Monday, February 2, 2009

Felix Mendelssohn and Lucas Foss: Two Hundred Years of German-Jewish Music

What to post on? Rob told me I should post more about the continuing economic crisis, which I surely will, but not today. I wanted to say something about the new play about New York’s colonial governor, Lord Cornbury, which emphasizes his supposed cavorting in drag, and which will surely discomfit my dissertation adviser, Patricia Bonomi, who wrote an excellent book dedicated to the proposition that the accusations of wearing female garb (and more generally, Lord Cornbury’s unfitness for high office) were Whig calumnies against this upstanding if somewhat intemperate Tory, and that there is absolutely no reliable provenance to connect the famous portrait, supposedly showing Cornbury in a dress, to anything authentically relating to Cornbury. But as Pat has discovered, nothing is more difficult to kill a good story, regardless of its historicity. Part of it is the difficulty of proving a negative, and part of it is the slovenliness of the popular historical imagination, which continues to throw temper tantrums when historians try to deprive them of their favorite bedtime stories. It is sad that, for the hundred or so years between 1664 and 1775, the best known fact about New York’s government, that Lord Cornbury wore a dress, isn’t a fact.

No. I want to post on the fact that tomorrow is the 200th birthday of the great German-Jewish composer Felix Mendelssohn. February 1809 is a great month for famous birthdays, with Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin as well as Mendelssohn, and I was wondering how to connect these three great men in a post—what else is blogging for except for dragging out obscure and speculative connections?- when I read the sad news in the Times today that Lucas Foss, one of the finest American classical composers of the past half century has died.
Lucas Foss, was born Lukas Fuchs in Germany in 1922, fled Germany in 1933, went to Paris for a few years, and then moved to the United States, where he became a leading American composer. After starting out in a Coplandesque neoclassical vein, such as his opera Griffelkin, not mentioned in his Times obituary, is one of his most charming works. He then, like many composers at mid-century, branched out into gnarlier fare—12 tone composition, bristling dissonances, you name it—his “Baroque Variations,” a neat work of deconstruction, sticks in my ears. He was also an important conductor, with an important career in New York State. As conductor of the Buffalo Philharmonic in the 1960s, he helped make Buffalo an unlikely hotbed of modern music, and later did the same trick with the Brooklyn Philharmonic in the 1970s and 1980s, and helped the music scene in Brooklyn crawl out from under the commanding shadow of its fellow borough across the East River.
Felix Mendelssohn is the father figure of the German-Jewish musical tradition, and part of a remarkable century and a half that included figures such as Mahler, Schoenberg, and Weill, and many, many others. And of course German-Jewish musical tradition is part of the broader German musical tradition, which was, without any doubt, for the century and three quarters a half after 1750—after say, Franz Josef Hayden became the Kapellmeister to the Esterhazys in the little town of Eisenstadt, the center of the classical musical world. This all came to an end, of course, on January 30, 1933, when Hitler became chancellor of Germany, when Germany in a span of 12 years, proceeded to piss away what it had taken centuries to build, and German music, and German culture in general, has never recovered, in one of the lesser tragedies wrought by the Nazis. And the German-Jewish tradition, which was born in Hamburg two hundred years ago tomorrow, came to an end, two days short of two hundred years, in Manhattan over the weekend. This is a good time to listen to some Mendelssohn, from his violin concerto, one of the most perfect pieces of music ever written, to his great symphonies (3,4, and 5), his chamber works, and his overtures (the “midsummer’s night dream” overture is another perfect work), and if you can, listen to some Lucas Foss as well.

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