Music Director’s Message April 6, 2019
I’ve always felt a kinship between the music of Mendelssohn and Brahms. Felix (1809-1847) was the elder of the two, widely celebrated throughout Europe but dying much too young. By his death at age 38, Mendelssohn had brought forth five symphonies as well as reams of fine works for piano, organ, chorus, solo voice, and chamber ensembles. At that age, Johannes (1833-1897) had not yet written his first symphony (Mendelssohn had the “child prodigy” thing on his side).
Both composers owed a huge debt to the music of J.S. Bach. Mendelssohn assiduously studied Bach’s music as a child, and Brahms was an editor of the first comprehensive edition of Bach’s works. The two composers combined productive years lasted almost three-fourths of the musically glorious 19th century. Rarely does one find an orchestra’s season that does not feature at least one, if not several, of their works. But the strangest connection between them is the bond that was forged by flames kindled by the unsparing hatred of their contemporary, Richard Wagner.
Wagner’s dislike of Mendelssohn should be obvious. Mendelssohn was born into a wealthy and distinguished Jewish family. At age seven he and his siblings were baptized into the Reformed Church. Though an observant Christian throughout his life, he was outspokenly proud of his Jewish heritage. Wagner detested everything about Mendelssohn’s music, which to his mind was simply manifest proof of the Jewish race’s inferiority.
Brahms had been born into a Lutheran family, and so was spared Wagner’s anti-Semitic calumnies. Nevertheless, Wagner disparaged Brahms’ music as old-fashioned, boring, and anti-progressive. But Brahms refused to participate in what today would be a Twitter war. He made few friends but held them fast, studied the Bible voraciously but professed agnosticism, and held music sacred over personal vendettas. He cared nothing about Wagner’s opinions, but defended Mendelssohn’s reputation against the rising tide of anti-Semitism in Austria. In the end, Brahms won the argument, and so have we.