Mendelssohn was a gentleman of refinement and high degree; a man of culture and polished manner; a courtier who was always at home in evening dress. As was the man, so is his music, full of elegance, grace, finish, and refinement, but carried without variance to such a degree that at times one longs for brawn and muscle. Yet it is music that is always exquisite, fairylike, and fine in character.
Elgar was “tout à fait Mendelssohn.”
Richard Wagner (1813-1883) composed his inaugural Symphony in C major at the impressionable age of nineteen during a brief six-week period in the summer of 1832. Christian August Pohlenz (1790-1843) conducted an early performance of it at the Leipzig Gewandhaus in January 1833. Wagner’s first symphony radiates the blended influences of Mozart, Beethoven, and Weber. After Felix Mendelssohn succeeded Pohlenz as Director of Gewandhaus in 1836, Wagner gifted him the original score and humbly solicited Mendelssohn’s candid opinion. This magnanimous gift was never acknowledged, and Mendelssohn eventually misplaced or disposed of the only surviving copy. It was feared Wagner’s first symphony would never be heard from again until 1872 when copies of the orchestral parts were discovered inside a trunk abandoned by Wagner when he fled Dresden during the abortive Revolution of 1848. Three months before his death, Wagner conducted a private performance of his first symphony in December 1882 to commemorate his wife’s birthday. The Musical Times reported its first performance in London five years later at St. James Hall in November 1887.
Wagner never forgave Mendelssohn for callously disregarding his first symphony, losing the original score, and declining to conduct it. He later confided to his wife, Cosima, that he suspected Mendelssohn lost his symphony because “perhaps because he detected in it a talent which was disagreeable to him.” Before this unpleasant episode, Wagner admired Mendelssohn so much that he assimilated characteristics of his music and orchestration. Wagner’s overture to his opera Die Feen (The Fairies) begins with a pianissimo chord sequence that recalls the overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream. He modeled his 1835 overture Columbus so closely after Mendelssohn’s overture Meeresstille und glückliche Fahrt (Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage) that he eventually confessed to plagiarism. Like the fate of his first symphony, the original score to his Columbus overture was lost to history after a London publisher refused to publish it and misplaced the manuscript. Thomas Grey detects Mendelssohn’s influence in Wagner’s orchestration near the conclusion of Act I of the opera Der fliegende Höllander (The Flying Dutchman). He observes, “As Daland and the Dutchman take leave of each other the characteristic music of these propitious winds is heard again (measures 529-34) in woodwind arpeggios and high divisi string tremolos, strongly reminiscent of the same descriptive effect in Mendelssohn’s overture Meeresstille under Glückliche Fahrt.”
It is not uncommon for young composers to emulate the compositions of eminent masters to absorb more innovative forms of orchestration, melodic and harmonic structure, and counterpoint. In his early twenties, Elgar carried out just such an exercise by composing a work that carefully tracks the structure and modulations of Mozart’s Symphony in G minor K 550. Elgar’s affinity for that key is demonstrated by setting six movements of the Enigma Variations in G minor including the sybilline Enigma Theme. Imitation is the highest form of flattery as well as a potent learning tool for autodidacts like Wagner and Elgar who never attended any conservatory. The deprivation of a traditional education freed them from the pharisaical diktats of academics and shackles of convention, unleashing their creative impulses to produce symphonic and choral masterpieces.
Only after Mendelssohn’s untimely death at age 38 did Wagner set out to undermine his standing in the German pantheon of composers. Wagner was clearly settling a (lost) score with Mendelssohn, cowardly delaying the launch of his published salvos until his antagonist had exited life’s stage and could no longer respond. Even so, the long shadow Mendelssohn cast over Wagner’s music appears in two later works, the Kaisermarsch composed 1871 and his final opera Parsifal written between 1857 and 1882. In his march that commemorates the German victory in the Franco-Prussian war, Wagner quotes four phrases from the hymn Ein feste Burg (A Mighty Fortress) by Martin Luther. Mendelssohn cites that same hymn in the fourth movement of his Reformation Symphony composed in 1830. Mendelssohn also incorporates within its first movement the Dresden Amen, a cadence formula devised by Johann Gottlieb Naumann. Wagner attended a performance of Mendelssohn’s Reformation Symphony in February 1876 and later adapted the Dresden Amen in the Grail Leitmotif from Parsifal.
