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Mendelssohn’s Messiah

January 3rd, 2011

The youngest daughter of Queen Victoria unknowingly initiated a tradition at her wedding in 1858, one that many a bride continues to carry on today.  If asked what that tradition might be, they would be hard-pressed to give an answer or to explain what is behind this longstanding tradition.

Surprisingly, we must give credit to a young seventeen year old German Jewish man born on February 3, 1809.  Jakob Ludwig Felix Mendelssohn wrote the overture music for the Shakespeare play, A Midsummer Night’s Dream as well as incidental music which included the famous and majestic Wedding March often chosen by brides for their recessional.

Felix was one of four children born into the affluent family of Leah and Abraham Mendelssohn.  His grandfather was Moses Mendelssohn, an 18th century Jewish philosopher and one of the early founders of Reformed Judaism. Felix’s parents recognized their son’s extraordinary genius in music, and their wealth privileged him to travel and to benefit from the instruction of the world’s finest music trainers of his day.

Felix was a brilliant composer, making his first public appearance in Berlin at age nine.  By his teenage years he had composed eleven symphonies and five operas. Some say that Mendelssohn was the greatest composer, pianist, conductor and teacher of his time.  Among his admirers and recipients of his performances were Queen Victoria and Prince Albert of England.

His accomplishments are both numerous and remarkable.  A fine example was his resurrection of Sebastian Bach’s St. Matthew Passion.  He conducted the masterpiece in Berlin in 1829, the first time it had been performed since Bach’s death in 1750.

One might conclude that Mendelssohn’s works (which include symphonies, piano concerti, chamber music, oratorios, songs and organ pieces) must have consumed his entire life. But just as the bride admires the Wedding March with little understanding of its background, so it is with many who admire Mendelssohn’s music but have little understanding of his background.

The early 1800’s was a time in Germany when the Jewish populace was slowly  gaining freedom from the shtetl, those Eastern European villages that had confined them for centuries and denied them assimilation into everyday society. Mendelssohn’s father was a banker who converted to Christianity in the Lutheran church and made sure that all four of his children were baptized into the faith.

Some argue that Abraham made this decision because he felt that Judaism had become an antiquated form of religion and a hindrance to the family’s integration into German culture and society.  Be that as it may, in the volumes written about the life of his son, one is left to conclude that Felix Mendelssohn genuinely and unreservedly embraced Christianity during his lifetime.

The importance of the Bible is evident in his life and was the inspiration for several of his great works. Among his repertoire of music, Felix wrote St. Paul’s Oratorio with great compassion.  He dedicated himself to making sure, as was his practice, that not a word or passage of Scripture was compromised.  Perhaps his adoration for the apostle Paul was a kinship he felt originating from his own Jewish roots.  His oratorio of Elijah written in 1846 is considered by some to be the best of all his compositions; Mendelssohn compiled it himself from Old Testament texts.

In 1837 Felix married Cecile Jeanrenaud, a clergyman’s daughter. The couple had five children, and their marriage was described as a supremely happy one – perhaps to the credit of Cecile who was known to be a woman of prayer.

Much has been documented regarding Mendelssohn’s strong Christian belief.  It is recorded that he took his faith in Christ seriously and never hesitated to speak of it verbally. Nor was he ever ashamed of his Jewish roots. 

Tragically, he died of a stroke on November 4, 1847, at the age of 38. Perhaps he died from overwork or, as others deem, from a broken heart over the death of his sister Fanny six months earlier. Fanny was his equal in music and often partnered and performed with her brother. His funeral was attended by a great host of his admirers and a six-hundred voice choir sang, Christ and the Resurrection. A large cross stands today in Trinity Cemetery in Berlin marking the composer’s earthly resting place awaiting the coming of Jesus (Yeshua), Mendelssohn’s Messiah.

Contributed by Marilyn Duguid, Secretary/Treasurer on the Board of Directors of New Covenant Forum.

