Saturday, September 5, 2009

Mendelssohn the Traveler

By the time he was 20, Mendelssohn had finished studying at the university in Berlin and conducted the first public performances of Johann Sebastian Bach's St. Matthew Passion in probably a hundred years. From there, he decided to start traveling – what college grads in those days called “The Grand Tour.” When he was a child, Mendelssohn traveled with his family to Paris, to Switzerland and various places around Germany, but now – on his own – he decided to go to England.


It took 11 days to cross the North Sea from Hamburg to London and he practically crawled down the gang-plank when he arrived, he was so sick. Between the frequent storms and the stretches of calm weather, a ship powered only by sails wasn't going to go very fast: a steam-ship may have crossed the Atlantic in 1818 but that doesn't mean they replaced sailing ships immediately.

Mendelssohn conducted concerts with great success, including his Overture to Shakespeare's “A Midsummer Night's Dream” and the first symphony he'd composed for full orchestra. It's not the first symphony he wrote since he'd composed 13 smaller symphonies for string orchestra by the time he was 14; and it can't be called his first “mature” symphony because he was 15 when he wrote it. There was one slight change: he made an orchestral version of the Scherzo of the String Octet and replaced the original third movement of this symphony with it. He also played Beethoven's last piano concerto, the “Emperor” Concerto, written the year Mendelssohn was born.

There was a benefit concert where Mendelssohn was the star attraction and he brought together many great singers and pianists who were in London to perform on the program. The audience was enthusiastic throughout the concert which lasted a total of four hours.

After this, he traveled north and visited business associates of his father's who had a country estate in Scotland. He walked through Edinburgh and made notes about places associated with Mary Queen of Scots. It was a stormy day when he saw Fingal's Cave on an island off Scotland's rugged Atlantic Coast – he wrote home about seeing it, scribbling down a few measures of music which next year became the opening of an orchestral work he first called “The Lonely Island.”
By the time he had completed it, he called it “The Hebrides Overture” or “Fingal's Cave” (even today, it's still known by either of these names). You can see a video of a visit to Fingal's Cave and hear the music Mendelssohn composed inspired by his visit there.

He also jotted down some ideas that would eventually become a symphony inspired by his Scottish trip. He started working on it the following year, but for some reason it took him 11 years before he was satisfied with it.

While there, he also met the great author, Sir Walter Scott (see left), whose novels Mendelssohn and his sister had read (in English). By this time, Scott was old and in the midst of moving into a new house, too impatient to be bothered by a young fan – it had taken days to find him and in the end, Mendelssohn had only a half hour of superficial conversation with him, nothing like his visits to Goethe had been.

Sir Walter Scott was the first British writer to achieve an international reputation during his lifetime. He's most famous for his novels Ivanhoe and The Lady of the Lake. Beethoven and Schubert read his books – Schubert set some of his words (his famous song “Ave Maria” is originally written to a poem of Scott's) – and both wanted to meet him but never had the chance.

When Mendelssohn returned to London, in a hurry to leave for home, he was involved in a carriage accident. The carriage tipped over, he fell to the street and his knee was badly injured. As a result he had to spend several weeks in bed and missed getting home in time for his sister Fanny's wedding. He was supposed to compose some music for it so in addition to getting everything else ready for the wedding, the bride-to-be ended up composing her own music and playing it herself!

Mendelssohn at least made it home in time for his parents' 25th Wedding Anniversary and gave them a little operetta as a present: “The Return from Foreign Lands” was performed at a Sunday musicale and was well received by the family, but Mendelssohn wasn't satisfied and never did anything with it after that one performance.


In the meantime, he was offered a teaching job at the University of Berlin which he turned down. Tired of Berlin, Mendelssohn decided to continue traveling and left home in May for Italy. On the way, he stopped to visit Goethe – it turned out to be the last time (you can read more about his visits to Goethe when he was a child in this earlier post).

He stayed in Munich for a while and met a young pianist. He fell in love with her playing if not with her – even the king was joking they should get married – and this inspired him to write a piano concerto of his own.

From Munich, he went to Salzburg (the City of Mozart) and Vienna before arriving in Venice in October. When he stopped in Florence, Italy, he painted this water-color (see, right) of the cathedral which he sent home with a letter.

While he was in Rome, the Pope died and Mendelssohn witnessed the papal funeral and conclave of cardinals gathering to elect the Pope's successor.

This was were he met Hector Berlioz, the composer of the Symphonie fantastique among other works. In other posts, I've described him as the wildest of the wild new generation of composers, almost the exact opposite of Mendelssohn. Where Mendelssohn was neatly dressed and elegant and enjoyed conversation at cocktail parties in peoples' homes, Berlioz was wild and casually (often sloppily) dressed, preferred sitting in dives with rowdy friends drinking wine and smoking cigars.

Berlioz (seen here in a caricature drawn while he was in Rome) wrote that Mendelssohn was an admirable fellow, a genius, “a confirmed Lutheran” who played Beethoven piano sonatas splendidly but who did not understand Berlioz' music at all.

Mendelssohn wrote to his father that the instrumentation of Berlioz' new symphony was “so terribly dirty” you felt like “washing your hands after handling one of his scores.” He described the Symphonie fantastique: “An artist goes to a ball” – he left out the bit about the opium overdose – “then goes to the devil when all the instruments have a hang-over and vomit music. And yet he is a very pleasant man and speaks well and has fine ideas and you can't help liking him.”

In the late Spring of 1830, he went to Milan where he met Karl Mozart, one of Mozart's sons who was an Austrian diplomat there. Mendelssohn played Mozart's music for him. Friends of Karl's began a conversation about Shakespeare plays – the tragedies were okay but the comedies were stupid, especially that fairy play, A Midsummer Night's Dream, and they all agreed that Mendelssohn shouldn't waste his time reading it. He wrote home that he “kept quiet like a coward,” unable to tell them when he was 17 he'd written an overture to the play – ironically, ten years later, he would write more music for a production of the play, too, including the famous “Wedding March.”


