Conductor Charles Hazlewood looks at great composers. How the music of Mendelssohn embodies the Victorian age, and how he pioneered the conductor's baton.
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MUSIC: "Wedding March" by Felix Mendelssohn
My journey through two centuries of British music and history
ends in the early Victorian age,
with a composer who has quietly and modestly burrowed deep
under our national skin.
MUSIC: "O For The Wings Of A Dove"
This giant of musical Romanticism
was also one of the world's great melodists,
who wrote some of Britain's best-loved tunes.
# Hark! the herald angels sing
# Glory to the newborn King... #
Once again, this composer came from outside Britain.
Like Handel, he was German.
His name was Felix Mendelssohn.
THEY PLAY: "Wedding March" from "A Midsummer Night's Dream"
THEY PLAY: Overture to "A Midsummer Night's Dream"
Mendelssohn first came to London in 1829
as a precocious 20 year old.
To complete his fully rounded German education
he was visiting Britain on the first leg of a European grand tour.
The great legacy of Haydn's time in London a generation earlier
was the foundation of the Philharmonic Society,
which established a regular concert season in Britain's capital,
and within a few months of Mendelssohn's arrival,
they arranged for the young composer to present his work to the public.
The music he conducted included this scintillating overture
to A Midsummer Night's Dream, written when he was just 17.
We're performing it for this film with my orchestra of period instruments, Army of Generals,
in the ornate, Victorian splendour of the livery hall of London's Drapers' Company.
London was astonished at the young German prodigy.
But for Mendelssohn, Britain had so much more to offer
than simply its capital city.
As one of the first of the new generation of Romantic artists,
Mendelssohn needed to feed his imagination with experience.
So after just four months in the capital, he headed north,
on a journey that was to inspire one of the world's best-loved pieces.
MUSIC: The Hebrides Overture
Tucked away in a corner of Oxford's Bodleian Library
is the composer's own charming record of this trip,
a series of sketchbooks, some mind-blowingly tiny,
which paint a vivid and detailed picture of his first British summer.
Here is a sort of conventional size drawing book,
-which actually starts off with a few of London.
-It's almost Canaletto.
-Yes, it is. There's St Paul's and...
And then, the rest of the sketchbook records the journey up north.
So we've got York.
-Then onwards up to Durham.
-That's a very leafy picture!
Yes, he was always very fond of trees. He drew trees everywhere.
Then up north, into Scotland.
These meticulous sketches are the first impressions of a landscape
that was to become hugely significant for the young composer.
Arriving in Oban on the west coast on August 7th,
he drew what's now become one of his most evocative pictures.
Standing on just about exactly this spot
and in just this sort of weather,
Mendelssohn caught his first glimpse,
beyond the castle of Dunolly, of that misty, distant grey landmass -
the Hebrides islands -
a landscape that was to have such a deep creative impact upon him.
And that very night, he fired off a letter to his family
where he said, "In order to make you understand
"just how much the Hebrides have affected me,
"I've set down the following."
And he sketched the first 20 bars of music
of a piece that was subsequently to become world famous.
The following morning, Mendelssohn took a tourist boat
deeper into the Hebrides, heading for a tiny and remote island
that was in all the guide books as one of the wonders of the world -
Staffa, so ancient, it doesn't even have fossils,
and with its extraordinary sea cavern crafted from basalt pillars,
It was a difficult journey then and it still is today.
We'd planned to retrace Mendelssohn's trip to Fingal's Cave,
but with summer storms brewing, our skipper refused to take us.
So, David, what conditions do you think Mendelssohn was met with
when he set sail on that day in 1829?
Er...not very good, I don't think.
As bad as this or worse?
Er...it wouldn't be as bad as this,
because the boats that were operating in those days weren't as big.
No engines. It was all either oar or sail.
And there's no way that you'll just take me now?
-If we go carefully?
-No. No, Charles. No. No!
So we waited and we waited.
BOAT ENGINE ROARS
And our luck finally turned when David seized a "weather window".
We might not be able to land,
but he agreed to risk the hour-long voyage to Staffa.
So at last we're under way.
We're going to Staffa to see Fingal's Cave, this amazing place
which inspired Mendelssohn to write such a great piece of music.
It's a piece I've conducted so many times
without ever having seen its inspirational origin.
At last, I'm going there.
