Famous Composers and their Works, Vol. 2 online

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advance over "The Vampire" is commensurate with the ethical. The musical
declamation approaches in truthfulness that of the modern lyric drama, and
an ingenious compromise is effected with the cumbersome device of spoken
dialogue. In the scenes which play on the earth, this relic of the old
German _Singspiel_ is retained; but in _Heiling's_ subterranean kingdom
all speech is music.

[Illustration: H. E. Krehbiel]


_Reproduction of an engraving after an oil portrait from life, made by
Mendelssohn's brother-in-law. W. Hensel._]

[Illustration: Mendelssohn]



The story of his fine life, watched over from the cradle as by fairies,
is a poem. The family names are compound. Mendelssohn is German for son
of Mendel; Bartholdy is Hebrew for son of Tholdy. One key to his artistic
character is the general culture, intellectual and social, of the man, for
which the opportunities were granted him from infancy in fuller measure
than to any other great musician. Born in prosperity, amid refining
influences; taught Greek and Latin classics; familiar with living poets,
scholars and philosophers who frequented his father's house; passing
a fortnight at the impressible age of eleven in the house of Goethe;
imbued with reverence for the character and teaching of his wise Platonic
grandfather, the Jew Moses Mendelssohn, the model for Lessing's "Nathan
the Wise"; stimulated by the piquant and genial letters of his three
gifted aunts (two of whom had turned Catholic), and above all by the
tender, wise, exacting and appreciative oversight of his excellent father,
to whom the best was only "just good enough," he grew unconsciously into a
large and liberal way of thinking. He was at home in the most cultivated
circles, "a native there, and to the manner born." What might it not have
been to Schubert to have germinated and unfolded under such a genial sun
in such a soil! Well was the youth named Felix!

Moses Mendelssohn, a little humpbacked Jew peddler boy, with keen eyes
and winning face, came to Berlin about the middle of the last century. He
had a hard fight with penury, and an unconquerable passion for knowledge
and the culture of his mind. At that time the Jews in Germany were at the
lowest stage of social repression. Excluded from nearly all honorable and
profitable pursuits, restricted to Jew quarters, outcast and despised,
they were the chosen victims of Christian intolerance. On the other
hand, driven back upon the synagogue, upon the even fiercer bigotry of
their own priests and rabbis, with whom "to speak the German language
correctly or to read a German book was heresy," the young man was caught
between two fires. Yet so brave, so able was he, so faithful to his great
life purpose, and withal so winning by his hearty, sterling honesty of
spirit, that he became one of the lights of German literature, one of its
recognized apostles; the intimate associate of Lessing, Herder, Kant, etc.
His conversation had the Socratic quality; and his "Phaedo," a dialogue
on immortality, founded on that of Plato, was so persuasive that it was
translated into many languages. He married a Jewess in Hamburg, and grew
prosperous as well as learned. He left three daughters and three sons.
Abraham, the father of Felix, was the second son, a thriving banker, for
a while in Paris, when he married Lea Salomon, of the Bartholdy family, a
lady of wealth and culture, from Berlin, and formed a partnership with his
elder brother in his native Hamburg. Their first child was Fanny, born,
as her mother said, with "Bach fugue fingers." The second child, Jakob
Ludwig Felix, was born February 3, 1809. Before he was three years old,
the French occupied Hamburg, and Abraham fled to Berlin, where he formed a
new banking house, and his whole family were baptized into the Protestant
Communion, taking the added name Bartholdy.

The patriarchal rule, obedience and industry, was strict in the house.
But the father was kind and gentle as well as severe, and Felix loved
him dearly; called him "not only my father, but my teacher both in art
and in life"; and wondered how it was possible that a father, not a
technical musician, could criticize the son's early efforts in composition
so shrewdly and so justly. After Felix became famous, Abraham said once
humorously of himself: "Formerly I was the son of my father, now I am the
father of my son."

The mother, a lady of fine person, with an air of much benevolence and
dignity, was a model housewife; spoke several languages, read Homer in the
Greek, played the piano, and gave the first frequent five-minute lessons
to her two eldest children, Fanny and Felix. The boy was full of life and
fond of out-door play, very attractive with his long brown curls and great
brown eyes. He was frank, unspoiled, earnest in what he undertook, and
could bear no foolish flattery, no nonsense.


Feb. 3 - 1809.]

