The Price of Assimilation: Felix Mendelssohn and the Nineteenth-Century Anti-Semitic Tradition

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Overview

Most scholars since World War Two have assumed that composer Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy (1809-1847) maintained a strong attachment to Judaism throughout his lifetime. As these commentators have rightly noted, Mendelssohn was born Jewish and did not convert to Protestantism until age seven, his grandfather was the famous Jewish reformer and philosopher Moses Mendelssohn, and his music was banned by the Nazis, who clearly viewed him as a Jew.

Such facts tell only part of the story, however. Through a mix of cultural analysis, biographical study, and a close examination of the libretto drafts of Mendelssohn's sacred works, The Price of Assimilation provides dramatic new answers to the so-called "Mendelssohn Jewish question."

Sposato demonstrates how Mendelssohn's father, Abraham, worked to distance the family from its Jewish past, and how Mendelssohn's reputation as a composer of Christian sacred music was threatened by the reverence with which German Jews viewed his family name. In order to prove the sincerity of his Christian faith to both his father and his audiences, Mendelssohn aligned his early sacred works with a nineteenth-century anti-Semitic musical tradition, and did so more fervently than even his Christian collaborators required. With the death of Mendelssohn's father and the near simultaneous establishment of the composer's career in Leipzig in 1835, however, Mendelssohn's fear of his background began to dissipate, and he began to explore ways in which he could prove the sincerity of his faith without having to publicly disparage his Jewish heritage.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"A good part of the core of Sposato's work has become and will remain part of the conventional wisdom."—Donald Mintz, Music and Letters

"A significant new book"—Pittsburgh Post Gazette

"Well researched and well written, this remarkable book revises, deepens, and, best of all, clarifies Mendelssohn's personal and professional responses to his position as a converted Jew in the first half of the 19th century...Sposato's careful study of Mendelssohn's biography, his manuscripts, and the historical period produces a fascinating new picture of the composer.... Essential."—CHOICE

"Mendelssohn has always been something of an enigma. Was his motivation as a composer primarily Jewish or Christian? In this carefully reasoned re-examination of the documentary evidence, Jeffrey S. Sposato argues that the matter is much more complex than is usually presented. Paradoxically, Mendelssohn seems to have shared the common Anti-Semitic stance of Protestant Germany and only in later life moderated this position. This is an important—if somewhat disturbing—book that carefully distinguishes the various shades of gray that have been hitherto interpreted as either black or white, helping us to understand the cultural context of the man and his music, especially the larger choral works."—Professor Robin A. Leaver, Westminster Choir College of Rider University and The Juilliard School

"In his book, Sposato presents an enigmatic and multifaced personality of Mendelsohn which does not fit conveniently in either extreme religious classification. Sposato offers a substantial argument that in a utilitarian way will hopefully open a dialogue of polemics in Mendelssohn interpretation."—Choral Journal

"Jeffrey Sposato's stimulating study is a major contribution to the debate about Mendelssohn's relationship with his Jewish heritage, which for more than 150 years has been characterized by obfuscation and prejudice. Through a careful and scholarly examination of the evidence, including a ground-breaking investigation of the process by which Mendelssohn selected and revised his oratorio texts, Sposato challenges many images of the composer that were reflected by the distorting mirror of racial, political, and moral agendas."—Clive Brown, Professor of Applied Musicology, University of Leeds

"A probing, impeccably researched investigation into Mendelssohn's sacred music and its subtext—the composer's mediation between his Judaic heritage and Protestant faith. Eloquently written and argued, The Price of Assimilation will encourage a fresh look at one of the most misunderstood, seminal figures of nineteenth-century music."—R. Larry Todd, Professor of Music, Duke University

"A significant new book" — Pittsburgh Post Gazette

"Well researched and well written, this remarkable book revises, deepens, and, best of all, clarifies Mendelssohn's personal and professional responses to his position as a converted Jew in the first half of the 19th century...Sposato's careful study of Mendelssohn's biography, his manuscripts, and the historical period produces a fascinating new picture of the composer...Essential."—Choice

