Books: July-August 2004

August 1, 2004

Mendelssohn: A Life in Music By R. Larry Todd. OxfordMendelssohn: A Life in Music
By R. Larry Todd. Oxford University Press, 2003. 683 pages. $31.50.

When Felix Mendelssohn died suddenly at the age of thirty-eight in 1847, he was mourned throughout Europe as one of the greatest composers and conductors of his generation. His accomplishments, after all, were nothing short of astonishing. By the time he turned twenty-one, he had already composed his Octet and the Overture to A Midsummer Night's Dream, two mainstays of the musical repertory even today. He had also brought back to life Bach's Saint Matthew Passion, a work that had lain dormant for more than a hundred years. In the remaining seventeen years of his life, he would go on to compose such canonic masterpieces as the "Scottish" and "Italian" Symphonies, the Violin Concerto in E minor, and the oratorios St. Paul and Elijah.

Posterity has not been kind to Mendelssohn, however. He died just before the Revolutions of 1848-49, and, in the wake of those turbulent years, his music struck listeners grappling with the more adventurous idioms of Berlioz, Liszt, and Wagner as overly conservative. The fact that Mendelssohn was a musical favorite of crowned heads of state across Europe--Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, Friedrich Wilhelm IV of Prussia, and Friedrich August II of Saxony--did not help his cause in the musical politics of post-revolutionary Europe. Richard Wagner's biting commentary, tinged with anti-Semitism, helped perpetuate the image of the composer's output as somehow lightweight, maudlin, and not sufficiently "serious."

The Nazis banned Mendelssohn's music on the grounds of his Jewish heritage and sought to minimize his significance in the history of music altogether. Even the composer's advocates, attempting to rehabilitate his reputation after World War II, tended to take an overly apologetic approach, presenting him as a "gentle genius" or "gentleman composer" swimming against the tide of revolutionary romanticism.

Larry Todd's impressive new book--named best biography of 2003 by the Association of American Publishers--provides a much-needed re-evaluation of Mendelssohn within the composer's own time and on his own terms. In this first study of its kind in more than forty years, Todd, professor and chair of the music department at Duke, draws a finely nuanced portrait of an individual far more complex than that put forward by either proponents or detractors.

True to its subtitle, this biography is very much a "life in music." Todd traces Mendelssohn's life through his work as a composer, conductor, pianist, organist, teacher, and editor of music. Every major composition receives a brief yet insightful discussion, and shorter vignettes round out the picture of the composer's oeuvre in all its variety. With the exception of opera, Mendelssohn composed in virtually every genre of his time, and all indications suggest that at the end of his life he was well on his way to completing his first mature opera.

Of particular interest here is Mendelssohn's relationship to the music of the past. In an age when originality was prized above virtually all other musical qualities, Mendelssohn went out of his way to immerse himself in the music of such past masters as Handel, Johann Sebastian Bach, Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, Haydn, and Mozart. But he was never cowed by tradition. At the age of ten, he discovered a series of parallel fifths in J.S. Bach's Fifth Brandenburg Concerto, a passage of "forbidden" voice-leading (moving individual chord voices smoothly from one to the next), that had escaped the notice of even his esteemed teacher, Carl Friedrich Zelter. Three years later, Mendelssohn wrote a string symphony whose finale is openly modeled on the last movement of Mozart's "Jupiter" Symphony, a tour-de-force of invertible counterpoint. As Todd points out, the goal of studying these earlier works was "not a lifeless re-enactment of an earlier age but a revitalization of modern music through exemplary historical models."

Todd also gives considerable attention to the composer's sister Fanny (1805-47), a talented composer in her own right. Her relationship with Felix was close and complicated. Not until the age of forty did she summon the courage to publish her own music, protesting even then that she was no femme libre and clearly uncomfortable at the idea of drawing attention to herself in a profession overwhelmingly dominated by men. Felix welcomed her into the composer's "guild" and offered this benediction: "May you taste only the sweets and none of the bitterness of authorship; may the public pelt you with roses, and never with sand; and may the printer's ink never draw black lines upon your soul."

Like all good biographies, Todd's Mendelssohn is also a history of its subject's era. Indeed, virtually every major composer and performer of the time enters into the story at one point or another: Chopin, Berlioz, Robert and Clara Schumann, Wagner, Rossini, Paganini, Moscheles, Spontini, Spohr, and Cherubini. Yet Mendelssohn's interests were by no means solely musical. We also meet in this biography such diverse figures as Hegel and Ranke (Mendelssohn heard both of them lecture in Berlin in the 1820s), the elderly Goethe (who was charmed by the youth's musical gifts), Alexander von Humboldt, Heine, Dickens, and Hans Christian Andersen.

The geographic scope of Mendelssohn's life was just as broad. Born in Hamburg, he was raised in Berlin and settled at various times in Leipzig, Frankfurt, D¸sseldorf, and Berlin again. His travels took him on extended visits to Rome, Paris, Switzerland, England, and Scotland, where he was inspired to the write the Hebrides Overture, also known as Fingal's Cave. He declined an invitation to conduct the newly established New York Philharmonic Society in 1844, but he accepted an astonishing number of invitations elsewhere, often donating the proceeds to charity.

