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Felix Mendelssohn was born two hundred years ago today. It’s hard to imagine the cultural life of the German-speaking world of the nineteenth century without the name “Mendelssohn” because it attaches both to one of the outstanding figure of the German Enlightenment, Moses Mendelssohn, and to his grandson, Felix, one of the greatest Romantic composers. But he was more than just a man of music. Unlike his contemporaries, Schumann and Schubert, Mendelssohn was a far more rounded individual—he was a towering intellect, deeply immersed in the literary and philosophical life of his times. He also sensed the potential for music in a society transformed by a rising middle class with an attachment to art, and he was focused on the need to win recognition for music as a dignified profession that paid salaries and benefits. His role as founder of the Leipzig Conservatory and his extraordinary relationship with the Gewandhaus, in which he emerged against all expectation as an advocate for the right of the musicians to a comfortable life (including a pension!) demonstrate this. So Mendelssohn counts among the relatively small order of musical geniuses who had both a sense of entrepreneurship and of social duty to his fellow musicians. But his music is also extraordinary, in a sense often approaching perfection. The symphonic works, like the Scottish, Italian and Reformation symphonies, and concerto pieces like the wonderful violin concerto, are filled with seemingly boundless energy, an optimistic note coupled with a bit of the demonic, an elfin intensity. But Mendelssohn also is to be remembered for his recognition of genius past and his resurrection and reintroduction of the great passions of Johann Sebastian Bach. His Bach revival was a lasting tribute to forgotten art, but it left unmistakable influence on him. My favorite Mendelssohn work, much neglected but certainly his masterpiece, is the oratorio “Elijah,” a powerful merger of the oratorio tradition of Bach and Handel with the spirit of the Romantic movement. The work was finished only shortly before his death, and it is filled with what in retrospect seems a prophetic sense of imminent passing. Here, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau sings the aria “It is enough” accompanied by the New Philharmonia Orchestra under Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos. Shut out the world and listen to these few minutes with care. You’ll discover a world of passion and introspection which will reward the effort many times over.
More from Scott Horton:
Six Questions — October 18, 2014, 8:00 pm
Nathaniel Raymond on CIA interrogation techniques.
I recently spent a semester teaching writing at an elite liberal-arts college. At strategic points around the campus, in shades of yellow and green, banners displayed the following pair of texts. The first was attributed to the college’s founder, which dates it to the 1920s. The second was extracted from the latest version of the institution’s mission statement:
The paramount obligation of a college is to develop in its students the ability to think clearly and independently, and the ability to live confidently, courageously, and hopefully.
Let us take a moment to compare these texts. The first thing to observe about the older one is that it is a sentence. It expresses an idea by placing concepts in relation to one another within the kind of structure that we call a syntax. It is, moreover, highly wrought: a parallel structure underscored by repetition, five adverbs balanced two against three.
Percentage of Britons who cannot name the city that provides the setting for the musical Chicago:
An Australian entrepreneur was selling oysters raised in tanks laced with Viagra.
A naked man believed to be under the influence of LSD rammed his pickup truck into two police cars.
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“Shelby is waiting for something. He himself does not know what it is. When it comes he will either go back into the world from which he came, or sink out of sight in the morass of alcoholism or despair that has engulfed other vagrants.”