Mendelssohn’s impact on Wagner’s earliest and later compositions is undeniable, particularly in the case of the Columbus overture that scrupulously imitates Meeresstille und glückliche Fahrt written seven years prior. Is there further evidence of Mendelssohn’s influence on works by Wagner during his formative years as a composer? There is an uncanny resemblance between subordinate themes in Mendelssohn’s overture Meeresstille und glückliche Fahrt and Wagner’s overture to Der fliegende Holländer composed between 1840 and 1841. Both themes are in the major mode and start on the third scale degree of their respective keys. The opening phrase of each melody shares the identical melodic interval sequence and virtually the same rhythmic pattern. Both themes also appear in overtures that sonically portray the sea.
Further parallels emerge four bars into these respective themes where the melodic note letters are the same (C) with the brief exception of an upper auxiliary (D) in Wagner’s melody that promptly returns to C. This pattern continues over the next two bars where the ensuing four note letters match sequentially (A-G-F-F) in a restatement of the opening thematic figure. The start and finish of Mendelssohn’s sustained F-sharp with a whole note tied over the barline to a quarter are framed squarely by Wagner’s more fluid imitation with a high F followed by four intervening quarter notes in parentheses that descend to an F an octave lower. Although the notes, melodic intervals, and rhythms may not always match exactly, the resemblances strongly support the conclusion that Wagner drew inspiration for his subordinate theme from Mendelssohn. The odds of such a melodic confluence between two overtures about the sea are decidedly remote. Wagner clearly embraced the adage that mediocre artists borrow, but great artists steal. As was already shown, Der fliegende Holländer was not Wagner’s first time pirating material from Mendelssohn’s marine overture.
Elgar quotes the opening four notes of Mendelssohn’s subordinate theme from Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage in Variation XIII of the Enigma Variations. His treatment of these melodic quotations mirrors numerous elements from Wagner’s handling of quotations from Ein feste Burg in his Kaisermarsch. In a letter to August Jaeger dating from early May 1899, Elgar briefly floated the idea of excising the Mendelssohn quotations in Variation XIII to avert offending the conservative mores of his critics. He soon abandoned that notion and retained his original short score and orchestration for the June premiere conducted by Hans Richter. In his letter, Elgar explained:
The pretty Lady is on the sea & far away & I meant this (originally) as a little quotation from Mendelssohn’s Meerestille ū. Glٷückliche Fahrt. — but I did not acknowledge it as the critics — if one mentions anything of the kind — talk of nothing else — so I have cut out the reference — I think you can alter the score — in two places — it’s only Clar[ine]t! Tell me what else reminds the critics of something else. I might alter it.
Wagner’s influence on Elgar was monumental, commencing in the 1870s and continuing throughout the rest of his life. Someone of Elgar’s musical sensitivity and genius would have easily spotted the striking similarities between the maritime melodies from overtures by Mendelssohn and Wagner. Wagner’s theme is hummed and sung by Senta in Act II, the heroine who later in Act III casts herself into the sea after professing her eternal love for the doomed and wandering Dutchman. With her declaration and death, Senta frees the Dutchman from the curse of endlessly sailing the high seas as the captain of a fabled ghost ship that never makes port. No wonder in a letter to a fellow Wagnerian, Elgar prefaced his remarks concerning the Mendelssohn fragments with, "The Pretty Lady is on the sea & far away..." That description is richly redolent of Senta’s fate.
