"Mendelssohn: A Life in Music": Update

October 1, 2009
Mendelssohn: A Life in MusicFanny Hensel: The Other Mendelssohn

R. Larry Todd, Arts & Sciences Professor of music, has had a whirlwind year. As one of the world's leading scholars on the life and music of Felix Mendelssohn, he has shuttled around the country and across the Atlantic and back, doing countless interviews and appearances, as part of multiple celebrations of his subject's 200th birthday.

Felix Mendelssohn, born in Hamburg, Germany, in February 1809, was a man caught between a series of divides. He was immensely popular in England, where he was viewed as a contemporary version of George Frideric Handel and gained private audiences with Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. When he died unexpectedly, at age thirty-eight, he was hailed as one of the great composers of his generation.

But as tastes changed, he became a target for English critics who no longer supported Victorian mores and attitudes. "He went from extreme adulation to complete denigration," Todd says.

Todd's Mendelssohn: A Life in Music, published in 2003 and reviewed in Duke Magazine, explains how the changing musical atmosphere that followed in the wake of the European Revolutions of 1848 led generations of historians and critics to consider Mendelssohn a "Victorian gentleman," an uncomplimentary term indicating a practitioner of the old style: conservative yet lightweight, unserious, and maudlin. The truth, Todd argues, is much more nuanced.

Mendelssohn's Jewish heritage has been another strike against him. Born into a Jewish family, he converted to Christianity like many of his contemporaries eager to gain acceptance in German society. The Nazi party banned his music and sought to expurgate his memory altogether.

To mark Mendelssohn's bicentenary, Todd has transposed his famed violin concerto in E minor, Op. 64, to serve as the third movement to an unfinished piano concerto, also by Mendelssohn. In the early 1980s, Todd orchestrated the first two movements of the concerto, working with Alan Bone, the founding conductor of the Duke Symphony Orchestra (DSO), to flesh out Mendelssohn's original drafts.

"The drafts were so extensive that it seemed so regrettable to leave [the concerto] in the library and never have anyone look at it," Todd says. The entire concerto, with Todd's new third movement, made its debut in Germany earlier this year.

In late September, the DSO will play the third movement of the reconstructed piano concerto and the violin concerto on which it is based. (Also as part of the bicentenary, this past spring the DSO performed Mendelssohn's Overture and Incidental Music to A Midsummer Night's Dream, which was presented in conjunction with the theater studies department.)

As a result of his continuing interest in Mendelssohniana, Todd's latest book, a biography of Mendelssohn's little-known sister—a composer in her own right—titled Fanny Hensel: The Other Mendelssohn, will be released in October by Oxford University Press.