After a short visit of the family to Paris, in 1816, when Fanny was eleven
and Felix seven years old, the children's education began systematically.
Heyse (father of the novelist) was their tutor at large; Ludwig Berger,
teacher for piano; the strict, conservative Zelter (Goethe's friend) for
thorough bass and counterpoint; Henning for violin. Felix, whose pen
and pencil sketches in his letters show such a facile gift for drawing,
was taught landscape by Rösel. Greek he learned with his younger sister
Rebecka, even reading Æschylus. The children were kept closely to their
lessons; Felix used to say how much they enjoyed the Sundays, when they
had not to get up at five o'clock to work.

He was first heard in a public concert on Oct. 24, 1818, when he played
the piano part in a trio with two horns with much applause. Early in his
eleventh year he entered the singing class of the Singakademie as an
alto. "There he took his place," writes his friend Devrient, "amongst the
grown people, in his child's suit, a tight fitting jacket cut very low
at the neck, and with full trousers buttoned over it. Into the slanting
pockets of these he liked to thrust his hands, rocking his curly head from
side to side, and shifting restlessly from one foot to the other." - He
spoke French and English fluently; wrote a letter in good Italian; and
translated the "Andrea" of Terence into German verse, besides making such
good headway in Greek. He could ride and swim and dance, right heartily,
but was not fond of mathematics.

In 1820, his twelfth year, he set about composing regularly. With that
year begins the series of forty-four volumes in which he methodically
preserved autograph copies of a great part of his works down to the
time of his death, with date and place carefully noted. These are now
in the Imperial Library at Berlin. Another proof of his methodical
self-discipline is found in the fact that for many years he made it an
invariable rule to compose _something every day_.

His productive activity during the six early years from 1820 to 1826 was
incessant, many-sided and prolific. In 1820, among other compositions
named by Grove, are a Trio for piano and strings; a Sonata for pianoforte
and violin; another for pianoforte solo; four organ pieces; a Cantata,
bearing the earliest date of all (Jan. 13); a Lustspiel for voices and
pianoforte, in three scenes, beginning: "Ich Felix Mendelssohn," etc. In
1821, five Symphonies for strings, songs, one-act operas. This was the
year when Zelter first took him to Goethe at Weimar.

The next two years were no less productive. In the summer of 1822 the
whole family made a leisurely tour in Switzerland, visiting on the
way Spohr at Cassel, on the return Schelble, conductor of the famous
Cäcilien-Verein at Frankfort, and Goethe again at Weimar. Near Geneva he
wrote the first (Op. I) of three Quartets for pianoforte and strings. In
the two years six more quartet Symphonies, making twelve in all, which do
not figure in the catalogue, although they were not mere exercises. Then,
too, an opera, "The Uncle from Boston," in three acts. He was then nearly
fifteen, growing fast, his features and expression altering and maturing,
and his hair cut short.

It is pleasant to read of the Sunday morning music in his grandmother's
large dining-room, with a small orchestra, Felix conducting, Fanny
or himself at the piano, Rebecka singing, and the young brother Paul
playing the 'cello. Some composition of his own had place in every
programme. Noted musicians passing through Berlin were often present.
For critic there was his own father, besides the wise old Zelter. Every
evening, also, more or less, the house was enlivened by music, theatrical
impromptus, and "constant flux and reflux of young, clever, distinguished
people, who made the suppers gay and noisy, and among whom Felix was the
favorite." Among the intimates were Moscheles and Spohr.


Abraham Mendelssohn - from a pencil drawing made by his son-in-law William

A great advance was shown in the compositions of 1824. In the summer
Felix, with his father and Rebecka, visited a bathing place on the shores
of the Baltic, where he got his first impressions of the sea, afterwards
reproduced in the _Meeresstille_ overture. In the next spring father and
son were in Paris. There Felix met all the famous French musicians. Their
devotion to _effect_ and superficial glitter, their ignorance of German
music (Onslow, for instance, having never heard a note of _Fidelio_), the
insulting liberties they took with some of its masterpieces, enraged the
enthusiastic lad. With Cherubini his intercourse was more satisfactory. On
the way home they paid a third, short visit to Goethe. The fiery Capriccio
in F sharp minor, and the score of the two-act opera, _Camacho's Wedding_,
from Don Quixote, were fruits of that year.

