Felix Mendelssohn

mendelssohnHas anybody realized that Mendelssohn is the most popular composer in America? Why, no marriage takes place, without him, or at least not without his famous Wedding March. Its theme is synonymous with nuptial benediction “for better for worse!” In the “movies,” in Vaudeville a few notes from that composition brings better than any other suggestion a complete picture of the hymeneal altar before your eyes. Mendelssohn has married more couples than all the priests in the world taken together!

Emerson in his Compensations says that for what is given to us in exuberance on one side something else is taken away from the other – quid pro quo – give and take. We find this theory strikingly illustrated in Mendelssohn’s career. Wealth, the most favorable opportunities, contentment and happiness were granted to him in the most lavish measure. His existence was almost entirely free from care and sacrifice. But just the absence of struggle and sorrow deprived his creations of that depth of feeling, of that dramatic intensity, of that note of tragedy which can only be expressed by those who have suffered, and which alone in the work of art stirs the innermost recesses of the listener and makes him weep, tremble, pulsate in sympathy with the composer.

Mendelssohn might have become a second Bach or Beethoven had he had enough suffering to fecundate his genius.

See the life of other famous musicians – see poor Schubert not being able to buy music paper to write down his inspirations and being compelled to teach reading and writing to the children of the poor for his daily bread; see poor Chopin who died in Paris “without a grave – un-knell’d, uncoffin’d and unknown!”

What a contrast to Mendelssohn, whose musical talents were carefully and systematically cultivated from early childhood, whose loving, tender parents continuously supervised his education, his development, and supplied his every want.

A Remarkable Family

Felix first saw the light in Hamburg the 3rd of February, 1809. His father, Abraham Mendelssohn, grandson of Moses Mendelssohn, the eminent philosopher, was a well-known banker in that city. Felix was the second of four children. Fanny, the oldest, then Felix, Paul and Rebecca. His mother Leah (born Salomon) had a most brilliant mind. The name Bartholdy was assumed by her brother, Consul-General Bartholdy, upon his conversion to the Christian faith. Felix’s father also assumed this name. When the French entered Hamburg in 1811 the entire Mendelsohn family escaped to Berlin, where the bank founded by the father is still in existence. Abraham M. was a devout Israelite, but he permitted his children to be baptized in 1821 and educated them strictly in the Christian religion. The greatest understanding of Art and Music prevailed in his house. The education of the four children was entrusted to distinguished private teachers, Professor Heyse, the father of the poet Paul Heyse, giving lessons in general science; Berger in piano playing; Henning in violin; Zelter in theory, and Rosal in painting.

All four children showed decided talent for music. Fanny became an accomplished pianist; Rebecca sang, and Paul played the violoncello. Soon, however, the exceptional gifts of Felix attracted general attention and although the prudent father consulted Cherubino in Paris, 1825, as to the future career of Felix the choice of his vocation had at that time already been made. The unlimited wealth of his father made it possible to engage a small orchestra composed of excellent players with whom Felix could rehearse his instrumental compositions.

This Happened Every Sunday

What a privilege to a young composer! As a matter of fact one of the greatest stumbling blocks of young (and old) composers is the lack of opportunity to hear their compositions rehearsed and performed. Eminent singers were engaged to produce the vocal compositions of young Mendelssohn. Among these was Eduard Devrient with whom Felix soon was bound in warm friendship.

The strong desire for knowledge which was the predominant characteristic of his nature prompted Felix to seek his friends – not among young men of his own age, but mostly among much older ones, such as Marx the musical aesthetic; Rietz the composer, and Moscheles the pianist. Two men especially had a distinct effect upon him and upon his works, Weber whose dignified and gently personality and genial music impressed Mendelssohn deeply, and Goethe the great poet to whom he was introduced by Zelter. Between the then old man and the young musician there sprang up a sincere and loving friendship. Felix visited his illustrious friend for several weeks at a time, and hour by hour he played to him while the old man listened enraptured to his music. Other famous guests at the Mendelssohn house were the two philosophers Hegel and Humboldt; Heine the master of satire, and Bettina Brentano immortalized by the friendship of Geothe and Beethoven. Thus Mendelssohn grew up encircled by the foremost representatives of the intellectual life of his country.

According to his biographies Felix was one of the most charming of beings. At eighteen he had the grace, the courtesty and the brilliancy of a cultivated man of the world. He loved outdoor life, rode horseback, was fond of swimming and indeed had a special passion for water as shown in three of his concert overtures; Fingal’s Cave, Meerestille and Die Schone Melusine, Medelssohn declared once; “I think I love the sea better than the sky.” He was also a skillful billiard player, danced exquisitely and everywhere he was admired and imitated.

