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            Midsummer and autumn found Mendelssohn commuting between Leipzig and Berlin, where, as Royal Generalmusikdirektor for Ecclesiastical and Sacred Music, he was reluctantly fulfilling the demands of Prussia’s King Friedrich Wilhelm IV. Among his many projects for the King was a collaboration with the Romantic poet and Dramaturg Ludwig Tieck on a production of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. For Mendelssohn, this project involved revisiting his famous overture, composed half his lifetime earlier at age 17, and elaborating it with incidental music for the play that he had known since his earliest youth.

Shakespeare’s play held a particular significance for the entire Mendelssohn family, whose daily affections were rooted in the intimate entanglement of art, literature and music. Upon hearing her brother’s new score, Fanny Mendelssohn recalled

how we had all at different ages gone through the whole of the parts from Peas-blossom to Hermia and Helena, “and now it had come to such a glorious ending.” But we really were brought up on the “Midsummer-night’s Dream,” and Felix especially had made it his own, almost recreating the characters which had sprung from Shakespeare’s inexhaustible genius. From the wedding-march, so full of pomp but so thoroughly festive in its character, to the plaintive music at Thisbe’s death, the fairy songs, the dances, the interludes, the characters, including such creatures as the clowns — all and everything has found its counterpart in music, and his work is on a par with Shakespeare’s.

For Tieck, too, this production was the culmination of a lifetime’s passionate preoccupation with Shakespeare’s work. Tieck had studied Shakespeare and Elizabethan drama at Göttingen’s Georgia Augusta University. A prominent member of the Jena circle of German Romantic writers, he had been closely associated with August Wilhelm Schlegel, [1] whose translation of seventeen of Shakespeare’s plays became an instant German classic upon their publication (it was Schlegel’s translation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream that inspired the Mendelssohn family’s preoccupation with the play). Tieck had edited Schlegel for publication, and his gifted daughter Dorothea, together with Count Baudissin, had completed the series of translations under Tieck’s supervision.

Tieck lived in the Saxon capital of Dresden from 1819 until 1841, when Friedrich Wilhelm IV called him to Berlin as the Royal Vorleser (“reader”). In Dresden, he had been famous for his dramatic readings of classic literature, including, primarily, works by Shakespeare, Sophocles, Euripides and Aristophanes. Memoirs of his contemporaries give vivid descriptions of these readings. Anna Jameson’s is typical:

His voice is rich and capable of great variety of modulation. I observed that the humorous declamatory passages were rather better than the pathetic and tender passages: he was quite at home among the elves and clowns in the ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream,’ of which he gave the fantastic and comic parts with indescribable humor and effect. As to the translation I could only judge of its marvellous fidelity, which enabled me to follow him word for word; but the Germans themselves are equally enchanted by its vigour and elegance and poetical colouring. [i]

The Royal Saxon physician, Carl Gustav Carus also described Tieck’s readings, in a way that captures the values and aesthetics common to the educated classes of Saxony and Prussia in those times, and that closely mirrors the reception that Joachim would later receive for his violin playing.

There were three things in particular that distinguished this reading: first the individuality of the reader; the rich experience, the broad erudition, the fine Attic education [Bildung], the sonorous, deeply inward-sounding organ of speech, and his own high gift as a poet. These attributes explain why, when he performed a poet’s works, we found it so easy to enter into the thoughts of the poet himself, and in so doing often forgot the reader, and were able all the better to penetrate the powerful idea of the work he was performing. — Secondly, a certain Cultus that was adopted at these readings; a certain solemnity and devotion, that tolerated not the slightest interruption, and thereby made it possible to grasp a whole work truly as a whole, and not piecemeal. — Once the reading began, a tacit agreement prevailed among all, to abstain from even the slightest disturbance. Latecomers took their seats as quietly as possible; those who were called away — among whom (unfortunately!) this writer, on account of his profession, was often numbered — slipped away as unnoticeably as possible through the creaky doors; and no lengthy pauses (e.g. between the acts of the dramas) were tolerated. — […] Thirdly, the choice of works to be performed came into consideration. — Not that the choice always fell to the most exquisite, the greatest, the most brilliant; many light-hearted works were also numbered in the repertoire. But the empty philistine, the merely modern, the inherently inane was always absent. […]

In this sense, in particular, these readings by Tieck had an inspiring effect on many; if I were to express what they meant to me, I would have to say that they produced in me what every genuine reading should: namely, a deeper insight into my own breast — into the true art of living — and a freer outlook toward an infinite world. [ii]

Carus’s use of the term attische Bildung (“Attic education”) deserves elaboration in this context, since it was central to the mentality of pre-March Prussian and Saxon society — an article of faith within the Mendelssohn family — and a near religion among nineteenth-century emancipated Jews. It would, in time, come to define the mature Joachim’s concept of art.

