Mendelssohn: Part 3 – Wagner and the Nazis

December 6th, 2012 by

“Judaism in Music” by Richard Wagner, 1869

It was the dead of night. A large marble statue of the Jewish composer Felix Mendelssohn was quietly dismantled to avoid attention. It was hurriedly moved into a nearby cellar and completely smashed to pieces!

Who was responsible for such an act? And why such extreme hatred?

It all started just three years after Mendelssohn’s death. In 1850 an article entitled “Judaism in Music” appeared in a music paper. The author’s identity was concealed but he later republished his article in 1869, this time boldly revealing his identity. It was Richard Wagner! In the article, Wagner fiercely attacked Mendelssohn’s music and the music of other Jewish German composers whom he had previously praised. “The life and works of Mendelssohn clearly demonstrates that no Jew, however gifted and cultural and honourable, was capable of creating art that moved the heart and soul.”

In 1881, Wagner truly revealed the extent of his anti-Semitic feelings in article in the Bayreuther Blätter entitled “Know Thyself!” In it he praises the massacres of Jews in Russia as “an example worthy of imitation.” He concludes with these impassioned words about the Jews: “Drive them out, German people-but not like the Egyptians, those Hamitic fools, who even gave them golden vessels for the journey. For they must go away empty-handed. Whither I know not, but I wish them all the same fate. May they find no shelter, no homeland; unhappier than Cain, may they seek and not find; may they descend into the

Red Sea, but may they never, never emerge from it. German people, know thyself!”

Mendelssohn Monument in front of the Gewandhaus, home of Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra for many years, 1912

Why did Wagner, himself rumored to have been of Jewish extract, launch such a tirade of abuse on his fellow German? After his death, Mendelssohn was viewed as the most important figure in German musical culture. His music was extremely popular across Europe. He raised the profile of the conductor to an art-form in his lifetime and he also considered a most accomplished pianist. For Wagner, a composer trying to forge his own musical career, Mendelssohn was a hard act to follow. Instead of relying completely on his own music to do all the “talking,” Wagner couldn’t resist the urge topublicly slander Mendelssohn and his musical legacy. Sadly, many listened.

Fifty years later, Adolf Hitler a keen admirer of Wagner and his music, frequently used his music during Nazi rallies to whip up the emotions of his audience to court his anti-Semitic policies. The policy of “Gleichschaltung” (coordination) required music to satisfy the National Socialist’s model for a new German culture. There was no toleration of any Jewish art, music, film or architecture. Even jazz music was banned because it was considered “degenerate” because of its association with Black Americans. In 1936 the Nazis banned Mendelssohn’s music calling it a “dangerous accident of music history.” Even his famous Wedding March which had been used by thousands of German couples to accompany them down the aisle was outlawed.

Mendelssohn Monument in Leipzig, 1900

Returning to the opening story, 45 years after Mendelssohn’s death, a statue in Leipzig was established in 1892 in front of the Gewandhaus, home of Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra that he had directed for many years. The monument paid tribute to Mendelssohn’s contribution to German musical culture. Sir Thomas Beecham, the famous English conductor who had been touring Germany with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, planned to lay a wreath at the base of the Mendelssohn memorial with a delegation of musicians on the morning of the 10th of November 1936. When they went to the location where they expected to see the statue, to their surprise it had gone, supposedly vanishing into thin air! They searched around a bit but to no avail. The Nazis had heard of their plans and the night before had removed the memorial, taken it to a nearby cellar and smashed it to pieces!

During the winter of 1936-37, loyal Mendelssohn supporters managed to smuggle hundreds of his documents including music scores, letters and drawings out of the Prussian State Library in Berlin to Poland. When the Nazis invaded Poland, they hurriedly moved his materials out of the country and they became scattered across the world. About 270 of these scores remain unpublished and subsequently unheard by the public to this day! Thanks to the efforts of the Mendelssohn project, established in 1996, large numbers of these documents have been traced and brought back together again.

Mendelssohn & Co. 1942

The Mendelssohn family was mercilessly persecuted during the reign of terror of the “Third Reich.” In 1938, the National Socialists liquidated the long standing banking business of Mendelssohn’s family (Mendelssohn & Co.). Some of Mendelssohn’s descendants changed their names to something less Jewish and went into hiding. Rather than be arrested by the Gestapo secret police, Elisabeth Westphal (1865 – 1942) and Marie-Louise Hensel (1894 – 1942) committed suicide.

Mendelssohn, Wagner and the Nazis come together in an amusing story from the rooftop of the Prague concert hall. The German high command had ordered that a statue of Mendelssohn be removed. The SS officer in charge, one Julius Schlesinger, didn’t know which of the many statues Mendelssohn’s was. After unsuccessfully seeking advice from Dr. Rabinovich, a learned Jew, Schlesinger resorted to selecting the statue with the biggest nose! Surely, he thought, this must be the one. Just as the statue started to topple over, he realized to his horror that instead of Mendelssohn, his team had unwittingly selected the musical hero of the Nazis! It was none other than the statue of Wagner!

Ironically, for all the anti-Semitic persecution that Mendelssohn’s music and his descendants had received, Mendelssohn had in his own lifetime made a clear statement about his conversion from Judaism to the Lutheran faith by championing the previously forgotten Christian music of Bach. He wrote, “to think that a Jew should give back to the people the greatest Christian music in the world!”

Reconstructed Mendelssohn Monument, 2008

Fortunately, since the Second World War, the reputation of Mendelssohn and his music has been restored. The Mendelssohn monument was reconstructed and officially unveiled on the 18th of October 2008. In 2009, a stamp was issued in Germany to celebrate the 200th anniversary of his birth. Despite extreme persecution, Mendelssohn’s legacy has enjoyed a renaissance and his wonderful gift of melody is being enjoyed by a new generation of music lovers.

See other posts by Reuben Vincent

Posted in Composing & Arranging, Music History & Facts

About the Author

Reuben Vincent
Reuben Vincent is a freelance musician working as a composer, producer and private music teacher, based from his purpose built recording studio in Bagillt, Flintshire, North Wales, UK. His main instrument is the piano although he is also known for a "mean" solo on the Kazoo!!!

Related Content

Comments are closed.