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On the Mendelssohn Marcia funebre

Recent­ly, through the gen­eros­i­ty of the staff at the Pruss­ian Nation­al Library in Berlin, I received a copy of the auto­graph score of this beau­ti­ful orig­i­nal band com­po­si­tion by Mendelssohn. The very first thing one notices is that the auto­graph score has a dif­fer­ent name, Mar­cia fune­bre, a title we asso­ciate with an Ital­ian tra­di­tion, of which Ponchiel­li is a notable exam­ple, in which the music offers a memo­r­i­al con­tem­pla­tion of some­one but was not, in such cas­es, ever intend­ed to be used as func­tion­al music in a funer­al pro­ces­sion. On the oth­er hand, the Ger­man title, Trauer­marsch, as for exam­ple found in the famil­iar com­po­si­tion by Wag­n­er, was in fact actu­al­ly per­formed in a funer­al cer­e­mo­ny. While this is per­haps a minor point, the fact remains that there is noth­ing about this Mendelssohn com­po­si­tion that sounds func­tion­al, much less for the street.

The sec­ond quite strik­ing fact one notices in look­ing at the auto­graph score of the Mar­cia fune­bre is that the cal­lig­ra­phy, Mendelssohn’s hand­writ­ing, is that of a very ear­ly peri­od, c. 1824–1827, and bears lit­tle or no resem­blance with his cal­lig­ra­phy in the auto­graph scores of 1836, the year which has always been asso­ci­at­ed with this com­po­si­tion. If any read­er wish­es, he can com­pare online the auto­graph scores of the Octet (1825) and the Over­ture to the Mid­sum­mer Night’s Dream (1826) and see very sim­i­lar cal­lig­ra­phy with that of the Mar­cia fune­bre.

In this regard, it might be help­ful if we had the orig­i­nal auto­graph score of his Not­turno for eleven winds which he com­posed in 1824 for one of the best aris­to­crat­ic Har­moniemusik ensem­bles in Ger­many, sup­port­ed by the Grand Duke Friedrich Franz I of Meck­len­burg-Schw­erin, for I am con­fi­dent the cal­lig­ra­phy would be con­sis­tent with the present band work, the Mar­cia fune­bre and the oth­er man­u­scripts from this peri­od, such as the two men­tioned above. But Mendelssohn said this 1824 Not­turno score was lost. In 1826 he appar­ent­ly decid­ed to make a new score (from what?) and then he lost this one. Next came the score now in the Staats­bib­lio­thek zu Berlin Preussis­ch­er Kul­turbe­sitz, Musik­abteilung, Mendelssohn Archiv, SB N 96. But it too is a copy, as is evi­dent in the fact that the bar lines were drawn first before the notes added and in the per­fect align­ment of iden­ti­cal rhythms in dif­fer­ent parts. His intent here, clear­ly, was to make a “pre­sen­ta­tion score,” some­times called a “fair copy,” to send to his pub­lish­er. The fact that it has some last minute changes, with things crossed out, only con­firms this score is a copy of some­thing ear­li­er. But a copy of what? My guess is that he lat­er found the 1826 score after all and used that to make this new copy. The fact that he copied at the end of this score the date, June 1826, only sug­gests that he want­ed to indi­cate the date the com­po­si­tion rep­re­sent­ed, to make it clear it was an ear­ly work and not con­tem­po­rary with the present date, which this lat­er cal­lig­ra­phy might oth­er­wise sug­gest. With this score he now drops the old title and the com­po­si­tion now becomes Andante–Allegro. As it turned out, the pub­lish­er instead had it arranged for large mil­i­tary band and the employ­ee who scored this ver­sion appears to be none oth­er than Fer­di­nand Schu­bert, broth­er to the great com­pos­er, Franz Schu­bert.

Return­ing to my ques­tions about the auto­graph score of the Mar­cia fune­bre, the third thing which strikes me is the fact that miss­ing on the auto­graph score is any date or ded­i­ca­tion, much less the “For the Funer­al of Nor­bert Burgmüller,” which to my knowl­edge first appears some thir­ty-three years lat­er as an inscrip­tion beneath the title in the first impor­tant pub­lished col­lec­tion of Mendelssohn’s music of 1868 by Bre­itkopf & Här­tel. This series of pub­li­ca­tions were, “over­seen by Julius Rietz,” (1812–1877), an ear­ly col­league of Mendelssohn.