The German language represents the English “education” variously as Erziehung, Ausbildung or Bildung. Each carries a different connotation: Erziehung means something like “upbringing;” Ausbildung “training.” Bildung is perhaps best rendered as “edification.” Bildung derives from Bild, an image or picture, a likeness or representation. To the early German mystics like Meister Eckhart (ca. 1260-ca.1327), it was literally the construction of the human spiritual edifice, the purposeful trans-formation of the personality in the image, or Bild, of God. From the beginning, then, Bildung — edification — was conceived as a teleological, or end-driven, process, carried out in reference to a normative ideal.

Bildung attained a significantly different meaning in the early Romantic philosophy of Johann Gottfried von Herder (1744-1803). For Herder, Bildung had no telos — no end point, no Bild or archetype towards which it strives. Freed from the telos, Man becomes, in Nietzche’s memorable phrase, “ein aus sich rollendes Rad” — a wheel rolling out of its own center — a person who is literally evolving[2] Herder would have thought more organically: Bildung is the growth of the individual out of his own seed — the continuous process of becoming, of learning to fulfill the demands of each hour and age in a unique and personal way. It is not difficult to imagine what implications this conceptual innovation had for the development of Romantic art.

In later years, the concept of Bildung became secularized, and, in the wake of the Winckelmann-inspired Hellenic revival, took on a decidedly Attic cast. The nineteenth-century concept of Bildung has deep connections with the Athenian notion of Paideia: the process of educating man to his own ideal form, the Kalos Kagathos — the “beautiful and good.” As S. H. Butcher expressed it in 1904: “The Greek Paideia (παιδεία) in its full sense involves the union of intellectual and moral qualities. It is on the one hand mental illumination, an enlarged outlook on life; but it also implies a refinement and delicacy of feeling, a deepening of the sympathetic emotions, a scorn of what is self-seeking, ignoble, dishonourable — a scorn bred of loving familiarity with poets and philosophers, with all that is fortifying in thought or elevating in imagination.”[iii]

The spirit of noble Hellas permeates Schiller’s letters On the Aesthetic Education of Man (Über die ästhetische Erziehung des Menschen, 1794), written in response to the violent excesses of the French Revolution. The same spirit may be found in the works of Schiller’s friend, the great scholar-statesman Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767-1835), who, during the Napoleonic wars, undertook to remake the Prussian educational system as part of Heinrich Friedrich Karl, Freiherr vom und zum Stein’s liberal governmental reforms in the wake of the disastrous twin defeats at Jena and Auerstedt. Schiller and Humboldt believed that the freedoms and excellences achieved through education provide the ultimate justification of human existence, both individually and as a society. “The true end of Man,” wrote Humboldt, “[…] is the highest and most harmonious development of his powers to a complete and consistent whole. Freedom is the first and indispensable condition which the possibility of such a development presupposes […].” [iv]

Both Schiller and Humboldt occupied themselves with the social and political implications of personal freedom, affirming the prior claims of self-realization over those of the state, and preempting the conservative nationalistic arguments articulated by Fichte in his Addresses to the German Nation (Reden an die Deutsche Nation, 1808). “What does one demand of a nation, of an age, of an entire race of men, if one is to grant it one’s respect and admiration?” Humboldt asked in his Theory of the Education of Man (Theorie der Bildung des Menschen, 1793). “One demands that Bildung, Wisdom and Virtue should reign as widely and powerfully as possible among them…” In a time of war — in a time of defeat — that is what he set out to accomplish. In 1809, the year of Felix Mendelssohns’s birth, Stein appointed Humboldt to head the Department for Religion and Education of the Prussian Ministry of the Interior. Humboldt undertook a top-to-bottom restructuring of the educational system, according to the ideals of Bildung, and colored by the ideas of the great Swiss school and social reformer Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi (1746-1827). Humboldt’s vision was to create, through education, a kind of open-source nation, to which each free and self-realizing individual would inevitably make a unique and valuable contribution. His work established Germany’s still-extant system of humanistic gymnasia and trade schools, and culminated in the founding of Berlin University in 1810.

