Letters of Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy from Italy and Switzerland

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Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy was born at Hamburg, on the third of February, 1809. The name to which he was destined to add such lustre, was already high in the annals of fame. Moses Mendelssohn, his grandfather, a great Jewish philosopher, one of the most remarkable men of his time, was the author of profound Metaphysical works, written both in German and Hebrew. To this great power of intellect, Moses Mendelssohn added a purity and dignity of character worthy of the old stoics. The epigraph on the bust of this ancestor of the composer, shows the esteem in which he was held by his contemporaries:

“Faithful to the religion of his fathers, as wise as Socrates, like Socrates teaching the immortality of the soul, and like Socrates leaving a name that is immortal.”

One of Moses Mendelssohn’s daughters married Frederick Schlegel, and swerving from the religion in which both had been brought up, both became Roman Catholics.

Joseph Mendelssohn, the eldest son of this great old man, was also distinguished for his literary taste, and has left two excellent works of very different characters, one on Dante, the other on the system of a paper currency.

In conjunction with his brother, Abraham, he founded the banking-house of Mendelssohn — Company at Berlin, still flourishing under the management of the sons of the original founders, the brothers and cousins of Felix, the subject of this memoir.

George Mendelssohn the son of Joseph, was also a distinguished political writer and Professor in the University at Bonn.

With such an array of intellectual ancestry, the Mendelssohn of our day came into the world at Hamburg, on the third of February,1809. He was named Felix, and a more appropriate name could not have been found for him, for in character, circumstance and endowment, he was supremely happy. Goethe, speaking of him, said “the boy was born on a lucky day.” His first piece of good fortune, was in having not only an excellent virtuous woman for his mother, but a woman who, besides these qualities, possessed extraordinary intellect and had received an education that fitted her to be the mother of children endowed as hers were. She professed the Lutheran creed, in which her children were brought up. Being of a distinguished commercial family and an heiress, her husband added her name of Bartholdy to his own. Mme. Mendelssohn Bartholdy’s other children were, Fanny her first-born, whose life is entirely interwoven with that of her brother Felix, and Paul and Rebecca, born some years later.

When yet a boy, Felix removed with his parents to Berlin, probably at the time of the formation of the banking house. The Prussian capital has often claimed the honor of being his birthplace, but that distinction really belongs to Hamburg.

His extraordinary musical talent was not long in developing itself. His sister Fanny, his “soul’s friend” and constant companion, almost as richly endowed as himself, aroused his emulation, and they studied music together first as an art, and then as a science, to be the foundation of future works of inspiration and genius.

Zelter, severe and classic, profoundly scientific, inexorable for all that was not true science, became the teacher of these two gifted children in composition and in counterpoint. For piano-forte playing, Berger was the professor, though some years later Moscheles added the benefit of his counsels, and Felix was fond of calling himself the pupil of Moscheles, with whom in after life he contracted a close friendship. Zelter was exceedingly proud of his pupil, soon discovering that instead of an industrious and intelligent child, one of the greatest musical geniuses ever known was dawning on the world. When he was but fifteen, Zelter took the young musician to Weimar, and secured for him the acquaintance and good will of Goethe, which as long as Goethe lived, seemed to be the necessary consecration of all talent in Germany. By this time not only was he an admirable performer on the piano, possessed of a talent for improvisation and a memory so wonderful, that not only could he play almost all Bach, Händel, Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven by heart, but he could also without hesitation accompany a whole opera from memory, provided he had but seen the score once. The overture to Midsummer Night’s Dream, so popular now in every country, was composed before he was seventeen, and was played for the first time as a duet on the piano by his sister Fanny and himself on the 19th November, 1826. This is indeed the inspiration of youth with its brilliancy, its buoyancy, its triumphant joy, full of the poetry of a young heart, full of the imagination of a mind untainted by the world. It was not till some years after, that Mendelssohn completed the music to Shakspeare’s great play. In 1827, Felix left the University of Berlin with great honors. He was a profound classical scholar, and has left as a specimen of his knowledge, a correct, graceful and elegant translation of Terence’s comedy of Andria, a work greatly approved of by Goethe. He excelled in gymnastics, was an elegant rider, and like Lord Byron, a bold and accomplished swimmer. The year he left the University, he went to England, where Henrietta Sonntag was in the height of her fame. He played in several concerts where she sang, as well as with Moscheles, his old friend and teacher, now established in London.