Mendelssohn also had bad weather.
A poor sailor at the best of times, he was miserably seasick
for the entire voyage.
We did manage to land, but soon after we heard of a new storm
heading our way. I had only a few minutes to get to the famous cave,
have a look and get back to the boat.
That was just a totally visceral experience!
Standing inside that huge, black, marble mouth,
the sound of the sea just crashing around!
This is tempestuous music!
But Mendelssohn's original manuscript is anything but.
It's incredibly fastidious. Even the corrections are measured!
What I love is how neat it is. For instance, the bar lines.
-This, I could conduct from!
-You could. Oh yes!
It's as clear as a printed page.
Mendelssohn has painted a picture of our landscape in sound.
Fingal's Cave, the first tone poem, opened the door to a new style
of descriptive music which inspired composers for the next 100 years.
Britain became almost a second home to Mendelssohn.
He made nine more visits during his short life.
He was building on our historic bonds with Germany.
Britain had a Hanoverian monarch in George IV
and in Handel, a German national composer.
But Mendelssohn's principal home was in Leipzig
in the first-floor apartment of this building.
Mendelssohn's grandfather, Moses,
had been the leading Enlightenment philosopher of his day.
Pretty impressive forebear.
And Mendelssohn had the perfect upbringing -
parents, like all great parents, who created just the fertile seedbed
for Felix and his equally gifted sister, Fanny, to grow their talents.
He learnt languages, learnt to draw, he read literature voraciously,
both ancient and modern.
He danced, he fenced, he did gymnastics.
He became a thoroughly rounded young man.
And on top of all of this, his parents, Leah and Abraham,
chose to baptise their four Jewish children
into the Protestant Christian faith.
This was, of course, a pragmatic choice,
but largely driven by the belief, derived from Grandfather Moses,
that we're all equal - the same under God.
One astonishing achievement is Mendelssohn's String Octet,
which is by any standards a miracle piece,
let alone the fact that it was written by a mere 16 year old.
You get what I would call a kind of Mendelssohnian translucence -
this incredibly delicate tune just skittering along
over a very busy background.
But somehow the busy background never engulfs the theme.
It seems to float.
Mendelssohn was arguably the most prodigiously talented
teenage composer in history.
And he was also growing up at a time when German music
was seen as something of profound moral importance.
When Mendelssohn starts writing music,
it's not just writing music.
He's actually already writing music with a kind of mission behind it.
German composers are basically preachers,
teaching the community about how life and art should be.
This is why Johann Sebastian Bach becomes extremely important.
This is St Thomas's church, Leipzig, where Johann Sebastian Bach worked
for the last 30 years of his life.
The teenage Mendelssohn was the driving force
in the 19th century revival of Bach's music.
Aged just 20, he conducted Bach's masterpiece, the St Matthew Passion,
which hadn't been heard since the composer's death 80 years earlier,
and hasn't left the world stage since.
But this was so much more than just dusting off a great old museum piece
and representing it to the world.
Mendelssohn engaged creatively with the work,
cutting it, re-scoring it, re-working it,
to speak with optimum clarity to the people of his own time.
MUSIC: Opening movement of "St Matthew Passion" by JS Bach
Mendelssohn's early encounters with what it means to be a German artist
will have important implications for the British.
Here, Handel's revered position among composers stayed unassailable.
His music has formed the backbone of every British coronation
since George I in 1727.
In 1837 Victoria became Queen and Zadok The Priest rang out again.
# Zadok the priest
# And Nathan the Prophet... #
1837 was a highly significant year for Mendelssohn.
He got married to Cecile Jeanrenaud,
the daughter of a French pastor,
and after their seven-week honeymoon in the Rhineland and Black Forest,
he came here to Birmingham, to perform a brand-new piece
commissioned from him by the city's Triennial Festival.
Mendelssohn himself took the solo part in that first performance
of his Second Piano Concerto.
As Victoria took the throne, Britain's landscape
was already being transformed by industrialisation.
And here in Birmingham, the so-called workshop of the world,
the population was exploding,
and the canal system here, constructed over previous decades,
now covered more miles of waterway than Venice.
This music is passionate and intense.
But, as ever, Mendelssohn crafts it with a truly classic sense of form.
There's none of the dangerous, bad-boy abandon that we associate
with Romantic composers like Liszt or Berlioz.
