The joy of Mendelssohn

31st May 2011 | Concerts, Inspirations, Musings | 9 comments

The July issue of Classic FM magazine, just out, is devoted to ‘discovering the genius of Mendelssohn’. They asked me to write a little ‘artist’s view’ of playing Mendelssohn’s piano music, and my article is on p48. For those who don’t have the chance to buy the magazine, here’s what I wrote:

‘The other day, I was coaching students in Mendelssohn’s D minor piano trio, one of my favourite chamber works. As part of their coursework, the group had written a programme note which said, ‘Mendelssohn came from a wealthy family and never had to worry about money. Because of this, his music lacks depth and emotion.’ I asked if this was their own opinion, and they said they had ‘read it in a book’.

I too have seen Mendelssohn dismissed like that in books, but I don’t feel that’s the right way to account for his delicate style. Because his music flows gracefully and is even-tempered, he’s often accused of being someone to whom it all came too easily. But for me there’s a great strength at the heart of his music which comes from the feeling that forces are in balance. He’s generous, yet restrained; disciplined, but full of fantasy. There’s plenty of emotion, but he uses it sparingly and purposefully, as vibrato should be used. Many of his piano parts are so demanding that the sheer abundance of notes can take up all your attention in the early stages. It takes a while before you can see through the veils of notes to the bones of the music, but when you do, you perceive the beautiful structure and clarity of his musical planning. In that respect playing Mendelssohn sometimes feels like playing Mozart transposed to the nineteenth century. There are few other composers whose piano music – when you finally master it – can give the performer such an exhilarating feeling, like flying.

Recording Mendelssohn has been one of the greatest challenges I’ve had in the studio, because it’s so hard to be both accurate and serene under the pressure of his torrents of notes. But it’s so satisfying when it goes well. I never feel that Mendelssohn was simply showing off, more that his piano writing reflects the lightning reflexes of his thoughts.’


  1. Stephen Jenkins

    Man, do I agree with your take on Mendelssohn. Charles Rosen (whom I admire) seems to get him wrong with his comments about his kitschy church music. And I have experienced a weird prejudice against M whom I understand as a classicist (both literary and musical) and definitely wrote music with “beautiful structure and … clarity of musical planning.” I have thought of the connection to Mozart before as well.

    • Susan Tomes

      How nice to have such a fast response – many thanks. Yes, it’s strange how differently people react to Mendelssohn’s music. I often think that his ‘kitschy church music’ was an attempt to embrace the tradition of Christian religious music after his family converted from Judaism and wished to assimilate into their Protestant surroundings. I think he loved Lutheran chorales and so on.

  2. Spiros Bousbouras

    How old were the students ?

    • Susan Tomes

      The students were in their early twenties.

  3. Spiros Bousbouras

    Right. I only ask because the idea that a composer’s music will lack depth and emotion because he doesn’t have money worries sounds like it came from a 10 years old. Perhaps one should donate all of one’s assets to charity and take an oath of poverty before becoming a composer ? I hope you suggested to the students that they should treat more critically what they read in books.

    The other issue is whether programme notes should contain subjective remarks about the piece or the composer like whether it has depth or emotion or instead just stick to objective comments about for example the piece structure and leave the subjective interpretations to the listener.

    By the way , my first attempt at posting at this blog was under your “Connoisseurs” entry from May 16th but that never appeared. Any idea what happened to it ?

  4. peter

    Thankyou for this post, Susan. I think Mendelssohn is of the first rank of composers, along with Bach and Mozart. His music, hwoever, is subtle, and perhaps too subtle for most people. It does not grab your collar and shout in your ear, as Beethoven’s music so often does, but rather, politely points your attention to something that may interest you. Like the man himself, in fact, from all accounts.

    I am always amazed that people believe rich or privileged people do not have emotional lives nor suffer the normal pains of being human, such as grief when friends die. I once blogged (sarcastically) about this attitude towards Mendelssohn:

    Attitudes to his music are still influenced by the negative views of that young 19th-century music critic, George Bernard Shaw. A few years ago, I dug out Shaw’s criticism to read his arguments first hand. His main gripe, it seemed to me, was with mid-century Victorian morality, which he considered to be hypocritical (as young people so often do of the generation before them), rather than with Mendelssohn’s music. Certainly, he provided no reasoned justification for his denunciations of Mendelssohn’s music, other than that it was popular with the middle classes of his parent’s generation.

  5. Valerie

    And what about “Elijah”? Apart from the Baal choruses perhaps, this music is some of the deepest and most moving that I’ve come across.

  6. rootlesscosmo

    I wonder how much of this stereotype of Mendelssohn echoes–unconsciously no doubt–Wagner’s sneering at his “Jewish” superficiality.

    And I have to agree with Spiros Bousbouras that the students’ logic would be excusable in children but is really below standard for people in their twenties. They seem to think the connection between material comfort and an assumed “lack [of] depth and emotion” is perfectly straightforward. Has no one ever suggested to them that this kind of mechanical historical determinism is bunk?

  7. peter

    Rootlesscosmo — Yes, the reaction to Mendelssohn’s music may often be an echo of Wagner’s explicit anti-semitism. In George Bernard Shaw’s case it may be more than an unconscious echo, since the man ended his life as a public supporter of Nazism, and in favour of the killing of people he considered to be feeble-minded.


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