Felix Mendelssohn’s Jewish Music https://mosaicmagazine.com/picks/arts-culture/2022/04/felix-mendelssohns-jewish-music/

April 29, 2022 | Saul Jay Singer
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For years, Abraham Mendelssohn urged his son, the composer Felix, to abandon his Jewish surname; as Abraham Mendelssohn explained in a letter to his famous son, “There can no more be a Christian Mendelssohn than a Jewish Confucius; if your name is Mendelssohn, you are ipso facto a Jew, and that is of no benefit to you.” But Felix, who was born in 1809 to a large family of Jewish converts to Christianity, never denounced his Jewish roots. As Saul Jay Singer explains, the musical prodigy was always proud to be introduced as the philosopher Moses Mendelssohn’s grandson; some of his early works drew upon his grandfather’s biblical translations; and his compositions include classical Jewish cantorial melodies. And while Felix’s relationship to Judaism remains ambiguous, some scholars see in his oratorio Elijah, and other works, an attempt to reconcile his Jewish and Christian identities or restore his Jewish heritage.

The Mendelssohns lived in a very difficult time for Jews, and Abraham made the same “compromise” as many Jewish families did at the time: to convert to Christianity to gain citizenship and public acceptance. The situation was perhaps best described by the great poet, Heinrich Heine, also a Jewish convert, who characterized baptism as the “ticket of admission” into European culture. However, Felix’s conversion protected neither him nor other “New Jewish Christians” from anti-Semitism.

Nor did Mendelssohn’s conversion benefit his legacy. Although he was idolized by his contemporaries during his lifetime, Richard Wagner effectively destroyed his public stature when, [shortly] after Mendelssohn’s death, he published “Das Judenthum in der Musik” (“Jewishness in Music”), a racist and vitriolic essay directed primarily at Mendelssohn, whose work he maintained was derivative and lightweight because he was a Jew. He held Mendelssohn up as an archetype for how even a Jew with great talent and polish was incapable of creating great music, and he played a leading role in persuading the public that Mendelssohn was little more than a hack.

Mendelssohn’s reputation was further eroded by the Nazis, who banned his music and tore down all statues bearing his likeness. In one comical incident, Hitler ordered the removal of the Mendelssohn statue from the roof of the Prague opera house, but the workers mistakenly took down the statue of Richard Wagner, whom they believed to be Jewish because of the size of his nose. It was only after the Holocaust that music scholars began to recognize Mendelssohn’s genius and to revive his oeuvre and popularity.

Read more on Jewish Press: https://www.jewishpress.com/sections/features/features-on-jewish-world/felix-mendelssohns-ambiguous-religious-identity-jew-christian-or-both/2022/04/06/