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Felix Mendelssohn


Felix Mendelssohn - Bartholdy

By Harriette Brower

Mendelssohn has often been named "Felix the Happy," and he truly deserved the title. Blest with a most cheerful disposition, with the power to make friends of every one he met, and wherever he went, the son of a rich banker, surrounded with everything that wealth could give, it was indeed no wonder that Felix Mendelssohn was happy. He did not have to struggle with poverty and privation as most of the other great musicians were forced to do. Their music was often the expression of struggle and sorrow. He had none of these things to bear; he was carefree and happy, and his music reflects the joyous contentment of his life.

The Mendelssohn family originally lived in Hamburg. Their house faced one of the fine squares of the city, with a handsome church on the opposite side. The building is still there and well preserved, although the principal story is used as public dining rooms. A large tablet has been placed above the doorway, with a likeness of the composer encircled by a wreath of laurel. Here little Felix was born, February 3, 1809. There were other children, Fanny a year or two older, then after Felix came Rebekka and little Paul. When French soldiers occupied the town in 1811, life became very unpleasant for the German residents, and whoever could, sought refuge in other cities and towns. Among those who successfully made their escape was the Mendelssohn-Bartholdy family, the second name belonged to the family and was used to distinguish their own from other branches of the Mendelssohn family. With his wife and children, Abraham Mendelssohn fled to Berlin, and made his home for some years with the grandmother, who had a house on the Neue Promenade, a fine broad street, with houses only on one side, the opposite side descended in a grassy slope to the canal, which flowed lazily by.

It was a happy life the children led, amid ideal surroundings. Felix very early showed a great fondness for music, and everything was done to foster his budding talent. With his sister Fanny, to whom he was devotedly attached, he began to have short music lessons from his mother when he was only four years old. Their progress was so satisfactory, that after a while, professional musicians were engaged to teach them piano, violin and composition, as a regular part of their education. Besides these, they must study Greek, Latin, drawing and school subjects. With so much study to be done each day, it was necessary to begin work at five o'clock in the morning. But in spite of hard work all were happy, and as for Felix nothing could dampen the flow of his high spirits; he enjoyed equally work and play, giving the same earnest attention to each. Both he and Fanny were beginning to compose, and Felix's attempts at improvising upon some comical incident in their play time would call forth peals of laughter from the inseparable children.

Soon more ambitious attempts at composition were made, the aim being to write little operas. But unless they could be performed, it was useless to try and make operas. This was a serious difficulty; but Felix was deeply in earnest in whatever he undertook, and decided he must have an orchestra to try out his operatic efforts. It looked like an impossibility, but love and money can accomplish wonders. A small orchestra was duly selected from among the members of the Court band. The lad Felix was to conduct these sedate musicians, which he did modestly but without embarrassment, standing on a footstool before his men, waving the baton like a little general. Before the first performance was quite ready, Felix felt there must be some one present who could really judge of the merits of his little piece. Who would do so better than his old professor of thorough bass and composition, Carl Zelter, the director of the Berlin Singakademie. Zelter agreed to accept this delicate office, and a large number of friends were invited for the occasion.

This was only the beginning of a series of weekly musical evenings at the Mendelssohn home. Felix, with his dark curls, his shining eyes, and charming manners, was the life of anything he undertook. He often conducted his little pieces, but did not monopolize the time. Sometimes all four children took part, Fanny at the piano, Rebekka singing, Paul playing the 'cello and Felix at the desk. Old Zelter was generally present, and though averse to praising pupils, would often say a few words of encouragement at the close.

Felix was at this time but little more than twelve years old. He had within the last year composed fifty or sixty pieces, including a trio for piano and strings, containing three movements, several sonatas for the piano, some songs and a musical comedy in three scenes, for piano and voices. All these were written with the greatest care and precision, and with the date of each neatly added. He collected his pieces into volumes; and the more work he did the more neatly he wrote.

The boy Felix had a wonderful gift for making friends. One day he suddenly caught sight of Carl Maria von Weber walking along the streets of Berlin, near his home. He recognized the famous composer at once, as he had lately visited his parents. The boy's dark eyes glowed with pleasure at the recognition, and tossing back his curls, he sprang forward and threw his arms about Weber's neck, begging him to go home with him. When the astonished musician recovered himself, he presented the boy to Jules Benedict, his young friend and pupil who walked at his side, saying, "This is Felix Mendelssohn." For response Felix, with a bright look, seized the young man's hand in both his own. Weber stood by smiling at the boy's enthusiasm. Again Felix besought them to come home with him, but Weber had to attend a rehearsal. "Is it for the opera?" the boy cried excitedly.

"Yes," answered the composer.

"Does he know all about it?" asked Felix, pointing to Benedict.

