Best wishes from Felix and me for a happy Jewish New Year (5779 on the calendar).
Mendelssohn and me. (He’s in the back.)
Being here in Leipzig with the Boston Symphony, performing at the history-laden Gewandhaus, at this particular juncture is thought-provoking because of the confluence of time and place: the New Year and being in a city where the influence of Felix Mendelssohn is still palpable. Mendelssohn was the Leonard Bernstein of his era. Even more. A greater composer than Bernstein, he not only was music director of the Gewandhaus Orchestra, he raised its reputation to being one of the greatest ensembles in Europe and in the process, defined the role of the modern symphony conductor. When he died in 1847, still in his 30s, an entire continent mourned. [See Library of Congress article below.] Yet a proposed monument in his memory that was going to be erected in front of the Gewandhaus was mothballed, in part because of the instigation of Richard Wagner and his infamous diatribe against Jews. [See “Judaism in Music,” below]. As a result, it was not until 1892 before a Mendelssohn statue was unveiled. Then, in 1936, it was removed by the Nazis in the dead of night. [See “Cultural Liquidation in the Third Reich,” below.] An exact replica of the Mendelssohn statue was ultimate recreated and erected in 2008.
The point being, it is my hope for the New Year that the demonization of Jews, Moslems in Christian countries, Christians in Moslem countries, Latinos, African Americans, Rohingyas, LGBT, or of any other vulnerable group I might have unwittingly left out, will end. I know that’s a tall order, but at least we can start to turn the corner. It’s about time.
Felix Mendelssohn monument, Leipzig
Library of Congress article about Mendelssohn and the Gewandhaus Orchestra
By late 1834, at the age of twenty-six, Mendelssohn had risen to the top of his profession, gaining the respect of his peers throughout Europe as the consummate professional musician: a leading conductor, brilliant performer and teacher, a composer of major status, and musico-historical scholar. In that year alone he had entertained and consequently declined several coveted positions including the directorship of the Munich opera, a professorship at the University of Berlin, the editorship of the Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung, and a correspondent’s post with Robert Schumann’s popular Neue Zeitschrift für Musik. During this same period of time a concerted effort by several members of the board of directors for the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra was underfoot to entice this prestigious figure as their conductor.
The Gewandhaus Orchestra, which began its first season in November of 1781, had developed over time into one of Europe’s prominent ensembles, attracting the most talented composers and virtuosos of the Classical era. It was under the leadership of Mendelssohn however, who served as director from 1835 to 1847, that this ensemble was transformed into a cultural institution. Idolized from the beginning of the 1835-36 concert season, Mendelssohn the conductor displayed an indefatigable passion in his quest for musical perfection, and established a broadened orchestral repertory that ultimately developed into the musical canon that continues to be the underpinning of concert life today; his outstanding musical accomplishments at the Gewandhaus were publicly acknowledged and supported by Schumann in the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik. He sponsored several premières including Schumann’s first, second and fourth symphonies as well as his own E minor Violin Concerto, and promoted fundraising through benefit concerts. Mendelssohn the composer and pianist also garnered the highest of accolades from his Leipzig following, performing his own piano concerti as well as those by Mozart, Beethoven and Bach.
Wikipdia article about “Judaism in Music,” by Richard Wagner
Wagner was also emboldened by the death of Mendelssohn in 1847, the popularity of whose conservative style he felt was cramping the potential of German music. Although Wagner had shown virtually no sign of anti-Jewish prejudice previously (despite the claims by Rose in his book Wagner, Race and Revolution, and others), he was determined to build on Uhlig’s articles and prepare a broadside that would attack his artistic enemies, embedded in what he took to be a populist Judeophobic context.
Wagner claims that the work was written to:
explain to ourselves the involuntary repellence possessed for us by the nature and personality of the Jews, so as to vindicate that instinctive dislike which we plainly recognize as stronger and more overpowering than our conscious zeal to rid ourselves thereof.
Wagner holds that Jews are unable to speak European languages properly and that Jewish speech took the character of an “intolerably jumbled blabber”, a “creaking, squeaking, buzzing snuffle”, incapable of expressing true passion. This, he says, debars them from any possibility of creating song or music. He also states:
Although the peculiarities of the Jewish mode of speaking and singing come out the most glaringly in the commoner class of Jew, who has remained faithful to his father’s stock, and though the cultured son of Jewry takes untold pains to strip them off, nevertheless they shew an impertinent obstinacy in cleaving to him.
The essay is riddled with the aggressiveness typical of many Judeophobic publications of the previous few centuries. However Wagner did introduce one striking new image, which was to be taken up after him by many later antisemitic authors:
So long as the separate art of music had a real organic life-need in it […] there was nowhere to be found a Jewish composer…. Only when a body’s inner death is manifest, do outside elements win the power of lodgement in it—yet merely to destroy it. Then, indeed, that body’s flesh dissolves into a swarming colony of insect life: but who in looking on that body’s self, would hold it still for living?
Cultural Liquidation in the Third Reich, by Dr. Keith Barlow
THE night of November 9-10 1938, is widely known as the Pogrom Night. This was when nazis all over Germany burned down synagogues, ransacked Jewish businesses and attacked Jews in their homes, with the police arresting them en masse.