That summer Abraham Mendelssohn purchased the large house and grounds
(ten acres) at No. 3 Leipziger Strasse, which became the sumptuous abode
of the family, until the death of Felix, when it was occupied by the
Herrenhaus, or House of Lords of the Prussian government. As described by
Hensel, it was a dignified, old-fashioned, spacious palace, then in the
suburbs of Berlin, near the Potsdam gate, on the edge of the Thiergarten.
Behind the house was a court with offices, then gardens and a park with
noble trees, - just the ideal seat for such an artistic family! There was
a room for large musical parties and private theatricals. Between the
court and the garden stood the _Gartenhaus_, the middle of which formed
a hall large enough to hold several hundred persons, with glass doors
opening on the lawns and alleys. It was a delightful summer house, but
rather bleak in winter. There the Sunday music found new life; there
Felix composed the Octet for strings; there, too, in the fine summer of
1826, the work with which he "took his final musical degree," astonishing
the world as a full-fledged composer, a master of original, imaginative
genius, the overture to _A Midsummer Night's Dream_. He had been reading
with his sisters the Schlegel and Tieck version of Shakespeare's play. In
this and many instances Fanny, herself a good musician and composer, was
her brother's confidante and critic. The fairy vein, which had cropped
out in earlier works (the Quintet in A, the Octet, etc.), seemed to have
reached its full expression here. And the wonder is that the motives of
the Overture all came in place when he wrote music for the whole play
seventeen years later.


From a pencil drawing made by William Hensel.]

Meanwhile _Camacho_ was granted one unwilling hearing by Spontini, in the
smaller theatre. Galled by the sneering remarks of the critics, Felix
found the art atmosphere of Berlin more and more antipathetic. Entering
the University of that city, he had less time for composition. How far he
followed the course does not appear. He attended lectures of Hegel (one
of whose courses was on music), and of Ritter, the great geographer. And
he resumed his study of Italian classics, translating into German verse
sonnets of Dante and others. There too he became a proficient in landscape
drawing. Ten years later the University of Leipsic conferred on him the
honorary degree of Doctor of Philosophy.

The life in the new house was very genial and active. Felix practised
riding, swimming and other gymnastics with characteristic ardor "to the
utmost"; for skating he could not bear the cold. And what a brilliant and
_élite_ society frequented those large rooms: Rahel Varnhagen, Bettina,
Heine, Holtei, Lindblad, Marx, Humboldt, W. Müller, Hegel, - all famous
then or afterwards! Young people were there "in troops." They had a
little newspaper of their own, called in summer _Garten-Zeitung_, in
winter _Schnee-und Thee-Zeitung_, edited by Felix and Marx, to which
all comers were free to contribute; paper, ink and pens lay ready in
the summer-houses. Graver heads, like Humboldt and Zelter, used the
opportunity! "In all this brilliant interchange of art, science and
literature," says Grove, "Felix, even at this early date, was the
prominent figure. When he entered the room every one was anxious to
speak to him. Women of double his age made love to him; and men, years
afterwards, treasured every word that fell from his lips."

During the next winter, hearing a complaint that Bach seemed like an
arithmetical exercise, Felix formed a choir of sixteen voices for the
practice of the _Passion Music_ at his house. That led to the public
performance of the great neglected master-work a year later; and that to
the "Bachgesellschaft" for the stately publication of all Bach's works,
not yet completed. The little choir warmed to the heavenly music, and
grew eager for its public performance, under Felix's own care, by the
three to four hundred voices of the Singakademie, of which Zelter was
Director. Besides the intrinsic difficulty of the music, there were two
serious obstacles: the opposition of Zelter, and the apathy of the public.
The first was overcome with the sanguine aid of his friend Devrient,
the actor, who with him faced the lion in his den, and made him finally
consent. The second melted to enthusiasm before the splendid success of
the performance. Felix conducted the rehearsals without notes, knowing
the music all by heart; the leading opera singers undertook the solos;
the public flocked to the rehearsals; and on Wednesday, March 11, 1829,
this greatest choral work of the great old master composer was introduced
to the world for the first time since his death. A thousand people were
turned away from the doors. Said Felix: "It was an actor and a Jew who
restored this great Christian work to the people." That was the dawn of
the Bach culture, which steadily if slowly gains ground in these our
modern times.

