instances can be found in history of a man so amply gifted with every
good quality of mind and heart; so carefully brought up amongst good
influences; endowed with every circumstance that would make him happy;
and so thoroughly fulfilling his mission. Never perhaps could any man
be found in whose life there were so few things to conceal and to regret.
-- Sir George Grove
It is a proverb
that names go by contraries. But proverbs are not always true. Mendelssohn’s
Christian name was Felix, and what Berlioz said of Mendelssohn’s
godson, Felix Moscheles, might truly be said of Mendelssohn himself:
"So long as thou art Felix, that is, happy, thou shalt reckon on
many friends." Mendelssohn stands as the type of the fortunate
composer: "rich, talented, courted, petted, loved, even adored."
His path was practically "roses, roses all the way." He never
knew the cares that beset the lives of Beethoven, Mozart, Schubert,
Wagner, and Schumann. The fires of adversity never touched him.
Whom the gods love
die young, it is said. That distinction Mendelssohn also enjoyed, and
it gives an additional glamour to his personality. He was one of the
most blameless characters in the whole history of music. His aunt declared
that during his whole career she failed to recall a word or deed that
could be criticised. Lampadius, one of his biographers, emphasizes this.
He says: "Living in loose capitals and surrounded by unprincipled
people, he was true to all moral obligations, and perfect in all the
relations of son, brother, lover, husband, and father. Surrounded by
intriguers, he stood above them all, and was frank, transparent, honourable,
noble; tempted by his sunny, enthusiastic, alert nature to do simply
bright and genial things in music, he was thorough, studious, earnest,
religious, and steadfastly consecrated to the highest and the best."
Such was Felix Mendelssohn, the composer of Elijah, the man who conceived
the "Songs without Words."
father used to say: "Formerly I was the son of my father: now I
am the father of my son." This meant that he was himself of no
account, whereas his father and his son were famous. And that was true.
For Mendelssohn’s grandfather was the once distinguished scholar
and philosopher, Moses Mendelssohn. Moses was a Jew, and suffered all
the disabilities which the Jew suffered at that time. He was small and
hump-backed, too. And he was very poor; so poor that at one time his
sole food was a weekly loaf, on which he carefully marked off his day’s
allowance, in case he should be tempted to forestall tomorrow’s
meal. But he had pluck and perseverance, and he rose to a high position.
Here is a story of him. He had applied for the post of Court chaplain,
and the Emperor told him that his success would depend upon the extempore
sermon he should preach from a text given him when he was in the pulpit.
At the critical moment Moses found that he had got a blank sheet of
paper, but he did not lose his presence of mind, and very soon warmed
up to an eloquent discourse on the creation of the world from nothing!
This, then, was
the composer’s grandfather. His father, Abraham Mendelssohn, was
a banker who had improved his already good position in Hamburg by marrying
a lady of property. The first fruit of the union was a daughter named
Fanny; the second was the future musician, Jakob Ludwig Felix, born
at Hamburg on the 3rd of February 1809. Shortly after his birth, Hamburg
fell into the hands of the French, and the family fled to Berlin, where
the banking business was continued. By this date Abraham Mendelssohn
had realised the practical inconveniences of being a Jew; so he decided
to bring up his family as Protestant Christians. At the same time he
added the name of his wife’s family, Bartholdy, to his own, desiring
to be known by that rather than by so obviously Jewish a name as Mendelssohn.
He tried to get his son to call himself Felix M. Bartholdy, that is,
to drop the Mendelssohn altogether. The son declined, but he compromised
by writing the full name, Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy. To-day no one
thinks of using the double-barrelled name. Mendelssohn does not belong
to Judaism, but to the world.
Felix and Fanny,
most loving of brothers and sisters, were both musical. They remind
one of Mozart and his sister. The mother was their first instructor,
and it is delightful to read of her sitting beside them while they practised,
and wondering at what she called their "Bach-fugue fingers."
Fanny at first showed gifts equal to her brother, and Meldelssohn used
to say that she played better than himself. But, like most girls, she
"went and got married," and music lost what might have been
a modestly rich inheritance. When the mother’s teaching limits
were reached, a couple of masters were called in, one for piano, another
for theory. The theory master was Zelter, who had been a pupil of Bach.
But so far, Mendelssohn, like his sister, was simply taking music as
one of the adjuncts of a liberal education. There was as yet no idea
of his making a profession of it. Abraham Mendelssohn only wanted to
clothe his children with the essentials of general culture, and music
had to be included.
