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Mendelssohn And Monotheism–“Necessary Stories” Column from The Jerusalem Report

May 27th, 2009by Haim Watzman · 2 Comments · Culture and Ideas, Judaism and Religion

Haim Watzman

mendelssohn-symphonies-abbadoHazily, I notice that the kid working on his biceps is staring at me, and I suddenly realize that my mouth is hanging open and that my eyes are gaping. He’s in the gym, but I’m having a revelation on the shore of the Red Sea, thanks to the son of a Jewish apostate. Felix Mendelssohn wrote his fourth symphony with Italy in mind, but here, on the stationary bike at the Jerusalem pool, I’ve discovered the truth. It’s not about Rome – it’s about Jerusalem.

Revelation seemed distant, even impossible when, just a few minutes ago, I slouched in here like the beast of the apocalypse. At the beginning of May, the elation of liberation from Egypt has long since dissipated. I’m back in my routine – hours in front of the computer, and the usual, unremitting worries about my money, my children, my country, and my planet. From the high roof of Pesah I’ve plunged into the deep pit of the monotonous count of the Omer. The wilderness has literally enveloped Jerusalem on this sweltering, gritty sharav day, the air full of minute dull yellow grains of sand blown up from the vast deserts to the south.

So I was out of sorts when I climbed on the exercise bike for a ride to nowhere. Before me was half an hour that loomed like an eternity to be spent spinning like Ixion on his wheel. No doubt this is how the Children of Israel felt three and a half weeks after the Exodus, trudging through the desert, dusty and thirsty. I am reminded of the midrash that asks why God didn’t give them the Torah immediately after they left Egypt. They were worthy of it, said R. Yitzhak, but they were grimy with mortar and brick-dust. How could they receive the word of God? So they walked and walked and walked and it all looked like the same dreary place.

I don’t have much music in my life. My mind has one narrow track; if I try to listen to music while working, or while other people are demanding my attention, I develop the neuroses of a rat in a psychology lab. I long ago tossed out my collection of LPs.

But it struck me that I don’t need to concentrate if I’m riding a bike that can’t crash into anything or get a flat tire. So I downloaded the contents of a CD I found in the house, a symphony I vaguely remember liking long ages ago. Claudio Abbado conducting the London Symphony Orchestra. Felix Mendelssohn’s Opus 90, A major, the Italian Symphony. I start pedaling at an easy pace. First movement: Allegro vivace.

The orchestra gallops off the opening theme, surging forward, holding back, surging again. Suddenly my feet are working like an electric generator on a hot summer day. The program notes say that the movement is “joyful.” But this is not joy. This is the swelling, gushing elation of someone who has just broken free after a long confinement. He runs a few steps, halts, looks down at his arms and legs in disbelief – he can make them go where he wants, do as he wishes. Mendelssohn may have been inspired by carousing Italian peasants, but I know what it’s really about. This is that moment on the sea’s eastern shore when Pharaoh’s army has been swept away and the entire camp of Israel suddenly turns its gaze away from Egypt. They look forward, into the vast, unbounded desert. For the first moment of their lives, they are neither enslaved nor in flight. Their time and their compass are their own.

The euphoria quickly gets tempered by trepidation and caution. The movement’s second theme is staccato; it takes five steps to the left and another five to the right. Instead of the bombast of the brasses we now have the wariness of the woodwinds. The wilderness starts to look a bit threatening, and when all is open before you, where do you go? The first theme resurges, the second reasserts itself, as excitement conquers trepidation and is overtaken again.

“You okay?” asks the kid with the biceps. He displays a filial concern; he seems uncertain as to whether I am in the midst of a stroke or a psychotic episode.

I remove an earphone. “It’s the music,” I say, pointing to the little silver box blasting the huge sound that he cannot hear. I notice that he’s got an iPod strapped to one of his pumped-up muscles.

“What’re you listening to?” I ask.

