

Cooper is one of a cadre of scholars who have devoted their lives to trying to reconstruct Mendelssohn’s work. “There is a massive amount of work to do,” he says.

Cooper himself has reconstructed seven Mendelssohn pieces that were believed to be missing. His most recent endeavor was the reconstruction of a piece that Mendelssohn wrote with Ignaz Moscheles, a German pianist and composer who was a friend of Ludwig van Beethoven. The piece, titled Fantasy and Variations for Two Pianos and Orchestra on the Gypsy March from Weber’s “Preziosa,” was originally commissioned in 1833 to be performed in a benefit concert for the Philharmonic Society of London.

After the piece premiered on May 2, 1833, the original score for the piece was set aside. The work has been known only in an arrangement for two pianos without orchestra published by Moscheles in 1834. 

Cooper says music historians now know that Mendelssohn left London as soon as the piece was performed to take another job. He left the original score with Moscheles, who bequeathed it to his son, Felix (who was named after Mendelssohn), who in turn gave it to the Russian pianist Anton Rubenstein in 1889. When Rubenstein died in 1894, he bequeathed his estate to the St. Petersburg Conservatory, which has thousands of historic music manuscripts. 

“The St. Petersburg Conservatory didn’t know what they had,” Cooper says. “It was just something that existed in a card catalog and a weathered folder.”

Cooper found a reference to the piece in an auction catalog in 1996 and contacted the Conservatory. However, at that time the curators of the Conservatory’s music library were still hesitant about sharing their manuscripts with Westerners. Cooper persisted, though, and in January 2003 the Conservatory finally sent him digital scans of the piece.

Cooper spent the past several years reconstructing the piece, and the Austin Civic Orchestra will play it this month for the first time in 150 years during a concert at Southwestern University. 

In the coming months, Cooper has been invited to give nearly 20 presentations and papers at conferences celebrating the Mendelssohn bicentennial. One of the first of these conferences will be held at Montana State University March 26-28 and is expected to draw all the leading English-language Mendelssohn scholars. Additional events are being planned in Rostock and Hamburg, Germany; London; Paris; and New York. The largest gathering will occur late August in Leipzig, Germany, where Mendelssohn spent the last 12 years of his life serving as music director of the Gewandhaus Orchestra, the leading European orchestra of the day. 

“The academic community has been gearing up for the bicentennial of Mendelssohn’s birth since 2000,” Cooper says. 

Cooper says he was personally drawn to Mendelssohn because his music contains great emotional extremes. “His sense of pacing and drama are flawless,” he says.

Cooper says not everything Mendelssohn wrote is a masterpiece, but even his weaker pieces are ones other composers would be glad to call their own. His most famous pieces include the wedding march from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and two oratorios − “Elijah” and “St. Paul.” 

“Most people have heard Mendelssohn’s music, just without his name attached to it,” Cooper says. 

In addition to a “gold mine” of music, Cooper says Mendelssohn left behind a wealth of correspondence, dating from when he was six years old to his death at age 38. 

“Mendelssohn was a major figure in 19th century European life – someone who was in frequent contact not only with other major composers such as Berlioz, Chopin and Robert and Clara Schumann, but also with people from Hans Christian Andersen, Goethe and others all the way up to the Queen Victoria and the kings of Prussia and Saxony,” Cooper says. “We have about 3,500 surviving letters to him and another 5,000 or so written by him – and the vast majority of those letters have never been published. For anyone who’s interested in art, politics and culture in the mid-19th-century, those letters are a largely untapped source of insight and understanding. We’ve only just begun to really use them for what they have to teach us.”