Unearthing Mendelssohn's Lost Works

Mendelssohn 300 Primary

hide captionJakob Ludwig Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy was born Feb. 3, 1809, in Hamburg, Germany. This portrait depicts him at age 36, two years before his death.

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Felix Mendelssohn was born 200 years ago Tuesday. Though he was one of the most beloved composers of the Romantic period, 270 of his works remained unpublished until recent years. These lost compositions are now coming to light through The Mendelssohn Project.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:

Classical musical lovers out there, here's an early morning quiz: name that tune.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "QUARTET FOR STRINGS IN E FLAT MAJOR")

MONTAGNE: Okay. It was a trick question. This piece was never published and never performed until last week at a concert in New York. It's the "Quartet for Strings in E Flat Major" by the 19th century German composer Felix Mendelssohn. Today is the 200th anniversary of his birth.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "QUARTET FOR STRINGS IN E FLAT MAJOR")

MONTAGNE: This piece is one of the more than 270 unpublished works recovered in recent years by the Mendelssohn Project. Its founder, conductor Stephen Somary, is on a mission to return the composer to the top tier of classical music, a perch he once held.

STEPHEN SOMARY: By the mid-19th century, Mendelssohn was actually the rock star of his time. He was by far the most performed composer in central Europe. Mozart was the second most, and he was a distant second.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MONTAGNE: How did it happen, then, with his works being so popular, that there were so many of them unpublished?

SOMARY: Yes, no, he was a voracious composer and composed every day. But he was wealthy and could afford himself the luxury of not liking to publish. He was composing a lot purely for himself.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SOMARY: The second reason so many works were unpublished was that Mendelssohn did not expect to die at the early age of 38. And then the third and largest reason was that Mendelssohn was posthumously assassinated, if you will, by Richard Wagner, and going within just a period of a very few years from the most performed composer to not performed at all.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MONTAGNE: This is quite a, really, a terrible story that Wagner would have, in a sense, blackballed him artistically.

SOMARY: Yeah. They were actually competitors in a sense. And three years following Mendelssohn's death, Wagner wrote his treatise "Judaism in Music," where he used Mendelssohn as the prime example as to why there is no place for Jews in the arts. Wagner actually lauded Mendelssohn in having written some very nice tunes, as he called it, but said that Mendelssohn could not develop them further. It wasn't his fault. It was in his blood. Being born Jewish hindered him from achieving great art.

MONTAGNE: And Mendelssohn himself, though, at least his father, had converted to Christianity.

SOMARY: Yes. His father, Abraham Mendelssohn, converted the children first, and then the parents followed shortly thereafter.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "THEN HE GAVE THY ANGELS CHARGE OVER THEE")

SOMARY: A beautiful, beautiful peace with a melody that a lot of us know is an eight-part a cappella chorus called "Then He Gave Thy Angels Charge Over Thee." But what people don't know is that this was actually written a few years earlier as a beautiful eight-part a cappella choral motet.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "THEN HE GAVE THY ANGELS CHARGE OVER THEE")

MONTAGNE: Stephen Somary, how does the work that he published compare to what he chose to file away?

SOMARY: We really see no difference. And one great case in point was his Italian Symphony. Mendelssohn wrote the "Italian Symphony" and did not like it, and he rewrote the second, third and fourth movements. And when he died, a publishing house came to Mendelssohn's widow, and she gave them the wrong version. She gave them his first version.

MONTAGNE: His first version...

SOMARY: What we all know and love.

MONTAGNE: ...we know now.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "ITALIAN SYMPHONY")

MONTAGNE: We have, thanks to you, the version that was not published...

SOMARY: Yes.

MONTAGNE: ...the version that Mendelssohn himself would have liked to have heard played. And...

SOMARY: Mm-hmm, the second version.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "ITALIAN SYMPHONY")

SOMARY: In the revised version, this movement sounds a lot less militaristic. He softened the edges, and he's expanded on his main theme and developed it quite a bit further.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "ITALIAN SYMPHONY")

MONTAGNE: Let's get to your detective work. Where did these compositions turn up when you started looking for them?

SOMARY: They were scattered all around the world. In 1936, the Nazi regime considered his name worthy enough to add to their lists of forbidden artists of Jewish dissent. Most of his manuscripts were in the Berlin state library, and they were smuggled out to Warsaw and Krakow. And when those cities were no longer safe, they were literally given out via any means possible, on any train, car, to whatever locations in the world that would be deemed safe.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SOMARY: It was always an extraordinarily exciting experience going through the bins in the basement of libraries in Italy or Japan, and then our eye catching the handwriting, catching the notes. And the thrill each time was not to be believed.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MONTAGNE: At a concert marking the 200th anniversary of Mendelssohn's birth, you performed some new works. Do you think that some of these compositions could well enter the standard classical repertoire?

SOMARY: It is certainly my hope.

MONTAGNE: Any that you think are likely candidates for that?

SOMARY: Yes. Certainly "The Six Lieder," a magnificent work entitled "Twelve Fugues For String Quartet," the unpublished version of his 1823 "E Flat Major Quartet" - actually I can't think of anything we performed last week that I think unworthy of being in the standard repertoire of classical music.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MONTAGNE: Conductor Stephen Somary, speaking to us about the unpublished works of Felix Mendelssohn. The composer was born 200 years ago today. This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, Host:

And I'm Linda Wertheimer.

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