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The Prodigy

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Jessica Duchen Jessica Duchen | 16:45 UK time, Monday, 5 January 2009

The Mendelssohn Octet is ringing through the house today - at least, its third violin part, which my husband is busy practising for the London Philharmonic's chamber concert at the Wigmore Hall on 4 March. It involves a lot of "scrubbing" - the intense fizzing-in-the-middle that is part and parcel of high-octane Mendelssohn, his energy, his élan, his lust for life. The Octet does not contain one weak note or one uninspired bar. It's a work of sheer perfection, with irresistible charm as well as amazing originality. And its composer was only 16 years old.

I don't need to tell you that today most 16-year-olds today are preoccupied with spots, hormones, exams and so on. At 16, though, our Felix was no novice to composition. He had been turning out incredibly accomplished music at a rate of knots since 1820, not just the Octet but the now ubiquitous Rondo Capriccioso for piano, as well as five string symphonies, a concerto for piano and violin and a plethora of short piano, organ and choral pieces. There's a Violin Sonata in F written when he was only 11 (you can hear it at the Wigmore Hall on 21 January played by Philippe Graffin and Liz Burley). There's even, excuse me, a Viola Sonata. By the time he wrote the Overture to a Midsummer Night's Dream in 1826, Mendelssohn was a seasoned professional. Have a look at his complete works list, here - it is quite an eye-opener.

The issue of the wunderkind who leapfrogs to adult perfection while still in 'short trousers' is of course perennial in the music world. Its mysteries stretch all the way from Mozart to Lang Lang. And it doesn't take much scratching of surfaces to find that in most cases a pushy parent can take the credit, or indeed the blame. Mozart's relationship with his cranky control-freak father, Leopold Mozart, plagued him for his entire short adult life. Erich Wolfgang Korngold, who bore Mozart's name, and his father, a ferocious music critic ironically named Julius Leopold Korngold, were embroiled in a familial purgatory that wouldn't have disgraced a Sartre play.

Mendelssohn, though, was perhaps the most perfect of all the prodigies. Few works that Mozart composed before the age of 18 have found homes in the standard repertoire; Korngold wrote some real marvels, but is still sadly regarded as a rare curio, despite our best efforts to rehabilitate him. There's little, though, more mainstream than Mendelssohn's Octet, Rondo Capriccioso, A Midsummer Night's Dream... What, then, was behind Felix the wunderkind?

A couple of years ago I wrote a novel called Alicia's Gift about a child prodigy pianist, to which one reviewer sniffily responded by declaring the fictional family "too middle-class". The fact that they were supposed to be insufferable apparently passed her by. There was a good reason for choosing that milieu, however: on the whole, the middle classes are where you find today's supposed prodigies. Behind almost every one is a parent competing at the school gate, ladling on the pressure to do well, better and best, none of which are ever good enough.

But Mendelssohn's family was middle-class in the 19th-century sense. At that time, the burgeoning bourgeoisie saw high culture an essential part of a good, all-round education according to the values of the recent Enlightenment. These values - reason and rationality, along with sense and sensibility - produced children and grandchildren steeped in aspirations for a fulfilled, cultivated, well-informed way of life.

Mendelssohn's father, Abraham Mendelssohn, was a wealthy banker; his mother, Lea Salomon, was the granddaughter of the financial adviser to Friedrich II. The Mendelssohn parents converted to the Lutheran faith and changed their surname to Bartholdy when they fled from Hamburg to Berlin in 1816 (the move itself was an escape from persecution by French occupying forces who were lashing out against Hamburg's bankers and merchants). That was perhaps a sign of their upwardly-mobile aspirations. So, too, was the fine cultural upbringing that the young Felix and his gifted sister Fanny enjoyed, along with their siblings Paul and Rebekah; for instance, the two musician siblings travelled to Paris together to study Bach and Mozart.

For the roots of their ideals, though, we must look further back. Mendelssohn's grandfather, Moses Mendelssohn, was a seminal figure in the Jewish Enlightenment. Along with his contemporary in Lithuania, the 'Vilna Gaon' (my own ancestor, as it happens), Moses Mendelssohn advocated rationality in religion, the application of academic learning to the study of sacred texts and philosophies. "I am, therefore God exists," he said. He favoured drawing the Jews into secular European society - at the time, of course, the only obvious 'ethnic minorities' in Europe were the Jews and the Gypsies - and it was largely thanks to the foundations that he laid that the Jews were granted full emancipation in the 19th century. He would not have approved, though, of his son Abraham's conversion and rejection of the family name. Intriguingly, Felix himself preferred to keep the original surname, though to this day in Germany he is programmed as Mendelssohn-Bartholdy.

Were Mendelssohn's parents classic prodigy-pushers? For once, the answer appears to be 'no'. Rather, they valued fine education and careful nurturing for the sake of it. From the mid 1820s their Berlin salon became a celebrated cultural melting pot, attracting the crème-de-la-crème of the city's artistic personages. Here Felix was steeped in the soul of the Romantic era. Romanticism was the child of the Enlightenment; and Mendelssohn's Romantic soul was always contained within the clarity and concision of classical form.

Like so many children of minorities over the centuries, though, Mendelssohn seems to have worked twice as hard at his art as everyone else - being twice as driven, perhaps through some need, conscious or otherwise, whether personal or inherited from the family atmosphere, to gain acceptance. If it's a cliché to say that those perceived as 'outsiders' have to make double the effort to get ahead, that's because it is true, and always has been.

So, was Mendelssohn's genius nature, nurture or 99 per cent perspiration? We're no nearer than before to understanding this, but no doubt each element played its part. All that fine nurturing would have got him nowhere without the spark of a gift that can't be explained. It was his good fortune that the spark could be cultivated so early and so well. It was our good fortune too.

As for the 99 per cent perspiration - the hard work, the drive, the determination - that may, alas, have contributed to his early death. More of that, though, in due course.


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