Felix Mendelssohn: Musical Genius and Jewish Casualty
By Rabbi Samuel M. Stahl
Several years ago, Jiri Weil, a Czech Jewish writer, penned a novel titled, Mendelssohn on the Roof. During the Nazi occupation of Prague, Weil graphically portrayed an ambitious and inspiring S.S. officer. This officer had received orders to remove the statue of the Jew, Felix Mendelssohn, from the roof of the Prague concert hall. The problem, however, was that the roof was filled with numerous statues of renowned composers. None was labeled or identified by name. Therefore, he had to figure out which statue was Mendelssohns.
The officer recalled that he had learned, in his course on Racial Science, that Jews have big noses. Therefore, he ordered the workmen to pull down the statue with the biggest nose. As he stood watching the statue with the biggest nose toppling from the roof of the concert hall, he panicked. He discovered, all too late, that it was that of none other than the famous German composer, Richard Wagner.
This story conveys a double irony. First of all, Wagner was not only not a Jew. He was also a rabid anti-Semite. He wrote scathing attacks on Jews, especially Jewish musicians. Not surprisingly, Wagner was Adolf Hitlers favorite musician.
In his prolific writings, Wagner even made disparaging comments about Felix Mendelssohn. He tried to prove that the life and works of Mendelssohn clearly demonstrate that no Jew, however gifted, cultured, and honorable, could create art that moved the heart and soul.
What is tragically apparent about Wagners assessment of Mendelssohn is that Mendelssohn, for most of his life, was a practicing Lutheran. It is true that Felix Mendelssohn was born in 1809 in Hamburg, Germany, to two Jewish parents. His grandfather, Moses Mendelssohn, was an eminent rabbi and philosopher. Moses had urged German Jews, upon leaving the ghetto, to stay faithful to Judaism, while embracing German culture and thought. In fact, he remained a practicing Orthodox Jew throughout his life.
However, five of his six children eventually became Christians. One of them was Abraham Mendelssohn, the father of Felix. Abraham was a successful banker and businessman. Felixs mother, the former Leah Salomon, came from a prominent German Jewish family of considerable means. Abraham and Leah produced four children: Fanny, Felix, Rebekah, and Paul.
When Felix was six, his parents had them baptized in the Lutheran church, though they themselves, for the time being, remained Jewish. This was the era that many German Jews had gained their freedom from the degradation of the shtetl. They wanted to participate fully in the glories of German culture. They believed that Judaism, with its history of torment, persecution, and abuse, was an antiquated and self-defeating form of religion, an obstacle to their integration into the wider community.
When Felix was confirmed in the Lutheran church at age fourteen, his father wrote him a revealing letter. He stated that he and Leah had brought up their four children in Christianity because, to them, it was the faith of the most civilized people. Also, by 1812, German Jews were promised full civil equality if they converted to Christianity. These German Jews were seeking tickets of admission to European culture, in the words of the poet, Heinrich Heine. Thus, their adoption of Christianity was motivated by a zeal for social and professional advancement. It did not grow out of any deep religious conviction.
Jakob Salomon, who was Leahs brother and Felixs uncle, had already converted to Christianity several years before. He took the new name Bartholdy to mask his Jewish identity. Bartholdy was actually the name of the owner of a large garden in Berlin that Jakob had bought for himself. Someone cleverly quipped that Jakob had acquired his new ancestry by purchase.
When Felix was a teenager, his parents were finally baptized as Lutherans. They also took the name Bartholdy and dropped the name Mendelssohn. They wanted Felix to do the same. Felix was always an obedient, well-mannered, and compliant son, but here he drew the line. His father, in fact, ordered calling cards for him with the name, Felix M. Bartholdy. Felix refused to use them. He insisted on retaining the name Mendelssohn. His father remonstrated with him by arguing: There cant be a Christian Mendelssohn any more than there can be a Jewish Confucius. Nonetheless, Felix held his ground.
Though Felix was a committed Christian, he never seemed to be embarrassed by his Jewish roots. In fact, his Jewish background was not much of an impediment in his musical career. He was probably considered the greatest musical genius of the 19th century school of German romantic music. Some say that he was the most impressive musical prodigy since Mozart.
He gave his first public concert at age nine. At sixteen, he wrote his famous Octet and, by seventeen, he completed his Overture, to Shakespeares Midsummer Nights Dream.
He also brought the works of Johann Sebastian Bach, which had been neglected for almost a century, into public prominence. Mendelssohn achieved great popularity and acclaim throughout Europe, especially in London. Only the people of Berlin, the city where he spent most of the formative years of his life, did not seem to appreciate his musical prowess.
Mendelssohn never showed any of the stereotypical eccentricities associated with artists. He was always charming and gracious. He was a good son, a devoted brother, a loving husband, and an affectionate father. Unfortunately, he did not live long enough to accomplish all he could have. One hundred and fifty years ago, Felix Mendelssohn died at the age of thirty-nine, after suffering two strokes. Some say that the death of his beloved sister, Fanny, who was also a musical giant, a few months before, had demoralized him and robbed him of his incentive to live.
For the most part, Felix Mendelssohn lived and died a Christian. At his Christian funeral, attended by multitudes of admirers, a six-hundred voice sang: Christ and the Resurrection. Felix was buried in the cemetery of Holy Cross Church in Berlin. Today, a huge cross marks his grave.
All of these outward trappings of Mendelssohns commitment to Christianity did not impress the Nazis. To them, he was always a Jew. Almost a century after his death, they besmirched his memory as a Jewish composer. They forbade his music to be played. They ordered that the huge statue of him in Leipzig be taken down and destroyed. They also closed the Mendelssohn banking house and ordered all the Mendelssohn descendants still living in Germany to leave the country.
Source: Excerpted with permission from a sermon by Rabbi Samuel M. Stahl, February 20, 1998. Rabbi Stahl is from Temple Beth-El, San Antonio, Texas.