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Mendelssohn in the condemned cell

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UPON learning of the death of the composer Felix Mendelssohn at the age of 38 in 1847, Queen Victoria wrote of her intense sorrow and described him as ‘the greatest musical genius since Mozart and the most amiable man’. Her words echoed the thoughts of many of her musically literate subjects.

Mendelssohn, a baptised German Jew, visited Great Britain ten times, conducting public performances of his and others’ music, and befriending Victoria and Prince Albert. He scored some of his greatest triumphs in England, the 1846 premiere of his oratorio Elijah in Birmingham being a seminal moment. ‘Never,’ enthused the music critic of the London Times, ‘was there a more complete triumph – never a more thorough and speedy recognition of a great work of art’. The composer wrote to his brother, Paul, that never had his music been ‘received with such enthusiasm by both the musicians and the audience’. 

Given his close historical ties to Britain and the lasting influence his music has had on British musical tastes, it should come as no surprise to learn that there is a statue of Mendelssohn in the British Library in London for all to see, at least for now.

Therefore it was with great sadness and more than a little disgust that I learned that his lapidary presence in an institution which functions as the UK’s equivalent of the US Library of Congress is in jeopardy.

As a direct consequence of the iconoclasm that has spread throughout the Western world since the death of George Floyd, unnumbered statues have been destroyed or removed from their plinths, or are in the condemned cell awaiting final judgment. This wave of destruction has been especially marked in those parts of the Western world where English is spoken and Protestantism once held sway, suggesting an atavistic link to the Calvinist iconoclasm that attempted to eradicate the iconographic vestiges of Catholicism in Northern Europe during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Contemporary iconoclasts, however, follow secular religions and are focusing on historical figures associated with slavery or imperialism or because they said, did, or wrote something that would now be deemed racist or sexist or homophobic or Islamophobic or whatever the phobia du jour happens to be.

The question must be asked: why is Mendelssohn now in danger of being posthumously cancelled?

Well, it seems that the poor man was an unwitting protagonist of something dubbed ‘western civilisational supremacy,’ at least according to a review of statues and artworks set in motion by the chief librarian of the British Library, Liz Jolly, whose Wikipedia entry describes her as an ‘activist British librarian’.  

I have no doubt that Ms Jolly is sincere and well-meaning. Indeed, her photo and biography on the British Library website suggest a polished professional. Presumably she loves her craft but feels passionate about racial justice and inclusion. Still, her obvious accomplishments notwithstanding, she is clearly a woman resistant to irony. She seems to be unaware of Mendelssohn’s cruel posthumous fate in the land of his birth, beginning with the publication three years after his death of the rabidly anti-Semitic essay Judaism in Music by the notorious Jew-baiting fellow German composer Richard Wagner.

For Wagner, the Jewish Mendelssohn’s compositions are ‘sweet and tinkling without depth’, his conducting ‘flabby and colourless’, and, like all Jews, he was not ‘capable of creating art that moved the heart and soul’. According to Alex Ross, music critic of The New Yorker, Wagner considered Mendelssohn to be ‘one of a number of insectoid Jewish entities who had infested the body of German art’. Needless to say, these disgusting views achieved their vile apotheosis during the Third Reich, when performances of Mendelssohn’s music were banned and his statue removed from its pedestal in Leipzig. The Nazis even invited German and Austrian composers to replace Mendelssohn’s glorious incidental music for Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, because it was not ‘in accord with the Aryan cultural ideal’.

I have no idea if Ms Jolly is aware of any of this history. Nevertheless, I am as certain as I can be that she possesses not one anti-Semitic bone in her body, and in no way am I suggesting that Mendelssohn was singled out by the cultural commissars at the British Library for possible removal owing to his race. Indeed, the non-Jewish Ludwig van Beethoven’s statue is under threat at the same institution. But what is becoming more apparent by the day is that the Liz Jollys of the world are in the ascendant – indeed, such people seem ubiquitous – occupying positions of power and influence which allow them to reshape our cultural and historical legacy, and to determine what parts of our collective past we are permitted to celebrate and admire.  

It might appear eccentric of me to make such a fuss about a German composer who died in 1847. But it seems to me that the possible removal of his statue from one of the United Kingdom’s leading cultural institutions is indicative of a much larger campaign, being led by some of our most educated men and women, that is seeking to eradicate our history and undermine the foundations of our civilisation. ‘The long march through the institutions of power’ that German student activist Rudi Dutschke urged his fellow Marxist revolutionaries to embark upon in the late sixties is now close to being completed and coming to a cultural or educational institution near you. You should fasten your seatbelts: it is going to be a bumpy ride.

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Bernard Carpenter
Bernard Carpenter is a semi-retired history teacher.

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