So how appropriate that the performance took place
in one of the most beautifully classically proportioned buildings of its age - Birmingham's Town Hall.
When Mendelssohn first started coming here, the Town Hall
must have been pretty new. What was the area around it like?
The area around the Town Hall was mostly old housing
and poorer people living here.
No drains, no sewers, no refuse collection.
And it was making a statement, Charlie. It was saying,
"We might be industrial and have smoke belching from our factories,
"we might be dark, but we are civilised -
"civilised like the greatest city state in history - Ancient Rome."
Manchester could say they were the Athens of the North.
We went better in Brum. We were Rome.
We were the greatest city state in history.
So this beautiful Town Hall was designed to look like
-the temple of Jupiter Stator.
-So it was, genuinely, for everybody?
It was for everybody. It was the people's hall.
So when Mendelssohn first come, he did a pen and ink drawing
of this locality.
And all you see is smoke belching out of chimneys.
It's interesting - when Mendelssohn first comes to Birmingham,
Charles Dickens, the people's writer, who knew what it was to be hungry,
who knew what it was to be poor, brought out his first great novel,
The Posthumous Papers Of Mr Pickwick.
And that sketch of Mendelssohn is matched by a compelling paragraph
of words, by Dickens, about Birmingham,
the great working town.
And as Sam Weller and his master, Mr Pickwick,
come along the Bristol road into Birmingham,
"..As they rattle through the narrow thoroughfares,
"leading to the heart of the turmoil,
"the sights and sounds of earnest occupation
"struck more forcibly upon the senses. The streets were thronged
"with working people.
"The hum of labour resounded from every house.
"The lights in the long casement windows of the attic storeys gleamed,
"and the whirl of wheels and the din of machinery
"shook the trembling walls.
"The fires, whose lurid sullen light had been visible for miles,
"blazed fiercely up in the great works and factories of the town.
"The din of hammers, the rushing of steam and the dead,
"heavy clanking of the engines was the harsh music
"which arose from every quarter."
That was the music, outside, that Mendelssohn, this great composer,
was putting music on inside, but we had our own music.
These days, Mendelssohn is sometimes dismissed
as a mere chocolate-box composer.
But the parallel is, in fact, slightly more revealing.
In that industrialising century,
both Mendelssohn and the chocolate manufacturers were on a similar crusade.
We often think of industry
in terms of steel, of glass, of hard, shiny things.
And yet, here in Birmingham,
chocolate was a major part of industry. How did it all begin?
chocolate was an industry the various Quaker families were interested in,
partly because drinking chocolate, which is what you were making until, really, the 1850s,
was seen as an alternative to alcohol, apart from anything else.
It was something they felt comfortable making and making money from.
And the Cadburys, here in Birmingham,
turned into the most successful chocolate-making dynasty of all.
There's a correlation here with Mendelssohn.
He had a very strong patrician, Victorian sense
that music was for the good of all -
that it could act as a salve to social ills.
It seems to me that drinking chocolate had the same ambition.
Yes, it did. There were places called temperance houses
which were alternatives to pubs,
where you'd have tea or chocolate or maybe coffee.
People were defended against the evils of alcohol.
The Cadburys also built on that.
This idealism was more than just preventing people doing things.
They actually tried to create a vision here in Bournville
of a Utopia, in a way - an ideal place for workers to live in.
# O for the wings, for the wings of a dove... #
A magnificent carillon overlooks Bournville's village green,
inspiring Cadbury's workforce
with hymns and other morally uplifting music
like this classic, O For The Wings Of A Dove,
from Mendelssohn's Christian anthem Hear My Prayer.
BELLS JANGLE TUNEFULLY
They wanted their workers
to be healthy and, really, morally better.
Richard and George Cadbury,
"Mr Richard" and "Mr George", as they were known to their employees,
every morning at 9.00 would do a Bible reading for their staff,
which was compulsory.
Mendelssohn had captured the popular imagination.
Up and down the country, he was hugely respected for his values,
and loved for his tunes.
MUSIC DRAWS TO A CLOSE
By this time, Mendelssohn was fast becoming
the absolute epitome of the Victorian gentleman -
quite an achievement for a foreigner.
What's more, this humble composer
was entering into an intensely intimate relationship
with both Queen Victoria and Prince Albert.
