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1909

FELIX MENDELSSOHN-BARTHOLDY

BORN FEBRUARY 3, 1809

We are like leaves which the flowering springtime brings forth, when of a sudden they grow between the rays of the sun; for a space so brief do we rejoice in the flowers of youth, knowing nothing neither good nor evil from the gods. But the black fates stand by, the one with the doom of doleful age, the other with the doom of death; and for a little space the fruit of youth continues, during one day's sunshine on the earth. But, when once the appointed time of youth is passed, better to die forthwith than to live.—Mimnermus, PROFESSOR BUTCHER's Translation.

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MENDELSSOHN lived to within four months of his thirty-eighth year, During by far the larger portion of that brief lifetime he enjoyed universal attention throughout Europe, and this not merely amongst unthinking, novelty-seeking crowds, but also, it should be remembered, amongst the most critical circles of the members of his own craft. Then, just as meteorically as it appeared, so his light snuffed out abruptly. In England, where his cult reached its zenith, the one relic and obsequy of his memory which we retain would seem to consist in a lukewarm, waning, and quite uncritical affection for his Elijah. The occurrence of his centenary is, therefore, a doubly welcome opportunity. It permits one to plead that never was there a period in musical history when the special calibre of his genius might better reward us for its resuscitation. A simple, unadulterated beverage, genuine of its kind, is becoming so extremely rare, that we may do well to recall Schumann's pertinent remark: Mendelssohn is a wine of the purest, if not of the richest vintage.'

A particular charm and fascination in Mendelssohn lies therein, that he never tried to hide himself from us-behind so much as a

blade of grass.

The mingled warp and woof of his character and circumstance offer besides such an extraordinarily perfect piece of texture in the fabric of life that the record is one to cherish, not for a transitory epoch, but for all time. He had not only the happiness to be gifted, but the far choicer gift to be happy. The very name- -Felixbestowed upon him at his birth proved an odd premonition of his nature and future. Balzac, with his many queer theories as to the Vol. LXV-No. 384

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physiognomy of names and their psychic influences, would here have found a most convincing text. Mendelssohn came into contact with practically nothing from which he could not draw some intelligible and agreeable conclusion,

The old Greek sense of tragedy in past and future (he observes in one of his innumerable letters) is no problem for me to solve. I don't want to. The present is quite enough for me. . . . Each day brings me fresh anticipations ; and every day fulfils them. The sun is again shining on my breakfast table, and I am now going to my daily work. . . . So I live happily on and think of you in every pleasant moment. . . . It is indeed delicious to reflect upon how very many charming and reasonable people there are in the world.

In the whole course of his music Mendelssohn never once leaves a suspicion that he may perhaps not be quite sure of his purpose, or unable to entirely control his imagination. If he could never feel himself stupendous or splendid-infinitely great, as must have been at times a flash of experience vouchsafed to a Beethoven, it had to follow paradoxically that he could never also feel himself infinitely small. Of all men he would have been the last to exclaim:

Overarched by gorgeous night,
I wave my trivial self away.

One cannot possibly picture Mendelssohn ever once revelling in the crash and clang of some great storm. • When the weather is cold and grey,' he tells us, “I'm never in a communicative mood.' As he indicates, he had no illogical yearnings to delve and probe, to soar and float in some mysterious infinitude. Why should he, indeed, when he could tread with the most elastic yet surest foot amidst the palpable, tangible beauties of what he felt to be an excellent earth? If he had none of that Titanic brooding force eager to explore vague vastnesses, and which brings with it its own peculiar curse as well as its dominating force-if he never lost himself in an ocean, still his rivulets and streamlets, as they ripple and flow and gurgle softly, can please and delight us by the sheer translucence of their sunlit shallows.

