Answering the Felix Mendelssohn ‘Jewish question’

Jeffrey Sposato, PhD ’00 interviewed for Mendelssohn documentary that will air June 26 on the BBC

Jeffrey Sposato, PhD '00

You know you know a lot about Felix Mendelssohn when one of the famed composer’s family members contacts you for information about him. That’s what happened to Jeffrey Sposato, PhD ’00, after Sheila Hayman read Sposato’s book on her great-great-great-great uncle, “The Price of Assimilation: Felix Mendelssohn and the Nineteenth-Century Anti-Semitic Tradition.” Based on Sposato’s Brandeis dissertation, the book explores how Mendelssohn, who was born Jewish and later baptized when he was still a child, struggled to find a personal compromise between his Jewish heritage and Christian faith. It was a finalist for a Royal Philharmonic Society Music Award and was named a Choice magazine Outstanding Academic Title for 2006, but perhaps even more importantly, the book impressed Hayman enough that she wanted to interview Sposato for a documentary she was directing to mark the composer’s 200th birthday. “Mendelssohn, the Nazis and Me,” which examines Mendelssohn’s religious identity, and the impact it had on both his music and his descendents when the Nazis came to power in Germany, will air June 26 on BBC Four.

BrandeisNOW talked with Sposato, who is currently an Assistant Professor of Musicology at the University of Houston’s Moores School of Music, about being part of the film, and his own Mendelssohn research.

BrandeisNOW: What was it about Mendelssohn that intrigued you from an academic standpoint?

Jeffrey Sposato: Aside from having a love of Mendelssohn’s choral music going back to my high-school chorus days, what really intrigued me about Mendelssohn was his religious background, and the way it had been discussed in the literature since the Second World War. Despite the fact that Mendelssohn, who was born Jewish, had been baptized as a Lutheran at age 7, most post-war scholars had described him as being very attached to his Jewish heritage, and that his views never changed over the course of his life. As a child of Jewish and Catholic parents myself, who has changed his views on religion many times over the years, I found such a monolithic description of Mendelssohn hard to swallow, especially given the tremendous amount of Christian sacred music he composed. What I found in my research, and what I wrote about in my book, “The Price of Assimilation: Felix Mendelssohn and the Nineteenth Century Anti-Semitic Tradition,” is that Mendelssohn’s views towards his heritage changed radically over the course of his life. At first, while under his father’s watchful eye, he attempted to distance himself from Judaism, often by incorporating anti-Semitic imagery into his oratorio texts, but later, when his father was no longer in the picture, Mendelssohn worked to find ways in which he could celebrate his Christian faith in his works without denigrating the Jews in the process.

What’s so exciting for me about this new documentary is that it brings this exploration of Mendelssohn and Judaism into the 20th century, and shows, shockingly, how despite Mendelssohn’s status as a Christian and that generations of his progeny were all Christians from birth, the Nazis viewed them as ‘tainted’ by Judaism even in the 1930s. Indeed, Felix’s father, Abraham, was far more prophetic than he may have realized when he said, “The name Mendelssohn is, and will forever belong to Judaism in its transitional period.”

BrandeisNOW: What was it like being interviewed for the documentary?
JS: Working with Sheila Hayman was a wonderful experience. She had asked me to be a part of a BBC Radio program (which, like the film, was also called “Mendelssohn, the Nazis, and Me,” and which was broadcast last month), and it went so well that she invited me to come to London to be in the film. It was a very exciting visit. She’s the first Mendelssohn descendent I have had the opportunity to meet, and she shared with me all sorts of interesting stories about the family since Mendelssohn’s death. It was also exciting because she has a real talent for interviewing and filming; she asks probing questions and thinks a lot about how—and where—to best talk about various issues. Viewers of the film can expect to see a wide variety of interesting locales from all over Europe.

BrandeisNOW: What do you hope the general public gets out of both your book and the film?
JS: One of the primary goals of my book, and something that I think happens in the film as well, was to demonstrate Mendelssohn’s humanity. We tend to view great artists as heroes, standing apart from their era. What I show in the book is that Mendelssohn lived in a difficult era, and as a result had to make the kinds of compromises many people from Jewish families also had to make at the time. But despite some aspects of the story that might seem disappointing, it is a tale with a happy ending, as Mendelssohn does eventually find a way to balance his Jewish heritage and his Christian faith. What the film does is show that this balancing act was one that continued into the twentieth century, as Mendelssohn’s reputation suffered, first under the anti-Semites, and then under the Nazis.
BrandeisNOW: What’s are you currently focused on?

JS: I’m working on a new project examining the music culture of the city of Leipzig, from the death of Bach in 1750 to the death of Mendelssohn in 1847. The first product of that research—a study of New Year’s Day traditions in the city--will be presented in conferences this summer and fall.

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