On 18 October, 2008, the conductor Kurt Masur stepped up to a microphone in the German city of Leipzig, where he had served as music director of the Gewandhaus orchestra for a quarter of a century. To one side stood the Thomaskirche, the church where JS Bach spent most of his career. To the other rose an imposing new statue of Felix Mendelssohn – another former music director of the Gewandhaus – which Masur had come to talk about.
Mendelssohn’s 200th birthday was approaching, and the statue was a joyful harbinger of that. But to the casual onlooker it might have seemed a curiously dated piece of sculpture – atop the granite plinth, Mendelssohn sported a toga from classical antiquity, while at his feet sat Euterpe, Greek muse of music, and a pair of winged cherubs, playing a violin and flute. Hardly a cutting-edge, 21st-century interpretation.
That was, however, because the ‘new’ Mendelssohn monument was an exact copy of one originally built by Werner Stein in 1892 to commemorate the composer’s contribution to the city. The original had been ripped down unceremoniously in 1936, when the ugly anti-Semitism of Hitler’s Germany was on the rise.
The main villain of the piece was Rudolph Haake, a senior Leipzig city official who had the original statue of Mendelssohn removed by a gang of Nazi sympathisers on the night of 9-10 November – two years exactly before the notorious pogroms of Kristallnacht, when Jewish homes and businesses were attacked throughout Germany. Haake’s reason for targeting the statue was chillingly simple. ‘Mendelssohn was a Jew,’ he wrote, ‘and as such cannot be displayed as a representative of a German city of music.’ Putting a statue of Wagner up would be better, apparently – he, Haake believed, was ‘a rabid anti-Semite’.
Leipzig’s mayor Carl Friedrich Goerdeler was on a trip to Finland at the time, and tried to have the statue reinstated on his return. But it was no use. It had been spirited away and was never recovered. Coincidentally, Goerdeler had earlier given permission for the London Philharmonic, on tour in Germany at the time, to lay a wreath in Mendelssohn’s honour at the monument. A delegation from the orchestra inspected the site on 9 November, but when they and conductor Sir Thomas Beecham returned with the wreath a day later, the statue was no longer in position. The Gewandhaus concert hall, where it was located, was itself later destroyed in the Allied bombing raids of 1943-44, and was not replaced until 1981.
The new Gewandhaus was on a different site, so the replacement statue was put in a more central location, next to Bach’s former stamping ground – Mendelssohn adored Bach’s music, and his performances of the St Matthew Passion played a key part in rehabilitating Bach for 19th-century audiences.
So when maestro Kurt Masur spoke on that October day in 2008 at the new Mendelssohn monument, it was a moment ripe in historical significance. Masur had laid the foundation stone for the new Gewandhaus in 1977, and had also been instrumental in the statue project. Also at the dedication were a great-grandson of Mendelssohn himself and a grandson of Mayor Goerdeler, who tried in vain to find where the original statue had been taken. The choir of the Thomaskirche sang music by Mendelssohn, and on the newly unveiled statue itself a short inscription bore eloquent witness: ‘Edles nur künde die Sprache der Töne’ (‘May the language of music speak only of noble things’).
You can find out more about Felix Mendelssohn and his works here