Sunday, August 30, 2009

Child Prodigy Meets Great Master: Mendelssohn & Goethe

In November, when Mendelssohn was 12, Zelter his composition teacher took him to meet the poet, Goethe (pronounced GER-teh), who was a friend of his.

It's difficult to describe how significant this would have been for a German child. There is no equivalent in today's world to explain what it would be like to meet Goethe. He wasn't just a poet: he was THE Poet, the greatest living German writer who is still regarded as one of the most important writers in the world - of all time. That sounds like over-the-top marketing in today's world, but what Shakespeare is to people who speak English, Goethe is to people who speak German. His drama, Faust – the story of a man who sells his soul to the devil – is regarded as one of the greatest works of the 19th Century. There was probably no more highly regarded man in Germany – and he had agreed to meet a 12-year-old composer.

In addition to being a poet, dramatist and novelist, Goethe was also a philosopher and scientist, and also wrote about theology and humanism. His interest in music was primarily scientific – the science of sounds – though he enjoyed music. He had played the cello and the piano in his younger days but was puzzled by Beethoven and not at all interested in Schubert. In fact, in 1816 Schubert had sent Goethe a package that included 16 songs he'd written setting some of Goethe's best-loved poems to music but Goethe didn't even bother opening it.


Mendelssohn's teacher had no sooner gotten past the introductions when Goethe opened the lid over the piano keys and asked him to play something.

His composition teacher, Zelter, hummed a tune he had suggested but the boy said he didn't know that one. So the teacher played it for him. Mendelssohn then played it back to him note perfect, then improvised a fantasy on it – as another person there described it, a wild, surging, torrential fantasia “that poured out like liquid fire.”

Everyone was amazed. Then he played some Mozart, played at sight something by Beethoven that was in manuscript (“looking like it had been written with a broomstick [not a pen] and then he smeared his sleeve over the ink”) but Felix figured it out without too many problems.

Some musicians from town were brought to Goethe's house. They didn't know the name Mendelssohn which they saw on the music in front of them. Zelter told them they would meet a boy who so far hasn't heard much praise or criticism so he hoped they would not go over-board one way or the other and just accept him as a young child beginning his career. “Up to now, I have been able to protect him against vanity and conceit, these two enemies of artistic progress.”

The boy came in, sat at the piano and played a new Piano Quartet with the string players. This is the scene represented in the drawing (see right): Felix Mendelssohn sits at the piano, Goethe stands facing him with his hands clasped behind his back.

Goethe complimented him, told him the expressions of the other musicians must let him know how pleased they were – then he sent him out into the garden to cool off (“you're perspiring”) and without a word, the boy ran outside.

Goethe told the others – in words of much higher praise – what he thought of young Mendelssohn when Zelter said “And yet you heard Mozart when he was 7 years old.”

Goethe was only 12 years old himself at that time, but comparing what Mozart was playing at 7 to what Mendelssohn was playing at 12, he said, was the difference between baby-talk and adult speech.

Of course, Mozart improved by the time he was 12 and also greew up to become one of the great composers, so Zelter said “Yes, many began like Mozart but no one ever reached him.”

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There would be several friendly visits between young Mendelssohn and the great poet. The last one was ten years later but Goethe was by then old and ill. Mendelssohn was now 22 and on his way to Italy for an extended holiday. He described the poet as “an old lion who wants to go to sleep.”

The young man played him the first movement of Beethoven's 5th Symphony at the piano. Goethe had never heard the work before (it was premiered in 1806 and Beethoven had only recently died). The old man still found it quite unnerving: “It is tremendous but quite mad. The whole house might collapse – imagine a whole orchestra playing it!”

Goethe wanted him to expand his interests to science and natural history “to avoid a one-sided mentality.” He angrily left the room when Mendelssohn expressed no real interest in these subjects. Felix then began to improvise quietly at the piano. Goethe came back into the room to listen and told him, “You have enough. Hold on to what you have.”

They continued to correspond while Mendelssohn was in Italy, but Goethe died the next year at the age of 82.

- Dr. Dick