"Indeed he does," answered the composer laughing, "or if he doesn't he ought to for he has been bored enough with it already." The boy's eyes flashed.

"Then you, will come with me to my home, which is quite near, will you not?" There was no refusing those appealing dark eyes. Felix again embraced Weber, and then challenged his new friend, Mr. Benedict, to race him to the door of his house. On entering he dragged the visitor upstairs to the drawing-room, exclaiming, "Mama, Mama, here is a gentleman, a pupil of Carl Weber, who knows all about the new opera, 'Der Freischütz.'"

The young musician received a warm welcome, and was not able to leave until he had played on the piano all the airs he could remember from the wonderful new opera, which Weber had come to Berlin to superintend. Benedict was so pleased with his first visit that he came again. This time he found Felix writing music and asked what it was. "I am finishing my new quartet for piano and strings," was the simple reply. To say that Benedict was surprised at such an answer from a boy of twelve hardly expresses what he felt. It was quite true he did not yet know Felix Mendelssohn. "And now," said the boy, laying down his pen, "I will play to you, to prove how grateful I am that you played to us last time." He then sat down at the piano and played correctly several melodies from "Der Freischütz," which Benedict had played on his first visit. After that they went into the garden, and Felix for the moment, became a rollicking boy, jumping fences and climbing trees like a squirrel.

Toward the close of this year, 1821, his teacher Zelter announced he intended going to Wiemar, to see Goethe, the aged poet of Wiemar, and was willing to take Felix with him. The poet's house at Wiemar was indeed a shrine to the elect, and the chance of meeting the object of so much hero worship, filled the impressionable mind of Felix with reverential awe. Zelter on his part, felt a certain pride in bringing his favorite pupil to the notice of the great man, though he would not have permitted Felix to guess what he felt for anything he possessed.

When they arrived, Goethe was walking in his garden. He greeted both with kindness and affection, and it was arranged that Felix should play for him next day. Zelter had told Goethe much about his pupil's unusual talents, but the poet wished to prove these accounts by his own tests. Selecting piece after piece of manuscript music from his collection, he asked the boy to play them at sight. He was able to do so with ease, to the astonishment of the friends who had come in to hear him. They were more delighted when he took a theme from one of the pieces and improvised upon it. Withholding his praise, Goethe announced he had a final test, and placed on the music desk a sheet which seemed covered with mere scratches and blotches. The boy laughingly exclaimed, "Who could ever read such writing as that?" Zelter rose and came to the piano to look at this curiosity. "Why, it is Beethoven's writing; one can see that a mile off! He always wrote as if he used a broomstick for a pen, then wiped his sleeve over the wet ink!"

The boy picked out the strange manuscript bit by bit; when he came to the end he cried, "Now I will play it through for you," which he did without a mistake. Goethe was well pleased and begged Felix to come every day and play, while he was in the city. The two became fast friends; the poet treated him as a son, and at parting begged he would soon return to Wiemar, that they might again be together. During the following summer the whole family made a tour through Switzerland, much to the delight of Felix, who enjoyed every moment. There was little time for real work in composition, but a couple of songs and the beginning of a piano quartet were inspired by the view of Lake Geneva and its exquisite surroundings.

When Felix returned to Berlin, he had grown much, physically as well as mentally. He was now tall and strong, his curling locks had been clipped, and he seemed at a single bound to have become almost a man. His happy, boyish spirits, however, had not changed in the least. About this time the family removed from their home on the Neue Promenade, to a larger and more stately mansion, No. 3 Leipsiger Strasse, then situated on the outskirts of the town, near the Potsdam Gate. As those who know the modern city realize, this house, now no longer a private residence, stands in the very heart of traffic and business. The rooms of the new home were large and elegant, with a spacious salon suitable for musicals and large functions. A fine garden or park belonged to the house, where were lawns shaded by forest trees, winding paths, flowering shrubs and arbors in shady nooks, offering quiet retreats. Best of all there was a garden house, with a central hall, which would hold several hundred people, having long windows and glass doors looking out upon the trees and flowers. Sunday concerts were soon resumed and given in the garden house, where, on week days the young people met, with friends and elders, to play, and act and enjoy the social life of the home. The mansion and its hospitality became famous, and every great musician, at one time or another, came to pay his respects and become acquainted with this art-loving family.

At a family party in honor of Felix's fifteenth birthday, his teacher Zelter saluted him as no longer an apprentice, but as an "assistant" and member of the Brotherhood of Art. Very soon after this the young composer completed two important works. The first was an Octet for strings. He was not yet seventeen when the Octet was finished, which was pronounced the most fresh and original work he had yet accomplished. It marked a distinct stage in the gifted youth's development. The composition which followed was the beautiful "Midsummer Night's Dream" music. He and his sister Fanny had lately made the acquaintance of Shakespeare through a German translation, and had been fascinated by this fairy play. The young people spent much of their time in the lovely garden that summer, and amid these delightful surroundings the music was conceived.