As a motto to the Scherzo of that wondrous production for a lad barely seventeen, the Octet, Op. 20, he borrowed the strophe 'orchestra pianissimo' which ends up the Walpurgis Nacht dream of Goethe's Faust:

Wolkenzug und Nebelflor

Erhellen sich von oben.
Luft im Laub und Wind im Rohr,

Und alles ist zerstoben.

It was natural for the boy, and very typical of the matured man, that this passage of all others, should strike him in Faust. There exists another noteworthy piece of chamber music, achieved by an adolescent in his teens, namely, Hugo Wolf's String Quartet in

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D minor, which also bears a motto from Faust, equally typical of its composer's circumstances and outlook upon life : Entbehren sollst du, sollst entbehren.'

We may say of Mendelssohn that the talisman of his nature lay not in strength, but rather therein that every component part of him harmonised. His soul, spirit, mind, character, temperament, all that we seek to understand and grasp in the constitution of a human being, were so beautifully poised and balanced as to exactly suit and support each other.

Poverty, hardships, and difficulties are habitually quoted as necessary and comforting tonics for genius. It is certain that as often as not they have been its goads. To so delicately and tenderly organised an instrument as was Mendelssohn-physically and mentally—they could not have failed to be a dire and destroying scourge.

On the other hand, though, the average well-to-do middle-class position of his family might very easily have led Mendelssohn to spend his days, and die, hemmed in by the narrow, unambitious existence of a man of small, independent means.

In his case affluence of circumstance clearly enabled him to produce and give of his utmost and his best. And it was no hypocritical veneer of piety that made him habitually sign his scores God grant success,' or May God help me'; but rather an innate reverence for the sacredness of work as the most eloquent document of conscience and religion that he could conceive or devise.

As to his impelling creative instinct as a musician, even Wagner, with all the potential prejudices of his critical pronouncements, was bound to acknowledge that, together with Mozart, Mendelssohn's was probably the most specifically musical genius hitherto recorded. Like Mozart—and like Schubert, too-he had the faculty for thinking and expressing himself as easily, if not more easily, in notes than in words.

Another most interesting factor in a psychological study of Mendelssohn is the coincidence that with spirit, mind and environment in harmony, there was also the closest possible bond between the innermost character of his music and the being and habit of the outward man. From all we know of his appearance, he was small, slight of build, elegant and graceful of movement. His features were well-proportioned and clean-cut, and his manners irreproachable. As a child already, he was an uncanny, if not a fairly priggish model of order and neatness.

The physical and psychical phenomenon connecting certain types of men with certain types of art has not yet been studied with sufficient science and exactitude. Each one of us, we may believe, has some species of individuality, weak or strong, exalted or commonplace, but it requires a very subtle degree of technical accomplishment to express this self faithfully and fluently in art. Mendelssohn himself whilst once wandering through a room of the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, hung with portraits

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To anyone who has acquired some familiarity in score-reading, the pages of each great master can present certain characteristic designs. What appeals to one most in Mendelssohn's scoring is the exquisitely dainty and equalised proportion of its patterns. We may search in vain throughout his music for traces of rugged, unpolished contours such as one often lights upon in looking over a Beethoven or a Berlioz or a Schumann score. Mendelssohn had inimitable tact, not by any means for extracting its utmost virtue and capacity from an instrument, but for hiding all inherent weaknesses and asperities. For this reason every lover of some special musical medium is indebted to him. In Elijah or St. Paul there is no forcible dramatic characterisation to hold one in its spell. Schumann compared his sacred music to the Madonnas of Murillo. It is true: one chiefly remembers the beautifully suave, vocal design of the soli; the admirable blend and ease of the part writing for the chorus. If his conception had not always l'idée juste, he was invariably correct in penning the perfectly just note in juxtaposition to its context. Thus, if we dissect his instrumentation, what oboe player but must rejoice in the oboe writing of the Hebrides Overture; or there is an opening oboe solo in his setting of the 42nd Psalm, “My soul thirsteth for God, which, once heard, lingers unforgetably in the mind, as the acme of good style for this instrument. Similarly tactful, studied in its essence as musical writing, is his treatment of the flute, the clarinet, or the unobtrusive, modest viola ; and all this remains as true now, after seventy years' advance and progress in instrumentation, as when Mendelssohn was alive.

