Saturday, 9 May 2009

Multiple identity - the faith(s) of Felix, Abraham and Moses Mendelssohn

You may be able listen again to a fascinating programme about faith, identity, integration and music made by Sheila Hayman, a descendant of Felix Mendelssohn's sister Fanny

I’d always known about the Mendelssohn connexion, and I’d always felt the sense of not quite belonging in our family – my father has been, in his life, a Jew, a Lutheran, an Anglican, a Quaker and a Moslem - but I’d never connected the two until a family gathering four years ago, when I heard about Moses Mendelssohn for the first time.
The programme charts Felix's response to and promotion of Bach's music and also shows how his dual faith inheritance can also be traced in his music.
Hayman talks to conductor Kurt Masur, an Aryan boy in 1930s Berlin, forbidden to listen to Mendelssohn, and Claus Moser, a Jewish boy in Berlin at the same time, forbidden to listen to Beethoven and consoled by Mendelssohn. Steven Isserlis shows how Mendelssohn's own struggle between his two faiths can be heard in his music.
The Moses, Abraham and Felix Mendelsohn story is of integration, translation, language learning, of taking the path of rationalism and then of conversion when this did not fully satisfy society of the time. It is also interesting to see something of a dual perspective coming out as his work progresses, one part of "Elijah" is regularly used in Orthodox Ashkenazi synagogues as the scrolls are returned after being read. Even though it is not Jewish music as such it sounds Jewish and so is sung.
The story is of course also one of anti-semitism, Wagner and Schumann's musical anti-semitism - no doubt fuelled by not a little professional jealousy - and wider anti-semitism in German society of the 19th and 20th centuries. Despite the last practising Jew in the family having died in 1870s, Mendelssohn's descendants in the 1930s including Sheila Hayman's father, either have to flee or to distance themselves completely from their Jewish roots in order to survive.
Meanwhile it struck me that the two pieces of music most chosen for traditional weddings in Britain are by Mendelssohn and Wagner.
The programme is a moving account of the struggles of a mixed identity, bringing together philosophy, religion and the arts, well worth a listen if you get the chance to hear a repeat. There is also an interesting personal account of how part of the family escaped the death camps here.

1 Comment:

janetlees said...

Radio 4 morning worship this morning was from Lipzieg and about Mendelssohn. Unfortunately the commentator had a bad habit of talking over the music but the programme was interesting, mostly about his protestantism - seems his wife was a protestant and he was confirmed as an adult - and died of over work - now that's very protestant.