The Overture was first to spring into being. When it was written out, Felix and Fanny often played it as a duet. In this form the composer-pianist Moscheles heard it and was impressed by its beauty. The fascinating Scherzo and dreamy Nocturne followed. When all were elaborated and perfected, the complete work was performed by the garden house orchestra for a crowded audience, who abundantly expressed their delight. Sir G. Macfarren has said of it: "No one musical work contains so many points of harmony and orchestration that are novel yet none of them have the air of experiment, but all seem to have been written with a certainty of their success."

And now a great plan occupied Mendelssohn's mind, a project which had been forming for some time; this was nothing less than to do something to arouse people to know and appreciate the great works of Johann Sebastian Bach. Two years before Felix had been presented with a manuscript score of Bach's "Passion according to St. Matthew," which Zelter had allowed to be copied from the manuscript preserved in the Singakademie. The old man was a devoted lover of Bach's music, and had taught his pupil in the same spirit. When Felix found himself the possessor of this wonderful book, he set to work to master it, until he knew every bit of it by heart. As he studied it deeply he was more and more impressed with its beauty and sublimity. He could hardly believe that this great work was unknown throughout Germany, since more than a hundred years had passed since it had been written. He determined to do something to arouse people from such apathy.

Talking the matter over with musicians and friends, he began to interest them in the plan to study the music of the Passion. Soon he had secured sixteen good voices, who rehearsed at his home once a week. His enthusiasm fired them to study the music seriously, and before very long they were anxious to give a public performance. There was a splendid choir of nearly four hundred voices conducted by Zelter, at the Singakademie; if he would only lend his chorus to give a trial performance, under Mendelssohn's conducting, how splendid that would be! But Felix knew that Zelter had no faith in the public taking any interest in Bach, so there was no use asking. This opinion was opposed by one of his little choir, named Devrient, who insisted that Zelter should be approached on the subject. As he himself had been a pupil of Zelter, he persuaded Mendelssohn to accompany him to the director's house.

Zelter was found seated at his instrument, enveloped by a cloud of smoke from a long stemmed pipe. Devrient unfolded the plan of bringing this great work of Bach to the knowledge of the public. The old man listened to their plea with growing impatience, until he became quite excited, rose from his chair and paced the floor with great strides, exclaiming, "No, it is not to be thought of—it is a mad scheme." To Felix argument then seemed useless and he beckoned his friend to come away, but Devrient refused to move, and kept up his persuasive argument. Finally, as though a miracle had been wrought, Zelter began to weaken, and at last gave in, and besides promised all the aid in his power.

How this youth, not yet twenty, undertook the great task of preparing this masterpiece, and what he accomplished is little short of the marvelous. The public performance, conducted by Mendelssohn, took place March 11, 1829, with every ticket sold and more than a thousand persons turned away. A second performance was given on March 21, the anniversary of Bach's birth, before a packed house. These performances marked the beginning of a great Bach revival in Germany and England, and the love for this music has never been lost, but increases each year.

And now it seemed best for Felix to travel and see something of other countries. He had long wished to visit England, and the present seemed a favorable time, as his friends there assured him of a warm welcome. The pleasure he felt on reaching London was increased by the enthusiastic greeting he received at the hands of the musical public. He first appeared at a Philharmonic concert on May 25, when his Symphony in C minor was played. The next day he wrote to Fanny: "The success of the concert last night was beyond all I had ever dreamed. It began with my Symphony. I was led to the desk and received an immense applause. The Adagio was encored, but I went on; the Scherzo was so vigorously applauded that I had to repeat it. After the Finale there was lots more applause, while I was thanking the orchestra and shaking hands, till I left the room."

A continual round of functions interspersed with concerts at which he played or conducted, filled the young composer's time. The overture to "Midsummer Night's Dream" was played several times and always received with enthusiasm. On one occasion a friend was so careless as to leave the manuscript in a hackney coach on his way home and it was lost. "Never mind, I will write another," said Mendelssohn, which he was able to do, without making a single error.

When the London season closed, Mendelssohn and his friend Klingemann went up to Scotland, where he was deeply impressed with the varied beauty of the scenery. Perhaps the Hebrides enthralled him most, with their lonely grandeur. His impressions have been preserved in the Overture to "Fingal's Cave," while from the whole trip he gained inspiration for the Scottish Symphony.