On his return to Germany in 1830, he visited Goethe at Weimar, and there planned his journey to Italy, a country which all men of genius yearn after, as the promised land of inspiration. When in Rome, Felix Mendelssohn began the grand Cantata of the Walpurgis Night, to Goethe’s words, at which he worked for some years. On his return from his travels, Mendelssohn, who had now all the assurance and self-possession of an artist, was appointed chapel-master at Düsseldorf, a position which gave him the direction of the grand musical festivals held at that time in this city and in Aix-la-Chapelle. It was during his residence in Düsseldorf, that he composed his oratorio of St. Paul, and also, the first set of his “Songs without Words” for the piano, where the music, by its varied expression and its intensity, alone told the story of the poet. These compositions were a novelty for piano-forte players, and inaugurated a new style, full of interest, gradually setting aside the variations and sonatas which had become so meaningless and tedious. The oratorio of St. Paul was not given until 1836, when it was produced at Düsseldorf, under his own special superintendence. Mendelssohn composed very rapidly, but he was cautious in giving his works to the public, until they thoroughly satisfied his judgment, the most critical to which they could be submitted.

In the latter part of 1836, having gone to Frankfort, to direct a concert of the Ceciliaverein, he became acquainted with Cecilia Jeanrenaud, a beautiful and accomplished girl, the second daughter of a clergyman of the Reformed Church, and in the spring of 1837 she became his wife. The marriage had been delayed some months by Mendelssohn’s ill health; he had begun to feel the first symptoms of the nervous disease, affecting the brain, from which he was destined henceforth to suffer, and of which, finally, he was fated to die.

After his marriage he undertook the direction of the Leipzig Concerts. All over Germany, Mendelssohn was in requisition; his immense genius as a composer, his great skill as a conductor, his gentle, fascinating manners, gave him extraordinary popularity. It was England, however, after all, who appreciated him most. Sacred music seems to appeal especially to the English taste. Haydn, Händel, Beethoven have all found more patronage and appreciation in England than in their own country. So it was with Mendelssohn; the greatest musical triumph ever achieved, was the performance of the oratorio of Elijah, given at Birmingham, the work on which Mendelssohn’s fame will rest. He was nine years in composing this oratorio; and notwithstanding the most flattering ovation, Mendelssohn’s serene temperament was not moved to vanity or conceit. In the very moment of his success, he sat down modestly to correct many things that had not satisfied him. The trio for three female voices (without accompaniment) one of the most beautiful pieces in the oratorio, was added by the composer after the public had declared itself satisfied with the work as it originally stood. Elijah was produced in 1847, but Mendelssohn had been several times to England before this, playing at the ancient and Philharmonic concerts; at that time, the resort of the élite in London.

It was during one of these visits in 1842, that Prince Albert, who as a German and a musician, had sought his acquaintance, introduced him to Queen Victoria. The visit was entirely devoid of formality, for without any previous announcement, the Prince conducted Mendelssohn from his private apartments, to the Queen’s study, where they found her surrounded by papers, and just terminating her morning’s work. The Queen receiving him most graciously, apologized to the composer for the untidiness of the room, beginning herself to put it in order and laughingly accepting his assistance. After some agreeable conversation Mendelssohn sat down to the piano and played whatever the Queen asked of him. When at length he rose, Prince Albert asked the Queen to sing, and gracefully choosing one of Mendelssohn’s own compositions, she complied with the request. Mendelssohn of course applauded, but the Queen laughingly told him, that she had been too frightened to sing well. “Ask Lablache,” (Lablache was her singing master) added the Queen, “he will tell you that I can sing better than I have done to-day.” Prince Albert and the Queen were ever warm patrons and friends of Mendelssohn.

During all this time so brilliantly filled up, Mendelssohn’s health was continually and gradually declining. His nervous susceptibility was such that he was often obliged to abstain from playing for weeks together, his gentle and affectionate wife watching him and keeping him as much as possible from composition. This was a very difficult task, for Mendelssohn was a great worker. Even when travelling, he would take out pen and ink from his pocket and compose at one corner of the table, whilst the dinner was getting ready.

