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6 CES Open Forum Series

Mendelssohn's Reformation Symphony and the Culture of Assimilation

Sep 1, 2011 – Paul-André Bempéchat


Felix Mendelssohn’s "Reformation" Symphony, opus 107 (1829-30) - "the beast," according to his sister Fanny - remains, along with his oratorios Saint Paul (1836) and Elijah (1846), one of his most controversial works. The symphony, composed in competition with works by other composers, was intended not only to honor the tercentenary of the Augsburg Confession, the principle doctrine of the Lutheran faith, but to convince Germans that one of their nation’s most prominent Jewish families, recent converts to Protestantism, had assimilated. Mendelssohn's supreme efforts, spiritual, psychological, and technical, proved fruitless, most likely due to his Jewish origins, and to the thematic ecumenism of his symphony, which, projecting its author’s own reconciliation of these traditions, unites motives from the Christian and Jewish traditions. Mendelssohn’s religious convictions have, since the end of the Second World War, become an unnecessarily divisive source of controversy between musicologists and social historians. Aided by an analysis of Mendelssohn's spiritual hybridity as expressed in the symphony, this essay will strive to resolve the controversy by elucidating the psychological intricacies of German Jewish conversion during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, and the futile drive by German Jews to assimilate into a society that would ultimately affirm and reject them as outsiders.