In the first half of the nineteenth century, the British musical establishment regarded Felix Mendelssohn very highly; the composer's ten visits to Britain fostered close personal relationships with influential British musicians and critics. After his death in 1848 Mendelssohn's reputation remained positive in England, even as leading German musicians distanced themselves from his legacy. To England, Germans' rejection of the composer served to reinforce England's self-image as the arbiter of international taste while indicating that the Germans were no longer capable of recognizing genius.
Yet as the century progressed, the need for English-born composers grew more imperative. As Nicholas Temperley and others have observed, this campaign for native talent coincided with growing concern about Germany becoming a political and economic threat to British supremacy. Although recent scholarship has examined the way this anxiety plays out in the thriving musical press of the period, one less-examined aspect is the way in which this reevaluation of the nation's place within the larger scope of Western music affects the several volumes of music history books published during this period. Several British music enthusiasts struggled to balance their country's reputation for welcoming German musicians with new narratives that position England as an independent contributor to the musical heritage of Europe. In such narratives, Mendelssohn becomes a contested figure: Does he reinforce the idea of England as a sleeping musical giant by being a particularly perceptive foreign admirer, prophetically drawn to the country moments before its rebirth? Or is he the final symptom of a centuries-long bout of xenophilia that arrested England's musical development, a negative influence that composers had to eliminate before they could embrace their native identity?
This paper examines the treatment of Felix Mendelssohn in volumes of music histories penned by British authors in the second half of the nineteenth century. As these writers, ranging from a generation who knew the composer personally to those steeped in the ideology of the English Musical Renaissance, sort out their national identity in relation to more conspicuously musical countries, Mendelssohn's relationship to England changes dramatically. By tracing the multifarious presentations of Mendelssohn in music histories by George Hogarth, George Grove, William Smyth Rockstro, and others, this paper sheds light on how British music enthusiasts wanted the world to perceive musical life in England at a point when the nation's musical identity seemed most malleable.