Who is this man whose death on 7 May 1836 has become asso­ci­at­ed with this Mendelssohn com­po­si­tion for band? Nor­bert Burgmüller (1811–1836) came from a musi­cal fam­i­ly and stud­ied com­po­si­tion with Spohr. While a mem­ber of the court estab­lish­ment in Kas­sel he fell in love with the sopra­no, Sophia Roland, whose ear­ly death sent Burgmüller into a deep cri­sis, lead­ing to alco­holism, rejec­tion by Spohr and the appear­ance of epilep­tic seizures. He now moved to Düs­sel­dorf where Mendelssohn, as the court con­duc­tor, per­formed some of Bergmüller’s music. Burgmüller drowned in 1836 at a spa in Aachen, a fact of some note as he was respect­ed as a young com­pos­er.

There is no ques­tion that Mendelssohn, Burgmüller and Rietz were well-known to each oth­er in 1835 in Düs­sel­dorf; three young men with Burgmüller aged 25, Rietz, 23 and Mendelssohn, 26. Rietz, at age 22, had been appoint­ed as an assis­tant con­duc­tor to Mendelssohn at the Düs­sel­dorf Opera and suc­ceed­ed Mendelssohn in 1835 when Mendelssohn left Düs­sel­dorf to take the posi­tion in Leipzig as The­ater Kapellmeis­ter and Con­duc­tor of the Sin­gakademie. In fact, Reitz also suc­ceed­ed Mendelssohn in Leipzig as con­duc­tor of the Gewand­haus Con­certs.

Although Mendelssohn had moved to Leipzig in 1835, it is very like­ly that he was back in Düs­sel­dorf at the time of the death of Burgmüller, on 6 May 1836, for the prepa­ra­tions were at that very moment under­way there for the pre­miere is his Ora­to­rio, St. Paul, but if he had the ear­li­er man­u­script with him he could have had some­one make a clean copy to give to the fam­i­ly. If that were the case, most like­ly it would have been Rietz who made the new copy. One might well bet that if such an unknown man­u­script of the Mar­cia fune­bre were to turn up, it would be in the hand of Rietz. Still, this seems a bit unlike­ly to me, for I think it would be very doubt­ful that Mendelssohn would have been trav­el­ing with his ear­ly man­u­scripts. And fur­ther, the score of St. Paul, which lit­er­al­ly begins with a quo­ta­tion of the famous “Sleeper’s Awake” chorale from Bach’s Can­ta­ta Nr. 140, is filled with chorale-like music. There is much in the score that Mendelssohn had in hand which could have quick­ly been reworked into a brief ele­gy, or a funer­al march, for Burgmüller. But, such pos­si­bil­i­ties would only explain the exis­tence of a hypo­thet­i­cal 1836 copy, which is at the present time unknown.

The ques­tion regard­ing why and when Mendelssohn wrote the orig­i­nal ear­ly man­u­script remains unan­swered. If Mendelssohn had decid­ed to write a memo­r­i­al com­po­si­tion in his mem­o­ry, would he not have includ­ed an inscrip­tion to that effect? But we do not see, “In the mem­o­ry of my friend …,” nor even Mendelssohn’s name, on the auto­graph score. If this auto­graph score were actu­al­ly writ­ten ear­li­er, in the peri­od of 1824–1827, as we sus­pect, then Rietz as a 13-year-old would not even know the music. If Rietz, in 1868, going through the pile of man­u­scripts laid before him by Bre­itkopf & Här­tel for use in his role as edi­tor, came across an unknown auto­graph score with no date or inscrip­tion per­haps he might have recalled the days in Düs­sel­dorf 33 years ear­li­er and sim­ply assumed the com­po­si­tion had been writ­ten for Burgmüller and then took the lib­er­ty of adding this com­ment under the title in the first edi­tion. And we might also won­der why Rietz took it upon him­self to change Mendelssohn’s title from Mar­cia fune­bre to Trauer­marsch, cer­tain­ly a very rare step for an edi­tor.

Oth­er than this com­ment which Rietz added in 1868, I know of no oth­er con­tem­po­rary asso­ci­a­tion between this Mar­cia fune­bre and the funer­al of Burgmüller. But even if some new ref­er­ence were to appear, per­haps a let­ter which is new­ly dis­cov­ered, which con­firms that Mendelssohn in fact wrote a com­po­si­tion for the funer­al of Burgmüller, it would still not explain how such a com­po­si­tion could pos­si­bly be the same one as this auto­graph score in the hand of a much younger and much less expe­ri­enced com­pos­er.

