Felix Mendelssohn was a passionate Christian. He was also born a Jew. This film, marking the 200th anniversary of his birth, tells the extraordinary story of what happened, generations later, both to Mendelssohn's family and to his music, when the Nazis remembered the Jewish roots of Germany's most celebrated composer.
This program also examines how the influences of both Judaism and Christianity affected Mendelssohn's music and was made by documentary-maker Sheila Hayman, Mendelssohn's great-great-great-great niece.
Includes performances from Daniel Hope, Steven Isserlis, Asaf Levy and Larry Todd.
“Writer-director Sheila Hayman’s articulate, radiantly intelligent film" - FINANCIAL TIMES
“This entrancing film succeeded as a personal and justifiably proud celebration”" - SCOTSMAN
“A tangled tale... presented absolutely compellingly by Sheila Hayman" - GUARDIAN
“A fascinating film that tells how, despite its best efforts, the Third Reich could not extinguish Germany’s love of Mendelssohn’s work" - OBSERVER
"Felix Mendelssohn is a problematic figure in the pantheon of great Jews. His grandfather, Moses Mendelssohn, played a key role in 18th century Germany, opening a path for Jews to enter mainstream society and authoring influential works on philosophy. He hoped to lead the way to a rapprochement between Christians and Jews.
It didn’t quite work out that way as his children and grandchildren – through conversions – became Lutherans. Felix, in fact, was a devout Lutheran. In his oratorio “St. Paul,” he even has a section focusing on Jews rejecting Jesus. Yet in later works, according to some music scholars, he embraced his Jewish heritage both musically and in content, as in his “Elijah” oratorio.
However interesting that might be to students of classical music, that is only part of what Sheila Hayman focuses on in her 2009 BBC documentary, “Mendelssohn, The Nazis and Me.” For Hayman is the great-great-great-great-niece of the composer and what brought her to the story of Mendelssohn is what happened to her father’s generation during the Holocaust.
The crackpot racial “science” of the Nazis led to their attempts to expunge Jewish influence from the culture and to seek out those who had “Jewish blood” in their ancestry. The problem for them was that Mendelssohn was among Germany’s most beloved composers. If not for the deadly consequences, the attempt to deal with Mendelssohn under the anti- Semitic regime would be almost comical.
Hayman’s father was able to get to England for the duration, but his cousins were not so fortunate and had to deal with a classification system where they had to make sure they were not deemed “too Jewish.” A Jewish greatgreat grandparent was a taint, but one could survive. The more Jewish ancestors, though, the more dire the situation.
Meanwhile Mendelssohn’s music, including his world renowned “Wedding March,” was now deemed something that “polluted”
German culture. Musicians who wished to play Mendelssohn’s works had to do so with the windows closed lest they be overheard.
Jews were banned from German theaters and concert halls, but Jewish performers were permitted to create a segregated performance space strictly for other Jews. Ironically it was here that all of Mendelssohn’s works were freely played.
The Nazis were not the first to attack Mendelssohn and his music for its supposed Jewish roots. That dishonor goes to a then unknown but ambitious composer named Richard Wagner, whose own music would later be embraced by the Nazis. Hayman’s film is filled with the ironic twists and turns of this convoluted history, but perhaps the most satisfying one is the end result. Today Mendelssohn’s music is performed and enjoyed by Jews and Christians alike. That’s something that his grandfather Moses Mendelssohn would have richly appreciated."
-Daniel M. Kimmel of Movie Maven
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