The Humboldtian notion of Bildung encompassed, roughly speaking, five aspects or ideals. First and foremost was the ideal of organic development: the growth of the individual personality out of its own potential or genius. Bildung is seen as a never-ending process whose aim is the creation of a unique, independent, self-realizing, capable and morally engaged individual. “The ultimate task of our existence is to give the fullest possible content to the concept of humanity in our own person,” Humboldt wrote. [v]

This process was understood to take place on a spiritual plane, in a realm detached from the world of occasional concerns. In this way, Bildung was held distinct from Ausbildung — edification from training. “The goal of studies,” Humboldt wrote, “does not lie in a superior competency in one’s field alone, but also in the formation of a personality which combines reliability with the desire to achieve…” The formation of such a personality was to be accomplished largely through the soft power of aesthetics. Humboldt considered goodness itself to be an aesthetic quality: “Supreme is the morally beautiful character, who through reverence for the holy and a deeply felt love of the purely good and true, is educated to a noble revulsion against everything unclean, indelicate and coarse.” [vi]

It was believed that an individual developed best through a preoccupation with great works and great questions — in Butcher’s words, a “loving familiarity with poets and philosophers, with all that is fortifying in thought or elevating in imagination.” This aspect of Bildung aligns with the contemporary theory of the sublime: i. e. the (distant) encounter between Man and an awe-inspiring, uncontrollable Nature, which, through disproportionality of size and strength, was believed to provoke a moral response from the beholder — in essence forcing him to “measure up,” to find within himself a quality of character comparable to the colossal forces that threaten to overcome him. Great works and great questions similarly force us to “measure up,” provoking radical, comprehensive responses, or awakening dormant capacities. [3]

A further aspect of Bildung, a novelty when compared with the older notion of the transformation of man in the image of God, is the idea of Selbstbildung: that Bildung should be a self-directed, self-fulfilling process. Bildung may be influenced by Erziehung, by upbringing, but its ultimate goal is the mature, self-realizing individual. Humboldt organized the Prussian educational system with this in mind, with general education preceding more specialized training, allowing ever-greater freedom of choice to each student as he matured. This notion of self-directedness is related to nineteenth-century Germany’s admiration for the quality of sincerity — an admiration that we also find in British thinkers like Thomas Carlyle, for whom sincerity was a prerequisite for growth, and for greatness. In this view, the sincere man is one who always strives for the true, the better. The sincere youth who struggles to achieve spiritual and moral maturity became the protagonist of the numerous Bildungsromane, the “novels of formation” of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, of which Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister is perhaps the most characteristic and best-known example.

A final, overriding aspect of Bildung is the belief that individual self-realization can take place only within a social context. In the end, the process of Bildung requires that each person be both willing and able to render critical judgment as a participant in the larger community. Since thinking and self-expression were seen to be one and inseparable, intellectual and moral growth were to be achieved largely through creative encounter with others, in an environment that required feelings and ideas to be clearly formulated, and, if necessary, challenged and revised. It was this last aspect of Bildung that informed the salon culture of nineteenth-century Leipzig, Weimar and Berlin; however, the social context was also understood to include the family, the Volk, the res publica, and, in an ever-widening circle, all of humanity. In this sense, Bildung was ultimately a social ideal as well as a strictly personal one: a gebildete society was thought to function like a healthy organism in which each constituent member is responsible for making a unique contribution to the whole, according to his or her fully-developed talents; society was thus imagined to be a sort of meta-individual, itself subject to a dialectical process of self-realization through history.

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[1] Schlegel’s sister-in-law, Dorothea (née Brendel Mendelssohn, 1764-1839), was Felix Mendelssohn’s aunt, and one of the leading literary women and salonnières of the German Enlightenment, as well as of the early Romantic movement.

[2] From the Latin evolvere, to unroll; the noun evolutio referred originally to the unrolling of a scroll in the process of reading or writing. In this sense of Bildung, each person could be thought of as gradually revealing the story of his own life, rather than moving toward the imitation of an externally determined ideal.

[3] “I once saw a bell that had been brought new out of the workshop. In order to be sure that its tone was exactly as ordered, an organ pipe was brought that gave just this pitch. As soon as the pure tone sounded from the pipe, the bell began, all on its own, without being touched, to resonate and ring. — No other tone would make it sound! — Thus it is with me, and likely with others! — Only that which is deeply related can powerfully stir its kin! —” [Carl Gustav Carus, quoted in Raumer/TASCHENBUCH, pp. 231-232.]

[i] Jameson/MEMOIRS, p. 68.

[ii] Raumer/TASCHENBUCH, pp. 205-208 passim.

[iii] Butcher/GREEK, p. 124.

[iv] Humboldt/LIMITS, p. 16.

[v] Theorie der Bildung des Menschen, Werke vol. I, p. 237

[vi] Wilhelm von Humboldt, Briefe an eine Freundin, Zweiter Theil, (5. Auflage), Leipzig: 1853, 61. Brief pp. 291f.