Mendelssohn, the Nazis and Me

Uncovering the story of Mendelssohn's complex religious identity made sense of her own childhood, says Sheila Hayman, the composer's great great great great-niece. She tells us what it was like to film the tale
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Growing up in a London suburb, I never thought much about my relationship with Felix Mendelssohn. I always felt a bit weird but I put that down to having a father with a strong German accent and eccentric table manners.

Had I been related to Mick Jagger the connection might at least have offered some playground cred to offset the weirdness. As it was, he was just another old dead composer.

I heard the first hint of this film’s story on a rare visit to my German grandmother, after meeting my Great Aunt Lotte, clearly a woman to be handled with care.

‘She saved our mother from the Nazis,’ remarked my grandmother, ‘she argued with their lawyers for seven years.’

Anybody who could argue for that long clearly deserved respect. So that took root, but nothing blossomed until I went to my first family gathering in 2003 and came down to a breakfast with 150 strangers, who all turned out to be my cousins.

There I discovered the whole story of Lotte’s battle, but also heard about Moses Mendelssohn and the turmoil he caused by building a bridge between the Jews and the Christians in the late 18th century. My dad’s voyages among the world’s religions (Jew, Lutheran, Anglican, Quaker, Muslim and now lapsed Catholic by marriage) turned out to be almost a family tradition. When I read about Felix’s own struggles to reconcile his own religious loyalties – born a Jew, he held strong Christian beliefs – it became a story I wanted to tell.

The nature of the film was largely determined by the constraints of the commission: very little time and even less money. So it had to be small-scale and informal. Nor did I want to make the usual music film, where you get a bit of story, then it crashes to a halt while you watch flashing trumpets and sawing bows.

I had found a story in the music itself and that was how I wanted to tell it – in the words and also performances of the musicians – who gamely agreed to play alongside their interviews – and the historians who understood it best.

So we set off, Tom the camera and I, on a journey to make this happen, and we were incredibly lucky in having a subject everybody seemed to love. Musicians flew their accompanists in at their own expense, everybody waived their fees and everybody gave generously of their time, skill and passion to make the film a success.

Of course, there are downsides to working at this speed. Not breakneck – thankfully – but break-nose (on a Paris street after recording Elijah) and break-thumb (on a patch of ice, while recceing a location during the big freeze earlier this year). So for the rest of my life whenever I look in the mirror, or attempt a tricky bowing on my violin, I shall remember Mendelssohn, the Nazis, and where they led.

Mendelssohn, the Nazis and Me is being broadcast on Friday 26 June on BBC Four, 8-9pm.

Image: Sheila Hayman

Related links:
Broadcast highlights
Daring Mendelssohn from Andrew Litton
Who was music's greatest prodigy?
Robert Tear on Mendelssohn's Symphony No. 2