Mendelssohn’s Epoch Making Visit to Goethe

mendelssohnIt is difficult for one to appreciate at this date what a great influence the name of Goethe had upon any impressionable young person in the early part of the last century. Goethe was far more than a mere poet. He was an educator, a philosopher, a scientist, and a man of affairs, whom the wisest of his time were glad to consult. In 1821, when Mendelssohn was twelve years old, he was taken to visit Goethe at Weimar. Mendelssohn’s teacher, Zelter, brought about this visit, and the boy remained in the home of the famous poet for sixteen days.

Goethe has been the inspiration of more musical works than almost any other German author. Notwithstanding this he was not especially musical himself. Mendelssohn, however, was such a fascinating child that the old master was enchanted with him. Even at that early age the boy was an astonishingly fine correspondent, and in his letters he gives very engaging glimpses of the seventy-three year old man who took such interest in his new acquaintance. Following are some quotations from these boyish letters:

“He is very kind, but I do not think any of his portraits like him. He then went through his interesting collection of fossils arranged by his son, and said ‘Hmmm, Hmmm, I am quite satisfied’. After that I walked in the garden with him. He does not look like a man of seventy-three – rather of fifty. Every morning I have a kiss from the author of Faust and Werther, and every afternoon two kisses from the father and friend, Goethe. Think of that! In the afternoon I played to Goethe for about two hours, partly fugues of Bach and partly improvisations. Every afternoon Goethe opens his instrument with the words, ‘I have not heard you today – now make a little noise for me’. He generally sits down by my side, and when I am done (mostly extemporizing) I ask for a kiss or take one. You cannot fancy how good and kind he is to me, no more can you form an idea of the treasures in mineral, busts, prints, statues and large original drawings, which he possesses. It does not strike me that his figure is imposing. He is not much taller than father; but his look, his language, his name – they are imposing. The amount of sound in his voice is wonderful; he can shout like ten thousand warriors. His hair is not yet white, his step firm, his way of speaking mild”.

Mendelssohn visited Goethe again in 1822 in company with his father and his sister Fanny. At this time Goethe said to the boy, “I am Saul and you are my David; when I am sad and dreary come to me and cheer me with your music”. He asked him to play a fugue by Bach, but the little fellow could only remember the melody of the subject. Nothing daunted he sat down and improvised a fugue from the same subject, much to the delight of Goethe.

In 1825 the Mendelssohn children paid another visit to the aged poet, who received them with great delight. The influence of Goethe upon Mendelssohn was most beneficial. His words of advice were eagerly sought and earnestly followed. It was then that Mendelssohn played his B minor pianoforte quartet, which delighted Goethe so much that Mendelssohn dedicated it to him. Goethe in return wrote the somewhat platitudinous verses which he dedicated to Mendelssohn. These run in a more or less trite translation:

If Talent reigns with Wisdom great
Virtue is never out of date;
He who can give us pleasure true
Need never fear what time can do;
And will you, Talent, your approval give?
Then give it us who make her newly live.”