Tonight the New York Philharmonic begins the first of three "Elijah" performances. They should all be magnificent, on purely aesthetic grounds. But there’s a deep theological divide embedded in this work too, and one that has profound implications for our understanding of how Jewish a composer — if one at all — Felix Mendelssohn was.
As I report this week, the scholar Jeffrey Sposato has taken up Mendelssohn’s oratorios — particularly this one, based on an Old Testament figure — as key evidence that Mendelssohn identified strongly with Christianity. Though born to Jewish parents, neither of them were religious and, in fact, they converted Felix to Christianity at age seven. He married a Christain, raised his own children in the faith, and was especially close with his Lutheran pastor.
The evidence of what Mendelssohn felt about being the child of Jews is beguilingly thin, which has left many scholars to rely on his professional work for insight. The problem is that, according to Sposato, many of the original Mendelssohn scholars that revived his reputation after it lay dormant for nearly a century — after Wagner’s noxious anti-semitic screed against him — had an agenda.
After the Holocaust, leading Mendelssohnians like Eric Werner, a Jewish refugee from Germany, played up Mendelssohn’s Jewishness, even going so far as to forge some documents, to make their case. Sposato was the first scholar to reevalute Werner’s work, finding the forged document, and has since become a prominent scholar in his own right, casting doubt on how much Mendelssohn identified at all with Judaism.
The one point Sposato stressed in his work, and with me, was that "Elijah" both represents a fully realized Christian interpretation of the Old Testemant story, but also does so without denigrating Jews in the process. That’s critical, since it suggests that Mendelssohn had enough empathy towards Jews to avoi the anti-semitic renderings of Jews in classical music that was the norm.