Rescuing Mendelssohn from the Nazi Smear Campaign

When the 20-year-old Felix Mendelssohn conducted Bach's Saint Matthew Passion in Berlin in 1829, it caused a national sensation. In those days, when a composer died his contemporaries stopped playing him and his music died as well. But Mendelssohn, a brilliant composer, pianist and conductor who felt indebted to Bach, broke with tradition and performed the work for an audience that included the philosopher Hegel, the King of Prussia and the poet Heinrich Heine. It was the first time the piece had been played since Bach's death in 1750, and it ignited an era of rediscovery that turned the baroque composer back into a household name. Without Mendelssohn, the Nazis might never have embraced Bach a century later as an exemplary Aryan composer, calling him "the most German of all Germans." But in a cruel twist of history, Mendelssohn's role in rescuing Bach didn't stop the Third Reich from banning his works and destroying his legacy because he was a Jew.

To this day Mendelssohn's reputation has never fully recovered from the Nazis' smear campaign. The exhibit Blood and Spirit: Bach, Mendelssohn and Their Music in the Third Reich, which runs through Nov. 8 in Bach's hometown of Eisenach, attempts to rectify that. Timed to coincide with the 200th anniversary of his birth, the exhibit taps into a growing swell of Mendelssohn appreciation. Today his music is played regularly on German radio—which wasn't the case 20 years ago—and the number of annual visitors to Leipzig's Mendelssohn Museum has jumped from 5,000 to 30,000 over the past decade. A spate of new books and CDs, concerts, articles and an upcoming festival in Leipzig (Aug. 21–Sept. 19) mark his birthday. But Blood and Spirit sets out to achieve something new: to unravel the Nazis' complex manipulation of musicians for their political and ethnic ends, while rehabilitating one of the continent's great musical geniuses. "Mendelssohn was the most celebrated Romantic composer of the first half of the 19th century," says curator and Bach House director Jörg Hansen. "The only real answer to all this prejudice that persists in Germany is to perform his music and listen to it."

A child prodigy, Mendelssohn composed 12 symphonies between the ages of 12 and 14, surpassing even Mozart in early musical talent. Goethe, who heard a 7-year-old Mendelssohn play, quipped in 1821 that next to the young Amadeus, his was "the educated language of an adult compared with the prattling of a child." He was lionized in England, where he played for Queen Victoria and gave the island's first performance of Beethoven's Fifth Piano Concerto; adored in France, the Netherlands and Switzerland; and revered in his native Germany, where he founded the country's first music academy and served as chief conductor of Leipzig's Gewandhaus Orchestra. Indeed, Mendelssohn was "the first European superstar," says Jürgen Ernst, director of the Mendelssohn Museum.

History had other plans for him. He was the grandson of the 18th-century Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn and great-grandson of the Prussian court banker Daniel Itzig, who financed Frederick the Great's Seven Years' War. But his father baptized him Mendelssohn-Bartholdy (after a great-uncle) in the hopes of smoothing his entry to society. It helped for only so long. In 1850, three years after Mendelssohn's untimely death from a stroke at 38, the composer Richard Wagner published a searing anti-Semitic pamphlet, "Judaism in Music," attacking Mendelssohn and other Jews as harmful to German culture. The Nazis built on Wagner's premise, unable to accept that their beloved Bach had been resurrected by a Jew.

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Blood and Spirit recounts how the Third Reich systematically rid the country of its Jewish musical legacy. The Encyclopedia of Jews in Music meticulously cataloged every Jewish musician and composer so that concert promoters knew whom to avoid. The Nazis even changed Mendelssohn's original compositions, cutting out references to "Israel," "Jehovah" and "David." Meanwhile, they were singing Bach's praises and popularizing him as "the embodiment of Nordic musical art" at the Reich Bach Festival in 1935.

The exhibit is enriched by its anecdotes of heroism: Leipzig Mayor Carl Goerdeler, who failed to halt the removal of a monument to Mendelssohn in 1936 (the statue was finally reinstalled last year), later became a leading opposition figure executed in the Stauffenberg plot to assassinate Hitler. Alma Rose, the niece of Gustav Mahler, performed Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto in E Minor just before she died at Auschwitz. Now a new generation is carrying on his legacy. Violinist Daniel Hope won Germany's Echo Prize—akin to a Grammy—last year for his recording of the violin concerto. "The Nazis and Wagner are certainly the biggest reasons Mendelssohn has been forgotten," he says. After inspiring a generation of Germans to look to their past for great music, Mendelssohn is finally becoming a source they turn to.

Rescuing Mendelssohn from the Nazi Smear Campaign | Culture