This intimacy led to a number of very small, private musical gatherings at Buckingham Palace.
At one of the earliest of these, Queen Victoria chose a Mendelssohn song she particularly loved,
and they performed it together.
# Schoner und schoner schmuckt sich der Plan
# Schmeichelnde Lufte wehen mich an!
# Fort aus der Prosa Lasten und Muh'
# Zieh' ich zum Lande der Poesie
# Gold'ner die Sonne, blauer die Luft
# Gruner die Grune, wurz'ger der Duft... #
But after they'd sung it, Mendelssohn,
rather nobly, to my mind, confessed that though the song was published under his name,
it had actually been written by his sister, Fanny.
# ..Und dies, halb Wiese, halb Ather zu schau'n
# Es war des Meeres furchtbares Grau'n?
# Hier will ich wohnen, Gottliche du
# Bringst du, Parthenope, Wogen zur Ruh'... #
Mendelssohn wrote that "Victoria sang well,
"hitting the last high G with more purity than any amateur".
# ..Wogen auch dieser Brust! #
Testimony to the intensely close relationship between Mendelssohn and the young Queen Victoria.
There's this real jewel in the British Library - a collection of seven piano duets,
some of his most famous songs, like Spring Song, which Mendelssohn prepared
and presented especially to Her Majesty.
THEY PLAY: "Spring Song"
So, like all piano duets, it's divided into two parts -
the primo, the first player, and the secondo, the second player.
The primo is clearly Queen Victoria. It is deliciously simple.
She obviously wasn't much of a keyboardist. It is almost playable by one finger -
a token of the ultimate respect and love from a composer
to the Queen.
CHARLES PLAYS WRONG NOTE
Mendelssohn remained a friend of both Victoria and Albert for the rest of his life.
Albert was an accomplished amateur composer,
all three spoke German as their first language
and they also shared a wider cultural vision,
where music played a powerful role.
When our Queen Elizabeth was married, she followed a tradition established by Victoria
nearly a century earlier.
In 1858, Victoria chose Mendelssohn's Wedding March
for the marriage of her eldest daughter.
ORGAN PLAYS: "Wedding March"
And to this day, the Wedding March remains
Mendelssohn's most popular piece of music.
So what's its secret?
Weddings are about two things -
expectation and resolution.
So what does Mendelssohn give us? First, an opening fanfare gambit.
Where are all our eyes? Definitely on the bride.
And then, for the first big chord of the big tune, it could be just this.
-It's OK, but it's lacking something.
It needs that extra little fizz of excitement - of ecstasy, if you like. So here's that basic chord...
and he adds in just this note.
It's called an added sixth, and it gives us all the delight we need
to canter off down through the phrase.
Finally, we're at home. We've achieved resolution.
We've been playing it with the instruments of the day,
which sound quite vulgar, quite garish, in a way -
perhaps too much for some tastes.
But you can't say it's not exciting.
Success crowned success for Mendelssohn -
not just an international celebrity, but a friend of royalty,
a composer of hit tunes and, of course,
there was also his other life back in Germany.
Little of the Leipzig that Mendelssohn knew remains. But as I found out,
his pioneering spirit still survives.
He was famous for his phenomenal, workaholic lifestyle,
and he held one of the most prestigious and demanding jobs in the German musical world -
director of the legendary orchestra at Leipzig's Cloth Hall, or Gewandhaus.
I went to the new Gewandhaus building in Leipzig
to speak with Mendelssohn's successor.
Knowing his commitment as a Gewandhaus Kapellmeister
for 12 years, the amazement when you go through the programmes of those years
was the conviction and the wish of, er...let's say promotion,
in terms of discovering more and more
the greatness of Ludwig van Beethoven, for instance.
If you read through the programmes, you will be amazed
how much and how persistently he would conduct the Beethoven symphonies,
with some preferences.
The No. 7, the No. 5 and the No. 3 were always among the preferences.
I think the idea was to bring music to people
and, secondly, the educational problem -
how a country could be cultivated in music.
Mendelssohn was one of the first to invent the idea
of the historical concert -
that is, you start with a work by Johann Sebastian Bach.
You move along history and have a bit of Handel, then some Mozart and Haydn,
Beethoven, Schubert and then, of course, yourself as the composer.
This is the kind of concert he planned.
He changed the way people saw concerts,
so concerts become a kind of education in history.