An Expert Contrapuntist

Under the thorough training of Zelter, Felix became an expert contrapuntist and to write a fugue in the severe classical style was for him mere child’s play. At seventeen he was already at the summit of his creative power and wrote then his immortal overture of Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream. When scarcely twenty years old he had composed his octet, three quartets for piano and strings, two sonatas, two symphonies, his first string quartets, various contatas and a great number of “Lieder” and ballads.

The eleventh of March, 1829, he directed Bach’s Passion Music in Berlin Singakademie in spite of the opposition of Zelter, who did not like his chorus to sing under another conductor than himself. This work ws given for the first time since Bach’s death. Felix said that it was strange that the people had waited for one who was born a Jew to revive this grand Christian work. The success was so overwhelming that the 21st of March the work had to be repeated under Mendelssohn’s direction.

At this point Fanny’s engagement to Hensel the painter was announced, and Felix felt deeply grieved at the coming separation from his beloved sister, to whom he had been so affectionately attached. Never surely did brother and sister understand each other more perfectly than these two. To relieve his mind Felix went to London where he conducted all his most important works. The English people were especially delighted with his Midsummer Night’s Dream. As he planned to start for home he was thrown out of a carriage and for two months he was obliged to lie still.

In Italy

The next autumn Mendelssohn went to Italy. The wonders of Venice and the sunny spell of the Bay of Naples inspired him with new thoughts and he wrote or finished there many of his best compositions including the Italian Symphony, the Scotch Symphony, the Hebriden and the Walpurgisnacht, a setting of Goethe’s famous poem.

In 1827 Mendelssohn tried his luck as an opera composer and wrote the Marriage of Camacho, which was performed at the Royal Theatre in Berlin. The house was crowded with benevolent friends and the applause was lively, but it was more a succes d’ estime. Mendelssohn himself was not deceived by appearances and went home before the end of the opera. He never afterwards ventured again on the operatic field. His sound judgment helped him to recognize the limits of his genius.

His Songs Without Words, written 1828, brought him such immense popularity that in 1830, when he was 21 years old, a professorship at the Berlin University was offered to him. He declined the honor, however, and recommended for this position his friend Marx, whose livelihood was in that way provided for.

The wish of his friends to have him appointed as a conductor ofthe famous Berlin “sindakedemie” was not ignored, though the place was given to Rungenhagen, an assistant of Zelter. Mendelssohn was, later, fully compensated by his nomination as director of the Gewandhaus concerts in Leipzig, an event which resulted in Leipsic becoming soon the musical center of Germany.

The death of his father in 1835 matured Mendelssohn’s decision to marry. Cecile Heanrenaud, daughter of a pastor in Frankfort, a beauty of the most delicate type, then seventeen years old, won his heart, but when Felix became fully aware of his passion he did not hasten to declare himself, as other more impulsive lovers would have done, but he left Frankfort in order to submit the state of his affections to a cool, unprejudiced scrutiny. He went to Scheveningen, Holland, where he spent a month passing judgment on his own heart. This exceptional self-control would alone suffice to explain the absence of impetuous dramatic outbursts in his music. Cecile was first distressed at the apparent coolness, but Mendelssohn was only acting after the wise Italian proverb, “Chi va piano va sano, chi va forte va alla morte” (He who goes quietly goes safely; he who goes swiftly goes to death.) In a letter to his mother he writes: “I would gladly send Holland, sea baths, bathing machines, Kursaal and visitors to the end of the world just to be back in Frankfort. When I have seen this charming girl again, I hope the suspense soon will be over and I shall know whether we are to be anything – or, rather, everything – to each other or not.” In September his suspense was over, and his engagement to Cecile was formally announced. Subsequently, his marriage took place in her father’s former church. The amiability and beauty of his bride made a universally favorable impression. It was some time after the wedding before Mendelssohn’s sister Fanny saw Cecile for the first time, and when, at last, she did meet her, this fond sister of Felix, who naturally would be most critical, was warmly enthusiastic over her.

