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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.


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