“Please me, honey, squeeze me to that Mendelssohn strain” The Multimedia Metamorphoses of Felix Mendelssohn’s “Spring Song,” Op. 62 no. 6
29 August 2018
Felix Mendelssohn’s so-called “Spring Song,” Op. 62 no. 6 is one of the most instantly evocative – and allegedly trivial – nineteenth-century piano pieces. From its twice encored premiere in 1843 (given by Mendelssohn himself as a birthday present for his colleague Clara Schumann) the work has gradually become a musical signature of the composer – inspiring many copies, arrangements, and even derangements.
A profusion of nineteenth-century editions printed the much-beloved work in unaltered format (except for the occasional addition of a text of greater or lesser sentimentality), but twentieth-century adaptations became looser – almost surreally so. Among numerous arrangements are those for mandolin orchestra, ukulele, and Big Band, besides the inevitable “simplified” version for piano solo. Textual additions became less and less stylistically congruent with the music (“It’s Spring, it’s Spring, and love has made me king.”), but it was not until American composer and lyricist Irving Berlin’s (inaccurate) quotation of the two initial measures in his “Mendelssohn Rag” of 1909 that the song finally became reduced to the emblematic function of this opening. It appears as a musical inscription (above wispy clouds) on a 1984 Mendelssohn postage stamp, on a postcard, in which the composer’s musings on the “Spring Song” take tangible (if predictable) shape as a group of scantily clad fairies – and even in Hitchcock’s Rear Window.
This paper documents the price of Mendelssohn’s fame and ongoing popularity through the often distorted iconography of the “Spring Song.” It will be argued that the work’s twentieth century adaptation history and resulting metamorphoses fundamentally, and harmfully, reinforced the popular image of Mendelssohn as an approachable, elegant, but effete and ultimately second-rate composer.