This was then the climax of a long period of hatred towards the Jews and the ferocious attempts of seeking to eradicate all traces of Jewish life, history and culture in Germany. Leipzig was no exception.
Not so widely known is that in the city, two years to the day before the Pogrom Night, the monument in honour of the prominent Jewish composer Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy (1809-47) simply disappeared overnight without trace from in front of Leipzig’s great concert hall, the Gewandhaus.
At this time, the London Philharmonic Orchestra, led by the prominent conductor Sir Thomas Beecham, was on what was viewed as a highly controversial concert tour of Germany, given the political situation there.
This included Leipzig. In the evening of November 9 1936, 80 years ago to this very day, the London Philharmonic Orchestra laid a wreath at this statue.
The following morning, it just wasn’t a case of the wreath no longer being there but the statue itself.
Apart from its foundations, consisting of a granite base which was sold off to a stonemason in 1942, nothing was left. What actually happened to the bronze statue remains unknown.
Leipzig has long had a rich musical tradition with many prominent composers having lived and worked there.
Mendelssohn too. He lived there from 1835-41, working as a conductor as well as composing, and again from 1845 until his very early death in 1847.
In 1843 he founded the Leipzig conservatorium — the first high school for music in Germany — in the building of the Gewandhaus. He became an honourary citizen of Leipzig in the same year where he died.
The statue was originally erected on May 26 1892, 45 years after his death.
It was removed in the absence of, and against the orders of, the then Lord Mayor of Leipzig, Dr Carl Friedrich Goerdeler, who was on a business trip to Finland at the time.
Goerdeler, who can be described as a national conservative, became lord mayor following a lengthy selection procedure by Leipzig City Council in 1930.
Being neither a communist nor a social democrat, he was not affected by orders expelling politicians from office representing parties which were banned after the nazis took over in 1933.
By the time they came to power, Leipzig, as with many other cities in Germany, had a thriving Jewish community with Jews being prominent in commerce and in the city’s historical and cultural life.
When they took over, a hate campaign against Jews was in already in full swing so as to eradicate all influence and traces of Jewish life in the city, as well as in the rest of Germany.
This included the changing of street names, the destruction of Jewish businesses and persecution of the Jews. Goerdeler, despite being surrounded by nazis, did what he could to prevent attacks on Jewish life in the city under extremely difficult circumstances. He became increasingly critical of the nazis’ policies towards the Jews.
It was in May 1936 when nazi leaders in Leipzig initially demanded the removal of this statue.
Goerdeler resisted this. Having consulted Berlin, he made it clear that the highest authorities in Germany were sceptical, obviously aware of any negative image Germany would get from this.
Nevertheless, in September 1936, there was a massive press campaign in Leipzig against this statue.
This was supported by Goerdeler’s deputy, Rudolph Haake, a dedicated nazi.
Some time before the concert tour, Beecham approached Goerdeler and asked whether it would be possible to lay a wreath in front of the Mendelssohn statue and Goerdeler indicated that this would be welcomed.
However, while in Finland, Haake stepped in for him. It was he, in his absence, who ordered the removal of the statue on the grounds that as a Jew, said Haake, he “as such cannot be displayed as an exponent of a German city of music.”
Goerdeler, unable to secure its re-erection and despite his recent re-election as lord mayor, resigned.
Clearly, his status as lord mayor of a major city had by then crumbled to that of just being a figurehead.
Goerdeler, having earlier been deputy mayor of Koenigsburg (now Kaliningrad in the Russian Federation), had long worked in the field of local government.
He also served two short terms as the Reich’s price commissioner. Through all this he established wide contacts at the highest levels of industry in Germany.
It was on the basis of these contacts that he sought to build an opposition with like-minded people to Hitler.
After his resignation, he became director of the overseas sales department of the Robert Bosch company. This enabled him to travel abroad and expand his contacts.
The significance of his standing in such circles was such that had the assassination attempt on Hitler on July 20 1944 succeeded, he may well have become interim Reich chancellor.
Despite strongly denying any involvement in this, he was arrested and hanged in Berlin Ploetzensee on February 2 1945.
Following the defeat of the nazis in 1945, Leipzig, being in the east, came under the part of Germany which was until the founding of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) in 1949 under the Soviet occupation zone.
Despite immense difficulties following the war, the new lord mayor of Leipzig, Dr Erich Zeigner, and the Soviet military administration took the initial steps so as to restore Mendelssohn’s rightful place in Leipzig’s historical and cultural life. On October 2 1946, a plaque with key dates from the life of Mendelssohn was positioned in the very place in front of the ruins of the Gewandhaus where the demolished statue was originally erected.
On November 4 the following year, in commemmorating the centenary of his death, this plaque was replaced by a bust of Mendelssohn which was carved out of limestone.
In Leipzig during the GDR as well as since German unification, the city authorities have ensured that Mendelssohn’s rightful place in the music and cultural life of the city is fully honoured.
This is particlularly important as we are currently witnessing the forces of hatred once again on the march.
- Dr Keith Barlow works for the German-Russian Centre Saxony on a research project of the history of the Jews in Leipzig.
For more on the life of a symphony musician: Symphonies & Scorpions