Rarely has a composer been so derided for being so good. But here's the knock against Felix Mendelssohn: he was a little too accomplished, a little too perfect, a little too pretty, a little too shallow.
Born in 1809, Mendelssohn wrote his first mature masterpiece, the String Octet, at age 16 and his greatest hit, the Midsummer Night's Dream Overture, at 17. His memory was flawless, his pitch perfect. A prodigy greater than Mozart and the equal of any musician who has ever lived, in his short lifetime he was the most popular composer in Europe, a groundbreaking conductor, one of the world's best pianists, its greatest organist, and no slouch playing the violin.
And yet despite these achievements, Mendelssohn's symphonic music is often criticized as lightweight: poised and perfectly balanced, but with little intellectual or dramatic substance.
Jaap van Zweden dismisses these perceptions. When he conducts the eight-day, four-concert Mendelssohn Festival Sept. 22 _Oct. 2 at the Meyerson, he wants music lovers to come away with a deeper appreciation of the composer's genius. "With this festival, we hear a bigger scope of his output," van Zweden says.
Think Mendelssohn, and you think of a handful of pieces: the Scottish and Italian symphonies, the Violin Concerto, the Hebrides Overture. All will be played during the Dallas Symphony Orchestra's Mendelssohn Festival. (His most familiar piece, the Midsummer Night's Dream Overture, will be performed by the DSO on concerts Nov. 10 _13.)
"But the other music is phenomenal, as well," van Zweden says. So the festival includes lesserknown pieces like Mendelssohn's other three full-orchestra symphonies, including Symphony No. 5, Reformation, and the large-scale Symphony No. 2, Hymn of Praise. The latter will feature three vocal soloists and the Dallas Symphony Chorus under its new director, Joshua Habermann.
Rounding out the festival programming are a youthful String Symphony No. 10 (DSO program annotator Laurie Shulman reports that Mendelssohn wrote 13 string symphonies between the ages of 11 and 13); the scintillating Piano Concerto No. 1, with soloist Alessio Bax; the Concerto for Violin and Piano, with Soovin Kim and Jorge Federico Osorio, respectively; and the Ruy Blas Overture, after a play by Victor Hugo.
"Mendelssohn was an incredible composer; he has his completely own style and I am a huge fan," says van Zweden. The maestro hopes that by giving listeners a wider overview of Mendelssohn's orchestral output they will better appreciate his stature as one of the world's greatest composers.
"The Hebrides is one of Mendelssohn's most perfect creations," van Zweden declares. ( Johannes Brahms agreed. "I would gladly give all I have written to have composed something like the Hebrides Overture," he said.) But it is precisely that perfection that has engendered dismissive attitudes and critical backlash. Compared to the composer-revolutionaries of his lifetime : Berlioz, Liszt, Wagner, even Schumann and Chopin : Mendelssohn was conservative. His music : balanced, elegant, comfortable, refined : lacks the drama and fiery individualism of his firebrand contemporaries. Instead of pushing boundaries, he espoused good taste. "Mendelssohn's romanticism was by far the most restrained of any of the great composers active in the 1830's and 1840's," Harold C. Schonberg wrote in The Lives of the Great Composers. "Instinctively, he shrank from excesses of any kind : in music, in art, in life. Naturally the extravagant-sounding music of Berlioz repelled him: 'a frightful muddle, an incongruous mess.'"
But, Schonberg surmises, "it was this lack of harmonic bite in his music that helped make him so popular. Conventional-minded listeners...were able to sit back and relax with Mendelssohn's music."
And he was a celebrity; he moved easily : and constantly : in the highest circles of society. An unrelenting schedule of travel, engagements, and commissions took a toll on his health. He died in 1847 after a stroke at age 38.
His popularity killed him, and his popularity still damages his reputation as a composer. With the Mendelssohn Festival, Jaap van Zweden and the Dallas Symphony Orchestra hope to recapture the esteem he earned in his lifetime and assert Mendelssohn's place among the finest composers who have ever lived.