Biedermeier Orientalism

Listening to Mendelssohn’s Auf Flugeln des Gesanges (“On Wings of Song”), a setting of a poem by Heinrich Heine, I am reminded of the composer’s orientalism.    The poem expresses a deep interest in orientalist thought; indeed, the words are quite remarkable for their cosmopolitan and surrealist flavour.  Mendelssohn was well-read in Asian thought, particularly Hindu and Sufist philosophy, and was close friends with Friedrich Rosen (1805-1837), an orientalist and first Professor of Sanskrit at University College London (appointed at age 22).  In his letters, too, Mendelssohn recommended to his brother Paul a book of Eastern mystic aphorisms by another orientalist, Friedrich Ruckert, saying this book, (“Erbauliches und Beschauliches aus dem Morgenlande” – Establishments and Contemplations from the Orient),  provided “delight beyond measure” (Letter of 7 February 1840).    (At roughly the same time, of course, Thoreau and the other New England Transcendentalists were also being strongly influenced by orientalist ideas and literature.)  Mendelssohn was well-read in theology and philosophy generally, and particularly influenced by the ideas of Friedrich Schleiermacher. There is something more profound here in Mendelssohn’s thought and music than is usually noticed by people who dismiss his music (and often Biedermeier culture generally) as being lightweight and superficial.   That an activity is inward-focused does not make it light or superficial; indeed, the reverse is usually true.

Among the more there that is here, I believe, is a relatonship between Sufist ideas and Mendelssohn’s love of repetition, something one soon hears in his melodies with their many repeated notes.  A similar relationship exists between JS Bach’s fascination with Pietism, and his own love of repetition, as in the first movement of the D Minor Piano Concerto (BWV 1052), or the proto-minimalism of, for example, Prelude #2 in C minor, in Book 1 of the 48 (The Well-Tempered Clavier).

Those dismissing Mendelssohn for being superficial included, famously, Richard Wagner, whose criticisms were certainly motivated by anti-semitism, jealousy, and personal animosity.  But I wonder, too, if Wagner – that revolutionary of ’48 – was also dismissive of what he perceived to be the inward-focus of the Biedermeier generation, a generation forced to forego public political expression in the reimposition of conservative Imperial rule after the freedoms wrought by Napoleon’s armies.    But not speaking one’s political mind in public is not evidence of having no political mind, as any post-war Eastern European could tell you.  While visiting Paris in the 1820s, Mendelssohn attended sessions of the French National Assembly.  While in London in 1833, Mendelssohn attended the House of Commons to observe the debate and passage of the bill to allow for Jewish emancipation, writing excitedly home about this afterwards.  (Sadly, the bill took another three decades to pass the Lords.)  

In July 1844, while again in London, Mendelssohn was invited to receive an Honorary degree from Trinity College Dublin, and hearing that he would be going to Dublin, Morgan O’Connell, son of Irish nationalist Daniel O’Connell, asked him to take a letter to his uncle, then in a Dublin prison.  (As it happened, Mendelssohn was unable to go to Ireland on that occasion.  See: letter to his brother Paul, 19 July 1844, page 338 of Volume 2 of Collected Letters.)   One wonders how O’Connell could ask of someone such a favour, without first knowing something of the man’s political sympathies.  So perhaps those sympathies were radical, anti-colonial and republican. In an earlier letter, Mendelssohn described standing amidst British nobility with his “citizen heart” in an audience at the Court of Victoria and Albert (Letter of 6 October 1831).  As these incidents reveal, there may have been much more to this Biedermeier mister than meets the eye.

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