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"Mendelssohn, the Nazis, and me"

This movie by Sheila Hayman, a direct descendant of the Mendelssohn family, digs into Felix's religion and how the family's heritage and conversions affected their descendants during the Nazi years. Read more here:

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.
Growing up in a London suburb, I never thought much about my relationship with Felix Mendelssohn. I always felt a bit weird but I put that down to having a father with a strong German accent and eccentric table manners.
— Sheila Hayman

More scholarship on Mendelssohn and his religion

It is interesting that the facts remain the same – the date of conversion, the family relationships surrounding Mendelssohn – but the interpretation of his feelings, his own identity, and his own actual beliefs are easily swayed one way or another. Since Mendelssohn himself wrote little about his beliefs, researchers can only infer from his actions, his music, and small hints here and there, such as the keeping of his grandfather's family name.

An article by Manfred Lehmann, of the Lehmann Foundation:

"In Felix's voluminous letters there is hardly a mention of Christianity. Felix was a Jew until 1816 when he was baptized at the age of 7, while his parents remained Jews until 1822 when they, too, were baptized. Felix was almost bar mitzvah age in that year."

"Besides his family, Felix Mendelssohn also socialized with the well-known Jewish banker, Salomon Heine, the uncle of the famous bard, Heinrich (Chayim) Heine—also a convert of convenience—who retained his Jewish consciousness very conspicuously throughout his poems. (When a childhood friend once asked Heine if he really believed in Jesus, he answered: "Have you ever met a Jew who has faith in another Jew?")"

Mendelssohn - Research on his religion

Mendelssohn - Research on his religion

An interview with Jeffrey Sposato, a Mendelssohn scholar and author of "“The Price of Assimilation: Felix Mendelssohn and the Nineteenth-Century Anti-Semitic Tradition," features some very interesting remarks about Mendelssohn's religion and the effect it had on his career and legacy.

Read the interview here:

"Despite the fact that Mendelssohn, who was born Jewish, had been baptized as a Lutheran at age 7, most post-war scholars had described him as being very attached to his Jewish heritage, and that his views never changed over the course of his life. As a child of Jewish and Catholic parents myself, who has changed his views on religion many times over the years, I found such a monolithic description of Mendelssohn hard to swallow, especially given the tremendous amount of Christian sacred music he composed. What I found in my research. . .  is that Mendelssohn’s views towards his heritage changed radically over the course of his life. At first, while under his father’s watchful eye, he attempted to distance himself from Judaism, often by incorporating anti-Semitic imagery into his oratorio texts, but later, when his father was no longer in the picture, Mendelssohn worked to find ways in which he could celebrate his Christian faith in his works without denigrating the Jews in the process."

". . . despite Mendelssohn’s status as a Christian and that generations of his progeny were all Christians from birth, the Nazis viewed them as ‘tainted’ by Judaism even in the 1930s."

Notes on Mendelssohn

From "Mendelssohn: The Greatest Jewish Composer?" (Jewish Standard, 10/23/2009)

He was quite the prodigy!


The poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who met both [Mendelssohn and Mozart], said that Mendelssohn bore “the same relation to the little Mozart that the perfect speech of a grown man does to prattle of a child.”

By age 15, Mendelssohn had written 12 string symphonies, four concerti, a violin sonata, three piano quartets, several small piano sonatas, four musical works for the stage, and an array of songs and choral pieces. By his late teens, he had learned English and French and was able to translate from Greek, Latin and Italian. He was a painter, a gymnast, a swimmer, a horseman, a dancer and a chess player.

At age 17, he wrote the enchanting overture to “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” The New Yorker magazine’s Alex Ross has written: “That it came from a boy of 17 essentially defies explanation."


We have Lea Mendelssohn-Bartholdy to thank for Mendelssohn's musical upbringing!

Anti-Semitism and Mendelssohn's legacy

During the 19th century, Mendelssohn was considered on the same exalted level as Beethoven and Mozart. Composer Robert Schumann called him the Mozart of the 19th century.