Essay About Mendelssohn
In an essay I read about Mendelssohn — this is a tangent, right? So, I read this essay about Mendelssohn and his work helping to keep alive and actually revive the music of Bach, because Mendelssohn rediscovered this music and was a big booster for Bach and everyone was happy to forget him.1 And so, one of the reasons why we love Bach, is because Mendelssohn loved Bach.2
Mendelssohn created this sense that here’s this great master from the past and you know, we’ve sort of been in his debt ever since. And there was this kind of off-handed slight in this article about Mendelssohn himself and his own music that said this was his great contribution to society, was finding Bach, and it was more important than his own music, because Mendelssohn — the implication was that it sort of said that Mendelssohn came from a rich Jewish background. It didn’t say Jewish, I just added that. He came from a rich background, and because he didn’t have to suffer the way Beethoven suffered, or the way that Schubert suffered, that his music was somehow inadequate. That somehow he had not been given the necessary tools in his life in order to probe his own emotional life. And so, his music was not good enough, and that — so his great lasting contribution will be that he did this great service to us for supporting and rediscovering the music of Bach.
And the first thing that I thought was, of course — I read it as being Anti-Semitic — was “Oh yes, we don’t like this person’s music, and you know, the best thing he could do is give his money to something”, right? So, that pissed me off. But the other thing that I started thinking is why do we fetishize the biographies of people and why do we listen for examples of their biography in music?3 So, how do we listen to something that’s abstract as a tune and a harmony played by some people sawing on some strings tied on some wooden boxes or something, and assume that we are learning something deep about someone’s personality, and then build a whole structure of — a connoisseurship out of it.
And so, that’s how I got to the ‘cheating, lying and stealing’. I just started thinking if it is biography, if it’s really true, that you can get a message about what somebody is like, well, what’s its message? And if it’s true, are we as composers complicit in that? Are we saying something inadvertently or are we actively saying something about ourselves? And if we’re actively saying something about ourselves, do we have the power to hide something or do we have the power to just present something and then people find out the truth, whether we wanted to come out or not? So, I just started thinking about that, and that’s what led me to thinking about composers lying about their personalities.