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A non-fiction by Elbert Hubbard

Felix Mendelssohn

Title:     Felix Mendelssohn
Author: Elbert Hubbard [More Titles by Hubbard]

The correspondence of Goethe and Zelter displeases me. I always feel out of sorts when I have been reading it. Do you know that I am making great strides in water-colors? Schirmer comes to me every Saturday at eleven, and paints for two hours at a landscape, which he is going to make me a present of, because the subject occurred to him whilst I was playing the little "Rivulet" (which you know). It represents a fellow who saunters out of a dark forest into a sunny little nook; trees all about, with stems thick and thin; one has fallen across the rivulet; the ground is carpeted with soft, deep moss, full of ferns; there are stones garlanded with blackberry-bushes; it is fine warm weather; the whole will be charming.

---Mendelssohn to Devrient

Thirty-eight years is not a long life, but still it is long enough to do great things. Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy was born in the year Eighteen Hundred Nine, at Hamburg, and died at Leipzig in the year Eighteen Hundred Forty-seven. His career was a triumphal march. The road to success with him was no zigzag journey--from the first he went straight to the front. Whether as a baby he crowed in key, and cried to a one-two-three melody, as his old nurse used to aver, is a little doubtful, possibly. But all agree that he was the most precocious musical genius that ever lived, excepting Mozart; and Goethe, who knew them both, declared that Mendelssohn's music bore the same relationship to Mozart's as the talk of a grown-up cultured person to the prattle of a child.

But then Goethe was not a musician, and sixty years had passed from the time Goethe saw Mozart before he met Mendelssohn. Goethe loved the brown-curled Jewish boy at sight; and whether on meeting Mozart he ever recovered from the taint of prejudice that most people feel when a prodigy is introduced, is a question.

But who can wonder that the old poet's heart went out to the youthful Mendelssohn as soon as he saw him!

He was a being to fill a poet's dream--such a youth as the Old Masters used to picture as the Christ when He confounded the wise men. And then the painters posed this same type of boy as Daniel in the lions' den; and back in the days of Pericles, the Greeks were fond of showing the beautiful youth, just approaching adolescence, in the nude, as the god of Love. When the face has all the soft beauty of a woman, and the figure, slight, slender, lithe and graceful, carries only a suggestion of the masculine strength to come--then beauty is at perihelion. The "Eros" of Phidias was not the helpless, dumpy cherub "Cupid"--he was a slender-limbed boy of twelve years who showed collar-bone and revealed every rib.

Beauty and strength of the highest type are never complete--their lure lies in a certain reserve, and behind all is a suggestion of unfoldment. Maturity is not the acme of beauty, because in maturity there is nothing more to hope for--only the uncompleted fills the heart, for from it we construct the Ideal.

Goethe looked out of his window and seeing Felix Mendelssohn playing with the children, exclaimed to Zelter, "He is a Greek god in the germ, and I here solemnly protest against his wearing clothes."

The words sound singularly like the remark of Doctor Schneider, made ten years later, when Herr Doctor removed the sheet that covered the dead body of Goethe, and gazing upon the full-rounded limbs, the mighty chest, the columnar neck and the Jovelike head, exclaimed, "It is the body of a Greek god!" And the surgeons stood there in silent awe, forgetful of their task.

Zelter, who introduced Mendelssohn to Goethe, was a fine old character, nearly as fine a type as Goethe himself. Heine once said, "Musicians constitute a third sex." And that there have been some unsexed, or at least unmanly men, who were great musicians, need not be denied. The art of music borders more closely upon the dim and mystic realms of the inspirational than any of the other arts. Music refuses to give up its secrets in a formula and at last eludes the sciolist with his ever-ready theorem. But still, all musicians are not dreamers. Zelter, for instance, was a most hard-headed, practical man: a positivist and mathematician with a turn for economics, and a Gradgrind for facts. He was a stone-mason, and worked at his trade at odd times all through his life, just because he felt it was every man's duty to work with his hands. Imagine Tolstoy playing the piano and composing instead of making shoes, and you have Zelter.