MUSIC: Symphony No. 3, 3rd movt
Mendelssohn made perhaps his most significant contribution to that German history
in his five symphonies.
The third of these
was finished in 1842, but its roots lie in that famous trip to Scotland a dozen years earlier.
Mendelssohn wrote that he first conceived his Scottish Symphony during his visit
to the ruins of Holyrood Abbey in Edinburgh.
How does Mendelssohn summon up the brooding majesty of the scene?
Something he's brilliant at is painting with the orchestra,
so just listen to the quality of the sound at the opening -
a plangent and full-throated woodwind chorus,
rich, but without significant bass.
Normally, you might expect a velvety underlay of cellos and double basses,
but there are none.
The harmony rides on a much slenderer platform of horns and bassoons.
I think Mendelssohn
is looking at the sheer vastness of the sky and endless horizon,
brooding and stark.
Writing a symphony after Beethoven is a huge act for a composer.
The Scottish Symphony is without doubt
one of the best examples of Mendelssohn
expanding the idea of German music, paradoxically as it sounds,
through images of another country.
One of the important things about the idea of German music
is that it's meant to appeal to the whole of humanity.
This is music that's going to give all people, not just German people,
a kind of moral standard.
none other than Queen Victoria accepted the dedication of the Scottish Symphony.
How interesting that just three months later,
she made HER first trip north of the border,
to the country that had become one of the most potent and romantic locations in Europe.
"O Caledonia! stern and wild,
"Meet nurse for a poetic child!
"Land of brown heath and shaggy wood,
"Land of the mountain and the flood,
"Land of my sires! what mortal hand
"Can e'er untie the filial band,
"That knits me to thy rugged strand!"
Three literary giants had dominated the young Mendelssohn's world -
Shakespeare, who he'd set, Goethe, who he'd met,
and the Wizard of the North, Sir Walter Scott.
The day after visiting Holyrood Abbey,
Mendelssohn travelled out to the writer's legendary Borders home, Abbotsford.
This is the main library. There's the study next door, of course.
But as you can see, 10,000 books round about you here,
and artefacts of all kinds, and the bust by Chantry at the other end there.
Can you describe for us Mendelssohn's meeting with Scott?
Mendelssohn's meeting with Scott
is a very mysterious thing, really, because,
on the suggestion of various people like his mother, and given the spirit of the age,
he felt it was mandatory to see one of the great lions of Europe.
Looking into what actually happened, it does appear to be something of a disappointment,
because Scott - 1829 - Scott is tired,
he's in debt - huge debt - he's only three years away from dying,
and Abbotsford is being held almost in trust.
It's become a kind of tourist trap, too, so in fact,
Mendelssohn comes armed with his letter of introduction,
but in fact Scott really doesn't pick up on him at all.
And Mendelssohn says rather wryly afterwards,
"I've had it with great men," he says.
Despite this, Scott's writing had a huge impact on Mendelssohn's thinking.
The matrix of things that Scott gives is almost limitless.
New way of looking at history,
new way of looking at nature and landscape...
..all these things, plus settings of Gothic attraction
and the marvellous - that complex of things
that just caught the mood of the incipient century and launched it,
so that everybody in Europe, from Victor Hugo down to Turgenev, to Tolstoy,
they all say, "We are the children of Walter Scott."
For Mendelssohn, Scotland was to remain a rich well of inspiration,
providing a pictorial and poetic base to his musical romanticism,
just as it had for the poet Keats,
who'd made a similar trip a few years earlier.
The Keats-Mendelssohn comparison is rather interesting.
Keats wanted a home-grown version of the sublime, that's what it comes to.
That's why he goes to Fingal's Cave,
and I'm thinking particularly of Fingal's Cave because of Mendelssohn.
The idea was to address himself to the mightiest things he could find,
and to use that as a way of thinking about
how to crank up the imaginative scale of things,
and at the same time
to give some physical reality
to what drove him in almost all walks of his imaginative life,
which was to think about how writers might do good in the world.
Mendelssohn's vision was almost identical, and perhaps nowhere more so
than at the transformative, hymn-like conclusion to his Scottish Symphony.
It wasn't only his large-scale visions that touched a nerve with the British.
Mendelssohn's more modest music was taking a special place
in Victorian domestic life.
The piano industry was booming in Britain.
