Thursday, September 3, 2009

Mendelssohn, the Person

People might assume, because their parents were wealthy, the Mendelssohn children had it easy.


They were awakened at 5am.

They were taught at home with private tutors but music was just a fraction of the curriculum. In addition to German (their own language) they also were taught Latin, Greek, mathematics, a lot of European history, geography, aesthetics (Felix's teacher was the great philosopher Hegel), political philosophy, German and foreign literature and also drawing and water-coloring. They also learned to speak fluent French and English. Later, Felix also learned Italian.

On Sundays, they could sleep in till 6.

They would go for long hikes and ice-skated or rowed on the near-by river. They were excellent swimmers. As a child, Felix loved to ride a horse. Even when he was 24 and living away from home, he wrote to his father asking for permission to buy a horse (permission granted).

The garden was often the scene of out-door parties, the trees hung with paper-lanterns the children had made. The children even published their own in-house newspaper.

In addition, there were many music lessons. The younger daughter Rebecka sang and the younger son Paul played the cello. For both Felix and his older sister Fanny, there were piano lessons and composition lessons. Felix also studied the violin and the viola.

Very frequently they were among the performers for the family's Sunday afternoon musicales. So they had to rehearse, as well.

Around this schedule, Felix somehow found time to compose a great deal of music.


The house became an intellectual center in Berlin: many of the greatest minds in the city or visiting artists and professors would come to their musicales which included more than just music-making. Lea Mendelssohn was a very fine hostess and the food was first-rate. The Mendelssohns loved English customs, so great amounts of tea were consumed. And of course, with all these eloquent guests and great minds the conversation was especially lively.

Like the Kennedy Family, the children of the Mendelssohn Family knew they represented a leading Berlin family and therefore German culture. They were taught to speak well and to listen well. The girls were supposed to combine charm with knowledge. The boys were supposed to be able to do more than 'hold' a conversation.

Mendelssohn read a lot – for instance, Homer (in German) and Plato (in Greek). He read most of the novels of Sir Walter Scott, then all the rage, and Shakespeare (who was not all the rage) in both English and German. He also owned a copy of The Decameron, a 14th-Century collection of often bawdy love-stories (it was a gift from his mother-in-law). He read the novels of Charles Dickens and his library included large collections of the works by his mentor Goethe and his grandfather, Moses Mendelssohn.

Like many people in Berlin in the 1820s, the family was not outwardly religious – they did not attend temple before the children were converted to Christianity and they didn't really attend church on a regular basis afterward. That doesn't mean they didn't have a sense of faith. In fact, in one letter, Felix complained about people who were overly pious: he couldn't see himself that way.


He found England much to his liking. The British attitude of the “stiff upper lip” suited him as well as its manners and sense of reserve. Mendelssohn could be described as gentle, happy, charming, polite – above all, polite. One biographer described him as “a polite man who wrote polite music.”

Beethoven may have raged against the inhumanity of the Napoleonic Wars or the old-fashioned nobility or having his breakfast served late. Beethoven may have written music that “stormed the heavens” and opened new worlds to mortal men. None of this was Mendelssohn's style.

Many people think classical composers are a rather serious bunch, writing all this serious music. Mendelssohn had a sense of humor and loved lively conversation. He loved listening to and telling jokes, though compared to the off-beat and often dirty humor of Mozart or Beethoven, Mendelssohn's jokes would all be G-rated.

Unlike Franz Liszt and many other musicians of the era, Mendelssohn was not a ladies' man. He loved his wife and was very much at home in a domestic setting.

He was also a workaholic which no doubt contributed to his early death. He worked hard as a composer, a conductor, a pianist, even an organist as well as music director and music teacher who in his spare time organized music festivals and founded music schools.

He loved to travel. He made ten trips to England, mostly concert tours but they all included time to see the country, not just perform. He climbed Swiss mountains and took long hikes in the German countryside.

Luckily for him, he could fall asleep quickly and take a cat-nap on a couch in the middle of a party if he needed to.

Everything he did seemed effortless.


But for some reason, he was often full of doubt about his own talent. He frequently revised his music. Sometimes it was written quickly, other times it took a long time to take shape. He worked hard and was suspicious of composers (or any creative artist) who “waited for the Divine Spark” of trance-like inspiration. He also was suspicious of a lot of technical talk about music: the important thing was not how it was composed but that it was composed well.

Not surprisingly, his manuscripts are very clean, usually free of corrections. But still, when he “finished” his Italian Symphony in 1833, he set it aside to revise it. That didn't keep him from playing it – it was a very popular work in his lifetime – but when he died 15 years later, he still hadn't published it.

He'd begun working on the “Scottish” Symphony when he was 22, not long after his trip to Scotland – he already had ideas for it written down while he was there – but he didn't actually “finish” it until he was 33.

The numbering of his works is very confusing. He never published the Reformation Symphony either, though it actually was the second of the mature symphonies he composed. It ended up becoming No. 5, making it look like it should be a late work. The second string quartet he composed was sent to the publisher before the first one.

Music publishers used a catalog system of “Opus Numbers” - opus is the Latin word for “work” - and we usually think of it as a chronological list: a composer finishes a piece, sends it to the publishers and then writes the next piece. That isn't always the case. A string quintet Mendelssohn published as his Op. 18 looks like it should've been written before the Octet, Op. 20 – but it was really written a year after the Octet.

Many people have different opinions about Mendelssohn's music. Just the other day, a friend on Facebook told me “If you can't recognize who wrote it, it must be Mendelssohn.” Meaning, I guess, that if it didn't sound like anybody else, it must be him!

Another friend told me recently that he didn't think much of his first two symphonies but figured that's because they were early works “and he hadn't found his voice yet.” I pointed out that that 2nd Symphony was written when he was 31 but two of his most famous pieces which my friend agreed definitely sounded like “mature Mendelssohn” were written when he was still in his mid-teens!


In a post about “classical vs. romantic,” I mentioned that Mendelssohn was a little of each, not one or the other. He preferred “classical” clarity and design but enjoyed “romantic” story-telling and pleasure (not so much the over-the-top emotionalism of someone like his friend Hector Berlioz whose “Symphonie fantastique” tells the story of a man having a bad experience on opium, imagining he's killed his girl-friend and then goes to Hell for her murder - oh, and he wrote this work to impress the woman he loved...).

Mendelssohn's music is primarily happy music – the finale of his Violin Concerto (written when he was 35) is just as exuberant as the opening of his Italian Symphony (begun when he was 22) or the whole Octet (composed when he was 16). (Check out the music videos, here.) When he wrote more emotional, sad or tender music, some people called it “sentimental” or “maudlin” - never tragic.

In another post - about Math, Science & Philosophy - I wrote about one of his teachers, the philosopher Hegel who is remembered today primarily for his “Hegelian Dialectic.” You take a statement or idea – call it a thesis – and then you take the opposite of that statement or idea – call it an antithesis (anti-thesis) – then take the best parts of both of them to create a kind of compromise – call it a synthesis.

Perhaps Mendelssohn himself was a living example of this: two parts classical (thesis) + one part romantic (antithesis) = Felix Mendelssohn (synthesis).

Dr. Dick