This curious character was bound to the Mendelssohn family by his love for Moses Mendelssohn, the grandfather of Felix. Moses Mendel added the "sohn" in loving recognition of his father, just as "Bartholdy" was added by the father of Felix in loving token to his wife. It was the grandfather of Felix who first gave glory to the name. We sometimes forget that Moses Mendelssohn was one of the greatest thinkers Germany has produced--the man who summed up in his own head all the philosophy of the time and gave Spinoza to the world. This was the man to whom the erratic Zelter was bound in admiration, and when it was suggested that he teach musical composition to the grandchild of his idol, he accepted the post with zest.

But there came a shade of disappointment to the grim and bearded Zelter when he failed to find a trace of resemblance between the child and the child's grandfather. The boy was sprightly, emotional, loving; and could play the piano from his tenth year better than Zelter himself. When Goethe teasingly suggested this fact, Zelter replied, "You mean he plays different, not better." Goethe apologized.

Yet the boy was not a philosopher, and this grieved Zelter, who wanted him to be the grandson of his grandfather, and a musician besides.

The lad's skill in composition, however, soon turned the old teacher's fears into joy. Such a pupil he had never had before! And he did not reason it out that no one else had ever had, either. The child, like Chopin, read music before he read print, and improvised, merging one tune with another, bringing harmony out of hopeless chaos. Zelter followed, fearing success would turn the boy's head--berating, scolding, chiding, encouraging--and all the time admiring and loving. The pretty boy was not much frightened by the old man's rough ways, but seized upon such of the instruction as he needed and filled in the rest with his own peerless soul.

The parents were astounded at such progress. At first they had wished merely to round out the boy's education with a proper amount of musical instruction, and now they reluctantly allowed the old teacher to have his way--the lad must make his career a musical one. The boy composed a cantata, which was given in the parlors of his parents' home, with an orchestra secured for the occasion. Felix stood on a chair and led his band of musicians with that solemn dignity which was his through life. Zelter grumbled, ridiculed and criticized--that was the way he showed his interest. The old musician declared they were making a "Miss Nancy" of his pupil--saturating him with flattery, and he threatened to resign his office--most certainly not intending to do so.

It was about this time that Zelter threw out the hint that he was going down to Weimar to see his friend Goethe--would Felix like to go? Felix would be delighted, and when the boy's father and mother were interviewed, they were pleased, too, at the prospect of their boy's making the acquaintance of the greatest poet of Germany. Felix was duly cautioned about how he should conduct himself. He promised, of course, and also agreed to write a letter home every day, recording the exact language that the author of "Werther" used in his presence.

Goethe and the Carlylian Zelter had been cronies for many years. The poet delighted in the company of the gruff old stone-mason musician, and together they laughed at the world over their pipes and mugs. And sometimes, alas, they hotly argued and raised their voices in donner-und-blitzen style, as Germans have been known to do. Yet they were friends, and the honest Zelter's yearly visits were as a godsend to the old poet, who was often pestered to distraction by visitors who only voiced the conventional, the inconsequential and absurd. Here was a man who tried his steel.

Now, Zelter had his theories about teaching harmony--theories too finely spun for any one but himself to grasp. Possibly he himself did not seize them very firmly, but only argued them in a vain attempt to clear the matter up in his own mind. The things we are not quite sure of are those upon which we insist.

Goethe had pooh-poohed and smitten the table with his "stein" in denial.

And now Zelter, the frank and bold, stealthily and by concocted plot and plan took his pupil, Felix Mendelssohn, with him on a visit to Weimar. He wanted to confound his antagonist and to reveal by actual proof the success that could be achieved where correct methods of instruction were followed.

Jean Jacques had written a novel showing what right theories, properly followed up, could do for his hero. Zelter had done better--he exhibited the youth.