Elgar was very familiar with both of these overtures and would have easily discerned the resemblance between Mendelssohn's original theme and Wagner's transparent adaptation. Their melodic intervals and rhythmic patterns are essentially indistinguishable. These intersecting themes and poetic symbolism were ideally suited for Elgar's purpose. Elgar carefully studied and assimilated the works of Wagner, and in quoting Mendelssohn's theme sails in the proverbial wake of Wagner’s Dutchman. Senta’s theme appears twice in D major near the conclusion of the overture. What makes Senta’s melody in D major truly remarkable is it exhibits the identical melodic and rhythmic structure as Elgar’s Mendelssohn quotations.
|Der fliegende Holländer overture bars 322-330|
|Der fliegende Holländer overture bars 331-338|
|Variation XIII Mendelssohn quotation at Rehearsal 56|
These D major phrases appear in bars 330-331 and 334-335, three and seven bars respectively after Rehearsal L. That particular letter presents a tantalizing coincidence as Elgar identified the earliest draft of Variation XIII with an initial L. In the overture, Senta’s theme occurs seven times in three different keys—three times in F major, twice in G major, and twice in D major. Elgar also presents his Mendelssohn fragments in three different keys: A-flat major, F minor, and E-flat major. The sequentially corresponding note letters and melodic intervals between Mendelssohn’s theme (bars 189-190) and Wagner’s theme (bars 69-70) are also shared by Elgar’s F minor Mendelssohn fragment (Rehearsal 58). Wagner and Elgar cite the same melodic fragment by Mendelssohn in one of their symphonic works with the caveat that Wagner kept his secret while Elgar openly acknowledged his source.
Wagner became highly critical of Mendelssohn in later life, yet he still played songs at the piano for his children from A Midsummer Nights Dream. Although their music and artistic philosophies were worlds apart, Mendelssohn and Wagner are united by their practice of quoting Ein feste Burg in their symphonic oeuvre. Both composers were greatly admired by Elgar, a Roman Catholic who could only indulge in this rite of the German School through covert means. However, this did not deter him from inserting fragments of that famous hymn within the Enigma Theme and Variation X. The title of that famous hymn comes from the first verse of Psalm 46, a chapter that goes on to mention the sea in verses two and three.
It has been shown there is a conspicuous resemblance between the opening phrases of subordinate themes from Mendelssohn’s Meeresstille under Glückliche Fahrt (bar 185-186) and Wagner’s Der fliegende Höllander (bar 65-66). Both phrases begin on the third degree of their respective modes, the sequence of melodic intervals are identical, and their rhythmic structures are equivalent given the dissimilar time signatures of 4/4 and 6/4. Extending the comparison of these themes beyond the opening four notes unmasks a series of sequentially matching note letters, albeit in differing modes, that bolsters the conclusion that Wagner was indeed imitating elements of Mendelssohn's original maritime melody. More remarkable still is that Elgar's truncated Mendelssohn fragment cited in Variation XIII matches Wagner's D major version exactly (bars 330-31 and 334-35) with its fourth note truncated to a dotted quarter. These parallels between Elgar's and Wagner's versions of Mendelssohn's original theme implies that Elgar recognized Wagner's hijacking of Mendelssohn's theme.
The Mendelssohn fragments are like a small thread that, when tugged, unravels a vast net of intersecting musical cryptograms and counterpoints. Far from being irrelevant, the Mendelssohn fragments conceal a rich cache of cryptograms that disclose and authenticate the covert melodic Theme and the secret friend memorialized in Variation XIII. These diverse ciphers encode a highly specific set of mutually reinforcing solutions, an outcome that precludes the possibility of an ex post facto contrivance. Elgar’s expertise as a cryptographer makes these discoveries unsurprising except for those who naively insist there are no cryptograms to discover. That does not change the fact that Elgar’s passion for this esoteric art form remains a towering feature of his psychological profile. To learn more about the secrets of the Enigma Variations, read my free eBook Elgar’s Enigmas Exposed.