2009 marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Felix Mendelssohn, the German composer, pianist, organist and conductor of the early Romantic period. British readers will no doubt have been hearing a lot more about him recently thanks the BBC Radio 3’s recent Mendelssohn weekend, celebrating his life and works. With that in mind, today I bring you an excerpt from our book Mendelssohn: A Life in Music by R. Larry Todd, describing Mendelssohn’s years as a child prodigy. His sister, Fanny, also showed an aptitude for composing, as you’ll see below.
Between the ages of eleven and fourteen, in an explosion of precocity, Felix produced well over a hundred compositions, a quantity no less astonishing than its variety—keyboard and chamber works, symphonies, concerti, Lieder, sacred choruses, and operas. When the first collected edition of Felix’s music appeared during the 1870s, most of these efforts, judged stylistically jejune, were excluded. But the launching of a second edition a century later refocused interest on Felix’s apprenticeship, and several early works, including concerti, the twelve string symphonies, and the Singspiel Die beiden Pädagogen, appeared during the 1960s and 1970s, opening new windows into Felix’s formative years. Still, much of this music awaits publication. To the biographer, it reveals a musical diary of a prodigy comparable to precious few European composers.
Zelter scrupulously oversaw Felix’s apprenticeship of bursting creativity. Scarcely less industrious was Fanny, who completed her thirty-second fugue by December 1824; the siblings, Zelter reported to Goethe, were like diligent bees gathering nectar. But Fanny’s parents never imagined she would entertain serious musical aspirations, and it fell to Abraham to temper her enthusiasm. From Paris he wrote in July 1820, as Felix was crafting fugues and beginning his third piano sonata:
Music will perhaps become his profession, while for you it can and must only be an ornament [Zierde], never the root [Grundbaß] of your being and doing. We may therefore pardon him some ambition and desire to be acknowledged in a pursuit which appears very important to him, . . . while it does you credit that you have always shown yourself good and sensible in these matters; . . . Remain true to these sentiments and to this line of conduct; they are feminine, and only what is truly feminine is an ornament to your sex.
Fanny was thus to hang musical ornaments, not build a foundation (Grundbaß, a pun on Kirnberger’s fundamental bass). While her brother essayed increasingly ambitious compositions, she chose piano pieces and songs—the smaller, intimate genres of domestic music making associated with the feminine. In particular, her songs (seventy-four date from 1820 to 1823) earned parental approval. Pampering Abraham’s Francophilia, Fanny preferred the verses of Jean-Pierre Claris de Florian (1755–1794), who had specialized in pastorals and fables derived from Cervantes and Aesop. Typically strophic, Fanny’s settings evince a lyrical melodic gift and a certain “lightness and naturalness,” thereby approaching Abraham’s ideal of the feminine musical decoration. In contrast, Felix wrote few songs during this period, and set only one of Fanny’s Florian texts, about Jeanette, who would choose a shepherd over a king. A rapprochement with Fanny’s musical world, Pauvre Jeanette (ca. March 1820) momentarily bridged the gender gap between the siblings’ musical ambitions, as Felix adopted Fanny’s tuneful, chordal style to produce a simple folksonglike setting that utterly obscured his devotion to Bach’s fugues.
By December 1819 Felix was preoccupied with chorale harmonizations. The exercise book contains several melodies in Zelter’s unrefined hand for which Felix devised a figured-bass line and filled in the alto and tenor parts (Fanny received similar instruction around this time8). The next step was to decorate the note-against-note exercises with flowing eighthnote embellishments. Zelter included three examples of a more specialized technique, derived from Kirnberger, in which the chorale melody migrated to the alto, tenor, or bass. Finally, Zelter allowed Felix himself to compose and harmonize several melodies to verses of the Leipzig poet C. F. Gellert (1715–1769).
Largely neglected today, Gellert was a widely read figure of the German Enlightenment who produced fables, sentimental comedies, and the devotional Geistliche Oden und Lieder (Sacred Odes and Songs, 1757), designed, while sung to popular chorales, to elevate awareness of the religious sublime. Moses Mendelssohn held Gellert in high regard, and Haydn reportedly favored him above all other authors. Several composers—J. F. Doles and Quantz in the eighteenth century, and J. F. W. Kühnau and M. G. Fischer in the nineteenth—created new tunes for these poems, while others set them as a cappella canons (Haydn) or solo Lieder (C. P. E. Bach and Beethoven). Felix’s assignment proved challenging: more often than not, his chorale phrases are melodically stale (some he recycled from earlier exercises), and his cadences are not always harmonically compelling. But the childhood efforts later bore fruit: several of Felix’s mature works contain free chorales, which thus evolved from the modest Gellert chorales to become a compositional device.
Late in March 1820 Zelter began to initiate Felix, barely eleven years old, into strict counterpoint, for centuries the domain of learned musicians. The first topic was double counterpoint at the octave, which Kirnberger had explicated in the conclusion of Die Kunst des reinen Satzes. Felix mastered the technique by writing two-part inventions à la Bach, in which the parts are periodically exchanged. Next Felix took up two-part canon, including the esoteric diminution and augmentation canons, in which one voice replicates the other at twice or half the speed. These musical conundrums reflected Zelter’s own training under Fasch. Probably by the end of May 1820, Felix was analyzing fugal subjects and negotiating the thicket of rules governing “real” (literally transposed) and “tonal” (adjusted) answers in fugal expositions. Since Kirnberger’s massive tome omitted canon and fugue, Zelter now drew upon Marpurg’s Die Abhandlung von der Fuge (Essay on the Fugue), which in 1754 had unraveled Bach’s most cerebral contrapuntal techniques. By the latter part of 1820, Felix was progressing from two- to three-part fugue and canon, over which he labored through the early months of 1821. All told, he recorded about thirty fugues in his exercise book, the last of which, a three-part fugue in C minor, dates from late January 1821. Here the eleven-year-old emerges as a Bach devoté by writing a fugal gigue, recalling the Thomascantor’s fondness for combining that stylized baroque dance with artful contrapuntal displays (as in the finale of the Fifth Brandenburg Concerto). Thus did Felix, as Marpurg quipped of Bach, shake “paper intricacies out of his sleeve.”