Mendelssohn, Felix: Octet for Strings in E flat, Op. 20

Like most composers lucky enough to be known, Richard Wagner got his share of bad notices. One reviewer wrote that Lohengrin was the “music of a demented eunuch”; Wagner also earned Mark Twain’s famous (and pithy) remark that he was a composer who “wrote music which is better than it sounds.” But Wagner gave better (that is, worse) than he got, and he did so with more consequence; he deserves little sympathy (moreover, these two critics each made a fair point). Most infamous is his article “Das Judentum in Musik,” which the Neue Musikalische Zeitung chose to preface with a remark that it was not the editorial position of the journal in 1850.

Starting with a bit of faint praise for FELIX MENDELSSOHN (whose father had converted to Christianity and whose grandfather was a famous Jewish philosopher and friend to Immanuel Kant), he goes on at some length to describe the reasons for “the involuntary repellence possessed for us [sic] by the nature and personality of the Jews … a repugnance still abiding with us in spite of all our Liberal bedazzlements.” Mendelssohn served well as the first subject for Wagner because his skills were so great, and Wagner could thus proceed with kindness:

a musician of Jewish birth whom Nature had endowed with specific musical gifts as very few before him… the early-taken FELIX MENDELSSOHN BARTHOLDY … has shewn us that a Jew may have the amplest store of specific talents, may own the finest and most varied culture, the highest and the tenderest sense of honourÑyet without all these pre-eminences helping him, were it but one single time, to call forth in us that deep, that heart-searching effect which we await from Art because we know her capable thereof, because we have felt it many a time and oft, so soon as once a hero of our art has, so to say, but opened his mouth to speak to us.

Others didn”t get off so easy: “for no other Jew,” he writes, “can we find like sympathy.”

It is a bit difficult to perform a work of Mendelssohn in the context of such remarks; Wagner’s criteria are just religious enough in their particulars to be beyond rational or even irrational argument, and one hardly wants to spend time arguing with them or trying to present a counterexample. But the Octet, which Mendelssohn wrote when he was sixteen years old, is spectacular enough to serve as a release if not an answer, so long as one doesn”t expect to have a religious/Wagnerian experience. Presenting the Octet against “Different Trains” also seemed interesting, as though the complement of eight string players might refill the ghost-space of Reich’s recorded string quartet, and re-use Reich’s motoric qualities to re-enlivening effect. Above all, the Octet is music which is at least as good as it sounds, and it sounds like nothing else.

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