by Gabriel Prynn
For the program of the November 1846 performance, Mendelssohn chose to precede the new Schumann Symphony by the William Tell Overture by Rossini. The audience was so enthusiastic about the Rossini that Mendelssohn decided to replay it in full. According to the concert reviews, by the time Schumann’s symphony was performed the audience was too exhausted to appreciate the new work. It is worth mentioning that the Rossini Overture is only twelve minutes long (!).
Be that as it may, the new symphony received a mixed reaction. Schumann decided to thoroughly revise the symphony following this, and Mendelssohn scheduled a second performance where it was this time warmly received.
The story could have ended quite happily there … but it was not to be.
In the weeks and months following the premiere of the Schumann symphony, anonymous letters began appearing in the Leipzig daily newspapers claiming that Mendelssohn’s decision for repeating the Rossini before performing the Schumann was due to his vanity, jealousy and self-interest. There were distinctly antisemitic overtones in these texts. Schumann himself wrote in the press, also anonymously, praising Mendelssohn’s conducting and the orchestra. But this was too little, too late: Felix assumed that the attacks had come form Robert himself, or at least from his supporters.
This may seem to be an irrational reaction on the part of Felix, but we note that despite the image of a calm, placid artist cultivated by his family and supporters particularly after his death, contemporary accounts by Eduard Devrient reveal that Felix could have terrible fits of rage when contradicted. Felix’s friends also noted his extreme irritability in this, sadly the last period of his life.
Some context is also required. Moses Mendelssohn, Felix’s grandfather, was a preeminent 18th-century Jewish philosopher. Abraham Mendelssohn, Felix’s father, abandoned the Jewish religion in 1822. Abraham and his wife were baptized in the Christian faith and officially took the name of Mendelssohn Bartholdy. Felix would continue to present himself as Felix Mendelssohn from time to time however, notably for his performances in London, which triggered this response from his father in a letter dated July 8th 1829:
‘and so, I raised you … free from any religious form, which I wish to leave to your own convictions … I felt no inner calling to choose for you the Jewish, the most obsolete, corrupt and pointless of them. So, I raised you in the Christian, the purer, accepted by most civilized people.’
Queen Victoria may have been Felix Mendelssohn’s greatest fan, but the fact is that he met many challenges because of his Jewish origins, was rejected as conductor of the Berlin Singakademie because of it, and was never quite free of the limitations and difficulties posed by his heritage.
In short, given the personal experiences and origins of Felix, the aggressive assault directed at his character in the press following the première of Schumann’s Second Symphony must have struck a nerve.
Tickets can be bought online, by phone (514-285-2000, option 1), or in person at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts ticket office (1380 Sherbrooke West)
Webcast concert also available starting Saturday, May 22.