Under Felix's Baton

Sometimes one hears an unfamiliar work on the radio, and immediately has an uncontrollable urge to identify the period and the composer. Often the style is familiar, and yet undefined: It's clearly 19th century and almost certainly was written during the first half of the 1800s; it's early Classical-Romantic. Then all the composers who were active at that time come to mind.

It is Schubert? Impossible, Schubert is always more profound. And definitely not Beethoven, the style is different, and he's not so Romantic. Maybe Schumann? No, this music is too clear and simple and melodic to suit his complex thinking. Nor is it Berlioz - there's no chance a Frenchman would write like that. By now perhaps we've already entered the second half of the century, and the composer in question is Brahms? Or perhaps it really is someone from the late 18th century, even Mozart?

And then the last composer that comes to mind turns out to be the right one: Felix Mendelssohn.

This year, in which the 200th anniversary of his birth is being celebrated, you can hear a lot of Mendelssohn on the radio, in concert halls, and on music and culture programs on television. This is therefore an opportunity to get to know and enjoy him, but also to wonder about him and to try to understand why he is not considered today to be in the same league as his great contemporaries.

Nevertheless, in terms of his reputation in his day - and his importance within European culture at the time - Mendelssohn actually was one of the greatest. He was born in 1809 to a rich and well-connected family of Jewish bankers. The grandfather of his mother Leah was an adviser to King Friedrich II; his paternal grandfather, the father of Felix's father Abraham, was the great philosopher Moses Mendelssohn (1729-1786).

The Mendelssohn home in Berlin enjoyed an abundance of cultural wealth: The family read the best of world literature together, performed classical plays, held concerts every Sunday and entertained various distinguished guests - a wide circle of artists, members of the aristocracy and politicians alike.

Felix and his elder sister Fanny turned out to be musical prodigies and knew how to play and compose almost before they learned how to read and write. He was sent to the best teachers of composition, singing and piano, was taken on trips and met with the world's greatest cultural names, including the poet Goethe and composers Rossini and Meyerbeer.

Mendelssohn was considered the first conductor of modern times. He traveled all over Europe to conduct at concerts, including in Great Britain, where he met with Queen Victoria. Thanks to his broad education and his great familiarity with artists of the past, he was among the first people ever to conduct not only his own works, but also those of his predecessors, including Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven.

As a composer, for inspiration - mainly for the religious music he wrote - Mendelssohn also looked to the past, to Baroque music and specifically to Bach, and he composed in his style. He was also responsible for the revival of Bach: In 1829, when the composer was familiar only to relatively few people, Mendelssohn discovered and conducted the "St. Matthew Passion." By so doing, he brought about a revolution: It was the first time that a forgotten composer had been rediscovered, and from that moment on a new light was shed on people's attitude toward past composers - as manifested in research and performance, and in formulation of the concept of what constituted a musical "masterpiece." In other words, there was a realization that works the past should be preserved and performed repeatedly.

Symphonies and chamber music, works for piano and songs, oratorios and motets, the famous concerto for piano - all were composed by Mendelssohn. Still, it is his first, youthful work, which he composed at the age of 17, that is considered his greatest: the overture to "A Midsummer Night's Dream" by Shakespeare, to whose plays Mendelssohn was introduced in his childhood.

At the age of 34, Mendelssohn returned to the brilliant work he composed as a youth, and further developed it into a piece that embodied the entire play. Anyone who listens to it (this week, the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, under the baton of Kurt Masur, will begin a series of concerts centered on this work) discovers how it is based entirely on the overture written at age 17, from which the composer derived the motifs that symbolize the characters in the play: a series of chords at the beginning, played by the woodwinds, as a kind of dignified fanfare for the royal family; a quick and delicate fluttering on the strings that represents the world of the fairies in the enchanted forest; broad, lyrical music, accompanied by flutes, as the motif of the lovers; a rough and cheerful dance, a kind of foot-stamping followed by a grotesque leap, accompanied by a long note like played on a folk instrument, representing the artisans; and a festive fanfare by the entire orchestra together with the brass section as the wedding motif: the raw material for the famous "Wedding March."

Mendelssohn was dubbed the "New Mozart" by his contemporary and friend, the great composer Robert Schumann, who wrote: "He manages to see clearly through all the contradictions of our era, and for the first time to solve them, too." Mendelssohn's refined taste, and his ability to combine Classical form with Romantic emotion, are apparently what led Schumann to compare him to their famous predecessor. At the time he wrote those words, Schumann did not yet know that the fate of his friend, like that of Mozart before him, was to be a momentary guest on Earth: Mendelssohn lived for only 38 years - two years longer than Mozart.

"In order to be a composer, you have to have much more than a room of your own," said British composer Ethel Smith, paraphrasing the famous expression coined by her fellow countrywoman and contemporary, Virginia Wolf. Fanny Mendelssohn, Felix's sister, was proof of that: She had a "room of her own," and a talent even greater than her brother's. But while he became an international composer and conductor, she remained a salon composer and organized her family's home concerts - subject to the authority of her father and her brother, who vehemently opposed her aspirations to compose and publish musical works.

"Music will perhaps become his profession, whereas for you it can and should only be an adornment," her father Abraham wrote to Fanny after she had composed a song for him at the age of 14. Comments in a similar spirit were also found in letters from her brother.

Only after Fanny married artist Wilhelm Hensel in 1829, and with his encouragement, did she begin to think seriously about publishing. Very belatedly, only in 1846, was she finally able to fulfill her dream and see the publication of songs she had written, accompanied by piano, as well as choral pieces and works for the piano (Opus 1 to Opus 7). Fanny Hensel finally saw her works in print, but her happiness lasted for only a few months: In May 1847 she suffered heart failure and died, at 43. Her brother Felix died less than half a year later.

The story of Fanny and Felix Mendelssohn demonstrates why the place of female composers is missing from the canon of European classical music, which was shaped in the 19th century. The difficulty for women who wanted to compose began already during their schooling: The girls were not allowed to study composition at the European music academies, and were also prevented from studying musical theory, harmony, counterpoint, orchestration and the great partituras. During the period when women's musical works were legally prohibited, it was also impossible to conceive of a woman court composer or woman composer for the Church, and certainly not a conductor.

Traditionally, for a work to be considered a "masterpiece," it must be written by a professional, then printed, published and distributed. For this to happen, there was a need for professional connections with performing institutions, dealings with impresarios, funding, control over players - and all were out of bounds for women. The outside world was closed to them. Therefore, as seen in the case of Fanny Mendelssohn, female composers turned to chamber music, which is easier to produce and perform. They were thus forced, against their will, to conform to the gender stereotype that keeps women at home and assigns them an intimate, modest and limited scope of work: "women's music," as opposed to the great, powerful symphonic genres - in other words, those dominated by male musicians.

The 19th century, which raised classical music to an almost religious level, attributed to it characteristics that were considered clearly masculine: loftiness, a transcendental quality, depth, abstractness, thought, absoluteness, universality. Therefore, even from a philosophical standpoint, it had no place in the world of women, who - according to the stereotype - were emotional, concrete and superficial.

It's a good thing the 20th century and various modernist movements undermined such attitudes, and that post-modern 21st century erased them altogether. Thanks to them, there will be no repetition of the Fanny Hensel story.