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 Mus.ms. 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,} on 22 May. One can assume that Mendelssohn was very busy with the final rehearsals of the oratorio, the climax of five years work,1 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,2 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 1683,4 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,6 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,10 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 http://stpaulinenglish.com/mendelssohn.html []
  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, http://www.jstor.org/stable/734224 []
  9. http://www.holdekunst.com/blog/mendelssohn-and-the-anxiety-of-influence.html []
  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. []

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