Friday, February 20, 2009

Mendelssohn juvenalia

This year marks the 200th anniversary of Felix Mendelssohn's birth. As a consequence, you'll be hearing quite a bit of his organ music over the course of the year.

Mendelssohn's reputation has varied immensely over the past 200 years. During his life, he was touted and admired as among the best composers of his day. He was a child prodigy, popular in his home country of Germany, and beloved by Queen Victoria. In fact, her daughter's wedding ceremony in 1858 included his now-classic Wedding March.

His reputation declined partly due to anti-Semitism (particularly the blistering criticism of Wagner), but also to his musical conservatism. He lived and worked at the dawn of the romantic age, the era of Berlioz and Liszt, but his music still reflected the classical and baroque eras, more akin to Mozart and Bach than his contemporaries. The final blow to his status may just have been his association with and love of Lutheran chorales.

Mendelssohn's family converted to Christianity, and he firmly embraced Lutheran music. Among his familiar works are the "Reformation" Symphony and the Christmas carol "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing." Musical critics may occasionally sneer or sigh at the number of works that echo a chorale, but Lutherans can listen to it from a different perspective, finding additional layers of meaning and emotion in the familiar tunes.

This Sunday I'm playing two of Mendelssohn's early works, composed while he was still a teenager. The prelude is a basic chorale, sweet and consoling, while the postlude is a jaunty march. For Transfiguration Sunday, a day when Jesus appears with Elijah and Moses, we can contemplate the faith of this convert and the beautiful music he composed in praise of God.

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