Following the Mendelssohn Family

Diane Meur: La carte des Mendelssohn ISBN 978-2-253-06894-5 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ Being an author is no trivial thing. When I was young, very young, I had the fantasy of becoming such an author. I believed I had a message and I wanted to write a book about it. I quickly realized my message was trivial – something about youth and rebellion – and once I had understood how much patience is required to research source material, to organize the work and to actually write a book, I was dissuaded to write anything exceeding in length my MA thesis to finish my studies.

Unlike me, Diane Meur didn’t back away from the challenge. She researched the ups and downs of the lives of the Mendelssohn family, starting with the philosopher Moses Mendelssohn and following a millions streams flowing from that genealogical source. She got confused by all the material as one could have predicted, she dropped the project, took it up again, drifted away from the subject and came back – and in the end she wrote a lovely book less about the Mendelssohn family and much more about her discovery of the Mendelssohn family, allowing every now and then for a detour, narrating her emotions, her daydreams, her philosophical musings.

Experts on the Mendelssohn family will not discover much new information, but any reader interested in a non-scientific exploration of the life of Mendelssohn the Philosopher, Mendelssohn the Composer, Mendelssohn the Jew turned Protestant turned Catholic, Mendelssohn the Composer’s Sister, Mendelssohn the Banker etc. will find Meur’s book both informative and entertaining. A good read, a good gift too. Thank you, dad!

And as you may expect, there will be no book review without a music suggestion. And since we had Fanny Mendelssohn now twice in a short time on that other blog of mine, I will honour today Felix with his Symphony No. 5 in A minor (Op. 56) “Scottish”:

Soul-searching far, far away from home

Life and Works of an Avant-Garde Composer


Jean-Michel Nectoux: Fauré. ISBN 978-2020234887 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ I recently fell in love. With the music of a composer I had chosen to ignore for reasons I can’t quite understand. Gabriel Fauré. An outstanding composer. A man who most of the time underrated himself and his music. A man, trained as a church musician dared to fuse the compositional traditions of Renaissance and Baroque music with modern symphonic or chamber music.

The discovery of Fauré led me to buy a number of recordings – and on my music blog you will soon see more about that – and to look for a short introduction into the life and works of this man. I found this short book (256 pages) by Jean-Michel Nectoux, a condensed version of a more substantial biography (847 pages) he wrote. An excellent choice. I read it in one stretch, over a weekend. Worth the money for anyone interested in this avant-garde composer.

To get a feeling for Fauré’s music I suggest you try his Cello Sonata No. 2 in G minor:

Fauré builts a bridge into musical modernity

Listening to My Romantic Hero Schubert

wersin schubert

Michael Wersin: Schubert hören – Eine Anleitung. ISBN 978-3-15-010872-7 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ Long ago Schubert has become my personal tragic hero of German Romanticism and recent visit to Vienna compelled me in some way or other to create a link with one of my top five favourite composers. On the plane I listened to a few lovely works from Schubert and Vienna I stumbled over one of those books I had been looking out for some time: a listening guide to Schubert.

The music teacher and singer Michael Wersin has written such a book and he draws from Schubert’s many works – chamber music, symphonies, songs and church music – to identify the most important hallmarks of Schubert’s musical language and to isolate elements in his biography and the life in Vienna that may explain some of the peculiarities of his music. The influence of his teacher Salieri, his Viennese ancestor Mozart and his paragon Beethoven, the oppressive regime of Emperor Franz II. are some of the elements explored in this context. A highly interesting book, best read in connection with the music examples that Wersin singles out.

A little, melancholic piece that I would single out in this context is Schubert’s Piano Sonata No. 19 in C minor, D. 958:

Haunted by the question of fate

A Nuanced View of Mozart’s Personality

Cliff Eisen (ed.): Mozart – A Life in Letters. ISBN 978-0-141-44146-7 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ Reading Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s correspondence with his father Leopold, his sister Nannerl, his wife Constanze and his friends and patrons – that seemed to me to be the key to better understand Mozart’s personality. His double-sided face – gentle, loving, helpful on the one hand, arrogant, vulgar and deceitful on the other hand – was a recurrent theme in my posts on my music blog and it kept irritating me.

The letters selected by Cliff Eisen fulfilled my expectation in so far as they nuanced certain aspects of the composer’s character that the biographies I had read up to that point had empasized e.g. his at times strained relationship with his father and his tendancy to speak with much despise of some of his benefactors. The tension between the young and old Mozart triggered by some of Wolfgang’s decisions in professional matters reminds me of many other father-son conflicts such as the dispute between Franz Schubert and his father or the one between my dad and myself! Such conflicts are part of man’s personal development, and in Mozart’s case, his success in Vienna quickly reconciled the father with his maverick son.

Mozart’s inability to keep his expences under control and and thus to reduce his dependance on borrowing money from friends who quite often were not reimbursed also appears in a new light. In his letters Mozart regularly complains that the nobility – people who liked to have him around as a mark of their cultural taste – mostly expected him to perform for free without giving a thought to how the composer would feed his family and cover the expenses he had to make to be able to compose and perform. If Mozart’s morality in financial issues may appear questionable today, it must be said in his defence that his noble “friends” did not exactly set a good example.

Mozart’s letters are a lovely piece of prose, reflecting well life at the end of the 18th century in general and Mozart’s world more specifically, from mundane issues like how to get a good housemaid or find decent transport for long-distance trips to political issues and the questions of musical taste, court appointments and his apprecuation of fellow composers.

While reading Mozart’s letters I discovered a wonderful early composition, the oratorio “La Betulia Liberata”, inspired by the Book of Judith:

A Mozart oratorio about women empowerment

A Respectable Woman, an Outstanding Talent

R. Larry Todd: Fanny Hensel. The other Mendelssohn. ISBN 978-0-19-936638-2 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ If there ever was a good biography of Fanny Mendelssohn, it is this book. Fanny Mendelssohn was an outstanding pianist and composer and happened to be the sister of Felix Mendelssohn, one of the great composers of German romanticism. This book is not exactly a page-turner, but it’s not meant to be a page-turner. Its scientific value for anyone interested in Fanny’s life and works cannot be praised enough. Todd’s painstakingly meticulous research led to a work loaded with innumerable details on Fanny’s relation to both her brother and her husband Wilhelm Hensel, with multiple quotes from her letters and diaries and with a rigorous analysis of Fanny’s compositions. A treasure trove for musicologists and freaks like myself.

If Fanny Mendelssohn is known by insiders only today, it has of course to do with women’s social position in the 19th century. A woman from a respectable family like the Mendelssohn’s would not embark on a career as a professional composer or pianist or any other career for that matter. She would marry a respectable man and raise children and devote herself to fashionable leisure activities. Composing and performing were acceptable only in a private circle, but publishing works under her own name or embarking on concert tours – that idea seemed unacceptable to both Fanny’s father and to her brother.

How ambiguous however Felix’ feelings about this were, becomes apparent when Todd explains how he encouraged his sister to perform her works at charity concerts and organize weekly concerts at their home. The “Sunday Concerts” attracted Berlin’s elite and were semi-public cultural events that not only put Fanny into the limelight but also gave her the opportunity to mingle with the brightest artists of her time, notably composers and musicians that would consider her as a peer.

On my music blog I will give female composers this year considerably more space and as an introduction to Fanny Mendelssohn’s work I suggest you enjoy some of her song cycles, a genre in which she excelled and outranked her brother:

Longing for Italy, home of Beauty