Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy (1809–1847) was a celebrated German composer whose reputation rests in part on a large output of sacred music. His view of the Bible and the influence of scripture on his music are inextricably linked to the complex issue of his personal and religious identity. Born in Hamburg to a prominent Jewish family and raised in Berlin, he was the grandson of the famous Enlightenment philosopher Moses Mendelssohn, who advocated for a reconciliation of German and Jewish culture but who remained a devout Jew and gained notoriety for his German translation of the Torah. By contrast, the composer’s father, a successful and wealthy banker, envisioned a path of growing assimilation into German culture and thus had his children baptized as Lutherans in 1816 (at which time they added the surname Bartholdy) and himself converted to Protestantism in 1822, along with his wife. The tension between these two outlooks has led to intense debate among scholars in recent decades concerning the extent to which Mendelssohn identified as a Jew or a Christian, and though outwardly it would appear that the composer fully embraced his Protestant faith, it seems that his identity was defined partly by this very tension and that at times it informed his approach to the Bible, particularly in relation to his oratorios St. Paul and Elijah.
The secular rationalism espoused by Mendelssohn’s father meant that the composer was raised free from religious indoctrination, at least until the time of his baptism at age seven. Letters from father to son reveal that the former chose Christianity for himself and his family as a means of assimilation, though Mendelssohn himself appears to have been sincere in his faith and would remain a devout Protestant throughout his lifetime. His knowledge of the Bible was intimate, as the composer Robert Schumann once noted, and his views on Christianity were strongly influenced by the leading Protestant theologian and philosopher Friedrich Schleiermacher, whose sermons he heard in Berlin and of whom he declared himself a follower in 1830.
Much of the music to biblical texts that Mendelssohn wrote during his lifetime was influenced at least indirectly by his involvement in the Berlin Singakademie, a choral ensemble directed by his composition teacher Carl Friedrich Zelter that was dedicated to the performance of sacred music. Mendelssohn officially began singing in the group at the age of 11 and during the 1820s had many of his sacred choral works performed by the ensemble, for which some had been expressly written. It was here that Mendelssohn gained firsthand exposure to a broad range of sacred music both past and present, including liturgical music of the Italian Renaissance as well as German oratorios, cantatas, and motets of the eighteenth century, most notably by Bach and Handel. Mendelssohn’s decade-long involvement with the ensemble culminated in 1829 with the celebrated revival of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, which he organized and conducted and which thrust the composer into the forefront of what at the time was a nascent movement aimed at stimulating renewed interest in Bach’s largely forgotten output of sacred music. During the remaining 18 years of his life, Mendelssohn would continue to compose (and perform) sacred music for reasons both personal and professional, the latter including his time spent as municipal director of music for the Catholic city of Düsseldorf (1833–1835) and as director of sacred music for the Prussian court in Protestant Berlin (1842–1844).
Mendelssohn’s earliest efforts at setting scripture to music were undertaken at age 11 as compositional exercises that formed part of a rather old-fashioned musical education overseen by Zelter. Among these were several choral settings of psalms, which mostly employed Martin Luther’s German translation of the Bible but which in two instances featured the translation of Mendelssohn’s grandfather instead. Spurred on by various commissions or by the need to provide music for church services, Mendelssohn would go on to set several additional psalms for chorus or chorus and orchestra (with or without vocal soloists) over the course of his career, most notably Psalms 42, 95, 98, 114, 115, and a grouping of Psalms 2, 22, and 43 that were published posthumously in 1849 as the Drei Psalmen, op. 78. In completing such psalm settings, Mendelssohn was drawing on a centuries-old practice in the Christian church and in this way was making conventional use of scripture within the Western tradition of sacred choral music.
Also emerging from Mendelssohn’s early compositional studies were several chorale harmonizations, which provided the foundation for a host of future works that employed the Protestant chorale in one fashion or another. Notable among these were a series of chorale cantatas composed mostly in the late 1820s and early 1830s. These works, which generally reveal the influence of Bach, set poetic texts based only indirectly on scripture—often in the form of paraphrase and in some cases by Luther himself—and thus are to be understood as distinct from Mendelssohn’s psalm settings. Ultimately they point not only to Mendelssohn’s abiding interest in the music of the past but also to his practice of expressing a specifically Protestant identity through music, as affirmed by such major works as his Reformation Symphony (1830) and Lobgesang Symphony (1840), each of which includes a Protestant chorale. The Lobgesang (Hymn of Praise), a symphony-cantata that also sets verses from the book of Psalms, was composed for a festival marking the 400th anniversary of the invention of Gutenberg’s printing press. Depicting as it does the triumph of light over darkness in an allegory that celebrates the positive influence of Gutenberg’s invention on German culture and religion (with reference to the Lutheran Bible), this work reveals Mendelssohn’s willingness to press sacred music into the service of ostensibly secular and in this case quasi-nationalist aims.