By 1842, the famous piano maker Broadwood
was one of the twelve largest employers in London.
Instruments were finding their way into the homes not just of the wealthy
but of the burgeoning middle class,
and all these people needed music to play.
In his incredibly popular series of short pieces, Songs Without Words,
Mendelssohn provided music to let the Victorians' imagination run free.
And when he did write music for a particular story, the results were more than evocative.
One of my most treasured possessions is this engraving of a painting by Richard Dadd.
It's called Puck And The Fairies - it's a scene from A Midsummer Night's Dream.
Puck is, relatively speaking, huge, and the spirits,
the fairies running around underneath him, are tiny,
feminine maybe, androgynous almost certainly.
I think Mendelssohn played a huge part
in how the Victorians imagined the supernatural world.
In 1843, he wrote more music for A Midsummer Night's Dream,
and here, with his magical moods
and evocative dreamscapes,
he conjures up a brand-new vision
of a mercurial, quicksilver fairyland.
'This is quintessential fairy music.
'You hear the sparkle of fairy dust and see the gossamer wings.
'But Mendelssohn's magic is always hard won, and in recording it,
'the orchestra and I came face to face with its fiendish difficulty.'
Thank you very much indeed. Thanks. You're getting slightly behind
at the top of that run, clarinets, bassoons, you're behind.
The strings and the wind start to part company.
-So just keep absolutely tight.
-HE DEMONSTRATES RHYTHM
It is scaring, and I tell you this
because we finished playing two days ago the Midsummer Night's Dream stage music.
How could a so-called "modern" orchestra, of the time of Mendelssohn,
have played this infernal Scherzo the way it's written?
I mean, today, clarinets,
bassoons, oboes, are much improved instruments,
and still it's hell, I guarantee you.
For this orchestra, which knows even the shadow behind the notes of Mendelssohn, it's hell for them.
Because the modernity,
in the instrumental way, was so much ahead of its time, and I don't think
he was a man easy for slow tempi.
Perhaps that's part of his genius -
that he deliberately made it feel on the edge of possibility,
and I know from my own experience that there's a speed that will work very well for the clarinets
but it won't suit the violins.
-You have to find that mean, but it's always going to be on the edge.
Getting everyone to commit to the optimum tempo is key here - it's not easy.
But we're there now.
As a conductor, Mendelssohn was renowned
for raising the standards of playing in his orchestras.
And in Britain, he captured the public imagination with his pioneering use
of that new conductor's tool - the baton.
Sadly, no images of Mendelssohn conducting exist, but the Bodleian Library can go one better.
SCHERZO ENDS Yes, we're fortunate
that two of the batons owned by Mendelssohn have survived
and are in this collection.
There's this one...
..which, as you can see, is an elaborate affair...
-Looks like a conjuror's wand.
-..ebony with ivory.
But alongside that, we've got this...white stick,
which is a decidedly more utilitarian object.
It's of whalebone
-covered with white leather.
-This feels very heavy.
Batons today are these very, very light things,
-essentially extensions of the arm.
Whereas this feels, you know...
If I gave an upbeat with that, the orchestra would go BANG!
SCHERZO COMES TO AN END
Mendelssohn became Britain's favourite and most respected maestro,
and a fascinating connection began to spark in the Victorian imagination.
The baton conductor was quite interesting, because when he - and it was a he at the time -
would spring upon the platform, and magically control a group of people
by just waving his arms about,
the audiences and the press responded with terms such as "wizard".
This was tied in with mesmerism
in quite an interesting way, because the conductor
began to wear the black-tie outfit that we associate with conductors today,
and mesmerists took the same costume.
So there was this mix-up going on in the public imagination.
This was a connection that continued right to the end of the century,
so even in the novel Dracula, for instance,
we get Dracula raising his arms like a conductor and the wolves respond to him.
So there's this sense of magic in an almost occult sense - you know, raising the dead,
raising the spirits.
Victorian Britain was well aware of its dark side -
of the social and moral consequences of poverty in its great and crowded cities.
Just like today, people were desperate for a magic solution to the problems of a modern world.
And in the 19th century, Mendelssohn and his music would become a powerful force
in this struggle for reform.
Across the country, choral societies were bringing huge numbers of our urban populations together.
This great British tradition, which survives to this day,
provided the seedbed for Mendelssohn's last masterpiece.