“For weightlifting,” he says, “I like heavy metal. What’ve you got? It must be good.”

“Mendelssohn,” I say.

“Is he metal?”

I fit the earphone back in place. “Yeah, metal,” I say. “Extreme.”

My legs slow to a moderate walk. I’ve missed the first few measures of the second movement, Andante con moto. I crave to return to the emotional high that had me biking in heaven, but now the desert lies bleak before me. Mendelssohn, they say, saw monks in procession, but I see a plodding multitude, the endless repetition of one foot following the other. It’s hot. I’m thirsty and hungry and wish I’d never come along. The second theme brings in the murmurers, the rumor-mongers charging that Moses is leading the people astray and that their lives are in jeopardy if they don’t turn back. My legs feel like lead; I can’t go on. I go on.

The third movement, Con moto moderato, throws me off at first. What the hell is a Viennese minuet doing in a Middle Eastern desert? Is Felix doing his imps and dwarfs act again, the stuff of his Midsummer Night’s Dream? But as the music progresses the mountain emerges from the mist before me and I realize that the endless desert has come to an end, or at least to a climax. The unchanging days have changed. Something is about to happen.

“You going to be done soon?” asks the muscle kid.

I look at the display. “I’ve got another five minutes and 44 seconds. Can you wait?”

“Sure, no problem.” He lingers a moment. “Is it the music or the words?”

“No words,” I grunt. I’m picking up speed. “Just music.”

Mendelssohn called his fourth movement a “Saltarello,” a riotous Italian folk dance that, by all descriptions, offered aerobic exercise that was a lot more fun than riding a bicycle that stays put. But if the first few boisterous measures promise a drunken whirl, the ensuing theme is a lot more ominous. I don’t see quaint country folk having a good time – I see Israelites cowering before a mountain enveloped in lightning and thunder, alternately hopeful and scared stiff. Something is in the air, but it’s not a storm –the divine presence, majestic and dreadful.

I expect the movement to end with the certainty and ecstasy of the transmission of the word of God to man, is hesitant and uncertain. Has the composer taken us to the verge and left us hanging? Or is it perhaps that, having received the Word of God, we’ve discovered that, instead of certainty, it requires us to slave to comprehend its multiple, always changing facets? The Torah is often compared to water, but perhaps it is really music – not only flowing and ever-changing, but also abstract? A cool breeze blows in through the open window. The sharav is breaking. I slowly lift myself from the bike. I’m excited, I’m overwhelmed, I’m stirred, and I’m puzzled. But the gloom I felt when I came in has dissipated.

It’s nonsense, I know. The last thing Mendelssohn had on his mind his Italian sojourn of 1831 was the Israelites in the desert and the revelation on the mountaintop. He never counted the Omer. Yet, oddly enough, these 50 days from Exodus to covenant, or from Easter to Pentecost, were the center of his trip. On March 29, the first day of Pesah, he wrote to his mother from Rome, telling her that he was about to set out from the civilized city into Italy’s wild south. On April 20, from Naples, he wrote to say that he had decided, reluctantly, to take his father’s advice and not proceed to Sicily. But, he regretted, “I should have liked to see a mountain vomiting forth flames.” And on May 17, Shavuot eve, he reflected: “If I have gathered experience, it cannot fail to influence me outwardly, and I shall allow no opportunity to escape to show that it has done so.”

He completed his Italian Symphony two years later and conducted its first performance in London on the evening of May 13, 1833 – the 25th of Iyar, the 40th day of the Omer. It was hugely popular, but Mendelssohn never really liked it; he said that it caused him some of the bitterest moments of his career. He revised it some years later, and planned, before his untimely death, to write completely new versions of the second, third, and fourth movements. Like the Torah, it was very much a work in progress.

But it doesn’t really matter whether he liked what he wrote, nor does it matter what he thought he wrote. A century and three-quarters later, the Italian Symphony took me from the Sea to Sinai.

Links to more Necessary Stories columns

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