Not content to limit himself to Protestant music, Mendelssohn also composed several works during his lifetime that set key texts of the Catholic liturgy. Included among these mostly Latin choral settings is the elaborate motet Tu es Petrus (1827), which sets to music the foundational Catholic text derived from the words of Christ: “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church” (Matt 16:18). Its soaring, imitative vocal and instrumental lines reflect the influence of Palestrina, that most quintessential of sixteenth-century Italian sacred music composers, and in this way the work is distinct from those of Mendelssohn that bear the stamp of Bach’s Lutheran cantatas.
It was in the summer of 1832 that Mendelssohn agreed to write a libretto for an oratorio (i.e., a secular concert piece with a religious theme) on Moses to be composed by his friend, the music theorist A. B. Marx. In exchange Marx was to complete a libretto for an oratorio on the life of St. Paul that Mendelssohn was then contemplating. Mendelssohn undertook this project with great verve and in so doing revealed the extent of his biblical knowledge. His libretto, which depicted the life of Moses in dramatic and narrative form, relied mostly on the book of Exodus but also drew from Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua, Job, Psalms, Lamentations, and the prophetic books of the Old Testament. The musicologist Jeffrey Sposato, in a book (2006) that explores Mendelssohn’s oratorios within the context of the nineteenth-century German anti-Semitic tradition, argues that Mendelssohn’s libretto evinces a Christological view of Moses as a kind of Old Testament Christ. He points in particular to portions of the libretto derived from scripture outside of Exodus that, on the one hand, depict Moses enacting various Christlike behaviors and, on the other, reflect a relatively unfavorable image of the Jews as faithless and ritualistic.
Mendelssohn’s oratorio St. Paul, completed in 1836, represents one of his most significant works derived from scripture. Cementing his already growing reputation both at home and abroad, the oratorio was a virtual overnight success and eventually became Mendelssohn’s most popular work during his lifetime. Although Mendelssohn had received a libretto on the subject from Marx, he ultimately decided against using it, just as Marx had decided against using Mendelssohn’s libretto for Moses. Instead, Mendelssohn compiled his own libretto, looking primarily to the account of the apostle Paul’s life in the book of Acts but drawing as well from other parts of the Bible, including the Old Testament, while nonetheless incorporating elements from Marx’s libretto draft and from drafts by the biblical and Hebrew literary scholar Julius Fürst and by the pastor and theologian Julius Schubring. Even as he worked with these prior drafts, however, Mendelssohn made a point of revisiting the original Bible verses upon which the text in question was based, explaining in a letter of 1835 that he found the language of scripture to be both forceful and harmonious to the extent that it sometimes inspired the nature of the music he wrote.
The oratorio’s subject matter alone—the conversion of Saul and his subsequent evangelizing—would have held special resonance for the composer as a baptized Jew, and not surprisingly scholars have looked to this work as a reflection of Mendelssohn’s own identity. Thus Leon Botstein and Michael P. Steinberg (1999), both of whom detect in Mendelssohn an abiding Jewish self-identification, have argued that St. Paul can be understood as a symbolic reconciliation between Judaism and Christianity. Sposato, on the other hand, who views Mendelssohn as a typical early-nineteenth-century Neuchrist, or converted Jew with a newfound Christian identity, claims that St. Paul reflects a largely negative portrayal of the Jews as hidebound and legalistic and that, moreover, Mendelssohn actually fashioned the biblical narrative in a way that underscores this view.
One element of St. Paul that undeniably ties in with Mendelssohn’s Protestant faith concerns the five chorales that he interspersed throughout the oratorio. This practice recalls that of Bach in works like his St. Matthew Passion and in this way suggests Mendelssohn’s reverence for the music of the past. It also reflects a brand of cultural nationalism, insofar as the chorale was seen as the expression of an emerging national consciousness rooted in the traditions of German Protestantism. Viewed by some observers as anachronistic and by others as inappropriate to a work intended not for the church but for the concert hall, Mendelssohn’s inclusion of chorales represents one element of the work that has long generated controversy among critics. Another such element constitutes one of the composer’s most imaginative responses to biblical verse. Setting the climactic moment in the work where Saul, on the road to Damascus, is blinded by a bright light and hears a voice call out to him, “Saul, why do you persecute me?” (Acts 9:4), Mendelssohn made the bold decision to have Christ’s words sung by a four-part chorus of female voices, not long after which is heard the chorale, “Wachet auf, ruft uns die Stimme” (Awake, a voice is calling unto us).