Mendelssohn’s Tribute to Bach

After his marriage, Mendelssohn resolved to commemorate in a worth manner the one of his predecessors to whom he most resembled in the severity of his studies. Johan Sebastian Bach, the great cantor of the Thomas School at Leipsic, ought to have a monument in the city in which he had labored so long. Mendelssohn undertook to erect such a monument out of his own means, and he resolved in addition to make the rising generation of musicians more familiar with the works of the immortal master. He gave a number of concerts whose proceeds were devoted to the statue of Bach and at which only Bach’s works were produced. The first was given at St. Thomas’ Church. It was an organ concert. Mendelssohn performed the fugue in E flat, the fantasia on the choral, Adorn Thyself, the prelude and fugue in A minor, the Passacaglia in C minor, with it’s twenty variations, and he closed with a free fantasia on the choral, O, Sacred Head Now Wounded.

After the concert Mendelssohn went to England to direct the great festival at Birmingham, where his Hymn of Praise was given. On this occasion he was invited by the Queen to visit her at her palace. Queen Victoria, who, as well as her husband, was a great friend of art, and herself a distinguished musician, received Mendelssohn in her own sitting room, Prince Albert being the only one present besides herself. When he entered she asked his pardon for the somewhat disorderly appearance of the apartment, and began to rearrange the articles with her own hand, in which Mendelssohn gallantly offered his assistance. Some parrots, whose cages hung in the room, she herself carried into the next apartment, in which task of elimination Mendelssohn helped her also. Queen Victoria then requested the guest to play something. Afterwards she sang some songs of his which she had sung at a court concert. She was not wholly satisfied with her own performance, however, and said modestly to Mendelssohn, “I can do better – ask Lablache if I cannot – but I am afraid of you!”

How the Conservatory Began

In the year 1842 Mendelssohn wrote to Moscheles; “Now or never must a conservatorium come into being in Leipsic.” In order to procure the necessary funds Mendelssohn applied directly to the King of Saxony, who had the control of a large sum of money left at the decease of a wealthy Leipsic citizen, Blummer by name. The king granted the money, and in 1843 the Leipsic conservatory was inaugurated. Mendelssohn himself assumed the instruction of composition, as Schumann unfortunately had to retire in 1844. Mendelssohn assigned the theory classes to Hauptmann and Richter, violin to David, and organ to Becker. Piano playing was first in the hands of Mendelssohn and Plaidy. In 1846 Mescheles was added as leader of the piano department, and in a short time the conservatory acquired a world of fame.

The death of his favorite sister Fanny, in the year 1846, was a tremendous blow to Mendelssohn. He never recovered from it. Neither Felix nor Fanny could live long without the other, they had often said. He went to Berlin and saw Fanny’s rooms just as she had left them. He grieved and brooded over his loss, and he exclaimed: “A great chapter is ended, and neither title nor beginning of the next is written.”

The last days of August, 1847, Mendelssohn was in Switzerland, before his return to Leipsic, and was taking a walk with a friend on the “Hohenbuhl,” commanding the lake of Thun. While he was climbing up to this nook the tinkling of cowbells came up from some pasture land not far off. Mendelssohn stopped immediately, listened, smiled, and began to sing the pastorale theme from the overture of Guillaume Tell. “How beautifully Rossini has found that!” he exclaimed. “All the rest of the introduction, too, is truly Swiss. I wish I could make some Swiss music.” He spoke with true admiration of Rossini and Donizetti’s Fille du Regiment. “It is so merry, with so much of the real soldier’s life in it.” Shortly after his return to Leipsic the third of November, he was attacked by an apoplectic stroke. He became unconscious and never revived again. He died on the fourth of November, 1847. the frief over the loss of the beloved composer was boundless. It seemed as if a general gloom had fallen on the whole city. Large placards, announcing his death, were posted upon the walls and an imposing funeral took place on the seventh of November in St. Paul’s Church. The red pall was borne by his friends, Robert Schumann, David, Jade, Hauptmann, Rietz and Moscheles.

A noble feature in Mendelssohn was his treatment of other artists, particularly those whose gifts differed widely from his own. Liszt was heartily welcomed by him at his first appearance in Leipsic in 1840. Another instance of Mendelssohn’s magnanimity occurred in 1843, when Hector Berlioz came from Weimar, to Leipsic. Berlioz knew that his won musical ideas diverged fundamentally from those of Mendelssohn, and he feared that his reception by the latter would be rather cool. He wrote to Mendelssohn, and his answer was as follows: “Everything I can do to make your stay in Leipsic agreeable to you I shall make it equally my duty and my pleasure to do. I can assure you that you will be happy here and be satisfied with the artists and the public. I shall rejoice to give you my hand and to bid you welcome to Germany.”

