Was the German composer’s oratorio a nod toward his Jewish ancestry — or the full fruition of his Christian identity?
When the New York Philharmonic performs Felix Mendelssohn’s rarely heard “Elijah” (1846) oratorio this weekend, many will no doubt see it as proof that the composer always identified with his family’s Jewish faith.
Despite the fact that Mendelssohn was never raised Jewish, was baptized at age 7 and practiced Lutheranism his entire adult life, “Elijah” has become perhaps the key work that scholars and interested fans alike use to argue their case. It is, after all, based on a Jewish prophet and assiduously avoids the anti-Semitic tropes that most Christian works based on Old Testament stories once embraced.
Their case is not without merit, but at least one prominent scholar has been arguing quite the opposite. “Elijah,” says Jeffrey Sposato in his award-winning book “The Price of Assimilation: Felix Mendelssohn and the Nineteenth-Century Anti-Semitic Tradition” (Oxford University Press, 2005), represents the full fruition of the composer’s Christian identity.
“He really depicts Elijah like an Old Testament Christ,” Sposato said. And yet, Sposato added, “It’s almost as if Mendelssohn said, ‘I want to write a Christian oratorio, but I don’t want to denigrate Jews in the process.’”
While Sposato’s argument has been widely praised by prominent Mendelssohn scholars, including Larry Todd, the leading Mendelssohn biographer, the question of how much Mendelssohn ever identified with Judaism is still hotly debated.
“I don’t think it’s an either/or question,” said Todd. “I think it’s both,” meaning that Mendelssohn was both comfortable acknowledging his Jewish roots — particularly his relationship to his grandfather Moses Mendelssohn, a revered Jewish philosopher — and embracing his Lutheran faith.
Given the few personal letters Mendelssohn left behind that deal with Judaism, “Elijah” has become a critical source of intrigue. “The debate has always been: to what extent is ‘Elijah’ a return to his Jewish roots?” Todd said. “I don’t see any problem if one wants to interpret ‘Elijah’ as a returning to his Jewish faith,” he went on. “But there’s also a convincing Christian component, too.”
Sposato’s case is straightforward. He argues that Mendelssohn highlighted the parts of the Old Testament story that suggest Elijah is a harbinger of Christ. For instance, Christians understood Elijah’s ascension to heaven on a chariot of fire as an augury of Jesus’ coming resurrection. While a Christian would see this immediately, a Jewish spectator would not.
And most importantly, argues Sposato, Mendelssohn re-imagines the biblical figure Obadiah as a John the Baptist-like figure. Obadiah constantly inveighs against worshippers of the false god Baal, telling them to trust in Elijah’s God instead. In addition, Obadiah professes unwavering faith in Elijah, much like John did in Jesus. “He’s not like that at all in the [Hebrew] Bible,” Sposato said of Obadiah.
Of course, “Elijah” is just one piece of Sposato’s evidence. He contends that Mendelssohn’s earlier oratorios, most notably “St. Paul” (1836), evince a much stronger disdain for Jews than most have cared to admit.
In that work, the story is not only about a Jew’s rejection of his own faith for Christianity (Saul become Paul), but it also depicts Jews as incorrigibly law-bound and obstinate in their refusal to accept Christ. “In ‘St. Paul’ you really see the pinnacle of [Mendelssohn’s] trying to distance himself from Judaism,” said Sposato.
Sposato cautions that these anti-Jewish tropes should not be taken to represent Mendelssohn’s own anti-Semitism. Instead, he argues that it reflects Felix’s father’s efforts to protect his son from anti-Semitism.
Felix’s father Abraham closely edited these oratorios, and throughout his life Abraham tried to convince Felix to play to the sentiments of the day. It was only after his father died in 1835, Sposato said, that “Felix is not so concerned about that. … ‘Elijah’ tries to have it both ways.”
The reasons for Abraham’s fears are critical. Most scholars emphasize the context in which all of Mendelssohn’s work was written in order to fully explain Mendelssohn’s ambiguity toward his Jewish roots.
In 1810, the year after Felix Mendelssohn was born in Hamburg, Napoleon’s army marched through the city as he conquered large swaths of German territory. Under French civil law, Jews were officially emancipated and given equal rights for the first time in German history.