Soon after the pub­li­ca­tion of the new­ly named Trauer­musik in the edi­tion by Rietz in 1868, oth­er edi­tions appeared. It is inter­est­ing that the first Eng­lish edi­tion, pub­lished by Nov­el­lo [Plate 3966] in approx­i­mate­ly 1870, was for organ under the title Funer­al March/Composed in the Year 1836, but with no ref­er­ence to the funer­al of Burgmüller what­so­ev­er.3

The first Ger­man edi­tion, in Leipzig and Win­terthur by the pub­lish­er J. Rieter-Bie­der­mann [Plate 554] with no date, but assumed to be short­ly after 1868, is also very inter­est­ing. This was not a pub­li­ca­tion of the Mendelssohn auto­graph score at all, but rather an arrange­ment for large orches­tra with addi­tion­al ver­sions for Har­moniemusik, and for both two- and four-hand piano. Here the title page reads Trauer-Marsch and also has no ref­er­ence to the Burgmüller funer­al. A note to this effect does appear on the bot­tom of the first page of the score, in a foot­note of very small print.

Final­ly, all things con­sid­ered, even if we acknowl­edge the long asso­ci­a­tion between Mendelssohn and Rietz, it might be won­dered if the exper­tise of Rietz extend­ed to being such an author­i­ty on the hand­writ­ing of Mendelssohn’s dif­fer­ent peri­ods that he could dis­tin­guish between that of 1827 and that of 1836. Even if the assump­tion which Rietz made that this Mar­cia fune­bre were com­posed in ear­ly 1836 were accu­rate, we will always won­der if it would not have been more like­ly that such a memo­r­i­al com­po­si­tion might have been in mem­o­ry of Mendelssohn’s own father who died a few months before Burgmüller, in Novem­ber 1835.

And in the end, for me it is the very hand­writ­ing of the Mar­cia fune­bre which makes the date of 1836 impos­si­ble to believe. Judg­ing by oth­er auto­graphs of Mendelssohn, it is the peri­od 1824–1827 which appears to me to have cal­lig­ra­phy sim­i­lar to the Mar­cia fune­bre. So, if this work were actu­al­ly com­posed in this ear­li­er peri­od, what did Mendelssohn have in mind?

Giv­en an ear­ly memo­r­i­al com­po­si­tion with no date or inscrip­tion, it is near­ly impos­si­ble to know for whom it was intend­ed. The com­po­si­tion may well have been com­posed for an acquain­tance whose name has long dis­ap­peared dur­ing the sub­se­quent near­ly 200 years. Nev­er­the­less, I have been giv­ing some thought to peo­ple and events dur­ing the peri­od of 1824–1827 which might have impressed the young Mendelssohn and I offer the read­er two direc­tions for con­tem­pla­tion.

A Marcia funebre written after some great event

In 1819 there was a sig­nif­i­cant riot against the Jews in Ger­many, one which spread to Den­mark, Latvia and Bohemia. But giv­en Mendelssohn’s then age of only ten, and his father’s efforts to “Chris­tian­ize” the fam­i­ly, prob­a­bly make this a weak can­di­date for his Mar­cia fune­bre.

With the fail­ure of the Ottoman Empire to cap­ture Vien­na in 1683, a fas­ci­na­tion with every­thing Turk­ish took hold of the imag­i­na­tion of West­ern Europe for some time. Mendelssohn no doubt knew of exam­ples of Turk­ish music which had found its way into Mozart’s opera, The Abduc­tion of the Seraglio, his Ron­do alla Tur­ca in his Sonata, K. 331 of 18875 and even into Beethoven’s Ninth Sym­pho­ny, and Mendelssohn him­self intro­duced Janis­sary music into his First Walpur­gis­night music. In a let­ter to his for­mer teacher, Moscheles, on the birth of a son, Mendelssohn draws a car­toon of Janis­sary instru­ments and writes,

He must have a cradle’s song with drums and Trum­pets and Janis­sary music; fid­dles alone are not near­ly enough.7

While we have no knowl­edge of the time it took for news of events to become known around Europe, per­haps young Mendelssohn was moved by a deci­sion by the Ottoman Turks to elim­i­nate the old Janis­sary army. An 1822 rebel­lion on the island of Chios con­clud­ed with the slaugh­ter of five-sixths of the pop­u­la­tion of 120,000 inhab­i­tants, a scene cap­tured in the 1824 paint­ing by Delacroix, The Mas­sacre of Chios.

