The Cambridge companion series provides one of the more scholarly and intensely interesting examinations of musical composers currently available. This is because of its in-depth and multifaceted contributions to each volume, by a variety of musicologists and musicians, as well as overall management of each volume by a well-established and known scholar in the field. The Mendelssohn volume is no exception in this area. It is a collection of fourteen essays that examine the life and work of the nineteenth-century Romantic composer Felix Mendelssohn. It is divided into four major sections: Issues in Biography, Situating the Compositions, Profiles of the Music, and Reception and Performance.
The editor provides an introduction titled “Mendelssohn as border-dweller.” Mendelssohn is an enigma: born Jewish but baptized into Protestantism at a young age; his proficiency as a composer, pianist, organist, and conductor; and his reputation and reception during his lifetime and posthumously, to name a few. The editor provides some comments and direction on these and other dichotomies, while indicating that the book itself provides only a surface introduction for the newcomer to Mendelssohn as a musical personality in nineteenth-century Romantic music.
In Part I, three essays examine biographical issues surrounding Mendelssohn. The editor writes on Mendelssohn and the institution(s) of German art music, Michael P. Steinberg examines the many and complex weavings regarding Mendelssohn and Judaism, and Marian Wilson Kimber discusses the relationship between Mendelssohn and his sister Fanny.
In Part II, two essays provide some commentary on the context of Mendelssohn’s compositions within nineteenth-century Romanticism. James Garratt looks at the rise of music historicism (Mendelssohn was the first composer to champion and perform the little-known works of an obscure Baroque German composer named Johann Sebastian Bach), and Greg Vitercik speaks on how progressive Mendelssohn’s compositions were through examination of the music itself.
In Part III, a number of compositions and genres are examined. Douglass Seaton provides an overview of Mendelssohn’s output in the symphony and overture; Steve Lindeman examines the works for solo instrument(s) and orchestra; Thomas Schmidt-Beste discusses his chamber music; Glenn Stanley looks at the music for keyboard; R. Larry Todd has the interesting topic of sacred music, real and imaginary; Susan Youens looks at Mendelssohn’s song output; and Monika Hennemann examines dramatic compositions from Liederspiel to Lorelei.
Finally, in Part IV, the fascinating posthumous reception of Mendelssohn’s musical output and life are examined in two essays. John Michael Cooper provides a brief chronological history of Mendelssohn’s influence (or non-influence) on Romanticism and music history up until the present day, and Leon Botstein provides an interesting analysis of Mendelssohn’s originality and musical complexity in his music for orchestra and chorus.
Overall, this is a well-constructed and thought-provoking examination of Mendelssohn’s life and musical works. Whether it is appropriate as reading material for the virtual newcomer to Mendelssohn, as the marketing on the back of the book mentions, is questionable. As a musicologist, I was challenged to follow the lines of reasoning and the thought processes within many of the essays; in fact, I would state that this book is more for the graduate student, music professor, and advanced music performer rather than the music novice looking for introductory information on Mendelssohn and his life. There is a brief chronology of Mendelssohn’s life at the beginning of the book, and copious notes for each chapter of the book placed at the end of the book.
Dr. Brad Eden
University of Nevada, Las Vegas
product_title=The Cambridge Companion to Mendelssohn
product_by=Edited by Peter Mercer-Taylor. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004. xv, 315 pp.