Mendelssohn completed a second oratorio, Elijah, in 1846, one year before his untimely death. Frustrated by unsuccessful attempts to procure a libretto on the subject of the Old Testament prophet, Mendelssohn ultimately decided to compile the text himself, drawing mostly on the account of Elijah’s life in 1 and 2 Kings and looking also to Julius Schubring for input. The work premiered in English at the Birmingham Festival in England, for which it had been prepared. Its success managed to eclipse even that of St. Paul, with the result that Elijah would go on to become one of the most celebrated of all oratorios, trumped only by Handel’s Messiah.
Scholars generally agree that Elijah displays a more overtly Christological orientation than St. Paul by highlighting parallels between Elijah and Christ. Thus Sposato, noting Mendelssohn’s subtle changes to the biblical story of Elijah, points to the how the composer casts Obadiah as a kind of John the Baptist in relation to Elijah. He also recognizes in Mendelssohn’s approach to the libretto an attempt to portray the Jews in a more positive light—an approach that he cites as evidence of a shift in Mendelssohn’s attitude toward his Jewish heritage. R. Larry Todd, who also advances a Christological reading of Elijah, notes the role of the chorale, which is employed in a manner far differently than in St. Paul. As Mendelssohn himself acknowledged, Elijah contains the presence of only a single Lutheran chorale, and even that appears as an adaptation of the original, now set to various psalm verses. In addition, Mendelssohn included chorale-like passages elsewhere in the work designed to evoke the spirit of a chorale without conjuring up the specific associations of a familiar text and melody. As Todd suggests, the presence of such music along with the one adaptation of an actual chorale has the effect of lending this Old Testament work a distinctly Protestant flavor and thus of interpreting its events through the lens of Christianity.
Still further insight into Mendelssohn’s engagement with the Bible is provided by a third oratorio that was left unfinished at the time of his death in 1847. The fragment that has come to be known as Christus (because it treats the birth and passion of Christ) was in all probability intended as the first installment of a three-part oratorio titled Earth, Heaven, and Hell, which Mendelssohn began contemplating as early as 1839. Though it is difficult to draw firm conclusions on the basis of a work that remains incomplete, certain features of it suggest that Mendelssohn may have conceived of this oratorio as a complement to Elijah. Thus, once again, his treatment of the biblical text reveals an orientation toward Christ and toward the New Testament, even in those cases where he set passages from the Old Testament. One such instance, as scholars such as Todd and Friedhelm Krummacher (2001) have pointed out, concerns Mendelssohn’s choral setting that begins with the text derived from Numbers 24:17: “A star will come out of Jacob; a scepter will rise out of Israel.” While this prophecy would appear to be a reference to King David, its simultaneous reference to Christ is made explicit by Mendelssohn through the use of a Protestant chorale that appears near the end of the chorus and that, through its textual reference to a brightly shining morning star, alludes to the star of Bethlehem. Such links between the Old and the New Testament offer a metaphor of sorts for what appears to have been a growing reconciliation in Mendelssohn’s own thinking between his Jewish roots and his Christian faith. Thus does Mendelssohn’s music—along with his approach to the Bible—point to a constantly evolving identity defined by the negotiation of his grandfather’s Judaism, his father’s embrace of a universalizing Christianity, and his own Protestant faith.
- Botstein, Leon. “Songs without Words: Thoughts on Music, Theology, and the Role of the Jewish Question in the Work of Felix Mendelssohn.” Musical Quarterly 77 (1993): 561–578.
- Botstein, Leon. “Mendelssohn and the Jews.” Musical Quarterly 82 (1998): 210–219.
- Botstein, Leon. “Mendelssohn, Werner, and the Jews: A Final Word.” Musical Quarterly 83 (1999): 45–50.
- Krummacher, Friedhelm. “Art—History—Religion: On Mendelssohn’s Oratorios St. Paul and Elijah.” In The Mendelssohn Companion, edited by Douglass Seaton, pp. 299–382. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 2001.
- Sposato, Jeffrey S. “Creative Writing: The [Self-] Identification of Mendelssohn as Jew.” Musical Quarterly 82 (1998): 190–209.
- Sposato, Jeffrey S. “Mendelssohn, Paulus, and the Jews: A Response to Leon Botstein and Michael Steinberg.” Musical Quarterly 83 (1999): 280–291.
- Sposato, Jeffrey S. The Price of Assimilation: Felix Mendelssohn and the Nineteenth-Century Anti-Semitic Tradition. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006.
- Steinberg, Michael P. “Mendelssohn’s Music and German-Jewish Culture: An Intervention.” Musical Quarterly 83 (1999): 31–44.
- Todd, R. Larry. Mendelssohn: A Life in Music. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.
- Todd, R. Larry. “On Mendelssohn’s Sacred Music, Real and Imaginary.” In The Cambridge Companion to Mendelssohn, edited by Peter Mercer-Taylor, pp. 167–188. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2004.