"A girl in boy's clothes, I do believe," said Goethe, with his usual banter, in the evening when a little company had gathered in the parlors. Felix sat on his teacher's knee, with his arms around the old man's neck, girl-like. "Does he play?" continued Goethe, going over and opening the piano.

"Oh, a little!" answered Zelter indifferently.

The ladies insisted--they always had music when Zelter made them a visit.

"Come, make some noise and awaken the spirits that have so long lain slumbering!" ordered the old poet.

Zelter advanced to the piano and played a stiff, formal little tune of his own.

He arose and motioned to Felix.

"Play that!" said the teacher.

The child sat down, and with an impatient little gesture and half-smile at the audience, played the piece exactly as Zelter had played it, with a certain drawling style that was all Zelter's own. It was so funny that the listeners burst into shouts of laughter. But the boy instantly restored order by striking the bass a strong stroke with both hands, running the scale, and weaving that simple little air into the most curious variations.

For ten minutes he played, bringing in Zelter's little tune again and again, and then Zelter in a voice of pretended wrath cried, "Cease that tin-pan drumming and play something worth while."

Goethe arose, stroked the boy's pretty brown curls, kissed him on the forehead and said: "Yes, play something worth while. I know you two rogues--you have been practising on that piece for a year or more, and now you pretend to be improvising--I'll see whether you can play!"

And going to a portfolio he took out a manuscript piece of music written out in the fine, delicate hand of Mozart, and placed it on the music-rack of the piano. Felix played the piece as if it were his own; and then laying it aside, went back and played it through from memory.

Then piece after piece was brought out for him to play, and Zelter leaned back and by his manner said, "Oh, it is nothing!"

And certainly it was nothing to the boy--he played with such ease that his talent was quite unknown to himself. He had not yet discovered that every one could not produce music just as they could talk.

Goethe's admiration for the boy was unbounded. The two weeks of Mendelssohn's prescribed visit had expired and Goethe begged for an extension of two weeks more. Every evening there was the little impromptu concert. After that Felix paid various visits to Weimar. Goethe's house was his home, and the affection between the old poet and the young musician was very gentle and very firm. "All souls are of one age," says Swedenborg. Goethe was seventy-three and Mendelssohn thirteen when they first met, but very soon they were as equals--boys together.

Goethe was a learner to the day of his passing: he wanted to know. In the presence of those who had followed certain themes further than he had, he was as an eager, curious child. When Goethe was seventy-eight and Mendelssohn eighteen, they spent another month together; and a regular program of instruction was laid out. Each morning at precisely nine, they met for the poet's "music lesson," as Goethe called it, and the boy would play from some certain composer, showing the man's peculiar style, and the features that differentiated him from others. Goethe himself has recorded in his correspondence that it was Felix Mendelssohn who taught him of Hengstenberg and Spontini, introduced him to Hegel's "AEsthetics," and revealed to him for the first time the wonders of Beethoven.

Can you not close your eyes and see them--the mighty giant of fourscore, with his whitened locks, and the slight, slender, handsome boy?

The old man is seated in his armchair near the window that opens on the garden. The youth is at the piano and plays from time to time to illustrate his thought, then turns and talks, and the old man nods in recognition. The boy sings and the old man chords in with a deep, mellow bass which the years have not subdued.

When there are others present these two may romp, joke and talk much--masking their hearts by frivolity--but together they sit in silence, or speak only in lowered voices as all true lovers always do. Their conversation is sparse and to the point; each is mindful of the dignity and worth that the other possesses: each recognizes the respect that is due to the mind that knows and the heart that feels. "All souls are of one age."

* * * * *

With one exception, Felix Mendelssohn was unlike all the great composers who lived before him--he was born in affluence; during his life all the money he could use was his. No struggle for recognition marked his growth. He never knew the pang of being misunderstood by the public he sought to serve. Whether these things were to his lasting disadvantage, as many aver, will forever remain a question of opinion.

