Sunday, August 15, 2010

Mendelssohn, the Nazis and Me; by Sheila Hayman

"Almost nobody knows about it," says Sheila Hayman, "I only know because it is also the story of my own family."

Felix Mendelssohn was her great, great, great, great uncle, and in her documentary "Mendelssohn, The Nazis and Me" Hayman has written and directed a probing documentary on "mysteriously shifting identities" that changed in the intersection of religion, history, culture and ancestry.

In this DVD, which was released on Kultur Video, Hayman finds analogy in metamorphosis as portrayed in the Shakespeare play "A Midsummer Night's Dream." Mendelssohn was drawn to this play and set some of his most famous music as incidental music. "The story in the play," said Hayman, "became Felix's own story."

"The play's theme of transformation," said Larry Todd, "is knitted right into his music." Todd, from Duke University, works us through the way motives from the opening four chords morph into melodic strands used throughout the work. "The idea of metamorphosis and new identities being mixed up and being corrected," said Todd, "is something [Mendelssohn] probably would have reflected on, in terms of his own situation, in figuring out who he was."

The documentary reflects on Moses Mendelssohn who entered the city walls of Berlin at age 14. "Once he is inside the city," says Norman Lebrecht, "he is almost immediately liberated because he has come into the world of enlightenment, where the curious can educate themselves and become thinking members of society." Her father's cousin Cecile loved Moses Mendelssohn because he "found common ground between people," says Hayman.

The film explores the connection between Mendelssohn and Bach, both musical and historical and meditates on musical "professions of faith." Jeffrey Sposato contemplates the implications of common early 19th-century German text setting practices that portray depictions of Jews in very negative terms. What does it mean when Mendelssohn follows this practice in the Saint Paul oratorio?

In his book on the Bach Cello Suites, Eric Siblin writes of a more famous instance in the St. John Passion by Bach. "Might Bach," wrote Siblin, "ever have known a Jewish person?"

Stephen Isserlis explores "moments of Judaism" that are juxtaposed with Protestant music. The third movement adagio of the second cello sonata according to Isserlis, "starts with a Christian chorale [played by piano alone], then the cello enters with a line like a cantor; a cantor improvising. And then the piano restates its chorale with the cello making Jewish comments on equal terms. And then, to my great pleasure, the last phrase...the piano has been converted, and we hear the Jewish line from the piano."

But it is not so simple. The film delves into the concept of "mischling," the Nazi scheme of classifications for partial Jewish ancestry.

The resulting patterns created from the overlay and juxtapositions of music, dark times in human history, and one family's very personal struggle for identity make this a documentary that is memorable and worth seeing.

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