Mendelssohn as a Pianist

A contemporary thus describes his skill as a virtuoso: “The characteristic features on Mendelssohn’s playing were a very elastic touch, a wonderful trill, elegance, roundness, firmness, perfect articulation, strength and tenderness at call in its needed place.” His chief excellence lay, as Goethe said, in his giving every piece from the Bach epoch down its own distinctive character, and yet, with all his loyalty to the old masters, he knew just how to conceal their obsolete forms by adding new modern graces of his own. Especially beautiful was his playing of Beethoven’s compositions, and the adagios most of all, which he rendered with unspeakable tenderness and depth of feeling.

Two monuments were erected to him, the one on the terrace of Crystal Palace in London and the other in Leipsic before the Concert Auditorium.

Sir Julius benedict in his sketch on Mendelssohn writes: “In society, apart from musical subjects, nothing could be more entertaining or animated than Mendelssohn’s conversation on literary topics. The works of Shakespeare and other eminent British poets were quite as familiar to him as those of his own country, and although this accent was slightly tinctured by his German origin, he spoke as well as wrote the English language with great facility and purity. He drew from nature and painted also very well and indeed might be said to possess every social accomplishment. It would be a matter of difficulty to decide in what quality Mendelssohn excelled the most, whether as a composer, organist or conductor of an orchestra. Nobody certainly ever knew better how to communicate – as if by an electric fluid – his own conception of a work to a large body of performers.”

When Felix began to become celebrated, Abraham Mendelssohn, his father, was wont to say with his own dry humor: “Formerly I was merely the son of my father, now I am merely the father of my son.”

Once while conducting a rehearsal of Beethoven’s Eighth Symphony, the allegretto in B flat not going at first to Mendelssohn’s liking he remarked with good humored sarcasm, that he knew every one of the gentlemen engaged was capable of performing and even of composing a scherzo of his own;’ but that just now he preferred to hear Beethoven’s, which he thought really had some merits. It was cheerfully repeated. “Beautiful! charming!” cried Mendelssohn, “but still too loud in two or three instances. Let us take it again from the middle.” “No, No!” chorused the band; “the whole piece over again for our own satisfaction!” and then they played it with the utmost delicacy and finish. Mendelssohn laying aside his baton and listening with evident delight to the more perfect execution. “What would I have given,” he exclaimed, “if Beethoven could have heard his own composition so well understood and so magnificently performed!”

After the first performance of his Midsummer Night’s Dream in London, the score was left in a hackney coach and thus lost. Mr. Atwood, who had it in charge was in despair, but Mendelssohn did not mind it in the least and wrote it all over again promptly.

How much he was beloved by the public is evident from the fact that at the Gewandhaus concert which followed his engagement with Cecile the directors placed on the programme He Who a Lovely Wife Has Won from Fidelis and when the number was reached and Felix raised his baton the audience burst into a deafening applause, which continued a long time. It was their congratulations to their idol.

Ungentlemanly Modulations

Once when an English student had harmonized a theme for his correction, Mendelssohn observed in a surprised and disgusted tone: “Very ungentlemanly modulations!” From a man of refined manners like Mendelssohn this was a stern rebuke.

Once as he was passing by an old church Felix entered and incognito asked to try the organ. The aged sexton, a surly person with a sense of vast responsibility, refused. But Mendelssohn insisted on playing a few chords. Whereupon the wondering old man gasped in awe-struck and repentant tones, “And I would not let you play on my organ!”

To a young musician he wrote: “I have only one wish, that you may bring to light what exists within you in your nature and feelings, which none save yourself can know or possess. In your works go deep into your inmost being, and let them near a distinct stamp; let criticism and intellect rule as much as you please in all outward questions of form, but in all inner and original thought the heart alone and genuine feeling. So work daily, hourly and unremittingly – there you never can attain entire mastery or perfection – no man every did – and therefore it is the greatest vocation in life.”

Lessons From Mendelssohn’s Life

Resuming, we find in Mendelssohn’s career the following salient points:

  1. The great opportunities offered to him by the unlimited wealth of his parents, especially the eminent teachers in all branches of      knowledge, to whom his education was entrusted.
  2. The intimate association with the most prominent men of his time and the preference he gave in choosing his friends to older, more experienced men, from whom he could gain enlightenment and inspiration.
  3. His insatiable longing for knowledge and his indefatigable study of the classics, especially Bach and Beethoven.
  4. His exceptional culture and his refined manner, which made him a welcome and desired guest in the highest social circles.
  5. The integrity of his character and the high moral standard he followed all his life, partly a result of the liberal and careful education given him by his parents.