Posted in Jewish Identity, Jews and Christianity, Marilyn Duguid, Personal Stories, This, That, The Other Thing | No Comments »

The Genius Artist From Vitebsk

April 20th, 2010

The art world of Marc Chagall is unique. Just as most people would immediately recognize the paintings of Norman Rockwell, the paintings of Marc Chagall are also distinct and recognizable once you acquaint yourself with them. His many works abound in Jewish symbolism, Biblical stories, and his beloved childhood town of Vitebsk in Belarus. Chagall painted fanciful visions depicting floating, dream-like images as well as sinuous figures of people and animals that are most times out of proportion in size. A goat or a fish may appear much larger than a man. His inexhaustible palette of vibrant and rich colours are his trademark and his distinct and whimsical images have set him apart as one of the world’s greatest Jewish artists.

Marc Chagall was born in 1887, eldest of nine children into the home of a poor Hasidic family. Chagall told his mother that he wanted to be a painter but she could never comprehend why he would set his heart on such an impractical vocation. Nonetheless, in 1906 at age sixteen, Chagall began to study at the art school of Yehuda Pen in his hometown. A year later he left for St. Petersburg to further his studies under various known artists, eventually going to Paris in 1910. He returned to Vitebsk in 1914 to marry his fiancé, Bella Rosenfed. World War I broke out while he was home and Chagall became a participant in the Russian Revolution of 1917.

Bella and Marc moved to Paris in 1923 where he later became a French citizen. The Nazi occupation of France during World War II led Chagall and his wife to flee Paris. American journalist, Varian Fry assisted their escape from France through Spain and Portugal and in 1941 they settled in the United States. Unfortunately, his beloved Bella died in 1944. Chagall returned to Paris where he began to work in ceramics, sculptures and stained glass windows. The synagogue of the Hebrew University Hadassah Medical Centre in Jerusalem boasts one of Chagall’s greatest achievements, twelve stained-glass windows each depicting one of the tribes of Jacob.

Perhaps the most remarkable painting Chagall ever painted was in 1938 entitled ‘White Crucifixion’, the first of his many paintings of the crucifixion. For 1900 years no well-known Jewish artist dared to paint the figure of Jesus on the cross and yet Chagall did; he painted Jesus as a suffering Jewish Saviour. Amid much symbolism of Jewish persecution, the painting portrays Jesus nailed to the cross with a lighted menorah at his feet. His loins are covered with a Jewish prayer shawl and over his head written in Hebrew, ‘Jesus of Nazareth King of the Jews’.

Chagall painted yet another picture that has been declared by some to be the most unusual self-portrait in the history of art, ‘Self-Portrait with a Clock’. Chagall has painted himself standing with brushes and palette in front of a picture of the crucifixion which he has just painted. His demeanor in the picture is melancholy as he contemplates the cross while his head is bowed over a sad-eyed donkey. A clock rests above Chagall’s head and interestingly, the time is set at three o’clock and above the head of Jesus is a rooster. Why a rooster? One can only speculate but perhaps there is an answer to the question. A custom that has been observed for centuries by Eastern European Jews is called kapparah from the Hebrew root ‘to cover.’ It is a traditional right that is supposed to be atoning as a substitute for the temple sacrifice. The male of the household takes a rooster on Yom Kippur and swinging it over his head three times will declare: ‘This is my substitute, my atonement, it shall meet death but I shall find long life’ and then the rooster is slaughtered.

Was Chagall bowing to his kapparah? We will never know but this we do know, Marc Chagall painted a Jewish Jesus for the world to see, and he painted him as a suffering Savior. Chagall died in 1985 at the age of 97 leaving behind his legacy and art works worldwide. Today a museum sits at 29 Pokrovskaia Street in his home town of Vitebsk, a tribute to ‘the genius artist of Viebsk.’

Contributed by Marilyn Duguid, Secretary/Treasurer on the Board of Directors of New Covenant Forum.

Posted in A Gentile perspective, Atonement, Marilyn Duguid, Personal Stories | No Comments »

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