Rescued from the Nazis
Levitin, Michael, Newsweek International
Byline: Michael Levitin
When the 20-year-old Felix Mendelssohn conducted Bach's Saint Matthew Passion in Berlin in 1829, it caused a national sensation. In those days, when a composer died his contemporaries stopped playing him and his music died as well. But Mendelssohn, a brilliant composer, pianist and conductor who felt indebted to Bach, broke with tradition and performed the work for an audience that included the philosopher Hegel, the King of Prussia and the poet Heinrich Heine. It was the first time the piece had been played since Bach's death in 1750, and it ignited an era of rediscovery that turned the baroque composer back into a household name. Without Mendelssohn, the Nazis might never have embraced Bach a century later as an exemplary Aryan composer, calling him "the most German of all Germans." But in a cruel twist of history, Mendelssohn's role in rescuing Bach didn't stop the Third Reich from banning his works and destroying his legacy because he was a Jew.
To this day Mendelssohn's reputation has never fully recovered from the Nazis' smear campaign. The exhibit Blood and Spirit: Bach, Mendelssohn and Their Music in the Third Reich, which runs through Nov. 8 in Bach's hometown of Eisenach, attempts to rectify that. Timed to coincide with the 200th anniversary of his birth, the exhibit taps into a growing swell of Mendelssohn appreciation. Today his music is played regularly on German radio--which wasn't the case 20 years ago--and the number of annual visitors to Leipzig's Mendelssohn Museum has jumped from 5,000 to 30,000 over the past decade. A spate of new books and CDs, concerts, articles and an upcoming festival in Leipzig (Aug. 21-Sept. 19) mark his birthday. But Blood and Spirit sets out to achieve something new: to unravel the Nazis' complex manipulation of musicians for their political and ethnic ends, while rehabilitating one of the continent's great musical geniuses. "Mendelssohn was the most celebrated Romantic composer of the first half of the 19th century," says curator and Bach House director Jorg Hansen. "The only real answer to all this prejudice that persists in Germany is to perform his music and listen to it."
A child prodigy, Mendelssohn composed 12 symphonies between the ages of 12 and 14, surpassing even Mozart in early musical talent. Goethe, who heard a 7-year-old Mendelssohn play, quipped in 1821 that next to the young Amadeus, his was "the educated language of an adult compared with the prattling of a child. …