Mendelssohn's most enduring legacy, I think, to Victorian Britain, was his oratorio Elijah,
a piece which tells in music the story of that grand Old Testament prophet.
And it took a place very quickly in the British people's hearts,
alongside that of Messiah.
It was commissioned once again by the Birmingham Triennial Festival,
and had its first performance here, at the Town Hall, with Mendelssohn himself conducting.
# I, even I, only am left... #
It's rather surprising that Mendelssohn,
who was a very sort of conservative musician,
should have been drawn to this fiercest of Old Testament prophets.
I think the point is, Mendelssohn felt
that the world was falling into a state of moral decay
and the world needed someone like an Elijah
to make them sit up and realise the error of their ways.
In the magnificently restored building that Mendelssohn knew so well,
we performed some of the most dramatic sections of Elijah especially for this programme,
working with members of six amateur choirs from right across the West Midlands.
So let me give you a bit of background.
This is a piece which tells the story
of that great, vengeful, and at times furious prophet, Elijah,
who has a prolonged attempt, effectively, to save the souls of his people.
So we'll explore a section today which is all about false gods.
You, the populace, crying for your false god.
And then Elijah, trying to drag you back from the abyss.
-One-two-three, one-two-three, AND...
# Hear us, Baal! Hear, mighty god!
# Baal, O answer us
# Hear us, Baal
# Hear, mighty god
# Baal, O answer us... #
This is not, repeat, not polite music.
This not something which is prayerful.
What we need is a sound approaching that of the football terrace, really.
OK? And the other most important thing to say to you
ladies and gentlemen, so hopefully we can eradicate it right now,
is that you are wonderfully, fabulously and gloriously behind,
the whole time! OK?
Mendelssohn, I think, saw himself a little bit as an Elijah himself,
in a musical way, in the sense that he saw himself to be the guardian of true musical values.
Speak it to me...
-Hear us, Baal.
Good. Now shout it at me, please.
-Hear us, Baal!
That's the effect I want.
Now shock me...AND...
# Hear us, Baal... #
-# Hear, mighty god
# Baal... #
There was great fear of groups of people coming together,
because on the one hand you had revolutionary mob activity in France,
at this time, and that was...rather close! You know, 30 miles across the English Channel.
But there was also a sense that if you could get a group of people
working together in the right sort of way, the nation could advance.
And so it touched on that great Victorian word "progress".
# Hear, mighty god! Baal, O answer us!
-# Baal, let thy flames... #
This man, Elijah, he's not a remote, mystical figure,
delivering platitudes from on high.
He's a character that people can associate with.
And Mendelssohn himself had now become something of an adopted national hero to the British.
The premiere of Elijah in Birmingham was a huge national occasion,
perhaps the most iconic event in our Victorian musical history,
and today, performing this music in the Town Hall with the BBC Concert Orchestra
is still a viscerally thrilling experience.
# Hear us, Baal! Hear, mighty god!
# Baal, O answer us
# Baal, let thy flames fall
# And extirpate the foe... #
Mendelssohn's forces for the premiere numbered over 400,
and somehow another 2,500 souls had managed to squeeze in to hear them.
# Hear us, Baal! Hear, mighty god!
# Hear us, Baal! Hear, mighty god!
# Hear us, Baal! Hear, mighty god!
# Hear us, Baal! Hear, mighty god!
-# O hear us! O hear us!
-Hear us, Baal! Hear, mighty god!
# Baal... #
The great thing about Elijah is that he's got a wonderful line in sarcasm,
and this always very refreshing, I think, with an Old Testament prophet.
I love it particularly...
when he's challenging the worshippers of the false god, Baal,
to prove that their god exists.
He says, "Come on, call him! Call him!"
And there's no answer. He says, "Call him again."
# Hear...us... #
# Call him louder
# For he is a god
# He talketh, or he is pursuing
# Or he is in a journey
# Or, peradventure, he sleepeth
# So awaken him
# Call him louder
# Call him louder. #
-# Hear our cry, O Baal,
-Hear our cry, O Baal
# Hear our cry, O Baal... #
When the piece was first performed, of course, this character
with his back-to-basics, no-frills-attached sort of religion
would have resonated very well with the non-conformist attitude
which was very prevalent, especially in the Midlands.
