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Mendelssohn's lot in life was strikingly different from that of all the musicians of whom I have hitherto written; he never knew, like Schubert, what grinding poverty was, or suffered the long worries that Mozart had to endure for lack of money. His father was a Jewish banker in Berlin, the son of Moses Mendelssohn, a philosopher whose writings had already made the name celebrated throughout Europe. The composer's father used to say, with a very natural pride, after his own son had grown up, "Formerly I was the son of my father, and now I am the father of my son!"
Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy was born on February 3, 1809. His parents were neither of them trained musicians, though both appreciated and loved music, and it was from his mother that young Felix received his first music-lessons. When he had made some advance, Ludwig Berger became his tutor for the piano, and Zelter, a very learned and severe theorist, for counterpoint. At the age of nine years Felix had attained such proficiency that we find him taking the pianoforte part in a trio at a public concert of a Herr Gugel's, and when twelve years old he began to compose, and actually wrote a trio, some sonatas, a cantata, and several organ pieces. His home life was in the highest degree favorable to his musical development. On alternate Sundays musical performances were regularly given with a small orchestra in the large dining-room, Felix or his sister Fanny, who also possessed remarkable musical gifts, taking the pianoforte part, and new compositions by Felix were always included in the programme. Many friends, musicians and others, used to be present, Zelter regularly among their number, and the pieces were always freely commented on, Felix receiving then, as indeed he did all his life, the criticisms expressed, with the utmost good-natured readiness.
In 1824 Moscheles, at that time a celebrated pianist, and residing in London, visited Berlin, and was asked to give Felix music-lessons. This is the testimony of Moscheles, an excellent and kind-hearted man, and a thoroughly skilled musician, after spending nearly every day for six weeks with the family: "It is a family such as I have never known before; Felix, a mature artist, and yet but fifteen; Fanny, extraordinarily gifted, playing Bach's fugues by heart and with astonishing correctness--in fact, a thorough musician. The parents give me the impression of people of the highest cultivation;" and on the subject of lessons he says: "Felix has no need of lessons; if he wishes to take a hint from me as to anything new, he can easily do so." But it is very pleasant to find Mendelssohn afterward referring to these lessons as having urged him on to enthusiasm, and, in the days in London when his own fame had far outstripped that of the older musician, acknowledging himself as "Moscheles's pupil." The elder Mendelssohn was by no means carried away by the applause which the boy's playing and compositions had gained, and in 1825 he took his son to Paris to obtain Cherubini's opinion as to his musical abilities, with a view to the choice of a profession; for he had by no means made up his mind that Felix should spend his whole life as a musician. However, the surly old Florentine, who was not always civil or appreciative of budding genius (teste Berlioz), gave a decidedly favorable judgment on the compositions submitted to him, and urged the father to devote his son to a musical career. And, indeed, on listening to the pieces which were dated this year, especially a beautiful quartet in B minor, an octet for strings, the music to an opera in two acts, "Camacho's Wedding," and numerous pianoforte pieces, it is difficult to realize that the composer was then only sixteen years of age, or that anyone could question the artistic vocation that claimed him. But the next year a work was written, the score of which is marked "Berlin, August 6, 1826," when it must be remembered that he was seventeen years of age, which of itself was sufficient to rank him among the immortals--the overture to the "Midsummer Night's Dream." Full of lovely imaginings, with a wonderful fairy grace all its own, and a bewitching beauty, revealing not only the soul of the true poet, but also the musician profoundly skilled in all the art of orchestral effect, it is hard to believe that it is the work of a boy under twenty, written in the bright summer days of 1826, in his father's garden at Berlin.
Passing over the intermediate years with a simple reference to the "Meeresstille," "Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage," which was then composed, and a fine performance of Bach's "Passion Music," for which he had been long drilling the members of the Berlin Singakademie, the next event is a visit to England in 1829, where he was received with extraordinary warmth, playing at the Philharmonic Concerts, conducting his C minor Symphony, which he dedicated to the Philharmonic Society, they in their turn electing him one of their honorary members; going to dinners, balls, and the House of Commons, and enjoying himself most hugely. His letters from England at this time are brimming over with fun and graphic description; there is one especially amusing, in which he describes himself with two friends going home from a late dinner at the German Ambassador's, and on the way buying three German sausages, going down a quiet street to devour them, with all the while joyous laughter and snatches of part songs. There is also a little incident of this time showing the wonderful memory he possessed. After a concert on "Midsummer Night," when the "Midsummer Night's Dream" had very appropriately been played, it was found that the score had been lost in a hackney-coach as the party were returning to Mr. Attwood's. "Never mind," said Mendelssohn, "I will make another," which he did, and on comparison with the separate parts not a single difference was found in it.
