Below is a program book article written for the concert given in collaboration with The Mendelssohn Project on January 28 2009 at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City:
MENDELSSOHN: LOST TREASURES AND THE WAGNER SUPPRESSION
Historical background by Stephen Somary
"Judaism is the evil conscience of our modern civilization". With these words, Richard Wagner (1813-1883), the celebrated composer of German nationalistic opera, concluded Part 1 of his 1850 treatise: "Judaism in Music". He had just completed an argumentative circle petitioning for the cognitive dismissal of all Jewish influence in the Germanic arts.
Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847), who died a mere three years earlier, had seemingly secured a place among the greatest composers who ever lived. From a period which began in 1835 with Mendelssohn's appointment as the General Music Director of the Gewandhaus in Leipzig, until the public distribution of Wagner's treatise, the world had never witnessed a figure in the arts so equally beloved, influential, and revered. Then came the 'assassination' – albeit posthumously, and in prose – that was followed by decades of work by Wagner, and his many fellow German nationalists, to re-teach the world who Felix Mendelssohn was and what the value, or lack thereof, of his artistic output had truly been. Normally, generations follow a natural course in determining the popularity of an artist. Mendelssohn never received this chance, because decades of work by Wagner and his supporters were dedicated to extreme revisionist history.
As a result, publication and natural dissemination of Mendelssohn's full oeuvre was suppressed as anti-Semitic sentiments increased exponentially over the ensuing decades. There remained, however, people dedicated to the cause of keeping Mendelssohn's name alive, but they were greatly outnumbered. The fact that Mendelssohn was not completely forgotten prompted Hitler's Nazi regime to add the Jewish-born composer's name (an assimilation-conversion to Christianity was undertaken by Mendelssohn's family when he was a child) in the mid-1930s to a series of lists of forbidden artists. At this point, a majority of Mendelssohn's manuscripts – both published and unpublished –were housed in the basement of the Berlin State Library. They were smuggled out by Mendelssohn supporters to Warsaw and Krakow during the winter of 1936-37. By 1939, when these cities fell under Nazi control, they were smuggled out again – but this time by any means possible and to any locations away from Hitler's influence. This secured the safety of these documents, but created a massive practical problem of tracking them down.
The suppression by Richard Wagner, the plague of anti-Semitism, and the subsequent banning of his name, comprised the principle reason that hundreds of manuscripts and artworks by Felix Mendelssohn, and thousands of personal letters either to or from the composer, fell into obscurity. There were other factors as well which led to Wagner's work to be so successful. Felix Mendelssohn, born into a wealthy family, could 'afford' himself the luxury of deciding that he did not like to publish. In fact, only the first 72 of Mendelssohn's opus numbers were actually published in the composer's lifetime. A great majority of the remainder of published works were done so in the few intervening years between his passing and Wagner's influential rise in popularity. Mendelssohn also did not plan for what to do with the hundreds of unpublished manuscripts in the couple of months when it seemed more and more likely that the he (at the age of only 38) was mortally ill.
Felix Mendelssohn also set a particularly difficult standard for himself when it came to deciding what was fit for publication and what was not. For example, his "Italian" Symphony, one of the most beloved works in the entire orchestra literature, did not meet his standards. So much so, that he re-wrote the last three movements before putting it away. This was a fact unknown to the composer's widow, Cécile Jeanrenaud Mendelssohn, when a publishing house came calling shortly after Mendelssohn's death asking to publish this work: she gave them the wrong version!
The fact that Felix Mendelssohn did not like to publish, combined with his early death, and the subsequent suppression by Wagner and then later by the Nazis, led to apathy and disinformation as the world started defining what this 19th Century giant of a composer and man was really about, and how many works he actually wrote. In recent decades, there has been much painstaking research undertaken in the quest to bring the understanding of Mendelssohn's output to light, but many mysteries still abound. The Mendelssohn Project believes itself to be in the forefront of the work to uncover the full Mendelssohn story, and found a natural partner in the Museum of Jewish Heritage. The Museum was willing to delve into this topic, and work to assist in sharing the true Mendelssohn story with the world.
Tonight's concert is a particularly historic event in that it is presenting 13 masterpieces by Felix Mendelssohn in the context of what led them to be unpublished in the first place. As has been evidenced over the recent years, not many institutions have had the courage to 'take on' the seemingly untouchable Wagner. By confronting Wagner's suppression of Mendelssohn's lost treasures, neither the Museum of Jewish Heritage, nor The Mendelssohn Project, is leveling criticism of the true greatness of Wagner's musical gifts. But the fact remains that he was one of the most prominent anti-Semites in history, and the evil he wrought should not go unnoticed.
It is hoped that this concert will serve as one more small step in the large task of presenting to the world, for the first time ever, the scope of the life and music of Felix Mendelssohn, as well as to nudge our society ever so slightly forward to understanding the damage done to him by a suppression caused by overt anti-Semitism. The true picture of Felix Mendelssohn, gifted and passionate, but also at times tragic and tortured, has been swept under the table and ignored for more than one and a half centuries. There is more to the story about this fascinating and complex man which will still take years to unravel. As the world begins the 200th anniversary of his birth, perhaps the awakening has begun.