# ..Call him louder
# He heareth not
# With knives and lancets cut yourselves
# After your manner
# Leap upon the altar ye have made
# Call him and prophesy
# Not a voice will answer you
# None will listen, none heed you
# Hear and answer, Baal!
# Hear and answer, Baal... #
These massive choirs had a sound that would reach for miles.
But for someone to sing in it, there was actually,
physically represented in front of them
and aurally heard, a sense of national unity.
# ..Hear and answer, Baal!
# Hear and answer
# Hear and answer, Baal
# Mark how the scorner derideth us
# Derideth us, derideth us
# Hear and answer, hear and answer
# Hear and answer, hear and answer, Baal
# Hear and answer, hear and answer
# Hear and answer
# Hear and answer
# Baal, Baal
# Hear and answer, hear and answer
# Hear and answer
# Hear and answer! #
The task of creating this score was immense.
Like Elijah, Mendelssohn had taken himself to the brink.
When he's almost at his wits' end, there we see the private man, inside.
There's no-one around to hear him when he turns to God
and says, "Look, this is enough, I've done as much as I can,
"I've tried to persuade them to come back to you.
"They've killed all the other prophets,
"all your prophets, they have killed. I'm the only one left.
"I don't think I can go on much more."
# It is enough
# O Lord, now take away my life
# For I am not better
# Than my fathers... #
Exhausted, Mendelssohn suffered a series of strokes
and just a year after the premiere of Elijah, on 4th November 1847,
he died at his home in Leipzig. He was just 38.
# ..Take away
# My life. #
The death of Felix Mendelssohn marks the end of my journey
through two centuries of musical and cultural change in Great Britain.
His extraordinary impact here helped create a lasting vision
of our national musical culture -
the still-familiar world of conductors and concert halls,
of choral societies and piano practice,
of fantasy and imagination, of ceremony and celebration.
MUSIC: "Zadok The Priest" by Handel
Over 200 years, as Britain's political and social landscape was transformed,
four towering composers played their part in providing a soundtrack for our nation.
MUSIC: "Dido's Lament" by Purcell
From Purcell, Handel, Haydn and Mendelssohn,
we've inherited great music for the grandest and most solemn state occasions...
MUSIC: "Wedding March" by Mendelssohn
..music that inspires...
..and just lets us have fun.
# The pleasures of friendship, freedom and wine
# The pleasures of friendship, freedom and wine... #
MUSIC: "Spring Song" by Mendelssohn
But their music does more than just entertain us.
It brings our communities together.
# Hallelujah, hallelujah
# Hallelujah... #
'And as I discovered as I travelled the country in the making of these films,
'it celebrates our landscape...
'and our language.'
# I know that my Redeemer liveth... #
And with Elijah, The Creation and Messiah,
these composers bequeathed us a national soundtrack
in a uniquely British form.
# The wonder of his works
# The wonder of his works displays, displays
# The firmament
# The heavens are telling the glory of God
# The wonder of his works... #
During this journey, we've witnessed how music
has always been at the heart of the transformation of British society,
and above all, we've celebrated the richness of British culture
which comes from looking beyond our borders.
British music is, and has always been,
a platform for ideas of every sort.
Our diversity is our strength.
MUSIC: Fourth Movement of Scottish Symphony by Mendelssohn
Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd
E-mail [email protected]
Conductor Charles Hazlewood explores the lives, times and music of great composers. In the final programme in the series, he looks at Mendelssohn, whose music embodies the sound of the Victorian age. A friend of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, Mendelssohn made ten visits to Britain and his work appealed strongly to British tastes.
Mendelssohn's melodies such as O for the Wings of a Dove and Hark! the Herald Angels Sing became hugely popular and his astonishing overture to A Midsummer Night's Dream perfectly captured the Victorians' fondness for Shakespeare and fairy stories. He portrayed the grandeur of Scotland through a romanticism shared with poets such as Keats and Wordsworth, and captured the public imagination with his pioneering use of a new conductor's tool - the baton.
Charles's journey includes a stormy boat trip to Fingal's Cave and a visit to a chocolate factory, as well as a trip to the recently restored Birmingham Town Hall, where a massed choir comprising choral groups from across the West Midlands is brought together with the BBC Concert Orchestra and soloist Andrew Shore to perform extracts from Mendelssohn's iconic work Elijah.