The most modern pianists may still learn something from Mendelssohn's eminently pianistic quality ; nor has anything more innately proper to the violin ever been put upon paper than his Violin Concerto. To do this music justice may require no deep vein of poetry, but it asks for an unerring deftness, a finished elegance, an equality of tone of a kind that seems almost to have vanished from modern schools of interpretation. Amongst living violinists, perhaps Lady Hallé and Emile Sauret alone can bring home to us the unrivalled finesse of form and style belonging to this Concerto, and although, as admitted, Mendelssohn demands no great depth of poetic conception, he is, at the same time, altogether removed from the mildly insipid virtuosity of Moscheles, Sterndale Bennett, Onslow, and others of his contemporaries whom he generously believed to be his equals.

A former generation of plagiarists amongst British composers

of painters done by themselves, made the chance discovery that many of them showed a graphic resemblance to their own productions. Thus he found Raphael pale, delicate, wistful, fervid; Michael Angelo ugly, muscular, rugged, vigorous, like his • David or his · Moses'; or Leonardo da Vinci wise and grave, with a leonine aspect.'

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readily assimilated his defects of lack of breadth and thin colouring, without though mastering his conspicuous values of surety, elegance and transparency; and at the present time, if instead of affording publicity to the rough, ill-considered efforts of their pupils, the committee of what is known in London as the “Ernest Palmer Fund' were to oblige their students to steadily analyse these best traits of Mendelssohn, considerable benefit might accrue for the future of our national school of music. In his beauty of manner in music, and his fastidious touch, the one composer now at work who can vie with Mendelssohn is possibly Debussy. The æsthetic content of their music, it need hardly be stated, is as opposed as is a minutely stippled engraving to a landscape by Monet; and where Mendelssohn can be trite and conventional harmonically, Debussy is noticeable for his highly original fulness of harmonic device. No one, again, better than Mendelssohn-except, perhaps, Arthur Sallivan-has had moments in which he has unconsciously said nothing with more charming grace, and without the least apparent effort or exertion. Musicians with nothing to say usually rant and make a terrible to do with the brass.

Mendelssohn undoubtedly cultivated and developed his mastery of form by his unremitting and enthusiastic study of Bach. As to his style, in the Scherzo of the Octet he at once gave definite utterance to his favourite mode and type of expression. Repeatedly in his later compositions, it is as if he went back to this Scherzo and broke off tiny fragments to work up and develop again and again. With regard to his musical speciality in fairies, at a first acquaintance, particularly in childhood, these are little less than adorable. As they first greet us in his Midsummer Night's Dream music, so indeed, in all one's later musical associations, one longs to keep and to hold Mendelssohn's fairies. Nevertheless, beside the diaphanous fairy imagery of Berlioz, or the fairy phantasy of Russia, as presented to us by Tshaïkovski or Rimski-Korssakov, one is grudgingly forced to concede that his orderly little beings can suggest a slight, if very slight, suspicion of footlights and muslin frocks; and if brought into immediate contact with the lovely romance of Weber's fairyland, then his fairies almost become like buzzing flies. At one time he intended composing music to The Tempest. But the idea was abandoned, it may be after a closer inspection of Caliban, for Mendelssohn naturally hated anything savouring of the uncouth or the grotesque. On the whole, we may perhaps be glad that he never handled Ariel. Of the gnomish, trollish atmosphere evoked by Grieg, he was no forerunner. In his excursions into the supernatural, it never so much as occurred to him to touch the Erl König; and if by chance Mendelssohn happened to survey the weird ghostliness of many of Loewe's ballads, we may be sure that he promptly closed the volume with a sigh of cordial distaste.

cordial distaste. In full justice to

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