An insur­rec­tion by the Janis­sary army in May 1826 result­ed in 4,000 of their num­ber mas­sa­cred in a sin­gle night, fol­lowed by 25,000 more in the fol­low­ing days. For a young com­pos­er, such alarm­ing news might have occa­sioned him to write a Mar­cia fune­bre.

A Marcia funebre written after the death of some great man

When Mendelssohn was twelve years of age there occurred the death of Napoleon at age 52 and of the poet, John Keats, at age 26. But it is in the peri­od we have focused on, 1824–1827, that our atten­tion is drawn to the demise of three great com­posers: Salieri (1825), von Weber (1826) and Beethoven (1827). The music of these com­posers would have been well-known to Mendelssohn, for his father was able and will­ing to sup­ply him with the impor­tant scores he was inter­est­ed in. His gen­er­al ear­ly inter­est in the works of ear­li­er com­posers is cer­tain­ly doc­u­ment­ed in his 1829 revival of the St. Matthew Pas­sion by Bach. If in com­pos­ing his Mar­cia fune­bre Mendelssohn were think­ing of one of these ear­ly com­posers who died in the 1820s we are inclined to think it was Beethoven, whose name, then as now, tow­ered over all his con­tem­po­raries.

Mendelssohn’s knowl­edge of and inter­est in Beethoven’s music is gen­er­al­ly acknowl­edged in some of his own ear­ly com­po­si­tions, as is point­ed out by Josce­lyn God­win:

(Mendelssohn) is sel­dom cred­it­ed with a spir­it of adven­ture. Yet in his bril­liant youth he wrote works which are aston­ish­ing for this very qual­i­ty, as well as for the fact that they show an appre­ci­a­tion and emu­la­tion of cer­tain fea­tures of Beethoven’s lat­er works that must be unique for their time. All the impor­tant writ­ers on Mendelssohn have felt oblig­ed to com­ment, at least briefly, on this.8

She points to the piano Sonata in E Major, op. 6, the Fan­tasies for piano in F-sharp minor, op. 28, and E major, op. 15, togeth­er with the string Quar­tet in A major, op. 13 of 1827. Anoth­er writer agrees with this list and adds the Quar­tet, op. 12.9

God­win adds that “By the time of the ear­li­est of these was writ­ten, Mendelssohn was prob­a­bly acquaint­ed with all the impor­tant music of his time.”

Beethoven’s funer­al pro­ces­sion through the streets of Vien­na on 29 March 1827 attract­ed wide com­men­tary due not only to the man’s rep­u­ta­tion but also to the aston­ish­ing fact that some 10,000 peo­ple fol­lowed his bier. Engrav­ings of this pro­ces­sion were made and pub­lished, togeth­er with exten­sive com­men­tary iden­ti­fy­ing the lead­ing musi­cians, poets and politi­cians of the city and church who par­tic­i­pat­ed.

The music per­formed on this occa­sion was also dis­cussed and some of it soon pub­lished in both Vien­na and in Lon­don. A con­tem­po­rary pub­lish­er, Haslinger, was par­tic­u­lar­ly moved by the per­for­mance of a trom­bone ensem­ble per­form­ing Equali which the Kapellmeis­ter of the Cathe­dral in Linz had request­ed of Beethoven in the Fall of 1812. This man­u­script had become a pos­ses­sion of Haslinger, who turned to Beethoven’s friend and fel­low com­pos­er, Ignaz von Seyfried, to add the sacred text “Mis­erere” to the first of the Equali for the trom­bones for use in the funer­al. Haslinger, writ­ing in the third per­son, gives his rec­ol­lec­tion of this in his per­son­al account of the day.

These valu­able man­u­scripts after­wards came into the pos­ses­sion of Mr. Haslinger, who, on the 16th of March, 1827, when the fatal ter­mi­na­tion of BEETHOVEN’S ill­ness seemed inevitable, took the above Man­u­scripts to Mr. Seyfried and request­ed that Gen­tle­man would arrange some of the words of the Psalm “Mis­erere,” to the Equale in order that the mor­tal remains of this “Prince of Musi­cians,” might be accom­pa­nied to their last rest­ing place, amidst the plain­tive and solemn har­monies of his own sub­lime com­po­si­tions. Mr. Seyfried read­i­ly acced­ed to Mr. Hasingler’s request: he set about his mourn­ful task imme­di­ate­ly and the Mis­erere was fin­ished on the very Evening pre­ced­ing that on which BEETHOVEN died.