Felix Mendelssohn was the culminating flower of a long line of exquisite culture. He was an orchid that does not reproduce itself. With him died the race. All that beauty of soul, vivacity, candor and sparkling gaiety, with the nerved-up capacity for work, were but the flaring up of life ere it goes out in the night of death. Such men never found either a race or a school. They are the comets that dash across the plane of our vision, obeying no orbit, leaving behind only a memory of blinding light.

The character of Mendelssohn was distinctly feminine, and it follows that his music should be played by men and not by women, otherwise we get a suggestion of softness and tameness that is apt to pall. Man, like Deity, creates in his own image.

Sorrow had never pierced the heart of this prosperous and very respectable person.

He was never guilty of indiscretion or excess, and no demon of discontent haunted his dreams.

In Mendelssohn's music we get no sense of Titanic power such as we feel when "Wagner" is being played; no world problems vex us. The delicate, plaintive, spiritual seductions of Chopin, who swept the keys with an insinuating gossamer touch, are not there. The brilliant extravaganzas of Liszt--passages illumined by living lightning--are wholly wanting. But in it all you feel the deep, measured pulse of a religious conviction that never halts nor doubts. There are grace, ease, beauty, sweetness and exquisite harmony everywhere. In the "Saint Paul," as in his other oratorios, are such arias for the contralto as, "But the Lord is mindful of His own"; for the bass, "God have mercy upon us," and for the tenor, "Be thou faithful unto death." These reveal pure and exalted melody of highest type. It uplifts but does not intoxicate. Spontaneity is sacrificed to perfection, and the lack of self-assertion allows us to keep our wits and admire sanely.

Heinrich Heine, the pagan Jew, once taunted Mendelssohn with being a Jew and yet conducting a "Passion Play." The gibe was a home-thrust and a cruel one, since Mendelssohn had neither the wit nor the mental acuteness to avoid the pink of the man who was hated by Jew and Christian alike. Towards the exiled Heine, Mendelssohn had only a patronizing pity--"Why should any man offend the people in power?" he once asked.

Only the exiled can sympathize with the exile--only the downtrodden and the sore-oppressed understand the outcast. Golgotha never came to Mendelssohn, and this was at once his blessing and his misfortune.

And the grim fact still remains that world-poets have never been "respectable," and that the saviors of the world are usually crucified between thieves.

In life Mendelssohn received every token of approbation that men can pay to other men. For him wealth waited, kings uncovered, laurel bloomed and blossomed, and love crowned all. His popularity was greater than that of any other man of his time. He had no enemies, no detractors, no rivals--his pathway was literally and poetically strewn with roses. What more can any man desire? Lasting fame and a name that never dies? Avaunt! but first know this, that immortality is reserved alone for those who have been despised and rejected of men.

* * * * *

Saintship is the exclusive possession of those who have either worn out, or never had, the capacity to sin.

Fortunately for Felix Mendelssohn he never had it--he was ever the bright, joyous, gracious, beautiful being that all his friends describe, and every one who met him was his friend thereafter. The character of "Seraphael" in the novel of "Charles Auchester," by Miss Sheppard, portrays Mendelssohn in a glowing, seraphic light. The book reveals the emotional qualities of a woman given over to her idol, and yet the man is Mendelssohn--he was equal to the best that could be said of him.

The weakness of Miss Sheppard's book lies in the fact that she is so true to life that we tire of the goodness and beauty, and long for a rogue to keep us company and break the pall of a sweetness that cloys.

