Mendelssohn in Cracow /...Dorota Szwarcman
Why fete the music of Felix Mendelssohn in Cracow 's Kazimierz district? After all, this is the place associated rather with Mordechaj Gebirtig, who lived and worked here, a poor carpenter. Mendelssohn never visited Cracow . And were his works ever performed here? We don't know. Class differences in Kazimierz were enormous: there were impoverished homes here, but also wealthy ones in which music-making must have gone on. Our knowledge of that is scant, however.

Nor did Mendelssohn have many links with Poland , except for his visits to Duszniki, where his uncles lived. At the time, though, that resort was a German town called Bad Reinerz. Visiting there in his youth, the composer did not meet his year-younger fellow musician, Fryderyk Chopin, whose acquaintance he did not make until 1834. In time this relationship even became a close one: “We complement each other and learn from each other..... Chopin is currently first among pianists ... he plays like Paganini does on the violin,” wrote Felix to his family. The composers valued each other, though they were aware of the aesthetic differences that divided them. ”It was as if an Iroquois and a Kaffir met up and carried on a conversation,” wrote Mendelssohn to his sister Fanny after a whole day of making music together in 1835. But he also related that “there is something really extraordinary in his playing.” Chopin, in turn, assigned Mendelssohn's Songs Without Words and Concert in G minor to his piano students in later years.

Contact with Chopin, then, was the only element connecting the composer with Poland . So why Mendelssohn? Because Jewish music is not only Gebirtig's songs and klezmer melodies, however much we all like them and hear them at the Jewish Culture Festival that has been organized in Kazimierz for many years. The works of classical music composers are part of Jewish music as well. Among them, Mendelssohn probably is the best-known name. Let it stand, then, as a symbol of that domain.

Of course, it is hard to call Mendelssohn's music Jewish - no few of his works are bound up with Christian tradition. The music, though romantic, has its roots in German neoclassicism. Bach and Mozart were Mendelssohn's beloved composers, and he was often compared with the latter as a child genius. It is Mendelssohn we have to thank for the resurrection of Bach's Passion According to St. Matthew. And although his works often verge on cloying sentimentality, they are also marked by respect for classical values, expressed in precisely constructed forms.

Mendelssohn's music was later to have an influence on “true” Jewish music. We can see it when we compare his oratorios with the music for choir and organ of German Reform synagogues. But that is quite another story.

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