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Mendelssohn and Purcell in Scotland

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Rick Jones Rick Jones | 14:35 UK time, Monday, 6 July 2009

rick and mendelssohn_on_mull_musicians.jpgPurcell has been quiet here with Mendelssohn in Scotland. The Baroque composer's feelings for the wildness of nature are not those of the Romantic. The former wants to tame the mountains, turn them into the Garden of Eden, make them part of God's ordered plan. The latter sees the very untamability of the awesome landscape, the latent power of waterfalls, the mighty rivers, and the sometimes tense but mostly happy symbiotic relationship of the inhabitants with their surroundings as ideal.

The idea of coming to the northern wilderness and walking across for adventure is unthinkable to the Baroque artist who fears the elements and yearns for the protecting patronage of the court. For the last two weeks I have been recreating Mendelssohn's epic gap-year journey across Scotland in 1829 when he was a romantic 20-year-old flushed with the success of the revival of Bach's St Matthew Passion earlier that year but not entirely sure what his future direction might be. He had a hankering to be an artist and took his sketch book. His father thought banking. I have grown his whiskers and worn his clothes, not as a costume to be donned only 'in character', but as my only wardrobe. I have followed in his wake as if it were historical reconstruction 180 years on.

I have stayed in youth hostels or bed-and-breakfast hotels. The cheaper establishments tend to have thin walls through which the guests can hear each other. While they are making the sound of their ablutions, I am sending a voice blog to a radio station every morning, speaking quite loudly into my tape recorder in a German accent. The other residents must think I am a spy on the top floor transmitting messages to Berlin.

I have done everything Mendelssohn did. In Edinburgh I climbed Arthur's Seat, visited Holyrood Palace, travelled to Abbotsford House, home once of Sir Walter Scott, and swam in the Firth of Forth at 9am on a Monday morning while a BBC reporter recorded the splash for Good Morning Scotland. I told her it was Goethe who told Mendelssohn to come to Scotland and that Scottish literature, particularly that of Scott and the mythical pre-Christian Celtic poet Ossian, influenced the European Romantic movement in all its forms, as I dived in.

Unlike Mendelssohn I had dinner with my old German teacher, Professor Hugh Keith of Heriot Watt University, who now has his own translating agency. We discussed among other subjects Gotthold Ephraim Lessing's 1780 drama Nathan der Weise, or Nathan the Wise, who is based on Felix's grandfather Moses Mendelssohn, founder of the modern Jewish Enlightenment. I am making a translation of this very relevant play for performance at a conference of major world religions in Southwark Cathedral in October.

Like Mendelssohn I leave Edinburgh by boat, arranged for me by my brother - an ex-Marine who knows a deputy admiral who knows the Edinburgh harbourmaster who knows a man with a boat which is travelling west towards Stirling. I walk 15 miles and stay the night in the backpackers' hostel on the anniversary of the Battle of Bannockburn nearby. In the morning, the street has been cordoned off by police tape and there looks as is there has been something of a battle outside the hostel.

Mendelssohn took a carriage to Perth so I take the train. Mendelssohn had his portrait painted as a visiting celebrity and I have my picture taken in my top hat, check trousers and sideburns.

I walk to Birnam and visit the famous Wood which improbably came to Dunsinane in Shakespeare's Macbeth, drawing a sketch of the famous Birnam Oak which is basically all that is left of the original broad-leaf forest. Mendelssohn was less concerned with music than with drawing on his journey.

I walk on to Dunkeld to visit and sketch the same waterfall as Felix pencilled but lack his patience. I visit Ossian's Hall where there are verses supposedly by the Celtic bard on the mirrored walls. They romanticise stories of 'war and wooings, warriors and maidens'. In fact they were written by a Scot called MacPherson in the 18th century, which may have disappointed a few gullible people who thought Ossian real, though even a little research reveals him to be the product of the mythical giant Fingal and a deer.

I walk to Pitlochry, then to Blair Atholl, visit the Bruar Falls and return to Pitlochry. I cross the River Garry by the vertiginous Garrry Bridge which marks the beginning of the Road to the Western Isles. I walk to Tummel Bridge where Mendelssohn had terrible weather but where I have only blazing sunshine. The hotel he stayed at was submerged when Loch Tummel was dammed.

I walk to Aberfeldy where Mendelssohn hired a horse and cart. There is none available today so I decide to compromise by hitch-hiking the 60 miles to Crianlarich where I stay at the Youth Hostel with the walkers with their hi-tech equipment, ski-poles and waterproofs. They are amazed that I am walking in a fancy dress costume.