Little was Mendelssohn prepared, either mentally or physically at this time, to bear the one great sorrow that overwhelmed this happy life, on which the sun of prosperity had ever shone. His sister Fanny, to whom many of his letters were written, and who had been the companion of his studies, possessing the same tastes and a great deal of the same genius; his sister Fanny, who was the nearest and dearest affection of his life, was suddenly taken from him. She had married and was living in Frankfort, where she was the ornament of society, in this enlightened and art-loving city, when in the midst of a rehearsal of Faust, a symphony of her own composition, she was struck with apoplexy and fell back dead in her chair. There is no doubt that this shock considerably increased the disease from which Mendelssohn was suffering, and though he used to rally and even appear resigned, this sorrow, until the day of his death, lay heavy at his heart. Again he tried to find health and peace in travel; he went to Switzerland with his wife, who strove to keep him from all occupation and labor, but he would gently urge her to let him work. “The time is not far off, when I shall rest; I must make the most of the time given me.” “I know not how short a time it may be,” would he say to her. On his return from Switzerland and Baden-Baden, he went to Berlin; and once more all that remained of this tenderly attached family, were united for a short time. At length he returned to his home in Leipzig, serene as ever, but worn to a shadow by the acute and continued pains in the head for which he could obtain no relief. On the 9th of October, he went to the house of a friend, one of the artists of the Leipzig concerts, and entreated her to sing for him a song he had that night composed. By a strange coincidence, this song began with these words, “Vanished has the light of day.” It was Mendelssohn’s last composition, the last music he heard on earth, for whilst the lady was singing it, he was seized with vertigo and was carried insensible back to his house. He recovered, however, comparatively from this attack, but a second stroke of apoplexy placed his life in extreme peril, and a third, on the 3rd of November, made him utterly unconscious. Towards nine o’clock on the evening of the 4th, (1847,) he breathed his last, going to his everlasting rest as easily and as calmly as a tired child sinks to sleep. He was in the thirty-ninth year of his age.

Mendelssohn’s death was looked upon, throughout Germany, as a public calamity. The funeral ceremonies at Leipzig were of a most imposing character, and all the way from Leipzig to Berlin, where the corpse was taken, to be buried in the family vault, the most touching honors greeted it. Nearly all the crowned heads of Europe wrote letters of condolence to his widow.

Mendelssohn as a musician is profoundly original. In his oratorios “Paul” and “Elijah” he has swerved from the conventional religious style; eschewing all fugues, his oratorios are full of power, and contain great dramatic effects—at once grand and solemn. His other music is remarkable for the sweetness of its melodies—its earnest simplicity. His instrumentality is scientific without being pedantic or heavy, and utterly devoid of antiquated formalism; though pathetic often, there is always a vigor and life in all his inspirations; the low mournful wail that runs through all Chopin’s works, arising from a morbid condition of health and heart, is never felt in Mendelssohn. There is none of the bitterness, the long suffering that artists’ lives entail and that artists infuse into their works, for Mendelssohn was a happy man from first to last.

Mendelssohn the happy, “the boy born on a lucky day,” has left a life-record that amid the gloomy heart-rending and often degrading histories of artists, shines with a chaste and holy life. Nature, the world and circumstance had done every thing for him. To the great and all-sufficient gift of his musical genius he added many others,—he had the eye of a painter, the heart of a poet, his intellect was of the highest order; he was tall, handsome, graceful, his social position one of the finest in Berlin, rich, and surrounded by the tenderest family affections. With all these advantages, with all the success that attended him, with all the flattery lavished on him, Mendelssohn was never vain or proud, and throughout his life was utterly free from envy. His fine, fearless, childlike spirit, led him through the world, unconscious of evil, undaunted by it. With all the temptations that must have assailed the young, handsome, rich man, there is not one moment of his life over which his friends would wish to draw a veil. On such a life as that of Felix Mendelssohn, it is good for every one to look, for once, genius is not set forth as a dazzling screen to hide and to excuse disorder and crime, but genius, that one great gift from heaven, was employed as heaven would have directed it, each action, each succeeding year of his life, bringing forth in various but harmonious ways, that extraordinary moral and intellectual worth, that rare beauty of character that endeared him to all who knew him, ensured him the unvarying love of kindred and friends, and the admiration of the whole world.


Last year a paragraph was inserted in the newspapers, requesting any one who possessed letters from Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy to send them to Professor Droysen, or to myself, with the view of completing a selection from his correspondence which we contemplated publishing. Our design in this was twofold.

In the first place, we wished to offer to the public in Mendelssohn’s own words, which always so truly and faithfully mirrored his thoughts, the most genuine impression of his character; and secondly, we thought that the biographical elements contained in such a correspondence, might be of infinite use in the compilation of a memoir—which we reserve for a future day—and serve as its precursor and basis.

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