At the beginning of December he was at home again, and that winter he wrote the "Reformation Symphony," intended to be produced at the tercentenary festival of the "Augsburg Confession" in the following June. This symphony, with which Mendelssohn was not entirely satisfied, was only once performed during his lifetime, but since his death it has frequently been performed, and though not one of his most perfect works, is recognized as a noble monument in honor of a great event. The next spring he again set out on his travels, this time southward to Italy.
In 1833 Mendelssohn accepted an official post offered him by the authorities of Duesseldorf, by which the entire musical arrangements of the town, church, theatre, and singing societies were put under his care. Immermann, the celebrated poet, being associated with him in the direction of the theatre. Things, however, did not go on very smoothly there. Mendelssohn found all the many worries of theatrical management--the engagement of singers and musicians, the dissensions to be arranged, the many tastes to be conciliated--too irksome, and he did not long retain this appointment; but the life among his friends at Duesseldorf was most delightful, and the letters written at this time are exceedingly lively and gay. It was here that he received the commission from the Caecilia-Verein of Frankfort for, and commenced, his grand oratorio "St. Paul." The words for this, as also for the "Elijah" and "Hymn of Praise" afterward, he selected himself with the help of his friend Schubung, and they are entirely from the Bible--as he said, "The Bible is always the best of all." Circumstances prevented the oratorio being then produced at Frankfort, and the first public performance took place at the Lower Rhine Festival at Duesseldorf, in May, 1836.
But his visits to Frankfort had a very important result in another way. Mendelssohn there met Mademoiselle Cecile Jeanrenaud, the daughter of a pastor of the French Reformed Church, and, though he had frequently indulged in the admiration of beautiful and clever women--which is allowable, and indeed an absolute necessity for a poet!--now for the first time he fell furiously in plain unmistakable and downright love. But it is more characteristic of the staid Teuton than the impulsive musician, that before plighting his troth to her he went away for a month's bathing at Scheveningen, in Holland, for the purpose of testing the strength of his affection by this absence. On his return, finding his amatory pulse still beating satisfactorily, he proposed to the young lady, and, as it must be presumed that she had already made up her own mind without any testing, he was accepted. On March 28, 1837, they were married, and the wedded life that then began was one of pure, unclouded happiness to the very end. Cecile Mendelssohn was a beautiful, gentle-hearted, and loving wife, just the one to give a weary and nervous artist in the home-life, with herself and the children near him, the blessed solace of rest and calm that he so needed. It is thus that Edward Devrient, the great German actor, and one of Mendelssohn's most intimate friends, describes her: "Cecile was one of those sweet womanly natures whose gentle simplicity, whose mere presence, soothed and pleased. She was slight, with features of striking beauty and delicacy; her hair was between brown and gold, but the transcendent lustre of her great blue eyes, and the brilliant roses of her cheeks, were sad harbingers of early death. She spoke little, and never with animation, in a low, soft voice. Shakespeare's words, "My gracious silence," applied to her no less than to the wife of Coriolanus."
After giving up his official position at Duesseldorf, in 1835, Mendelssohn was invited to become the conductor of the now famous Gewandhaus concerts at Leipsic, a post which he gladly accepted, and which, retained by him for many years, was to be one of the greatest delights of his artistic life. Not only was he loved and appreciated in Leipsic--far more than in Berlin, his own city--but he had here an opportunity of assisting many composers and virtuosi, who otherwise would have sought in vain for a hearing. Thus, after Liszt, when visiting the town, had been first of all received with great coldness, owing to the usual prices of admission to the concerts having been raised, Mendelssohn set everything straight by having a soiree in his honor at the Gewandhaus, where there were three hundred and fifty people, orchestra, chorus, punch, pastry, Meeresstille Psalm, Bach's Triple Concerto, choruses from St. Paul, Fantasia on Lucia, the Erl King, the Devil and his Grandmother, the latter probably a mild satirical reference to Liszt's stormy and often incoherent playing. It is also pleasant to find how cordially Mendelssohn received Berlioz there, as told in the "Memoirs" of the latter, spending ungrudgingly long days in aiding in rehearsals for his "Romeo et Juliette," though Mendelssohn never sympathized much with Berlioz's eccentric muse.