I follow the West Highland Way across the hills to Tyndrum the following day. Here the path crosses the road so I decide to hitch a lift. The second car to pass screeches to a halt. Drivers soon stop for a man in a top hat. The driver is an ex-soldier, a former member of the Royal Highland Fusiliers who is driving fast to attend a court case the following day for speeding, he tells me as we pass the spot in the Pass of Glencoe where he went through the crash barrier and came round to see a policeman sitting on his bonnet to stop him from toppling into the gorge. He is going to plead post-traumatic stress disorder and that he was fleeing bad experiences in Bosnia and Northern Ireland.

The Pass of Glencoe is truly magnificent, a theatre of mountains. I stay at the youth hostel which is run by a German family. I compliment the father by saying only the Germans know how to run youth hostels properly. He agrees and says it is not surprising because a German called Richard Schirrmann invented youth hostels 100 years ago. It passes without comment that the Hitler Youth were very keen on hostelling.

I walk from Glencoe along the main road beside Loch Linnhe to Fort William. It is dangerous when the road runs out of pavement and I have to walk on the grass verges when the log lorries come swerving round the double bends. I stay in a hotel in the main street which in 1829 was all that Fort William consisted of.

That year too saw the start of steamship travel among the Westerm Islands, and Mendelssohn had a ticket for the maiden voyage of the Maid of Morvern from Fort William to Oban. There is no waterborne service of any sort today so I feel justified in taking the bus. In Oban I have time to sketch Dunollie Castle just as Mendelssohn did before the ferry departs for Mull.

On the island I make straight for Fionnphort to be ready for a boat in the morning to Fingal's Cave. All the hotels are full and I am just contemplating spending the night on the park bench in the graveyard when an elderly lady pulls up and says she recognises me from earlier in the journey. She is staying at a lodge where there is a bed free and invites me to use it.

The following morning it is raining for the trip to the tiny Island of Staffa, location of Fingal's Cave. I introduce myself as Mendelssohn and say I am happy for people to take pictures. A Swede says, 'Mendelssohn! Don't you recognise me? Karl Frederike Lindblom! You must remember. We were students together in Berlin although I was somewhat older (born 1801). We carried on a correspondence over many years!' He is a musicologist at Stockholm University who is also researching the life of Mendelssohn.

When we near the island I recall that Mendelssohn was very seasick and pose for pictures as if I were throwing up a) into the sea and b) into my top hat. The picture desk can decide. We are allowed off the boat which then disappears for an hour. We feel marooned and the island truly lonely which was the first name Mendelssohn gave his celebrated Hebrides Overture. He had already composed the first bars in his head and sent them home in a letter before he saw the strange basalt rock formation.

An English couple tell me they sing in a choir. She likes musical theatre and he has a love of Purcell. He says all he can hear is the song, They that go down to the sea in ships,, which Purcell wrote for the bass John Gosling in commemoration of James II's near disastrous sailing trip in the Solent in 1685. The soloist sinks to a bottom D. He says his favourite piece of Purcell is one he had come to only recently, Hear My Prayer. I tell him, it knocked me out when I first sang it, too.

Mendelssohn also wrote an anthem with this title although two words later they part company. Purcell's Hear My Prayer O Lord is a stunning, single span of slow interweaving counterpoint tantalisingly bereft of a later second half which has gone missing. Mendelssohn's Hear My Prayer O God (incline thine ear) contains thetreble solo O for the wings of a dove. The singer yearns for a nest in the wilderness. He means a youth hostel at the end of a long day's hike through Scotland's beautiful, romantic, rugged terrain.

Comments

  • 1. At 6:53pm on 09 Jul 2009, makhabane wrote:

    Would young Felix and his fellow traveler Karl Klingemann have worn top hats in 1829? I thought they only became popular in Britain later in the 19th century.

    As a matter of no particular relevance, JFK is supposedly the most recent US President to have worn a top hat to his inauguration (in 1961).


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  • 2. At 9:46pm on 09 Jul 2009, Marzipancat wrote:

    What a wonderfully audacious and ambitious journey, Rick! It brings to mind my own visit to Holyrood Palace and its evocative cathedral ruin that inspired Felix to write his Scottish Symphony.

    To a Swede like myself it is also nice hearing that Felix had some friends from my native country: the most famous one being, of course, Jenny Lind who introduced him to rice milk and the Swedish bread that his wife, Cecile, enjoyed.

    Currently in the process of writing - or trying to write - a screenplay about the Swedish Nightingale, I admit that my research into Mendelssohn's life and music has become something of a distraction albeit a pleasant one. Sometimes I find that learning can be almost as intoxicating as inspiration.

    I have enjoyed reading all of the composer blogs here and regret that, living in the States, I have missed out on many of the concerts and events relating to many of my favorite composers: Haydn, Mendelssohn, Purcell and Handel. But such is life!

    As for top hats, makhabane, they were very much in fashion throughout the 19th century. In fact, an early form of the top hat came into fashion as early as the 1790s.

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