Fanny Mendelssohn

Fanny Mendelssohn

By R. Larry Todd

Written for the concert Music and the Bible, performed on Nov 2, 2010 at Carnegie Hall.

Oratorium (nach Bildern der Bibel) (“Scenes from the Bible”) (1831)

Fanny Mendelssohn’s Cholera Music

Of the diseases that ravaged the nineteenth century, few had more sweeping social and cultural repercussions than the great cholera pandemic of 1826–37. Originating in India, it spread through caravan routes and reached Russia in 1829. By 1831, it had extended to Moscow and then moved westward to Poland. Cases in Berlin were reported in August 1831; England was affected in October; and early in 1832, Paris was devastated by the cholera, caused by a water-borne bacterium that generally killed its victims through acute dehydration. The French press published bulletins listing some 800 deaths a day, and there were riots among the destitute, convinced they were being poisoned by what Heinrich Heine termed a “masked executioner.” The composer Felix Mendelssohn, then visiting Paris as part of his European grand tour, could count himself among the fortunate, for he contracted only a mild case and recovered.

In Berlin, Felix’s sister Fanny Mendelssohn coped with the terrors of the disease by composing a large-scale cantata between October 9 and November 20, 1831. Scored for soloists, chorus, and orchestra, the cantata counts among her most ambitious works, even though its very existence was veiled in obscurity until late in the twentieth century. Mendelssohn never published the work, and her autograph full score lacks a title. Apart from the premiere, which she conducted privately at her family residence before invited guests, the music was not performed, and remained virtually unknown until late in the twentieth century. When the first edition finally appeared in 1999, it was announced as an oratorio on biblical scenes. But in 1996 orchestral parts of the cantata turned up bearing the title Cantate nach Aufhören der Cholera in Berlin, 1831 (Cantata after the Cessation of the Cholera in Berlin, 1831), and Mendelssohn’s diaries, released in 2002, refer to her Choleramusik, finally enabling us to identify and title the full score.

Selecting an array of biblical texts (chiefly from the Psalms, Isaiah, and Job, also 2 Maccabees, 2 Timothy, and Revelation), Mendelssohn fashioned a three-part libretto that traces a narrative of human adversity and despair turning eventually to the joyful praise of God. The work begins with a lament-like orchestral overture, characterized by dissonant harmonies, plaintive motives, and clashing chromatic lines. An alto recitative then announces that the living have been summoned to be judged by God, the subject of the first part (Nos. 2–5). The central part of the cantata (Nos. 6–10) explores the tribulations of the living from the collective viewpoint of the chorus (Nos. 6, 9, and 10) and the individual experience (tenor aria, No. 7). In No. 6, Mendelssohn suggests a Protestant interpretation by superimposing above the chorus the chorale “O Traurigkeit, O Herzeleid,” revealing her to have been a keen student of J. S. Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, the first part of which concludes by superimposing the chorale “O Mensch, bewein’ dein’ Sünde gross” above a chorus. Some of Mendelssohn’s most expressive music is found in the Trauerchor (No. 9), in which the living lament the dead; and the Chor der Seligen (No. 10), in which the departed sing the familiar scripture from 2 Timothy (“I have fought the good fight”) to a freely composed chorale melody that turns Mendelssohn’s music from its pervasive minor-mode hues toward C major, the eventual goal of the work. The third part (Nos. 11–13) treats mankind’s reconciliation with God, and includes a fugue of penance (No. 11, “For we are suffering because of our own sins,” 2 Maccabees) and a culminating, celebratory chorus in C major (No. 13). It cites several psalms, including No. 150 (“Alles was Odem hat, preiset den Herrn”; “Let all that breathes praise the Lord”), as it happened, the same text that Mendelssohn’s brother later employed in 1840 to conclude his cantata-like Lobgesang Symphony.

Fanny Mendelssohn has generally been viewed as a composer of exquisite miniature songs and piano pieces. But in addition to the Cholera Cantata her catalogue of well over 400 compositions contains two other sacred cantatas (Lobgesang and Hiob), an orchestral overture, concert arias, the large-scale piano cycle Das Jahr, and several chamber works. Only in the last year of her life did Mendelssohn begin to publish her music, but she never saw through the press any of her large-scale compositions. So it remains for the twenty-first century to evaluate and enjoy the full scope of her music, and finally to recognize Felix Mendelssohn’s sister as an extraordinary musician of the nineteenth century.

R. Larry Todd
Mr. Todd is Arts & Sciences Professor of Music at Duke University and the author of the newly-released Fanny Hensel: The Other Mendelssohn, and Mendelsson: A Life in Music.