The bitterest thing Mendelssohn ever said of a public performer was to describe a certain prima donna as acting like an "arrogant cook." All the good orchestra leaders are supposed to have fine fits of frenzy when they tear their hair in wrath at the discordant braying of careless players. But Mendelssohn never lost his temper. When his men played well, as soon as the piece was done he went among them shaking hands, congratulating and thanking them. This would have been a great stroke of policy in the eyes of a groundling, for the action never failed to catch the audience, and then the applause was uproarious. At such times Mendelssohn seemed to fail in knowing the applause was for him, and appeared as one half-dazed or embarrassed, when suddenly remembering where he was, he would seize the nearest 'cello, violin or oboe, and drag the astonished man to the front to share the honors and bouquets. If this was artistry it was of a high order and should be ranked as art.

I once heard Henry Irving make a speech at Harvard University, and shall never forget the tremor in his voice and the half-embarrassment of his manner. What could have been more complimentary to college striplings? And then, as usual, he looked helplessly about for Ellen Terry, and having located her, held out his hand toward her and led her to the front to receive the homage.

Tears filled my eyes. Was Irving's action art? Ods-bodkins! I never thought of it: I was hypnotized and all swallowed up in loving admiration for Sir Henry and the beautiful Lady Ellen.

Felix Mendelssohn was beloved by his players. First, because he never wrote parts that only seraphs of light could play. In this he was unlike Wagner, who could think such music as no brass, no wood nor strings could perform, and so was ever in torments of doubt and disappointment. Second, he was always grateful when his players did the best they could. Third, he was graciously polite, even at rehearsals. The extent of his inclination to rebuke was shown once when he abruptly rapped for silence, and when quiet came said to his orchestra: "I am sure that any one of the gentlemen present could write a symphony. I think, too, that you can all improve on the music of the past--even that of Beethoven. But this afternoon we are playing Beethoven's music--will you oblige me?" And every man awoke to the necessity of putting the sweet, subtile, strong quality of the master into the work, instead of absent-mindedly sounding the note, fighting bluebottles, and taking care merely not to get off the key too much.

At the great Birmingham Festival several hundred ladies in the audience contrived at a given signal to shower the great conductor with bouquets. And Mendelssohn, entering into the spirit of the fun, dexterously caught the blossoms and tossed them to his players, not even forgetting the triangles and the boys who played the kettledrums.

Bayard Taylor has described the lustrous brown eyes of Mendelssohn, that seemed to send rays of light into your own: "Such eyes are the possession of men who have seen heavenly visions. Genius shows itself in the eye. Those who looked into the eyes of Sir Walter Scott, Robert Burns or Lord Byron, always came away and told of it as an epoch in their lives. This was what I thought when I sat vis-a-vis with Felix Mendelssohn and looked into his eyes. I did not hear his voice, for I was too intent on gazing into the fathomless depths of those splendid eyes--eyes that mirrored infinity, eyes that had beheld celestial glory. Little did I think then that in two years those eyes would close forever."

* * * * *

In a letter to Hensel, Felix Mendelssohn's sex-quality is finely revealed, when he says that his friends are advising him to marry, and he is on the lookout for a wife.

Ye gods! there is something strangely creepy about the thought of a man going out in cold blood to seek a wife. Only two kinds of men search for a wife; one is the Turk, and the other is his antithesis, who is advised to marry for hygienic, prudential or sociologic reasons. John Ruskin was "advised" to marry and the matter was duly arranged for him. In a week he awoke to the hideousness of the condition. Six years elapsed before John Millais and Chief Justice Coleridge collaborated to set him free, but the cicatrix remained.

The great books are those the authors had to write to get rid of; the only immortal songs are those sung because the singers could not help it. The best-loved wife is the woman who married because her lover had to marry her to get rid of her; the children that are born because they had to be are the ones that stock the race; and the love that can not help itself is the only love that uplifts and inspires.

Felix Mendelssohn, the slight, joyous, girlish youth, should have preserved his Cecilia-like virginity. He should have left marriage to those who were capable of nothing else; this would not have meant that he turn ascetic, for the ascetic is a voluptuary in disguise. He should simply have been married to his work. The wonder is, though, that once the thought of marriage was forced upon him, he did not marry a Hittite who delighted in pork-chops and tomato-sauce, ordered Guinness Stout in public places, and disciplined him as a genius should be disciplined.

