A Wise Man Fighting For a Better Society

Stephen Tree: Moses Mendelssohn. ISBN 978-3-499-50671-0 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ Moses Mendelssohn, one of the most influental thinkers of the Enlightenment, is exercising a growing fascination upon me. Stephen Tree’s book is a short and concise account of Mendelssohn’s life and his difficult position in Germany. As a philosopher he had many admirers and patrons, but as a Jew he had few rights as a citizen. Intellectually he certainly was superior to most of his contemporaries, but as a Jew he was an easy target for base Anti-semitic attacks.

However, two centuries after Mendelssohn’s birth not even the Nazis succeeded in erasing the memory of one of the greatest German Jews. Mendelssohn’s defence of the immortality of the soul, his ideas about the relation between religion and politics, expressed in his work “Jerusalem”, his effort to modernize Judaism and to reconcile it with rationalism and his lifelong fight for a peaceful co-existence of Jews and Christians rank among his most important contributions to the intellectual life in Europe during the 18th century. When I come to think of it, we could do with a few Mendelssohns to clear out the fog in some politicians’ minds and prevent them from compromising our social and economic future. And it will not be the last time you will hear of Moses here on this blog.

When he was a young man, Moses Mendelssohn took harpsichord lessons and frustrated his teacher with his inability to keep time. Here is a piece performed with utmost precision, written by a contemporary of Mendelssohn: Carl Philipp Emmanuel Bach’s Keyboard Concerto in E Major:

Time to Compose, Time to Rejoice

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

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