And, like all good biographies, this one tells its story engagingly. Mendelssohn becomes three-dimensional in these pages: We see him drinking too much champagne after an evening of part-song singing, yawning an "obbligato accompaniment" to Hummel's improvisations on the piano, playing billiards with Schumann, and flirting with the renowned soprano Jenny Lind. Todd draws from a rich variety of sources, many of them unpublished letters, but this biography wears its learning lightly--much like Mendelssohn's music itself.


Dispatches from a Not-So-Perfect Life or How I Learned to Love the House, the Man, the Child By Faulkner FoxDispatches from a Not-So-Perfect Life or How I Learned to Love the House, the Man, the Child
By Faulkner Fox. Harmony Books, 2003. 272 pages. $23.

Faulkner Fox raises many issues about women, work, and family in Dispatches from a Not-So-Perfect Life or How I Learned to Love the House, the Man, the Child, a book that is sometimes humorous, often provocative, and always honest.

How can a woman balance work ambitions with a desire to be a good mother? How can women and men share child-rearing responsibilities in a society that rewards achievement outside the home much more than within it? How can women accept each other's choices--to have a career, to be full-time mothers, or to do something in between--without judgment and criticism?

Such issues, however, are simply aspects of the more fundamental question that Fox asks: How can a woman be a good mother and still maintain a sense of her own identity? Or, in her words: "Where exactly can a woman go and experience full-on encouragement to blossom into her fullest, richest self?" For Fox, her initial experiences of motherhood--staying home with her children and writing poetry part time--were definitely not that place.

Fox, who now teaches creative writing at Duke, wrote her book to determine whether the sources of her discontent with "the house-man-child package" were her unrealistic expectations or broader problems in our society. She examines key points in her life that may have influenced her views, as well as numerous cultural pressures on women, such as the lack of respect often afforded stay-at-home moms and the proliferation of advice books on parenting that can reduce women to "crippling self-blame."

Fox's biggest complaint, however, appears to be the often unequal distribution of household labor that makes it easier for men than women to balance careers and children. "I'd never bought the argument (nor had he) that he was working as a professor 'for us,' while my complementary part of the deal was to hold down the homefront," Fox says of her husband. "In our house, work was what you did for yourself while housework and childcare were what you did for the family." To quantify what she saw as the inequities, Fox even came to developing "Frequent Parenting Miles" in which she calculated the amount of time she and her husband spent raising their children.

To some readers, Fox's anger over certain aspects of her domestic life may appear whiny, disingenuous, and, indeed, reflective of unrealistic expectations. Yet many other readers will wonder in agreement with her: Why, with the dramatic growth of mothers entering the workforce over the past thirty-five years, hasn't more progress been made?

What became especially troublesome to Fox was the conspiracy of silence that seemed to surround such issues: "The cultural clues I saw all around made me feel it was wrong to want what should have been reasonable enough: meaningful work in the world and love." She concludes in Dispatches that most women are unwilling to talk about any ambivalent feelings they harbor about motherhood because "any negative comment a woman made about her domestic situation could be perceived by other mothers as a lack of motherly love."

In fact, one of the best sections of the book deals with Fox's difficulties making honest connections with other women. Part of the problem was circumstantial: She had moved to a new town because of her husband's job and found few opportunities to meet people. She also experienced a common affliction of new motherhood--the loss of uninterrupted time in which to carry on a satisfying conversation.

But she also points to the corrosive judgments and competitive attitudes that women can apply to each other's choices. "If there were a totem pole of power, professional women were at the top, part-time working mothers and artistic types were somewhere in the middle, and stay-at-home mothers were at the bottom," she writes. "Of course, the selfless pole stacked the opposite way with stay-at-home mothers at the top and professional women at the bottom. I appreciated being at neither pole's tail end, but I also felt like I was getting slammed from both sides." She highlights not only the competition that she felt between those who worked outside the home and those who worked within it, but also among those moms who stayed at home. While often subtle, that competition could manifest itself in seemingly innocent questions like, How many months did you breast feed? How many hours did you spend at Gymboree?

To deal with her sense of isolation and break the deafening silence, Fox decided to write the book. She began to interview other women to discover if her feelings were simply her own idiosyncratic response or a widely shared best-kept secret.

We don't really learn that much about what those women said to Fox; her book focuses far more on her individual odyssey. But it is her unflinching honesty in confronting and expressing the truth about her personal experiences that makes the book relevant to others who are grappling with similar themes in their own lives.

At one point in Dispatches, Fox describes how she was "hungry for some old-fashioned CR," or consciousness-raising, about the issues that concerned her, and hoped a book group might offer a forum for that. "I wanted to talk directly about selfhood and motherhood, about loving your kids but also loving yourself, and I was hoping a book group could include books on these subjects as a springboard for discussion. I still wanted to figure out, with other mothers, what had happened to us, what motherhood meant, and how we could best live lives as mothers without losing ourselves." Whether you agree with her views or not, Fox has written just the book to begin such discussions.