Fate was kind, however, and the lady of his choice was nearly as esthetic in face and form, as gentle and spirituelle as himself. She never humiliated him by cackle, nor led him a merry chase after society's baubles. Her only wish was to please him and to do her wifely duty. They pooled their weaknesses, and it need not be stated that this, the only love in the life of Mendelssohn, made not the slightest impress on his art, save to subdue it. The passing years brought domestic responsibilities, and the every-day trials of life chafed his soul, until the wasted body, grown tired before its time, refused to go on, and death set the spirit free.

* * * * *

Mendelssohn made five visits to England, where his success was even greater than it was at home. He learned to express himself well in English, but always spoke with the precision and care that marks the educated foreigner. So the result was that he spoke really better "English" than the English. The ease with which the Hebrew learns a language has often been noted and commented upon. Mendelssohn preferred German, but was not at a loss to carry on a conversation in French, Italian or English.

His nature was especially cosmopolitan, and like the true aristocrat that he was, he was also a democrat, and at home in any society.

When he was invited by the Queen to call upon her at Buckingham Palace, he went alone, in his afternoon dress, and sent in his card as every gentleman does when he calls upon a lady. Her Majesty greeted him at the door of her sitting-room, and dismissed the servants. They met as equals. In compliment to her guest Victoria spoke only in German. The Queen, seeing the music-rack was not in order, apologized, womanlike, for the appearance of the room and began to dust things in the usual housewifely fashion.

Mendelssohn, with that fine grace which never forsook him, assisted her in putting things to rights, and when the piano was opened, he proceeded to carry out two pet parrots, laughingly explaining that if they were to have music, it was well to insure against competition.

He sat down at the piano and played, without being asked, and sang a little song in English in graceful but unobtrusive compliment to the hostess. Then the Queen sang in German, he playing the accompaniment. And in his letter to his sister Fanny, telling her of all this, in his easy, gossipy, brotherly way, Felix adds that the Queen has a charming soprano voice, that only needs a little cultivation and practise to make her fit to take the leading part in "Elijah."

This was no joke to Felix--he only regretted that Queen Victoria's official position was such that she could not spare enough time for music.

Albert did not appear upon the scene until Mendelssohn had extended his call to an hour, and was just ready to leave. The Prince Consort was too perfect a gentleman to ever obtrude when his wife was entertaining callers, but now he apologized for not knowing the Meister had honored them--which we hope was a white lie. But, anyway, Felix consented to remain and play a few bars of the oratorio they had heard him conduct the night before. Then Albert sang a little, and Victoria insisted on making a cup of tea for the guest before they parted. When he went away, Albert and Victoria both walked with him down the hall, and as he bade them good-by, Victoria spoke the kindly "Auf wiedersehen."

In the story of her life, Victoria has in spirit corroborated this account of her meeting with Mendelssohn. She refers to him as her dear friend and the friend of her husband, and pays incidentally a gentle tribute to his memory.

The universal quality of Mendelssohn's knowledge, his fine forbearance and diplomatic skill in leading a conversation into safe and peaceful waters, were very marked. He was recognized by the King of Saxony as a king of art, and so was received into the household as an equal; and surely no man ever had a more kingly countenance. His body, however, seemed to lag behind, and was no match for his sublime spirit. But when fired by his position as Conductor, or when at the piano, the slender body was nerved to a point where it seemed all suppleness and sinewy strength.

In his "Songs Without Words," the spirit of the Master is best shown. There the grace, the gentleness and the sublimity of his soul are best mirrored. And if at twilight you should hear his "On the Wings of Song," played by one who understands, perhaps you will feel his spirit near, and divine the purity, kindliness and excellence of Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy.

[The end]
Elbert Hubbard's Writings: Felix Mendelssohn