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Introducing Jessica's Mendelssohn blog

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Jessica Duchen Jessica Duchen | 16:51 UK time, Tuesday, 16 December 2008

Welcome to Felixcitation - my name for BBC Radio 3's Mendelssohn Anniversary blog!

My name is Jessica Duchen, and I divide my writing time between fiction, journalism, stage works and my own Classical Music Blog http://jessicamusic.blogspot.com. My latest novel, Hungarian Dances, was published in 2008 by Hodder and the next is due out in summer 2009. After studying music at Cambridge I held editorial posts on a succession of music magazines, was the founding editor of the UK's first independent piano magazine and wrote biographies of Korngold and Fauré. I contribute to The Independent and BBC Music Magazine, among others, and I enjoy devising intriguing ways to combine words and music on stage. I live in London with my violinist husband and a cat named Solti.

Composer anniversaries are a bit like London buses, if less bendy. You wait aeons to celebrate some great muso who had strong links with the UK, then four arrive together. Of the big quartet pulling up at our stop in 2009 Felix Mendelssohn is, to my mind, the pick of the bunch.

I'm proud to have been appointed BBC Radio 3's official Mendelssohn blogger for the bicentenary year. Back in 2004 I started my own music blog, fascinated by the way that this amazing medium allows your work to be read in Bolivia or New Zealand a second after you've written it; now I hope that Felixcitations will reach Mendelssohn's admirers the world over.

My first memories of Mendelssohn involve standing on a chair. I was trying to reach my father's turntable - which presumably had been placed on the top shelf expressly to keep me, aged six, well away from it. In one hand I held an LP of a handsome young violinist named Pinchas Zukerman playing the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto; in the other a cleaning pad that would have removed the dust from the grooves, had this much-played treasure had time to accumulate any. The haunting opening, the enchanting melody of the slow movement and the quicksilver finale were already well and truly under my skin.

My father, who adored Mendelssohn, also had a beautiful old volume of the Songs without Words, from which I later tried to learn some at the piano. Each piece had been assigned a spurious title. Some of the monikers seemed distinctly more poetic than 'Opus Y Number Z' - among my favourites were 'The Wanderer', 'Duet' and, er, 'The Morning Star' - but the notes were another matter. Pianos in Mendelssohn's era possessed keys lighter and faster than those of the modern grand; today his pianistic effects, delicate and colourful as any humming-bird, are what we could term 'challenging'. My student days brought equally unnerving encounters with his Second Piano Concerto (ouch) and chamber music. "Let's bash through the Mendelssohn D minor!" enthused a piano-trio partner at university. Yeah, right...

Away from the notes, this extraordinary man's life and work was worthy of a novel by Charles Dickens or George Eliot. He sprang as if fully-formed into the very heart of German Romanticism. He was one of the most extraordinary child prodigy composers ever to tread the planet. He was gifted in painting and writing as well as music, travelled widely and had five children. In career terms, he was the Leonard Bernstein of his day, hugely active as a conductor and educator as well as a composer (and, presumably, a heck of a good pianist). When he wasn't writing, he was founding the Leipzig Conservatory, wielding his baton over the Gewandhaus Orchestra, reviving Bach's St Matthew Passion and premiering, long after the composer's death, Schubert's Ninth Symphony. Yet there is dark material, too, in Mendelssohn's life - darker than we might have imagined... But more of that anon.

As Mendelssohn was a favourite of Queen Victoria and spent a requisite amount of time in Britain, it's easy to embrace him as an honorary Brit. BBC Radio 3's festival Mendelssohn in Britain, over the weekend of 8-10 May, features an invitation to choirs up and down the country to join in a simultaneous singing of 'O for the Wings of a Dove'; R3 has commissioned six young composers to write brand new Songs without Words; the celebrations include Elijah itself, plus a live 'In Tune' from Birmingham Town Hall, where the work was premiered. They'll also be broadcasting all Mendelssohn's symphonies in early February to mark his birthday. While I'll feature these festivities in this column in a big way, I won't neglect the sides of his life and work that haven't made it into the schedule.

Mendelssohn was nothing if not passionate and he deserves a passionate response - so please interact! Write in with your views and your news. For instance, do you know of, or are you doing, a Mendelssohn concert? What are your favourite recordings, your favourite memories, any juicy Mendelssohn anecdotes? The more we talk, the more we'll learn; and the more we listen, the more wonderful Mendelssohn's music will start to seem.

I'll be writing regularly throughout 2009 and will moderate your comments constantly along the way. Looking forward to hearing from you soon!


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