"Mendelssohn has always been something of an enigma. Was his motivation as a composer primarily Jewish or Christian? In this carefully reasoned re-examination of the documentary evidence, Jeffrey S. Sposato argues that the matter is much more complex than is usually presented. Paradoxically, Mendelssohn seems to have shared the common Anti-Semitic stance of Protestant Germany and only in later life moderated this position. This is an important—if somewhat disturbing—book that carefully distinguishes the various shades of gray that have been hitherto interpreted as either black or white, helping us to understand the cultural context of the man and his music, especially the larger choral works."—Professor Robin A. Leaver, Westminster Choir College of Rider University and The Juilliard School

"Jeffrey Sposato's stimulating study is a major contribution to the debate about Mendelssohn's relationship with his Jewish heritage, which for more than 150 years has been characterized by obfuscation and prejudice. Through a careful and scholarly examination of the evidence, including a ground-breaking investigation of the process by which Mendelssohn selected and revised his oratorio texts, Sposato challenges many images of the composer that were reflected by the distorting mirror of racial, political, and moral agendas."—Clive Brown, Professor of Applied Musicology, University of Leeds

"In his book, Sposato presents an enigmatic and multifaced personality of Mendelsohn which does not fit conveniently in either extreme religious classification. Sposato offers a substantial argument that in a utilitarian way will hopefully open a dialogue of polemics in Mendelssohn interpretation."—Choral Journal

"A probing, impeccably researched investigation into Mendelssohn's sacred music and its subtext—the composer's mediation between his Judaic heritage and Protestant faith. Eloquently written and argued, The Price of Assimilation will encourage a fresh look at one of the most misunderstood, seminal figures of nineteenth-century music."—R. Larry Todd, Professor of Music, Duke University

"Sposato's book makes a major contribution to Mendelssohn research and provides thought-provoking new interpretations of the composer's most public works. If only for the wealth of source information on the works at hand, The Price of Assimilation will prove a necessary resource for further scholarship on this repertoire. Beyond its utility, however, Sposato's intelligent treatment of critical cultural and biographical issues should continue to stir fruitful debate within nineteenth-century history and musicology. Wheth one understands Mendelssohn's religious self-identification as primarily Jewish, primarily Protestant, or somewhere in between, Sposato has cast considerable light on the relevant evidence and has delivered a valuable addition to Mendelssohn studies." —Journal of the American Musicological Society

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780195149746
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA
  • Publication date: 11/3/2005
  • Pages: 240
  • Product dimensions: 9.20 (w) x 6.30 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Jeffrey S. Sposato is Assistant Professor of Musicology, Moores School of Music, University of Houston

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Table of Contents

Introduction
I: New Christians
The Mendelssohns and the Synagogue
Reinventing Mendelssohn
Mendelssohn's Evolving Relationship with Judaism
II: The St. Matthew Passion Revival
Judicious Cuts
The St. Matthew Passion Chorales and the Berlin Hymn Tradition
The St. Matthew Passion and the Theology of Friedrich Schleiermacher
Other Performances of the St. Matthew Passion
III: Moses
Christology, Anti-Semitism, and Moses
Mendelssohn, Marx, and the Nineteenth-Century Anti-Semitic Tradition
IV: Paulus
A Textual History of Paulus
Paulus and the Influences of Carl Loewe, Louis Spohr, and Abraham Mendelssohn
Paulus and Philo-Heathenism
The Evolution of the Anti-Semitic Image in Paulus
Lessons from Paulus: A Reevaluation of Die erste Walpurgisnacht
V: Elias
A Textual History of Elias
Christology in Elias
The Jewish Image in Elias
VI: Christus
The Genesis of Christus
The Jewish Image in Christus
The Universality of "Das Volk"
Conclusion: Matters of Perspective

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