As men­tioned above, this trom­bone Equali with text for TTBB male cho­rus was wide­ly dis­sem­i­nat­ed. One can imag­ine that many lovers of music sat at their own key­boards play­ing these works and remem­ber­ing the great man. Per­haps one of whom was Mendelssohn and per­haps his own Mar­cia fune­bre fol­lowed. While his Mar­cia fune­bre and the first of the Equali are quite dif­fer­ent musi­cal­ly, it did strike this read­er that both of them begin with ascend­ing dia­ton­ic motivs, some­thing which must be rare in music for so solemn an occa­sion.

Per­haps the best answer for whom this music was intend­ed lies in the nature of music itself. We must remem­ber that “music” is a verb, and not a noun. There is no music on this ancient man­u­script, only sym­bol­ic data. “Music” refers only to that which is being per­formed in the present tense before an audi­ence. There­fore, it was for us that Mendelssohn wrote this beau­ti­ful com­po­si­tion, to per­form and enjoy.

Notes on this Edition

Mendelssohn’s orig­i­nal instru­men­ta­tion for the Mar­cia fune­bre was,

Grosse Flute
2 Clar­inets in F
2 Clar­inets in C
2 Bas­set horns
2 Bas­soons
2 Horns in E
2 Horns in C
2 Trum­pets in C
3 Trom­bones
[a lat­er hand, not Mendelssohn’s, adds “& Basshorn”]

In this edi­tion, as we some­times do for the stu­dents’ intro­duc­tion to mas­ter com­posers, we have added sax­o­phone parts. If one wished to approx­i­mate the orig­i­nal sound, the omis­sion of the sax­o­phone parts and the sub­sti­tu­tion of a con­tra­bas­soon for the tuba part would accom­plish this.

The only sig­nif­i­cant change in Mendelssohn’s artic­u­la­tions in the orig­i­nal man­u­script has been my sub­sti­tu­tion of the mod­ern wedge-accent for the orig­i­nal sforzan­do sign. The com­mon mod­ern wedge-accent was at this date not in gen­er­al use and the sfz sign was the more com­mon means of indi­cat­ing a melod­ic accent. How­ev­er, after the very point­ed use by Stravin­sky and the fol­low­ing 20th cen­tu­ry, I find mod­ern con­duc­tors and play­ers tend to pro­duce a much stronger impact than Mendelssohn would have imag­ined.

David Whitwell

  1. Sieg­wart Reich­wald in []
  2. The doc­u­men­ta­tion of the life and work of Mendelssohn has for a very long time been incom­plete, in part due to prej­u­dice of an anti-Semit­ic nature. Still today unknown scores are com­ing for­ward from pri­vate hands and hun­dreds of pre­vi­ous­ly unknown let­ters are only today being stud­ied and pub­lished. []
  3. In a box at the top of the organ part one sees: Com­posed for a Mil­i­tary Band (Flute, Oboe (2), Clar­inet (4), Bas­sett-Horn (2), Bas­soon (2), French Horn (4), Trum­pet (2), Trom­bone (3), Con­trafagot­to and Bass Tuba). []
  4. A bag of beans left on the field out­side the walls of Vien­na led to the cof­fee craze in West­ern Europe. []
  5. Alfred Dolge, in Pianos and Their Mak­ers: A Com­pre­hen­sive His­to­ry of Devel­op­ment of the Piano (New York: Dover), 35, writes,
    “The Janis­sary ped­al, one of the best known of the ear­ly ped­al devices, added all kinds of rat­tling nois­es to the nor­mal piano per­for­mance. It could cause a drum­stick to strike the under­side of the sound­board, ring bells, shake a rat­tle and even cre­ate the effect of a cym­bal crash by hit­ting sev­er­al bass strings with a strip of brass foil.” []
  6. Let us not for­get Lud­wig Spohr’s (1784–1859) orig­i­nal Not­turno in C Major for Wind Instru­ments and Turk­ish Band. []
  7. Let­ters of Felix Mendelssohn to Ignaz and Char­lotte Moscheles, 1888, p. 54. []
  8. Josce­lyn God­win, “Ear­ly Mendelssohn and Lat­er Beethoven,” Music and Let­ters 55, no. 3 (July 1974): pp. 272–285, []
  9. []
  10. Seyfried was the com­pos­er of an extra­or­di­nary group of five com­po­si­tions for dou­ble Har­moniemusik, per­formed in 1805 before the emper­or as Napoleon was approach­ing the gates of Vien­na. []