Not long after Napoleon was repelled, in 1814, however, German nationalism blossomed, leading many principalities to revert to laws restricting Jewish citizenship. In consequence, Felix “had to live all his life with this sense that Jews had to assimilate to the middle class,” said John Mangum, the New York Philharmonic’s artistic administrator, who was pivotal in getting “Elijah” staged.
(He noted that Alan Gilbert, the New York Philharmonic’s conductor, originally proposed the idea, almost as soon as he took over last year.)
It was in this climate that Abraham and his wife Leah, herself from a prominent German Jewish family, decided to baptize their children.
In addition, they added the Christian surname “Bartholdy,” which Abraham hoped Felix would use exclusively, dropping “Mendelssohn” entirely. As Abraham wrote to Felix years later: “a Christian Mendelssohn is as impossible as a Christian Confucius. If your name is Mendelssohn, you are eo ipso a Jew, and that is of no benefit to you, because it is not even true.”
Todd explained Abraham’s motives simply: “[Felix]’s parents were probably concerned that their children would lose their citizenship.” But he noted that they never raised their children Jewish to begin with — Felix was not circumcised, his name is absent from all local synagogues and there is no evidence that he ever stepped foot in one his entire life.
What there is evidence of, however, is that Felix had a sincere fondness for his grandfather, Moses Mendelssohn. Though Moses died years before Felix was born, his stature as a proponent for religious tolerance and for Jews’ rightful place in German society was known throughout Europe.
The child prodigy Felix — whom the German poet Goethe said was better than the child Mozart, whom he heard play 60 years before — even wrote some of his first works based on Moses Mendelssohn’s biblical translations.
Later in life, Felix also supported an uncle’s efforts to republish Moses’ writings, although he did not want his name attached to the project. And when Felix first arrived in England, where “Elijah” premiered and where the composer was embraced perhaps even more than in Germany, newspapers introduced him as the grandson of Moses Mendelssohn. There is no evidence he objected.
In fact, the strongest criticism of Sposato has come from Leon Botstein, the music director of the American Symphony Orchestra and a noted scholar in his own right. He has argued that while Mendelssohn’s Christianity seems entirely sincere, it grew out of an earlier identification with Judaism.
“In Mendelssohn’s view,” Botstein wrote in an essay responding to Sposato, “Judaism was not rejected, hidden, or denied, but transfigured and modernized by Protestantism.”
Botstein notes that some of the same works Sposato cites as evidence of Mendelssohn’s rejection of Judaism, like the “St. Paul” oratorio, actually shy away from the theological doctrines Jews find most difficult to accept.
He also highlights the repeated instances in which Mendelssohn experienced anti-Semitism, which he argues reinforced his connection to his past. For instance, not long after Goethe’s letters were published, Mendelssohn’s teacher’s own anti-Semitism came out.
In one stinging letter, his teacher Carl Zelter tried to disabuse Goethe of the poet’s gnawing dislike for Mendelssohn, who, despite his gifts, Goethe still saw as a Jew. “Mendelssohn is the son of a Jew,” Zelter assured Goethe. But do not worry, “he is no Jew.”
The renewed interest in Mendelssohn’s Jewishness is part of a relatively recent resurgence in Mendelssohn scholarship. It should be noted that while Mendelssohn was alive he was perhaps the most popular composer of his time, but his reputation began to wane almost as soon as he died.
Richard Wagner’s notorious essay “Jewishness in Music,” published in 1850, instigated the composer’s demise. Wagner singled out Mendelssohn, writing that anyone of Jewish ancestry could never truly compose authentic German music. But Wagner’s own style — epic works full of emotional intensity and soaring ambition — made anything before it seem tame.
It was only after the Holocaust that music scholars — many of them Jewish — began to promote Mendelssohn, placing particular emphasis on his Jewish background.
Still, Todd said he recalls that when he was growing up in the ‘60s, Mendelssohn retained a reputation for being somewhat “lightweight”; all style, no substance. That criticism may have been purged of its anti-Semitic premise, but anti-Semitism is in its roots nonetheless.
“It’s only in recent decades that we’re getting rid of” Mendelssohn’s reputation as being superficial, Todd said. “People are only starting to realize the sheer virtuosity of his work.”
New York Philharmonic performs “Elijah” on Thursday, Nov. 11 and Saturday, Nov. 13. Weeknight concerts begin at 7:30 p.m; 8 p.m. on Saturday. Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center, 65th Street and Broadway. (212) 875-5656. Tickets range from $32 to $115.