Film-maker Sheila Hayman is Mendelssohn’s four-times great-niece, descended from his sister Fanny. In this touchingly personal documentary, she explores the way in which Mendelssohn’s music, its fate and his descendents have been tied up with his Jewish origins.Mendelssohn’s grandfather, Moses Mendelssohn, was the seminal figure of the Jewish Enlightenment in Germany: the first to exhort the Jewish and Gentile communities not to live in segregation, and to question the definition of Jewishness.
This had evident repercussions later: Hayman explores the bizarre lengths that the Nazis went to in order to determine who they would classify as Jewish, as well as the odious laws forbidding intermarriage. But Hayman’s own family was already intermarried – Fanny Mendelssohn’s husband was the son of a pastor. Hayman’s interviews with her own father and cousins recount an often astounding family saga infused with a sense of non-belonging.
Mendelssohn’s music was banned by the Nazis, despite its popularity, and forced with much of Europe’s Jewish population into the concentration camps – indeed, the Nazis’ propaganda film about Terezín begins with Mendelssohn. There Elijah assumed a whole new significance. Still, try as they might, the Nazis could not kill the music: Hayman follows its fall, and its rise from the ashes.
Invaluable contributions come from R Larry Todd, Daniel Hope and Steven Isserlis, who chronicles the enduring Chinese whispers of anti-Semitic bile – originated by Wagner – that declared Mendelssohn’s music lacking in depth. Moving, fascinating, unmissable. Jessica Duchen