In course of time,
however, the boy declared emphatically for music as a profession. The
father hesitated, though he had really been encouraging Felix all along,
especially with music-makings in the home, when the boy would conduct
the improvised orchestra. He would not rely on his own judgment, anyway.
He would take the boy to Paris, and consult Cherubini about him. This
was in 1825. "The lad is rich," said Cherubini; "he will
do well in music. I myself will talk to him, and then he will do well."
The "and then" is delectable, and just expresses the character
of Cherubini, whom Mendelssohn compared with an extinct volcano covered
with ashes and occasionally belching forth flames. However, it settled
the matter for Mendelssohn. Very soon the stream of composition was
running freely, and the young artist was working away at the profession
of his life. The first really notable work that came from his pen was
the overture to the Midsummer Night’s Dream, written when he was
only seventeen. For neatness of expression, freshness of invention,
management of form, and delicacy and finish of orchestration, Mendelssohn
never surpassed this early work. It took him the best part of a year
to write it, but surely it was a year well spent.
His life went on
somewhat uneventfully for years after this; and when 1829 came his parents
sent him off to England on the beginning of a "grand tour,"
which was to extend through most of the countries of Europe. Landing
in London, he had his Midsummer Night’s Dream overture performed,
and the effect was electrical. All at once, and when least expected,
the great gap left by the death of Beethoven seemed likely to be filled
up. The story is told that after the performance the full score of the
overture was left in a cab and entirely disappeared; but Mendelssohn
wrote it all out again from memory, and it was found to be almost perfectly
exact when compared with the separate orchestral parts.
a great affection for London. He called it "the grandest and the
most complicated monster on the face of the earth." He came to
it again and again, and was never tired of praising the "smoky
nest." Amid the glories of a Naples spring he could write that
"My heart swells when I even think of London.’ On this first
visit he lodged with a Mr. Heinke, a German ironmonger, at 103 (now
79) Great Portland Street. Mrs. Heinke made capital bread-and-butter
puddings, and Mendelssohn was so found of them that he asked her to
keep a reserve in the cupboard of his sitting-room, so that he might
help himself when he came in late at night. The cup supporting a pie-crust
was a novelty to him, and he was always much amused when it was lifted
and the juice bubbled out. He had the simple enjoyments of an overgrown
boy. An incident of this same visit may be told in his own words. He
says: "The other day we three walked home from a highly diplomatic
party, having had our fill of fashionable dishes, sayings, and doings.
We passed a very enticing sausage shop, in which ‘German Sausages,
two pence each,’ were laid out for show. Patriotism overcame us;
each bought a long sausage. We turned into where it was quieter, Portland
Street, and there consumed our purchases, Rosen and I being hardly able,
for laughing, to join in the three-part songs of which Mühlenfelds
would sing the bass." Mendelssohn had a rich appreciation of a
joke. One English story vastly amused him. It was this: At a country
funeral the parish clerk, or sexton, appeared in a red waistcoast. When
the clergyman remonstrated with him upon the unseemly colour, the clerk
replied: "Well, what does it matter, your reverence, so long as
the heart is black?"
two grand pianos in his rooms at the Heinke’s, and he was constantly
practising. Moreover, he practised on a dumb keyboard while sitting
up in bed. His public appearances were greeted with wild enthusiasm.
The best account of them is in his own letters, for he was a charming
letter-writer. "Old John Cramer led me to the piano like a young
lady," he says, "and I was received with immense applause."
At a morning concert he played Weber’s Concertstück, when
he was dressed in "very long white trousers, brown silk waistcoat,
black necktie, and blue dress coat." Of another concert he tells,
with consummate amusement, how a lady accidentally sat on a kettledrum.
The season closed,
and at the end of July he set off for Edinburgh. He wanted to see Scotland,
he said, because of the Waverley Novels, all of which he had read. For
companion he took with him his friend Carl Klingemann, then secretary
to the Hanoverian Embassy in London. He was enraptured with Edinburgh,
and the Highland soldiers marching from the church to the Castle specially
took his attention. He even got a Scots piper to play to him at his
hotel. He was in a mood to be pleased with everything and everybody.
"How kind the people are in Edinburgh, and how generous is the
good God!" he wrote home. "The Scotch ladies," he naively
observes, "deserve notice." The last evening of the visit
was devoted to Holyrood, "where Queen Mary lived and loved."
