Mendelssohn as Organ Maestro

In this abundant year of composer anniversaries commemorating the births or deaths of Handel, Purcell, Haydn and Mendelssohn the English have good reason to claim all as their own. Only Purcell was a native to the island, but the German-speaking members of this quartet were welcomed and supported there with great enthusiasm. The four could well be carved, Mount Rushmore-style, into the white cliffs of Dover as a sign to approaching ships and low flying jets of what musical cosmopolitanism at its finest can foster.

Handel dominated the English scene for nearly half a century, Haydn was a huge hit on his two extended trips of the 1790s when his London Symphonies impressed and delighted with their sublime combination of erudition and wit. Germanic musical training unleashed in the realm’s rampant English freedom—as public life there was thought of by German rulers and duly demonized as chaotic and dangerous by their intellectual minions—yielded some of the greatest music left to  the world, from Messiah to the “Surprise” Symphony.

In the quartet of 2009 honorees, I’d have to guess that Mendelssohn is unfairly ranked lowest in popular and critical esteem at this the 200th anniversary of his birth. Mendelssohn was the youngest of the lot, and it goes unrecorded whether he was much interested in the fact he was born the year Haydn died, fifty years after Handel’s death and 250 after Purcell’s birth. Mendelssohn made the first of his eleven trips to England in the spring 1829, only weeks after conducting the centenary performance—the first since Bach’s death—of the St. Matthew Passion in Berlin in March of that year.

With this epoch-making event behind him and Bach’s vocal works firmly reintroduced into European music culture, the twenty-year-old set out on his Grand Tour. London was his first stop, and in his first weeks there he was examining original manuscripts of Handel in the King’s Library, according his German predecessor in England some of the respect he had shown Bach. Soon after that Mendelssohn walked out on a performance of Purcell anthems in St. Paul’s, and was promptly pilloried in one corner of the British press.  But aside from that minor bump, Mendelssohn was greeted with adulation as the leading music journal would put it in 1844 after he had become a regular visitor:  “We think Mendelssohn must take the highest place among all the modern Germans.”

On his first English journey, Mendelssohn was at first keen to avoid impressing himself on the larger public, playing rather for small private gatherings for the finer elements of London society.  But the young visitor also found his way into the famed organ loft of St. Paul’s Cathedral, where Handel had disported himself on  Sunday afternoons because it was then only instrument in the city with pedals on which “he could exercise his feet.” Having worked himself into a musical lather at the 18th-century version of the stairmaster, Handel and his admiring cohort would remove themselves to the nearest pub to quench the collective thirst.

By 1829 the organ of Handel’s day, had been replaced by one with a still larger pedal board on which Mendelssohn could not only improvise but play works by Bach requiring full use of the feet. For all his talents, the German’s feet gained the most rapturous attention of the dumbfounded Brits. Over and over again it was the amazing use of the pedals that impressed the English amateurs and experts, accustomed as they were to the lame pedaling of local practitioners. Henry Gauntlett, one of Mendelssohn’s chief admirers was stating the obvious when, in an article for the Musical World of 1838, he asserted that the main reason for the Mendelssohn “sensation produced in our metropolis” was that “the instruments he performed on seemed to assume a new character with the pedale appearing with a more grand and imposing tone.”

All four composers being commemorated this year were organists; Purcell, Handel, and Mendelssohn were among the greatest ever to play the instrument, Haydn merely a proficient player. Yet the organ itself has been a notably rare feature of the 2009 celebrations. Aside from the declining status of the organ in the increasingly secular Europe of the 19th century, the main reason for this is that none but Mendelssohn left much organ music to posterity.  Like Handel he was a great improviser who filled the church with spontaneous music only to have it disappear with the echo: these musicians honored the timelessness of the organ by embracing the immediate.

Mendelssohn is the great exception: he produced an oeuvre of organ that must count as the most significant in the century after Bach’s death. Aside from his many great gifts to concert life, from the early Octet to the late Elijah, Mendelssohn’s contributions to the organ literature are enough to vault him to the forefront of the anniversary composers of 2009. Many of these improvisations, or at least the ideas from them, must have made there way into his great collection of six sonatas, commissioned by the London firm Coventry & Hollier and published in England in 1845 two years before Mendelssohn’s premature death in 1847. It is ironic, or perhaps an appropriate recognition of Mendelssohn’s missionary zeal in proselytizing with his feet, that a country with few pedal organs or hardly any experience of musicians who could really play them when he first visited at the end of 1820s, would then bring into being one of the great collections of organ music. The English are to thank for distilling from Mendelssohn’s otherwise evanescent genius these greatest organ masterpieces of the 19th-century.