On his return to London and before he could set out for Berlin, Felix injured his knee, which laid him up for several weeks, and prevented his presence at the home marriage of his sister Fanny, to William Hensel, the young painter. This was a keen disappointment to all, but Fanny was not to be separated from her family, as on Mendelssohn's return, he found the young couple had taken up their residence in the Gartenhaus.

Mendelssohn had been greatly pleased with his London visit, and though the grand tour he had planned was really only begun, he felt a strong desire to return to England. However, other countries had to be visited first. The following May he started south, bound for Vienna, Florence and Rome. His way led through Wiemar and gave opportunity for a last visit to Goethe. They passed a number of days in sympathetic companionship. The poet always wanted music, but did not seem to care for Beethoven's compositions, which he said did not touch him at all, though he felt they were great, astonishing.

After visiting numerous German cities, Switzerland was reached and its wonderful scenery stirred Mendelssohn's poetic soul to the depths. Yet, though his passionate love of nature was so impressed by the great mountains, forests and waterfalls, it was the sea which he loved best of all. As he approached Naples, and saw the sea sparkling in the sun lighted bay, he exclaimed: "To me it is the finest object in nature! I love it almost more than the sky. I always feel happy when I see before me the wide expanse of water." Rome, of course, was a center of fascination. Every day he picked out some special object of interest to visit, which made that particular day one never to be forgotten. The tour lasted until the spring of 1832, before Mendelssohn returned to his home in Berlin, only to leave it shortly afterwards to return to London. This great city, in spite of its fogs, noises and turmoil, appealed to him more than the sunshine of Naples, the fascination of Florence or the beauty of Rome.

The comment on Mendelssohn that "he lived years where others only lived weeks," gives a faint idea of the fulness with which his time was occupied. It is only possible to touch on his activities in composition, for he was always at work. In May 1836 when he was twenty-seven, he conducted in Düsseldorf the first performance of his oratorio of "St. Paul." At this period he wrote many of those charming piano pieces which he called "Songs without Words." This same year brought deepest happiness to Mendelssohn, in his engagement to Cécile Jean-Renaud, the beautiful daughter of a French Protestant clergyman. The following spring they were married, a true marriage of love and stedfast devotion.

The greatest work of Mendelssohn's career was his oratorio of "Elijah" which had long grown in his mind, until it was on the eve of completion in the spring of 1846. In a letter to the famous singer Jenny Lind, an intimate friend, he writes: "I am jumping about my room for joy. If my work turns out half as good as I fancy it is, how pleased I shall be."

During these years in which he conceived the "Elijah," his fame had spread widely. Honors had been bestowed on him by many royalties. The King of Saxony had made him Capellmeister of his Court, and Queen Victoria had shown him many proofs of personal regard, which endeared him more than ever to the country which had first signally recognized his genius.

It was Leipsic perhaps which felt the power of his genius most conclusively. The since famous Leipsic Conservatory was founded by him, and he was unceasing in his labors to advance art in every direction. He also found time to carry out a long cherished plan to erect, at the threshold of the Thomas School, Leipsic, a monument to the memory of Sebastian Bach.

Let us take one more glimpse of our beloved composer. It was the morning of August 26, 1846. The Town Hall of Birmingham, England, was filled with an expectant throng, for today the composer of the "Elijah" was to conduct his greatest work, for the first time before an English audience. When Mendelssohn stepped upon the platform, he was greeted by a deafening shout; the reception was overwhelming, and at the close the entire audience sprang to its feet in a frenzy of admiration. He wrote to his brother Paul that evening: "No work of mine ever went so admirably at the first performance, or was received with such enthusiasm both by musicians and public." During April the following year, four performances of the "Elijah" took place in Exeter Hall, the composer conducting, the Queen and Prince Albert being present on the second occasion. This visit to England which was to be his last, had used his strength to the limit of endurance, and there was a shadow of a coming breakdown. Soon after he rejoined his family in Frankfort, his sister Fanny suddenly passed away in Berlin. The news was broken to him too quickly, and with a shriek he fell unconscious to the floor.

From this shock he never seemed to rally, though at intervals for a while, he still composed. His death occurred November 4, 1847. It can be said of him that his was a beautiful life, in which "there was nothing to tell that was not honorable to his memory and profitable to all men."

Mendelssohn's funeral was imposing. The first portion was solemnized at Leipsic, attended by crowds of musicians and students, one of the latter bearing on a cushion a silver crown presented by his pupils of the Conservatory. Beside the crown rested the Order "Pour le Mérite," conferred on him by the King of Prussia. The band, during the long procession, played the E minor "Song without Words," and at the close of the service the choir sang the final chorus from Bach's "Passion." The same night the body was taken to Berlin and placed in the family plot in the old Dreifaltigkeit Kirch-hof, beside that of his devoted sister Fanny.