The chapel, he writes, "is now roofless; grass and ivy grow there";
and he adds: "I believe I found to-day, in that old chapel, the
beginning of my Scotch Symphony." The Scotch Symphony was indeed
a direct result of this visit, as was also the Hebrides overture.
was not satisfied with seeing Edinburgh. By way of Stirling and Perth,
he and Klingemann proceeded to the Highlands, with Highland weather
accompanying them till they reached Glasgow. Earth and sky, in Mendelssohn’s
phrase, were "wet through." At Bridge of Tummel they were
housed in an inn where they had "Scotch wooden shoes" for
slippers, "tea with honey and potato cakes," and -- whisky.
The little boys, "with their kilts and bare knees and gay-coloured
bonnets, the waiter in his tartan, old people with pigtails, all talk
helter-skelter in their unintelligible Gaelic." No wonder the travelers
thought they had "stumbled on a bit of culture" when they
struck Fort-William! Later on, at Tobermory, they found everything "perfectly
charming." Klingemann had somehow confounded the Hebrides with
the Hesperides, and was disappointed (so he says) to find the oranges
in the toddy instead of on the trees! But both Germans were getting
used to "good Scots drink." A visit to Staffa and Iona proved
that they were not getting used to Atlantic weather. Mendelssohn was
a bad sailor, and was most unromantically sea-sick. To make matters
worse, it rained all the time, until he exclaimed in despair that the
Highlands speared to brew nothing but whisky and bad weather. It was
a constant matter of dispute between him and Klingemann whether the
wet should be called rain or mist. There were no beds on the boat, and
the passengers lay about like herrings. Klingemann tells that when half
asleep he tried to drive away the flies from his face and found that
he was tearing at the grizzly locks of an old Highlander. Discomforts
of various kinds attended them till they got to Glasgow, but in spite
of it all, Mendelssohn hugely enjoyed himself. In one of his Glasgow
letters he says: "It is no wonder that the Highlands have been
called melancholy. But two fellows have wandered merrily about them,
laughed at every opportunity, rhymed and sketched together, growled
at one another and at the world when they happened to be vexed or did
not find anything to eat; devoured everything eatable when they did
find it, and slept twelve hours every night. These two were we, who
will not forget it as long as we live." Nor has the musical world
forgotten it, for if it had not been for that tour of 1829, we should
not, as already indicated, have had the Scotch Symphony and the Hebrides
The Scottish tour
was almost immediately followed by a tour in Italy. There were other
wanderings, including a visit to Paris, where, to use his to own expression,
Mendelssohn "cast himself thoroughly into the vortex." He
was never in love with Paris and its musical ways, any more than Mozart.
Parisians, he complained, were ignorant of Beethoven, and "believed
Bach to be a mere old-fashioned wig stuffed with learning." When
he met Chopin in 1834 his criticism was that Chopin "laboured a
little under the Parisian love for effect and strong contrasts, and
often lost sight of time, and calmness, and real musical feeling."
It was, however, in Paris that Chopin, Berlioz, Hiller, and Mendelssohn,
all of similar age, might have been seen arm-in-arm, promenading, and
enjoying life to the full.
This period of Mendelssohn’s
career produced the Walpurgis Night, the great Symphony in A major,
the Melusine overture, and the first of those famous "Songs without
Words" which have been the companions of all lovers of classical
piano music since they were first published. Piano music, when Mendelssohn
began writing them, was mostly given over to mechanical dexterity. Musical
claptraps, skips from one end of the keyboard to the other, endless
shakes and arpeggios-that was the kind of thing in vogue. Mendelssohn’s
aim in these Lieder ohne Wörte was to restore the illtreated piano
to its dignity and rank; and with what success he carried out his purpose,
every pianist knows. The name, Lieder ohne Worte, was Mendelssohn’s
own. The English equivalent was not settled without difficulty. The
first book was published in 1832, with the title of Original Melodies
for the Pianoforte. It is astonishing to recall the fact this first
book took four years to reach a sale of 114 copies. It was Moscheles
who found a publisher for it, and, foreseeing its value, arranged for
a royalty for the composer. Mendelssohn, a year later, feared that his
share would not amount to sixpence, but the publisher’s books
a few weeks after this time show that he received £4:16s. as royalty
on forty-eight copies sold.
In 1833 Mendelssohn
was appointed "Municipal Music Director" at Düsseldorf,
and it was there that he began his oratorio St. Paul, a work which has
been quite eclipsed in popularity by the companion Elijah. The Düsseldorf
engagement formed really the starting-point in his professional career.