In Switzerland, he took long walks in the valleys and climbed some mountains. In his letters home, he described how some English tourists complained about the lack of fireplaces where they were staying and that their travel-agent “never mentioned they have mountains here!” There was a German tourist who looked at the surrounding landscape as if he were going to buy it, then shook his head and walked away as if he'd decided it was too expensive.

Back in Munich in September, he gave the premiere of his newly finished piano concerto. This piece would become so popular, everybody wanted to play it. A few years later, in Paris, his friend Berlioz joked that so many people had played that concerto on this one piano, the piano could now play it by itself.

(Incidentally, Stuart Malina, conductor of the Harrisburg Symphony, will be playing this concerto with the orchestra in February's concert.)

On the coach-ride from Munich to Paris, he thought about writing an opera for the King of Bavaria: maybe Shakespeare's “The Tempest.” He never did.

Meanwhile, early in 1830, there had just been another revolution in Paris, not as far-reaching or as tragic as the old one in 1789. Life was very different now than it had been when Mendelssohn had visited there only six years earlier. Among the great names who dominated the cultural scene – like the German composer Meyerbeer and the Italian violinist Paganini – were two young pianists: Franz Liszt (then 19 - see left) ) and Frederic Chopin (then 21). As a result of Paganini's influence, Liszt had closed himself off from the world and practiced the piano sometimes 14 hours a day. Mendelssohn had heard him play six years before and thought he had “more fingers than brains,” but now thought he was developing into a great talent. Like Berlioz, Liszt wrote music that was beyond Mendelssohn's appreciation – too wild, too modern – but Liszt sat down and played through Mendelssohn's new concerto at sight, never having seen it before, and played it so beautifully, Mendelssohn thought it was a miracle, one of the best performances it ever received.

Paris was not so crazy about Mendelssohn's music. A lot of the great musicians and poets he met rubbed him the wrong way. He also heard the news that Goethe had just died at the age of 82.

He was glad to be back in London in time for his 23rd birthday. But he received news that his friend Eduard Rietz had died at the age of 29. Rietz was his violin teacher and the violinist he'd written the Octet for as a birthday present. In memory of his friend, he wrote a nostalgic and gentle slow movement which he added to the String Quintet he'd written with his teacher in mind back when he was 17.

Otherwise, he had great success conducting several concerts in London and played his own new concerto and one by Beethoven to rave reviews. He even gave an organ recital at St. Paul's cathedral and the huge church was filled with listeners.

While he was there, he also got the news that his old teacher Zelter had died, too. Three close friends had died while he was away – it was June before he left to return to Berlin. It had been two years since he left home.

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With all the success he'd experienced in his life so far and already famous at 23, he was surprised when he was turned down as Music Director of the old Singing Academy which Zelter had run for the last 33 years. It may have been because the Academy's board figured he would not stay put in Berlin for very long; his friends and family suspected it may have been because he had been born a Jew. Things in Berlin had not improved much since the days of his grandfather. The school hired the old director's assistant – a case of loyalty – but he turned out to be such a mediocre director, the school declined rapidly over the next 18 years.

London had asked him for a new symphony, so he completed the one he'd started in Rome, inspired by his travels in Italy. He stopped on the way to London and conducted some concerts in Düsseldorf where they asked him to come back and direct the Choral Festival there.

In England, his “Italian” Symphony was a huge success - you can hear the opening of the 1st movement here - but Mendelssohn was unhappy with it and decided to revise it. Even though he performed it many times during his life, it was still unpublished when he died.

During his trips to England, he'd heard several oratorios by George Frederic Handel. When he went back to Düsseldorf, he conducted the first Handel performances Germany ever heard of the “Messiah” with its famous Hallelujah Chorus. Over the next few years there, he conducted several other oratorios and operas and orchestral concerts, all of which were well received, though some students demonstrated in front of the concert hall, carrying signs that said “Christian Music for Christian Musicians,” a reference again to Mendelssohn's Jewish heritage. They had to be escorted away by the police.

(See illustration, left, of the concert hall in Düsseldorf between 1830 and 1864. Robert Schumann would conduct concerts in this same hall about a decade later with much less success.)

It was there Mendelssohn first performed his new oratorio – inspired by the music of Handel and Bach – based on the biblical story of St. Paul. Perhaps he was thinking about this anti-Semitic attitude when he chose a story about a man, a Jew persecuting the early Christians, who was converted in a blinding flash from Heaven “on the road to Damascus” and who later became one of the great figures of the early Christian church.


He was then offered a job conducting the orchestra in Leipzig, one of the great German cities in what was then the Kingdom of Saxony. It had been the home of Bach for most of his career. Mendelssohn would conduct the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra (geh-VONT-house) - there's more information about the hall & the orchestra in another post (see illustration, right, which includes the Mendelssohn Monument, placed in front of the building in 1892).

Shortly after Mendelssohn settled there, his father died suddenly, apparently of a stroke. His sister Fanny was worried about Felix because “you know how he worshiped Father.” They had become much closer in the last couple of years after they'd had a big argument: his father wanted him to drop the name Mendelssohn completely and just be Felix Bartholdy, not Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy as the name had been changed to after his conversion, back when he was 7 years old. But the composer was proud of his grandfather's name and wouldn't drop it. He always signed his name (see signature, left) Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy.

Back in Leipzig after his father's funeral, Mendelssohn began a new part of his career. He was no longer the traveler: Leipzig became his new home.

- Dr. Dick