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Mendelssohn and Jenny Lind: the untold story!

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Jessica Duchen Jessica Duchen | 16:41 UK time, Monday, 12 January 2009

It's not every day that a story like this one lands in your lap and makes you choke on your cappuccino.

Mendelssohn cracked up? He not only fell in love with 'Swedish Nightingale' Jenny Lind, but wanted her to elope with him to America? And he - the happiest of composers, the proudest of husbands and fathers, the favourite of Queen Victoria, the sunniest of men - threatened suicide if she refused? And she refused...and he died. What?

Click on the link to The Independent and read my feature, which carries the full tale today.

The frustrating thing is that I cannot get at the primary source for this information, an affidavit lodged by Lind's husband, Otto Goldschmidt, in the archive of the Mendessohn Scholarship Foundation at London's Royal Academy of Music in 1896. It's not for want of trying, but access has been refused. My sources, though, are ones I trust implicitly: Professor Curtis Price, formerly the principal of the RAM, and the great cellist Steven Isserlis, who himself is related to Mendelssohn. And emotionally, the story makes sense. If Mendelssohn's apparently charmed life looked too good to be true, perhaps that is because it was.

All we can do, for the moment, is acknowledge that the scenario exists and was covered up for a hundred and sixty years. We can, additionally, infer that Mendelssohn's suicide threat was probably no more than a threat. His death from a series of strokes is extremely well documented and the syndrome is well-known to his descendents today. The writer and film-maker Sheila Hayman, Fanny Mendelssohn's great-great-great-great granddaughter, who is currently making a documentary about Mendelssohn for BBC4, tells me that they term the medical condition 'Moses Brain', after Moses Mendelssohn, Felix and Fanny's grandfather, who like both of them had a brilliant mind but a propensity towards aneurisms.

Just imagine Mendelssohn's stress levels in 1847. He was already desperately overworked; Fanny's sudden death (of 'Moses Brain') came as a terrible shock and dreadful bereavement. And perhaps it is no wonder that this super-controlled, public-spirited individual, who tended to keep his feelings to himself, who perhaps symbolically shoe-horned all his sensitivity and intense nervous energy into strict classical forms, couldn't take any more. He, too, was human. With Jenny Lind, the 'Swedish Nightingale', on the scene, he lost the plot and his head; perhaps the emotional stress was simply the last straw, helping to precipitate his premature yet natural death. I suspect that the suicide threat is simply a terrible, terrible irony.

As Professor Price told me, a full scholarly investigation is needed into this story. And it is necessary because it could radically transform our understanding of Mendelssohn as both man and musician. If he was not all sweetness and light, if he was a 'suffering artist' after all, then that - with more horrible irony - could in fact elevate his stature in the eyes of those sniffy individuals who regard him as too facile, too unemotional, too, er, rich and happy. There is no creative artist's sin, according to posterity, worse than being happy.

So, ladies and gentlemen, please will you welcome: Felix Mendelssohn the passionate lover; Felix Mendelssohn the tormented soul; Felix Mendelssohn the tragic, Byronic hero. Felix Mendelssohn, who we may now begin to understand fully for the very first time.


  • 1. At 5:02pm on 12 Jan 2009, kleines c wrote:

    This is a very interesting article, Jessica. So could the release of secret documents shatter Felix Mendelssohn's reputation?

    'Shatter' might not be the appropriate word. I suspect that we judge the canon of great composers by their music, Jessica, although their private and public lives obviously hold a fascination for scholars.

    Did 'Amadeus', for example, shatter Mozart's reputation? I suspect not, even if it was not necessarily a scholarly interpretation of Mozart's death.

    I would guess that a greater understanding of the events surrounding Felix Mendelssohn's death might make us think of him as a more Romantic composer. Any thoughts?


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  • 2. At 8:43pm on 19 Jan 2009, makhabane wrote:

    In his response to your article, Tom Service says: "Wagner started the rot with his tirades against him [FM] as he became the favourite composer of Victorian Britain, ... "

    In the English-speaking world, the main anti-Felix culprit was George Bernard Shaw, who criticized Mendelsson for "oratorio-mongering", a criticism which seems to have influenced many people subsequently. If you actually read Shaw's music criticism, however, you will find that he nowhere expresses any dislike for FM's purely orchestral music, but only for his oratorios. And there, Shaw's main problem seems to be with what he considers to be mid-century Victorian hypocrisy about religion, rather than anything in the music itself.

    Shaw certainly provides in his music criticm no justification on any musical grounds for his dislike of Mendelssohn's choral works. This attack on FM seems most unfair -- it is like blaming the designer of a stained glass window in a church for crimes committed by the priest.

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  • 3. At 5:45pm on 22 Jan 2009, Reiner_Torheit wrote:

    How reasonable would it be to assume that the refusal to offer any accident to this Affidavit is because it contains precisely the confirmation of this story that is suspected?

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  • 4. At 10:48pm on 26 Jan 2009, makhabane wrote:

    In your Independent article, you say of Mendelssohn's music: "Its emotional content is high-impact, driven, with deeply romantic sensibilities, but almost always within contained classical forms. But it packs such an intense punch in terms of nervous energy, something probably had to give."

    You are correct about the punch and energy of his music. However, I respectfully disagree with your larger point. I think it mistaken to view Mendelssohn as a romantic artist constrained by his use of classical forms, as if he was some sort of hippy forced to wear a grey flannel suit, and thus only able to express his true nature in a psychodelic tie and odd-coloured socks. The classical composers, after all, were quite able to express extreme and quite profound emotions through classical forms, as in Haydn's "sturm und drang" symphonies, and Mozart's late works.

    Rather, I think it better to understand Mendelssohn as using the forms he did willingly, and choosing forms that he and his audience would be familiar and comfortable with. And, like all the great composers, he bent and played with the classical forms, as in the 1st and 4th movements of the Octet (playing now on Radio 3).

    That he used his chosen forms willingly is shown by those pieces where he is an innovator in form, such as the overtures and tone poems. For instance, the Hebrides Overture manages to reproduce in sound a foreground figure against a background landscape, something no one had done before and few since. A similar device is used in the 1st movement of the Italian Symphony, where the music describes the journey of a German person (himself) through Italy. The Overture to A Midsummer Night's Dream manages to create the sonic equivalent of a portal to another world, through the opening woodwind chords, repeated in the middle and at the end of the piece. I think these are all highly innovative works and are not, at least not to me, evidence of someone fighting against the form of the music in order to express himself.

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