Hitherto home influences had prevailed; now he was to be dependent on
himself. Unfortunately he did not find the Düsseldorf duties agreeable.
He complained that by four in the afternoon half the town was drunk,
so that he had to do all his business in the morning. And the band was
far from being to his mind. "I assure you," he wrote to Hiller,
"that, at the beat, they all come in separately, not one with any
decision, and in the piano the flute is always too loud; and not a single
Düsseldorf can play a triplet clearly, but all play a quaver and
two semiquavers, and every allegro leaves off twice as fast as it began,
and they carry their fiddles under their coats when it rains, and when
it is fine they don’t cover them at all. If you once heard me
conduct this orchestra, not even four horses could bring you there a
second time." This takes a very humorous view of the situation,
but Mendelssohn found it anything but humorous; and it was a great relief
to him when he was appointed conductor of the famous Gewandhaus concerts
at Leipzig. Here the conditions were entirely congenial, and he went
on with his work in the best of spirits, the musical idol of town.
Still, there was
something wanting to complete his happiness. He wanted a wife. In 1836
he went to Frankfort on a professional engagement, and an engagement
of another kind soon followed. It was by the merest chance that he met
Cécile Jeanrenaud, who was the daughter of a clergyman of the
French Reformed Church; and the fact that he had fallen in love at first
sight suggested caution to his prudent mind. He would test his feelings
by going away for a month. If he were then still in love, he would propose.
The result of the test we can gather from the following letter of September
1836, addressed to his mother: "I have only this moment returned
to my home, but I can settle to nothing till I have written to tell
you that I have just been accepted by Cécile. My head is quite
giddy; it is already late at night, and I have nothing else to say;
but I must write to you, I feel so rich and happy. To-morrow I will,
if I can, write a long letter, and so, if possible, will my dear betrothed."
lost his head with blissful excitement. The marriage took place in March
1837, and during the honeymoon Mendelssohn expressed himself as more
ecstatic than ever. As bad luck would have it, he had to tear himself
away from his wife and start for England to conduct his St. Paul at
the Birmingham Festival. And this is how he growls, writing to Hiller
from London: "Here I sit in the fog, very cross, without my wife,
writing you because your letter of the day before yesterday requires
it, otherwise I should hardly do so, for I am much too cross and melancholy
to-day. I must be a little fond of my wife, because I find that England
and the fog, and beef and porter, have such a horribly bitter taste
this time, and I used to like them so much."
married life was supremely happy. His beautiful, gentle, sensible wife
spread a charm over the whole household, which enabled him to throw
off such professional outside worries as beset him during his short,
strenuous career. Everybody who met her praised Frau Mendelssohn. When
Moscheles paid his first visit to the pair, he wrote: "Mendelssohn’s
wife is very charming, very unassuming and child-like, but not in my
judgment a perfect beauty, because she is a blonde." So many men,
so many ideas of female beauty! The Leipzig home looked out upon the
St. Thomas school and church, once the scene of Bach’s labours.
This was probably no accident, for Mendelssohn’s reverence for
Bach was profound. He revived the Matthew Passion at Berlin when he
was only twenty. During his visits to London, he was constantly preaching,
playing, or talking about Bach. His performances of the organ preludes
and fugues at various London churches, and at the Birmingham Festival,
aroused great interest. It was he, too, who was chiefly instrumental
in raising the Leipzig monument to the memory of Bach. Mendelssohn,
in fact, "restored Bach to a world that had forgotten him for a
hundred years," and this service alone was an immortality.
Mendelssohn’s home until 1841, when, at the instance of the recently-crowned
Frederick William IV., he went to Berlin as prospective musical director
of an Academy of Arts. Prospective, for the thing was still in the air;
where, so far as Mendelssohn was concerned, it remained. He had never
liked Berlin; and as the Academy arrangements were still in a taste
of chaos, he returned to Leipzig after a year’s waiting. About
this time the King bestowed on him the Order of Merit, a distinction
which he valued very highly. One day he was walking with some friends
across the bridge at Offenbach. One of them stayed behind to pay toll
for the rest. "Is not that the Mr. Mendelssohn whose music we sing
at our Society?" asked the toll keeper. "It is." "Then,
if you please, I will pay the toll for him myself." When Mendelssohn
was informed of the incident, he said: "H’m! I like that
much better than the King’s Order." The composer made one
more attempt to create a home in Berlin, when, by the death of his father
and mother, the old family house became his property. But again he found
it would not work. "The first step out of Berlin is the first step
towards happiness," he wrote, after trying it for a reasonable
time. The prophet was without honour where his youth had been spent.