Organists know and revere Mendelssohn, but the recognition of this body of work beyond that often eccentric fraternity rarely extends to the wider musical world.  (I should  say sorority, too, for the English virtuosa, Elizabeth Stirling, was playing Bach’s pedal fugues in public in 1834, the year Queen Victoria assumed the British throne. It’s not  an easy thing playing the organ in full Victorian ladies attire, though I can assure you, I don’t speak from experience on that one. [Oh, NOW he denies it! Editors]  But it should reach  beyond the already converted, for this is music that rewards the player and listener anew with each return visit to its oratorical power, virtuosic zeal, and pure cantabile—the contrapuntal erudition and four-limbed gymnastics of the German tradition wedded with the vocal sweetness and the martial confidence of imperial Britain.

John Scott, now organist at St. Thomas in New York, put out a two disc-set disc of the sonatas in 1997, the last Mendelssohn anniversary, that one commemorating the 150th year of the composer’s death. Scott was then the organist at St. Paul’s in London and the recording returned Mendelssohn’s music to the site of some of his greatest triumphs.  Unfortunately, the instrument Mendelssohn played is long gone, and the contraption erected in its place represents the manifest failings of  English organ building in the 20th century, failings even St. Paul’s cavernous acoustic cannot cover up. By turns weak and brash, timid and reckless, this organ should be scrapped and a replacement put in its place worthy of Mendelssohn, Handel and all the other organists who played on instruments in Christopher Wren’s church far better than the current hodgepodge that boasts of size, but not of quality.

As far as I can tell, only one recording of the complete known works of Mendelssohn has yet been produced, that of the brilliant young French organist Jean-Baptiste Robin. This three CD set  not only the six sonatas and the three preludes and fugues, but the early works from Mendelssohn’s teen years, compositions very much in the Bachian mode, especially a piece like the Ostinato in C Minor, owing so much to Bach’s great Passacaglia in the same key. The recording is made on three landmark organs from the 18th century and one from the 19th:  The baroque organs are all by the great Gottfried Silbermann, a colleague of Bach; two of these are excellent and beautifully preserved instruments are in the village Rötha outside of Leipzig; Mendelssohn often refreshed himself on them during his tenure in nearby Leipzig as the director of the Gewandhaus Orchester. Robin plays on these same keys touched by Mendelssohn both with the panache and the grace so necessary to this music, some of which may even have been born as improvisations on these same organs.  Each stop of Silbermann’s organs is a distinctive character, and their various combinations reflect the premium placed on individual integrity that can contribute to coherent, yet varied, corporate sonority. The German organs tend not to be afraid of the beauty of their individual stops, in contrast to their less forceful English cousins. Released last year in advance of the 2009 commemorations, this complete set is the one to have.

But this keeps the German in Germany, though brought back to life there by a visiting Frenchman. If one wants to get a sense of the sonorities available to Mendelssohn during his time in England, an excellent recording of the sonatas has been brought out this year by another fine young organist, the Englishman, William Whitehead.Whitehead is an interesting musician with many talents and credits to his name, and on these CDs he brings Mendelssohn’s organ music back to Buckingham Palace, where the composer played in June of 1842 for Prince Albert and Queen Victoria, both great admirers of the adopted son of the English musical scene.  Ever the German—and therefore an organist—Prince Albert had the good humor and grace to play for Mendelssohn, too. What a different attitude I’d have towards Prince Charles if he could manage such gesture after an organ recital at his mom’s London pile.

Built in the second decade of the 19th century the organ was originally installed in the Prince Regent’s music room—a rotunda of wonderful, light-hearted taste—at the Brighton Pavilion, and it was removed to the  Buckingham Palace ballroom. The acoustic is less than ample, but the restrained charms of this 19th-century organ and the sensitivity and brilliance with which Whitehead invests these demanding and rewarding works in what is truly their native setting reaffirms the truth that great music knows no borders.

DAVID YEARSLEY teaches at Cornell University. He is author of Bach and the Meanings of Counterpoint His latest CD, “All Your Cares Beguile: Songs and Sonatas from Baroque London”, has just been released by Musica Omnia. He can be reached at

DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical NotebooksHe can be reached at