‘Song without Words’ – a short biography of Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy (1809 – 1847)

While many tributes have been published to mark the 200th anniversary of Felix Mendelssohn’s birth, and orchestras everywhere are playing to renewed appreciation the works that were left to us as his enduring legacy, it was anticipated soon after his death that “there may come a day yet, when the example of Mendelssohn’s life, yet more than of his works, may be invoked”.[1] It is for this hope that I write today of Mendelssohn’s lesser known profession, namely that of the Christian faith – which his parents and other relatives had also embraced.

Felix was born in Hamburg on 3 February 1809 into an especially privileged and gifted family. The sentiment toward Jews had much improved in Europe by the time of Felix’ grandfather, Moses Mendelssohn, who by his philosophical writings made a way for his kinsmen to exploit this opportunity. He did this by redefining Judaism according to its outward observances alone – thus freeing the Jewish soul from its religious conscience to engage and excel in culture and innovation in all the diverse spheres of life.[2]

 Cultural integration inadvertently led to a flood of conversions – for which consequence the Noda Biyehuda reportedly said after Moses Mendelssohn’s death that the late philosopher had the recycled soul of the founder of Christianity.[3] While Moses had persistently resisted conversion, this attempted slur reveals what the Noda evidently saw as a subliminal inclination toward the hated religion.

The subliminal came to the fore in the next generation. In 1804, Abraham, the second son of Moses and father of Felix, married Leah Salomon whose brother Jakob was baptised into the Protestant church in 1805. Jakob persuaded both Leah and Abraham who secretly baptised their four children and raised them in the doctrines of Christianity. From 1822 onward both parents openly confessed the faith. They took the same surname, Bartholdy, that Jakob had taken at his baptism. Abraham explained in a letter to Felix that the new name was necessary to disassociate themselves from their predecessor, the famous philosopher! “There can no more be a Christian Mendelssohn than there can be a Jewish Confucius,” wrote Abraham.

More conversions followed as one of Abraham’s brothers and two of his sisters came to believe at different times. These are listed in Aaron Bernstein’s famous anthology, “Some Jewish Witnesses for Christ”.

While Felix was constrained by his musical genius to spend his life in that pursuit, the same music became an expression of his fundamental beliefs. In the libretto of his youthful ‘St. Paul’ oratorio we find an impassioned account of Saul of Tarsus’ conversion and a deep appreciation for the cost of discipleship (particularly for the converted Jew). The oratorio concludes with the declaration that ‘we [who have seen the Lord] are ambassadors by the Name of Christ … and God beseecheth you by us’.

An early edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica suggested that “Mendelssohn’s earnestness as a Christian needs no stronger testimony than that afforded by his own delineation of the character of St. Paul; but it is not too much to say that his heart and life were pure as those of a little child.”[4]

“From a strictly aesthetical point of view,” writes Lampadius, Mendelssohn’s principal biographer, “St. Paul may have many defects … But the main thought which runs through the whole work is too high and broad to be linked by the tie of a personal interest to any single man: it is the glorification of Christianity, with its humility, its joy in living and dying for the Lord, in contrast with the blind self-righteousness of Judaism, and the mere sensuous morality of the Heathen schools; it is the contrast, or rather the struggle, of the last two with the former, and the victory of the light and love of the gospel, the light eternal, the love divine.”

After working for St. Paul’s successful reception in England, Felix returned to Germany to marry Cécile Jeanrenaud, the daughter of a deceased pastor. She was by all reports an able helpmeet, a woman of faith and a good mother to their five children. The family settled in Leipzig were Felix was commissioned as director of the Gewandhaus Orchestra.

During this time, Felix orchestrated several of the Psalms, including the 42nd:

‘As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you, O God.My soul thirsts for God, for the living God. Where can I go and meet with God?’ 

“Never has the soul’s inmost yearning after God been spoken out in tones more searching and tender,” writes Lampadius.

Mendelssohn’s later ‘Song of Praise’ is generally acclaimed as his masterpiece. Taking most of his libretto from the Psalms, with additional exhortations from Chronicles, Ephesians and Romans, Mendelssohn then adds a few words of his own:

‘Therefore with my songs I sing your praises always, thou faithful God,

and thank you for all the good that you have done for me.

And should I walk in Night’s deep darkness

and find myself pursued of the Enemy,

I call on the Name of the Lord

for according to His grace he saves me.’

Hector Berlioz recounts an incident at the Baths of Caracalla in Rome, where he made fun – according to his recollection – of Mendelssohn’s belief in “immortality, retribution after death, and divine providence”.

“As I replied with some enormity,” wrote Belioz, “I know not what, to his entirely religious and orthodox opinions, his foot slipped, and down he rolled, with many scratches and contusions, in the ruins of a very hard staircase. ‘Admire the divine justice,’ said I, helping him to rise, ‘it is I who blaspheme, and it is you who fall!’ This impiety, accompanied with peals of laughter, appeared to him too much, it seemed; and, from that time, religious discussions were always avoided.”[5]

The intensity of emotion with which Felix engaged life and people, his deep anguish over his sister’s death, the many sleepless nights spent over unfinished scores – all contributed to the premature death of this much loved composer. The world could hardly express its grief. Memorial services were held across Germany and England and condolences streamed in from high and low.

Lampadius offers this eulogy to his departed friend:

‘To speak out in  a single word what was the most salient feature of his character, he was a Christian in the fullest sense. He knew and he loved the Bible as few do in our time: out of his familiarity with it grew his unshaken faith, and that profound spiritual-mindedness without which it would have been impossible for him to produce those deep-felt sacred compositions. And, besides this, the other principle of the genuine Christian life, love, was powerful in him. God had blessed him with a large measure of this world’s goods, but he made a noble use of them. He carried the biblical injunction into effect, to ‘visit the widow and the fatherless in their affliction,’ and he knew that to feed the hungry and to clothe the naked is a fast acceptable to the Lord. His threshold was always besieged by the needy of all sorts, but his kindness knew no bounds, and the delicacy and consideration with which he treated the recipients of his bounty largely increased the worth of his gifts, valuable as they were, even in a merely material sense. Since he died, deed upon deed has come to light, which I am not at liberty here to relate, out of courtesy to the receiver, out of consideration to the giver, which only shows how literally he fulfilled the Saviour’s injunction, not to let the left hand know what the right hand is doing.’

The convictions that found such a rich musical expression apparently also played out in a secret life of private devotion, a life we cannot fully know, but can yet delight and rejoice in – much like one of Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy’s ‘songs without words’.

[1]  Music critic Henry Chorley quoted by William Leonhard Gage in his translation of Lampadius’ biography.

[2]  This created the impetus for the Jewish reform movement and remains its philosophical basis even today.

[3] Parsha Pearls, Haazinu 5770.

[4] Cited in Henry Einspruch, **.

[5]  From ‘Berlioz’s Musical Tour in Germany’ cited by Lampadius.


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