The Mendelssohns 'Rediscovered'
At Bard College, musicians and enthusiasts delve into the works of Felix and Fanny
ANNANDALE-ON-HUDSON, N.Y. — 'WHEN playing my 'Variations Brillantes,' " wrote Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) to a friend, "dissolve it in the mouth like an ice cream."A more delicious way of describing the tasty concoction of musical events during the recent Mendelssohn Festival at Bard College here could scarcely be found. The cricket-haunted nights thrummed with "A Midsummer Night's Dream," visions of the misty glens of the "Scottish" Symphony, the pungent brimstone of the "Walpurgis Night," and many other orchestral, chamber, vocal, and piano works. For Leon Botstein, festival co-director and president of Bard College, the connections between Mendelssohn's religious faith, his music, and his subsequent public reputation are crucial to understanding this complex artist. In the festival's opening address he described how the Mendelssohns, a wealthy banking family in Berlin, converted to Christianity, adopting the Protestant name of "Bartholdy." Young Felix, however, despite snubs and beatings from anti-Semitic citizens of Berlin, defied his father's wishes and retained the name Mendelssohn, an overt sign of his Jewish heritage. Yet he became the greatest Protestant composer of his day with the great oratorios "St. Paul" and "Elijah," while still capable of writing a work like "Walpurgis Night," where the Christians are made to seem fools alongside the ancient pagans. "For Mendelssohn, Protestant Christianity was a kind of universalization of Judaism," explained Mr. Botstein. "He saw it as a kind of human progress which reconciled the historic religious divisions between Jew and Christian. Thus, in his music he tied up different threads in the Western European musical and religious tradition. And he represents that seeming paradox in Romantic music, an historicist who looks backward to the music of the past while pointing toward a music of his own time." The intimate campus of Bard College, founded in 1860 and located in the Hudson River Valley, provided the perfect setting for this probing exploration of Mendelssohn and his world. Although only two years old, the Bard Music Festival has garnered considerable attention, attracting scholars, musicians, critics, and enthusiasts from across the United States and other countries. "We call these two-week festivals 'rediscoveries, says Botstein. "Each festival is devoted to a composer and places him or her in the contexts of their time." Festival co-director Sarah Rothenberg, like Botstein, is a teacher and a performing musician. "It's been something of a surprise for us how quickly the festival has attracted attention," she admits. "We're not like the big festivals that deal in numbers we couldn't begin to handle. At the same time we want to get people out of their living rooms and away from their CD players. We want to encourage a special intimacy, to be able to reach out to an audience.... Over two weeks, the concerts become social ev ents, a communal kind of thing." Many of the performers are based in New York and are returning after appearances at Bard last year. One gets the impression that here they find pleasures not available in their ordinary routines. "It was a wonderful opportunity for me to get back to the forte-piano," said pianist Edmund Battersby after his recital of some of Mendelssohn's "Songs Without Words" on an original instrument, a French Erard, circa 1833. "Mendelssohn owned and played on just such an instrument." Virtually all the performers had the opportunity to tackle unusual and relatively unknown parts of the repertoire. In the outdoor concerts held under a big white tent, the festival orchestra and chorus measured the majestic proportions of the Second Symphony (Lobgesang, or "Song of Praise"), and brought out the epic quality of Sophocles's "Antigone" for which Mendelssohn wrote incidental music in 1841. In "Antigone," actress Claire Bloom, dressed in a vivid crimson floor-length gown, declaimed the laments of the dutiful Theban wife, her despairing wails balanced by the moderating balm of the classically poised music. "I have never done any performances of the 'Antigone said Ms. Bloom later at a reception. "But I've always wanted to do it. And now I have, although this form was rather unusual. I have done others of these so-called 'melodramas,' but there's nothing as big as this in the repertoire." Another important "restoration" in the festival was a fresh investigation of the life and music of Mendelssohn's sister, Fanny. Along with a seminar on her life and music with a panel of artists and scholars, including composer Joan Tower, Profs. Nancy B. Reich of Bard, Suzanne Summerville of the University of Alaska, and Camilla Cai of Kenyon College, were a number of performances of her music, including the D-minor piano trio and a number of songs and piano pieces. It is startling to realize that of Fanny Mendelssohn's more than 400 works, only 42 were published in her lifetime. Why, in an age when several other female performers and composers like Clara Schumann were becoming active, was Fanny so restricted in her professional creative life? "She was the daughter of a wealthy banker," explained Dr. Reich, "a member of the upper middle class, and therefore expected to follow the traditions of cultured women of the time - establish salons, support artists, supervise her home and the education of her child. Although she had the same education - and arguably the same level of talent - as Felix, to perform publicly and to publish would put a woman of Fanny's class in the position of going against the 'modesty' and 'obedience' expected of her. "When six of her songs were published, they came out under his name - not because of Felix's jealousy but because her 'modesty' would have been at stake. When she finally did publish some works in 1846, it was in defiance of her brother. It was only after her death a few months later that he had other works of hers published, like the piano trio." One of Fanny's works received its North American premiere at the Bard Festival. Pianist Sarah Rothenberg performed the piano cycle "Das Jahr" (The Year). "This music was not published until recently," says Ms. Rothenberg. "Fanny herself made no attempt to prepare it for publication. It's kind of a 'diary' piece, a kind of musical reminiscence.... To sit down and go through it for the first time was incredibly exciting. I immediately saw an original personality there." The music was full of power and strength, finely wrought in its details, demanding a formidable virtuosity. Rothenberg responded heroically, employing a number of pianistic styles and effects. The Mendelssohn Festival was really a testament to a growing interest in both Mendelssohns. "There are remarkable discoveries about them that are yet to be made," said R. Larry Todd of Duke University, a Mendelssohn authority. "Without question Felix and Fanny really influenced each other. And it's perhaps unique in the history of music to have a sibling pair of this kind. Both are prodigies, both are composers. Felix, of course, had a distinguished international career, while Fanny did not. But they shared a kind of common musical language. Listening to her music we can get insights into her b rother's music; and listening to his music we get insights into hers," Mr. Todd says.