Mendelssohn at Leipzig
Mendelssohn, Bach’s 19th century disciple
Setting the Thomana 800th in context puts us in touch with a surprising variety of personalities over the centuries. One of the most influential composers whose dedication during his comparatively short life to ensure that Bach’s music was forever cherished and performed was Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy (1809-1847).
Having revived Bach’s Matthäus-Passion at Berlin in 1829 as a young twenty-year-old, the workaholic and widely travelled Mendelssohn was later to be appointed Director at the Leipzig Gewandhaus in 1835. Ten years on from his arrival he then moved to a new home in the city and from 1845-47 lived just a short distance away from the Gewandhaus concert hall at an elegant address in fashionable Königstrasse (now named Goldschmidtstrasse). This fine second-floor appartment fell into relative decay over the decades, but with great dedication, it has been magnificently restored to its original state, a project led by the conductor and former Gewandhaus Director Kurt Masur and funded by generous donors to the Mendelssohn Foundation.
Mendelssohn’s Leipzig home is now a museum, open to the public, with regular chamber concerts held in the elegant central reception room. To wander around is to take a step right back into the 19th century; a chance to imagine the era in all its romantic glory. The furnishings are Biedermeier; the water-colours by Mendelssohn himself – memoirs of his European travels – and the small, compact salon where he worked is simple, but stylish. Guests who received warm hospitality from Felix and his devoted wife Cécile include the singer Jenny Lind, Robert and Clara Schumann, Richard Wagner, Louis Spohr and the Härtels (one half of the Leipzig publishers Breitkopf & Härtel). Stricken by strokes at the age of just thirty-eight, Mendelssohn died in his Leipzig appartment on 4 November 1847, his death mask on display along wth other memorabilia, scores, letters and papers.
Accounts of Mendelssohn’s funeral convey its lavishness, appropriate for someone so admired; his journey to Berlin for burial was undertaken by special train. Today at Leipzig a restored memorial to the composer (pictured below) stands outside the main entrance to the Thomaskirche in what is known as the Mendelssohn Portal. It was unveiled in 2008 with much civic ceremony and in the presence of his great grandson. The Thomanerchor sang.
Mendelssohn seemed destined to study and perform Bach from an early age; he was baptised on 21 March 1816, Bach’s birthday, and it was his well-connected grandmother who later gave him a score of the Matthäus-Passion one Christmas. The 1829 Berlin revival of it, which Mendelssohn directed, received a mixed-reception; petitions against the performance were being made right up to the last moment and, in the event, all that was considered inessential music was cut including most of the arias. Arriving at Leipzig in 1835, Mendelssohn waited six years before directing the first performance of the Matthäus-Passion in the city since Bach’s lifetime; it took place in 1841 at the Thomaskirche with the Thomanerchor and the Gewandhaus Orchestra and, for this historic performance, most of the Berlin cuts were restored. That is how the ‘Mendelssohn Leipzig tradition’ began and it continues to be cherished today. The composer’s ’Todestag’ (4 Nov) is always marked in some way – usually a special concert or series in either the Gewandhaus or Thomaskirche.
How can we take inspiration from Mendelssohn’s life and work today?