In the midst of this excitement, his gifted, darling sister Fanny became
engaged to William Hensel, the distinguished Berlin painter. Mendelssohn
had reached the age of twenty. Not on the best terms with the musical
world of Berlin, he yearned for more congenial air and stimulus. To
improve himself in art and general culture, and "to make friends," he set
out on his "grand tour." He arrived in London (April 21), where he was
welcomed by his friends Klingemann (then secretary of legation there)
and Moscheles. At the Philharmonic Concert, May 25, he conducted his
C-minor Symphony, old John Cramer leading him to the piano, at which in
those days, the conductor sat or stood. The applause was immense, and the
Scherzo (which he had scored from his Octet, in place of the Minuet and
Trio) was persistently encored against his wish. The London reception had
"wiped out the sneers and misunderstandings of Berlin." Near the close of
his life he spoke of it as "having lifted a stone from his heart." Indeed,
the English, from that day to this, have been warm, even to the extreme
of partiality, in their enthusiasm for the man and for his music. He took
part in several other London concerts, was much petted in aristocratic
circles, and disported himself in so many fashionable balls and gaieties,
that the sober family at home became alarmed for him.

From London to Scotland, where he called upon Sir Walter, and stopped
at the Hebrides, sending thence in a glowing letter to Fanny the first
motive of the famous overture which he scored in Rome. Returning to London
in September, he was confined to his room two months and could not go
home to his sister Fanny's wedding. In December he found her with her
artist husband installed in the _Gartenhaus_ as studio, together with
the Devrients. These, indeed every member of the family took part in the
little comedy, _Das Heimkehr aus der Fremde_ ("The Son and Stranger"),
which Felix had composed for his parents' silver wedding. For Hensel,
utterly unmusical, he wrote a part upon one note. That winter he composed
his "Reformation Symphony." A chair of Music was founded expressly for him
in the Berlin University, which he knew himself too well to accept.

In May, 1830, the "grand tour" was resumed. He reached Weimar on the 30th,
spent a fortnight of close intercourse with Goethe, leading what he called
a "heathenish life"; then several very interesting weeks in Munich. Then,
through the Salzkammergut, to Vienna, where he found Haydn, Mozart and
Beethoven ignored in favor of Hummel, Field, and Kalkbrenner; and where
he passed a gay month with musicians, but managed to compose some serious


Fanny Mendelssohn - from a pencil drawing made by her husband, William

Then came the leisurely, long stay in Italy, particularly Rome, of which
his letters give such glowing and minute accounts. There he lived a most
genial and happy life, giving himself up completely to the sunny scene and
climate, to art, and fine churches (of which he found the music dull),
old ruins, and all that was picturesque and characteristic in _roba
di Roma_ of all sorts. He was six months in Rome; six weeks in Naples,
finding there his old friend Benedict, whom he first knew as Weber's pupil
in Berlin; then Florence, Genoa, Milan and the Italian Lakes. In Italy
he composed the "Italian" and "Scotch" Symphonies, the _Walpurgisnacht_
music, and many smaller things. And he filled several drawing-books with
sketches. Then, by way of Switzerland, walking from Geneva to Interlachen
(all minutely, graphically chronicled in the Letters), to Paris again,
where he threw himself into the musical and social "swim." But in spite
of his warm reception, and the presence of Hiller, Meyerbeer, and many
friends, he found the gay metropolis no more to his taste than before, and
was glad to spend two months again in the "smoky nest" of London, playing,
composing, and publishing.

[Illustration: MENDELSSOHN'S WIFE.

From a pencil drawing by William Hensel.]

During a second stay in Munich he became "on a brotherly footing" with
the very musical family of the Baermanns. For Heinrich Baermann, one of
the finest of clarinet players, he, as well as Weber, composed concert
pieces. It is his grandson, Carl Baermann, the admirable pianist, who now
adds to the musical prestige of Boston. There, too, he brought out his
G-minor Concerto (Oct. 17, 1831). And there he was commissioned to compose
an opera, and went to Düsseldorf to consult the poet Immermann about a
libretto with Shakespeare's _Tempest_ for a subject.

Early in 1832, his great friends Goethe and Zelter died. Mendelssohn
seemed to be the man of all others to succeed the latter at the
Singakademie; but he lost the election. As a proof of his wise and noble
loyalty to art about this period, read what he wrote to William Taubert
from Lucerne: "Don't you agree with me, that the first condition for an
artist is, that he have respect for the great ones, and do not try to blow
out the great flames, in order that the petty tallow candle may shine a
little brighter?"