The "Lobgesang," or "Hymn of Praise," a "symphonie-cantata," as he called it, was his next great work, composed in 1840, together with other music, at the request of the Leipsic Town-Council, for a festival held in that town in commemoration of the invention of printing, on June 25th. None who have heard this work can forget the first impression produced when the grand instrumental movements with which it commences are merged in the majestic chorus, "All men, all things, praise ye the Lord," or the intensely dramatic effect of the repeated tenor cry, "Watchman, will the night soon pass?" answered at last by the clear soprano message of glad tidings, "The night is departing, the day is at hand!" This "watchman" episode was added some time afterward, and, as he told a friend, was suggested to the composer during the weary hours of a long sleepless night, when the words, "Will the night soon pass?" again and again seemed to be repeated to him. But a greater work even than this was now in progress; the "Elijah" had been begun.
In 1841 began a troublesome and harassing connection with Berlin, a city where, except in his home life, Mendelssohn never seems to have been very fortunate. At the urgent entreaty of the king, he went to reside there as head of the new Musical Academy. But disagreements arose, and he did not long take an active part in the management. The king, however, was very anxious to retain his services, and a sort of general office seems to have been created for him, the duties of which were to supply music for any dramatic works which the king took it into his head to have so embellished. And, though it is to this that we owe the noble "Antigone," "OEdipus," "Athalie," "Midsummer Night's Dream," and other music, this work to dictation was very worrying, and one cannot think without impatience of the annoyances to which he was subjected. The king could not understand why he shrank from writing music to the choruses of AEschylus's "Eumenides." Other composers would do it by the yard, why not he?
Passing rapidly over the intervening years filled with busy work, both in composition and as one of the principals of a newly started Conservatorium in Leipsic, we come to 1846, when his great work "Elijah" was at last completed and performed. On August 26th, at the Birmingham Festival, the performance went splendidly. Staudigl took the part of the prophet, and a young tenor, Lockey, sang the air, "Then shall the righteous," in the last part, as Mendelssohn says, "so very beautifully, that I was obliged to collect myself to prevent my being overcome, and to enable me to beat time steadily." Rarely, indeed, has a composer so truly realized his own conception as Mendelssohn did in the great tone-picture which he drew of the Prophet of Carmel and the wilderness.
"I figured to myself," he says, "Elijah as a grand, mighty prophet, such as might again reappear in our own day, energetic and zealous, stern, wrathful, and gloomy, a striking contrast to the court myrmidons and popular rabble--in fact, in opposition to the whole world, and yet borne on angel's wings!" Nothing can be finer than this, with that exquisite touch in the last words, "in opposition to the whole world, and yet borne on angel's wings."
After returning to Germany he was soon busily employed in recasting some portions of "Elijah" with which he was not satisfied; he had also another oratorio on even a grander scale, "Christus," already commenced; and at last, after all his life-long seeking in vain for a good libretto for an opera, he had begun to set one written by Geibel, the German poet, "Loreley," to music. But his friends now noticed how worn and weary he used oftentimes to look, and how strangely irritable he frequently was, and there can hardly be a doubt that some form of the cerebral disease from which his father and several of his relations had died, was already, deep-seated and obscure, disquieting him. The sudden announcement of the death of his sister, Fanny Hensel, herself a musical genius, to whom he was very fondly attached, on his return to Frankfort from his last visit to England in May, 1847, terribly affected him. He fell to the ground with a loud shriek, and it was long before he recovered consciousness.
Indeed, it may be said that he never really recovered from this shock. In the summer he went with his wife and children, and in company with his brother Paul and his family, on a tour in Switzerland, where he hoped that complete idleness as regards music, life in the open air, sketching, and intercourse with chosen friends, might once more give strength to his enfeebled nerves. And for a time the beauty of the mountains and the lakes seemed to bring him rest, and again he began to work at his oratorio "Christus;" but still his friends continued anxious about him. He looked broken down and aged, a constant agitation seemed to possess him, and the least thing would often strangely affect and upset him.
In September he returned to Leipsic; he was then more cheerful, and able to talk about music and to write, although he could not resume the conductorship of the Gewandhaus concerts. He again had projects in view. Jenny Lind was to sing in his "Elijah," at Vienna, whither he would go and conduct, and he was about to publish some new songs. One day in October he went to call upon his friend, Madame Frege, a gifted lady who, he said, sang his songs better than anyone else, to consult her about some new songs. She sang them over to him several times, and then, as it was getting dark, she went out of the room for a few minutes to order lights. When she returned he was lying on the sofa, shivering with cold, and in agonizing pain. Leeches were applied, and he partially recovered; but another attack followed, and this was the last.