“For nothing will be impossible with God.” —Luke 1:37
A MEDITATION AT KENILWORTH UNION CHURCH WITH A PERFORMANCE OF MAGNIFICAT IN D MAJOR, FELIX MENDELSSOHN
omeday I’m going to survey my colleagues in the New Trier Clergy Group and ask them: So what is the commonest soundtrack to your weddings? Is it “The Bridal Chorus” from Lohengrin, by Richard Wagner, 1848? Or is it “The Wedding March” from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, by Felix Mendelssohn, 1843?
For me, I think it’s Mendelssohn by the thinnest of margins, but between them, Maestros Wagner and Mendelssohn have married off most of the brides in Europe and America for the last 200 years. Oddly, one was a Jew and the other a notorious Jew-hater, but let that pass for the moment.
People have long noted how aptly named Baby Mendelssohn turned out to be. “Felix” is Latin for “happy” or “lucky,” and Boy! was Felix Mendelssohn ever lucky! He was born in Hamburg to a prominent Jewish family; at 7 he was baptized by an Evangelical Christian pastor, but all his life he was proud of his Jewish heritage.
He grew up in a palace, literally; his parents were so rich that when little Felix started composing at the age of ten, Mom and Dad would hire him a full orchestra so that he could try out his new compositions without leaving his parlor. Abraham and Lea Mendelssohn were the Joan O’Neill of nineteenth-century Berlin.
His father was a prosperous banker and his grandfather was a renowned philosopher. When Felix grew up to be one of the most famous men in Europe, Felix’s father Abraham said, “For a long time, I was nothing more than my father’s son. Now I am nothing but my son’s father.”
He would routinely give private concerts for his hero, the German poet Goethe. At the University of Berlin, he sat in on the lectures of Georg Hegel, and in London, he accompanied Queen Victoria on the piano while she sang his songs. His wife Cécile was, by common consent, a knockout, and I am happy to point out that she was a preacher’s daughter.
Felix was 13 when he wrote his Magnificat. What were you doing when you were 13? The other night at Youth Group, our 13-year-olds were shooting each other with Nerf Guns, but then so was I, so who am I to judge? It’s great to be 13.
As you have been hearing, this Magnificat is a musical setting of the song the Virgin Mary sang when the angel Gabriel told her that she would become virgin mother to the Messiah Israel had been waiting for 800 years. The song is called Magnificat, of course, because that is its first word in Latin. Magnificat: Magnify the Lord, my soul!
By the way, this is neither here nor there, but you know who wrote the latest and perhaps the most theologically provocative Magnificat of them all? Leonard Cohen. Listen to the title song on his last album, You Want It Darker; it is brilliant. OK: commercial over. Back to this Magnificat.
So, Felix was 13 when he composed this setting of Mary’s ancient and beloved canticle. By coincidence, Mary was probably 13 when she composed her original. In first-century Palestine, girls were betrothed to the husbands picked out for them by their families shortly after puberty, so Mary was 13 or 14 years old. I was 30 when my first child was born, but life expectancy in Jesus’ day was about 30, so people got started earlier.
For some reason, little Jewish boys scare the hell out of despots. When King Herod found out about the eccentric, unprecedented, inexplicable birth of Mary’s little boy child, the old paranoid ransacked the hamlet’s households looking for this child who’d been born King of the Jews.
Twenty centuries later, Adolph Hitler banned the music of Felix Mendelssohn, because, said the Reichsmusikkammer, the state’s official art censor, the “Jewishness” of Mendel-ssohn’s music rendered it “dangerous” and “degenerate.”
The Nazi Music Czar even asked blonder and more properly Aryan composers to rewrite the music to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which means that, if Hitler had prevailed, we would have lost the familiar, beloved soundtrack to our daughters’ weddings. What would our weddings sound like without the “Jewishness” of Felix Mendelssohn’s music?
As it turns out, despots have good reason to fear little Jewish boys. Though it didn’t look like it when he died shamefully on a garbage heap at a young age, King Jesus would end up unseating all the sorry Herods of History.
Mary’s Magnificat is one of the most subversive songs ever written. Sings the Virgin:
God has scattered the proud
in the imagination of their hearts;
God has brought down
The powerful from their thrones
God has filled the hungry
with good things,
and the rich,
God has sent empty away.
That’s the verbal equivalent of burning the flag. If that pointed promise doesn’t terrorize all of History’s Herods, Hitlers, and Castros, I don’t know what will.
Hail Mary, full of grace.
Our Lord is with thee.
Blessed art thou among women,
and blessed is the fruit of thy womb,
Holy Mary, Mother of God,
pray for us sinners,
now and at the hour of our death.
Quoted by Jan Swafford in The Vintage Guide to Classical Music (1992), p. 224.