I am tapping away on introductory notes for the Anghiari Festival, getting ahead while I can. Last year I did the research while I was there, and the amount of work took me rather by surprise, especially when combined with everything else. I requested a copy of the programme in advance this year, the idea being not only that I will be able to concentrate on troubleshooting when I am out there, but also that my introductions might even be a little more accurate as a result of the extra research and listening, something I was not always able to do last year. One of the many joys of this delightful Festival is the opportunity to get acquainted with different nooks and crannies of the repertoire, but also to plug significant and inexcusable gaps in my own knowledge. One of these has been my knowledge of Mendelssohn’s writing.
I have only ever dozed off in three concerts, but all three of those dozings happened during works by poor old Felix, which rather influenced my view of him in days gone past, but I am happy to say that the balance is being redressed piece by piece. There are still works of his, especially later on, which are worthy rather than great, but his teenage years are a source of continual open-mouthed astonishment, and listening to the Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, written when he was only 17, had me aghast all over again this afternoon. The writing is phenomenally – I’ll say that again – phenomenally accomplished, especially the masterstroke which is Bottom’s braying, and consider as well that, in the concert which included its first performance, Mendelssohn also acted as soloist in two concertante piano works (one of which was his own two-piano concerto) and then joined the violins to play in Beethoven 9. Extraordinary by any standards.
That is merely the tip of the iceberg, however, for, as somebody pointed out to me last year, he could have submitted the Octet as a composition for his GCSE music exam had he been around today. The mind boggles. Place alongside these masterworks compositions such as the early string quartets, in which he struggles to assimilate the ideas of Beethoven, often with fascinating results, and you have one of the greatest young geniuses in the history of music, alongside people such as Korngold, another brilliant craftsman.
Of course it is deeply fashionable to be deeply sniffy about Mendelssohn, to trot out that hackneyed old line about his being “a genius who grew into a talent”, and I must admit that, in my pompous know-it-all past, I have done the same. It needs to be said that he does not live at the cutting edge of the Romantic avant-garde. However, I feel as if my discovery of what Mendelssohn is really about is only just beginning, and I still reckon the Italian symphony, with one of the most memorable melodies in the entire repertoire, is a fascinating and daring take on the genre.
The lesson I truly take from Mendelssohn is instead much more down to earth and something he pointedly did not achieve, and it is to regulate one’s work. There is no avoiding the fact that Felix worked himself into an early grave. For his denigrators, of course, he was a washed-up talent by then, but even those who disliked his music would have had to admit that he was a warm-hearted, generous, open and encouraging musician, and one particular story about his insistence that difficult players should not be thrown out of an orchestra simply because they had been nasty to him speaks volumes about his character.
Nowadays there are all sorts of rumours about him and Jenny Lind, and what lies in those letters in the Academy which nobody is allowed to see, but that smacks of the kind of idle gossip which chit-chats away behind the backs of Clara Schumann and Brahms as well, and I find it tawdry. Look up nearly any sixties comedian on Wikipedia and you will find that they were all leaping into bed with each other – Felix and Johannes were positively monkish by comparison.
Like Shostakovich, about whom one of my music teachers at school used to be terribly, terribly arch, I feel that I have judged Mendelssohn by what the loudest naysayers have said, and that my journey of discovery is only just gathering steam. Take him and Dmitri for what they are and you have a long and fruitful journey ahead of you, and even on difficult days you can put on something like the Midsummer Night’s Dream Overture and feel yourself swept along on the ocean of possibilities.