Friday, January 16, 2009

More about Mendelssohn

As we get closer to Mendelssohn: Lost Treasures and the Wagner Supression, a fascinating and beautiful concert of world premieres that's taking place at the Museum of Jewish Heritage on January 28, The Mendelssohn Project's Artistic Director and Founder, Stephen Somary, took the time to answer some questions about one of history's greatest and most overlooked composers. (N.B. The Mendelssohn Project and the Museum are co-presenting the concert which will feature the Shanghai Quartet, pianists Orion Weiss and Anna Polonsky and other guest artists)

Betsy A: Why Mendelssohn?

Stephen S: The music of Felix Mendelssohn has held a deep personal meaning for me since I was a young child. I find there is a depth of beauty which is unparalleled in his era. This, combined with the horrifying facts surrounding the suppression of his music, and actually around the entire perception of who this master was, has compelled me over the past decade-plus to devote the majority of my time to the work of presenting to the world, for the first time ever, the true story surrounding Felix Mendelssohn, as well as his entire family.

BA: What do you wish more people knew about his life and his work?

Stephen: Most everything. From an enlightened new look at the works we already know, to first-time experiencing of the unknown works, to the true facts surrounding this complicated, fascinating, and truly tortured man.

BA: Did Wagner really try to destroy Mendelssohn's reputation? Why?

Stephen: As any young, up-and-coming composer will do, Wagner tried to win the 'famous' Mendelssohn's approval. He was never able to do so. Then Mendelssohn suddenly died, the Revolution in Germany went into full-swing shortly thereafter, leaving the country in the hands of German Nationalists (some would say "pre-fascists"). It was in this environment that Wagner started to thrive and be recognized as a great composer. His philosophy was that of believing in a "pure German race" . . .that, coupled with his deep resentment at the treatment afforded him by the Jewish-born Mendelssohn, although now deceased, somehow compelled Wagner to spend the rest of his more than 30 years in this life 'teaching' the world why Mendelssohn, along with other artists with similar 'backgrounds', were not "fit to grace the Godly world of German art."

BA: What most surprised you in your search for more unpublished works by the composer?

Stephen: That so many institutions held original manuscripts, and didn't even know what they had.

BA: To those of us familiar with some of Mendelssohn's work, what should we pay special attention to in the world premiere pieces (on January 28)?

Stephen: It is my wish that everyone in attendance on January 28 will go in with a fresh mind, and listen to these works as if they had actually been published by Mendelssohn. If one does that, I believe the listener familiar with his works will hear the same depth of emotion and breadth of expression they are accustomed to with Mendelssohn. And even those unfamiliar with his work will certainly leave the concert humming a few tunes from it. Being one of the few truly great melody-writers in music history was yet another of Mendelssohn's great gifts.

BA: Can you recommend any books, films, or CDs for those who are interested in learning more about Mendelssohn?

Stephen: There are no really fine films on Mendelssohn's life yet, but I believe there will be. The amount of Mendelssohn CDs are so numerous that I think those interested should just go to Amazon and start listening to clips and decide for themselves what they would like to explore further.

There are quite a few books available, although unfortunately almost no author has truly tackled the Wagner issue. All seem to dance around it somehow. They also do not capture the truly 3-dimensional picture of Felix Mendelssohn. In addition to all of his money, adulation, and dedicated work-ethic, there was also a very dark side to Felix Mendelssohn -- one which perhaps led, in part, to his early death. If one can find it, I would recommend looking for Felix Mendelssohn and His Times by Heinrich Eduard Jacob. It was published in both German and English in 1963. As far as I know, it is currently out of print. But Jacob is the only author I know of who started to delve into these ignored, but vital, elements of Mendelssohn's life. However, there was quite a lot less known 46 years ago -- so the book, to no fault of the author, does contain some factual errata. There is still a book to be written!

BA: What's next for The Mendelssohn Project?

Stephen: We are continuing our mission to expose the world, for the first time ever, to the complete works and life of Felix Mendelssohn, and his equally gifted sister, Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel. Please follow our website at as we continue along this extraordinary journey.

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