In May, 1833, his success in conducting the Lower Rhine Festival
brought him an offer to take general charge of the Music in Düsseldorf
for three years at an annual salary of six hundred thalers ($450)!
But his father advised him to accept duties before emoluments. There
he brought out operas by Mozart and Cherubini; and in the church,
Palestrina, Bach, Handel, Beethoven: above all _Israel in Egypt_. There
he composed the greater part of _St. Paul_, and his _Melusina_ Overture.
Socially Düsseldorf was a delightful place to him; but musically it was
disappointing. In the spring of 1835 he conducted the Cologne Festival.

Soon we find him settled (from 1835 to 1844, and again from 1845 to the
end of his life) in the most genial home sphere of his artistic labors,
Leipsic, where he held the first conductor's post in Europe, at the head
of the famous _Gewandhaus_ Concerts. Hardly had he begun his notable
career there, when he was summoned to Berlin to the death-bed of his
father (Nov. 19, 1835). His grief was profound; for we have seen in
what respect and love he held him. He carried back to Leipsic two fixed
purposes: first, to finish _Paulus_, then to seek a wife. The Oratorio,
for which he selected the words himself, had lain complete before him a
year when it was first given at the Lower Rhine Festival in 1836 with
great enthusiasm. The wife was found in Frankfurt am Main. It was Cecile
Jeanrenaud, the lovely seventeen-year-old daughter of a deceased pastor
of the Reformed French Church there, who lived with her mother, _née_
Souchay, a highly respected, rich, patrician family of Frankfort. The
happy honeymoon ran over with fun and drollery in their joint diary full
of sketches.

In Leipsic his hands were soon full of most congenial tasks: conducting
the _Messiah_; the _Israel in Egypt_, with his own organ part; his own
_St. Paul_; besides a series of historical concerts; and composing his
Forty-Second Psalm, E-minor string Quartet, the D-minor piano Concerto,
the three organ Preludes and Fugues, etc. And is it not worth notice,
by the way, that here Mendelssohn commonly shines as the best of
programme-makers? Indeed, he seems to have been the first in whom that
function rose to the dignity of an art, when he was not balked by others.
Certainly the concerts, ("academies") which Mozart and Beethoven gave
mostly in noble houses, to make their new works heard, offered no models
of good programme-making, containing often far too much of a good thing,
say three great Beethoven Symphonies, with much other matter, in a single
evening! The democratic age of concert-giving had not yet come in.

In all this he was strong and happy in the sympathetic companionship of
his young wife, though often torn from her to fulfil engagements at the
Birmingham Festival and elsewhere. Thenceforth for several years he gave
his heart and soul to Leipsic, chiefly to the Gewandhaus concerts; he
worked with enthusiasm, and was rewarded by the enthusiasm he created.

In June, 1838, he conducted the Cologne Festival, and we have a cogent
letter in which he induced the committee to include "at least one
important vocal work of Bach" (a Church Cantata) in the programme,
besides pieces from Handel's _Joshua_. The summer was spent in the dear
garden-house at Berlin; and that was the young wife's first introduction
to her husband's family. He kept on composing noble things; among them
the Violin Concerto and a Psalm for eight voices: "When Israel," etc. And
he fell just short of giving the world another Symphony (in B flat). The
great event of the next Gewandhaus season was the first performance, at
the last concert (March 22, 1839), of the great Schubert Symphony in C. It
was played from the MS., which had been found in Vienna by Schumann.

It would require a volume to detail the programmes of those ten or eleven
years of Gewandhaus concerts under his direction, - to say nothing of
great musical enterprises outside of all that. In December, 1842, his
mother died, and then the Berlin house was his. Yet he lived for the most
part in Leipsic, aiding as a professor, with David, Hauptmann, Schumann
and the like, in the carrying out of his pet scheme of a Conservatorium
of Music. Since 1838 _Elijah_ had been in his mind as the subject of an
oratorio. It was finished for the Birmingham Festival of 1846. He was on
hand there to conduct it, all the world knows with what success. Yet his
own fastidious taste saw much in it to alter and polish, and he returned
to England for the tenth and last time to conduct it in the revised

Online LibraryVariousFamous Composers and their Works, Vol. 2 → online text (page 23 of 32)