Shortly after his
return to Leipzig -- the date was April 1843 -- Mendelssohn was able
to realise his long-cherished project of founding a Conversatorium for
the town. He did not live to see the full results of his inception,
but the fame of the Leipzig Conservatorium has long been known to musical
Europe and to America as well. Mendelssohn had plenty to do at the institution,
for he was its virtual head, as well as one of the professors. Yet,
all the time he was going on with his compositions -- with the Lobgesang,
and the Festgesang, from which is derived the tune for "Hark! The
herald angels sing"; with the music for the Midsummer Night’s
Dream, with its ever-popular "Wedding March"; with Athalie
and its famous "War March of the Priests," and with many other
things besides. At the date we have reached, the great oratorio of Elijah
was approaching completion. It was written specially for the Birmingham
Musical Festival, where the composer conducted the first performance
in August 1846. How it was received we learn from Mendelssohn himself.
"No work of mine," he wrote to his brother, "ever went
to admirably the first time, or was received with such enthusiasm by
both the musicians and the audience." When the Festival was over
he returned to London, "on purpose for a fish dinner at Lovegrove’s";
spent a few days at Ramsgate "to eat crabs," and was back
in Leipzig about the middle of September.
Elijah was Mendelssohn’s
last work: it killed him, just as the Creation killed Haydn. He had
overworked his never too robust frame, and in his exhausted state the
death of his beloved sister Fanny came to add to his prostration. He
conducted a few of the Leipzig concerts, but his doctor forbade him
to play any more in public. He fell into a profound melancholy, roaming
about the fields for hours alone, or writing letters to friends bewailing
his lot. Everybody saw how it must end. One evening, while accompanying
a lady at the piano, he became insensible, and was carried home to his
family. A cerebral attack followed, and on the 4th of November 1847
he breathed his last, in the presence of his disconsolate wife and children
(five had been born to him) and a few cherished friends. Thus was another
great musician cut off in the meridian of life.
one of the most lovable of men, gentle as his music, pure as the mountain
stream. He had nothing Bohemian about him. Weaknesses he had, no doubt,
but they were lovable too. He had little coaxing ways with his friends,
which made them love him with something of a child’s love. When
in company with Edward Devrient, he would sometimes pronounce his name
with an affectionate and lingering drawl, "Ed-e-ward," apropos
of nothing in particular. He retained through life something of the
impulsiveness and the simplicity of a child. He had a passion for cake
and sweetmeats. Next to his own countrymen, he loved the English. Her
Majesty the late Queen Victoria and Prince Albert were among his warmest
admirers; and the story is told of how the Queen once sang some songs
to his accompaniment at Buckingham Palace. She was not satisfied with
her performance, and said to Mendelssohn: "I can do better -- ask
Lablache (her singing master) if I can’t. But I am afraid of you."
She asked Mendelssohn how she was to thank him for accompanying her.
He said he would like to see her sleeping children, and when this was
granted, he kissed them, thinking, we may be sure, of his own children
In person Mendelssohn
was small, but was counted handsome. His look is described as "dark
and very Jewish." He had strikingly large dark-brown eyes, which
became extraordinarily bright and expressive when he was animated. He
was perhaps the most versatile of all the composers, for he was an adept
at painting, billiards, chess, riding, swimming, and general athletics.
Mendelssohn the Mozart of the nineteenth century. "I look upon
Mendelssohn," he said, "as the first musician of his time,
and pay him the homage due to a master." The musical world is not
so enthusiastic about Mendelssohn now. The pendulum has swung to the
other side: he was praised too much in his lifetime, and now he is praised
too little. It has become the fashion to decry his music as lacking
in depth. That is not surprising in an age which puts Wagner above Beethoven
and prefers the pessimism of Tschaikowsky to the optimistic clarity
of Haydn and Mozart. A modern young lady said she never played Mendelssohn
"because there were no wrong notes"! But there are still some
who do not like their composers to be eternally rushing through the
thorn bush of dissonance, and to such Mendelssohn is ever welcome. As
Sir George Grove said, there is surely enough of conflict and violence
in life and in art without demanding more of it from Mendelssohn. When
we want to be made unhappy by music, we can turn to others. In Mendelssohn
we shall find nothing that it not at once manly and refined, clever
and pure, brilliant and solid.