The Mendelssohn Family

SEBASTIAN HENSEL'S book about the Mendelssohn Family1 is interesting in several ways. It gives a clear picture of the inner life of a remarkably talented family, with much inherited genius among its members. It contains the biography of one of the master-composers of this century. It illustrates the elevation of a race of splendid vitality from a despised and oppressed condition to one of political and social equality, the founder of the family being the chief instrument in the accomplishment of this end. And from first to last a striking array of famous people, eminent in social and public life, is shown in intimate relations with this family. Few contrasts in history are sharper and more immediate than that between Moses Mendelssohn at the beginning of his career, shortly before the middle of the past century, and that of his grandchildren less than fourscore years after. He began as a forlorn, hump-backed Jewish lad, whose race, both from its own bigoted laws and the laws of the land, occupied a position in Germany as alien as that of Israel in Egypt; selfkept in Hebraic bondage, and forbidding itself the customs and laws of the Germans. His grandchildren were born to luxury, reared in a palace, and lived an ideal existence, their home a courted social centre for the artistic and literary life of Berlin. Indeed, Moses Mendelssohn, who was true to his given name in leading his race the way to its self-emancipation, enjoyed the honor of being raised to intellectual leadership, and was thus recognized by his king, as well as by the princes of thought in Germany’s classic days. Himself the friend of Lessing and the original of Nathan the Wise, he had the boldness to criticise the literary course of the great Frederick, who was not a little vain of his academic laurels, — a courageous thing for a Jew in those days.

The work can lay but little pretense to literary form, the author having done hardly more than edit a loosely arranged collection of letters; and yet it is delightful reading, the letters themselves outlining and characterizing the various personages as clearly as a biographer’s pen could do it. Probably few people express themselves so perfectly in private letters, in the midst of the hurried life of to-day, as the writers of these letters have done. There is too great a rush of events now for that, and postal cards are very handy. The translation from the German, by Carl Klingemann and an American collaborator, is excellent. One would hardly fancy that such flowing English was not the original language. It seems, however, now and then, as if too much pains had been taken to remove every suggestion of German origin; for instance, when, for the poetic linden, we are given the prosaic “lime-tree,” which to an American reader somehow suggests the pickled limes of school-day memory. We suspect the hand of the “ American collaborator ” in the passage where Felix Mendelssohn, in a letter from London, is made to speak of “ a quantity of apples for pies.” Now Englishmen, when they come to this country, generally take pains to impress it upon us that at home apple-pies are unknown, although, when we go to England, we find them under the guise of very poorly made “ apple-tarts.”

The letters of Felix MendelssohnBartholdy, and the chapters relating particularly to him, will possess the chief interest for many readers ; but they should not overlook the sprightly wit of his sister Fanny, nor the rollicking humor of their friend Klingemann, who writes often from London, whither he went in his youth in the diplomatic service. The correspondence of the younger sister, Rebecca, has a pleasant home quality about it. The numerous letters from England are of particular interest. The first one sent by Klingemann from London to the family circle of the Mendelssohns in Berlin is capital, and the witty descriptions of persons and things, though dating 1827, show that London in its essential features has changed but little since then. Felix was often in England, and his many letters home are delightfully entertaining, especially the accounts of the journey made into the Scottish Highlands by himself and Klingemann as youths of twenty years, and of the idyllic visit to an English family’s country house in Wales. He was deeply impressed by the awful loneliness of the Highlands, and wrote, “ Now and then you find beautiful parks, but deserted, and broad lakes, but without boats, the roads a solitude. Fancy in all that the rich glowing sunshine, which paints the heath in a thousand divinely warm colors, and then the clouds chasing hither and thither ! It is no wonder that the Highlands, have been called melancholy.” His picture of the lake region in England is charming: “ The whole country is like a drawing-room. The rocky walls are papered with bushes, moss, and firs ; the trees are carefully wrapped up in ivy. There are no walls or fences, only high hedges, and you see them all the way up the flat hill-tops. On all sides carriages full of travelers fly along the roads ; the corn stands in sheaves; slopes, hills, precipices, are all covered with thick, warm foliage.”

Musicians will find a peculiar charm in accompanying the composer’s career, as here shown, by playing and singing the compositions of his respective artistic periods, mentioned from time to time throughout the work. The influence of Mendelssohn’s environment, particularly of the phases of nature, to whose moods he was peculiarly and delicately sensitive, can be distinctly traced ; for instance, in the Hebrides overture and the Scotch symphony. After reading the composer’s letters one can better understand the spirit of his works. One readily perceives how it is that the imaginative, intellectual, and soulful side in Mendelssohn’s music is the most prominent, while passion seldom finds genuine expression. As with nearly all great composers, a strong and well-rounded intellectual character is shown.

Few composers have enjoyed a life so sunny, joyous, and untroubled from beginning to close as that of Felix Mendelssohn-Barthokly’s, whose most serious lament appears to have been his inability to find a suitable opera-text. It is, perhaps, fortunate for his fame that he did not, for his genius was essentially undramatic. Even his storms are very decorous and well behaved. His enchanting music to the Midsummer Night’s Dream has, however, made what is substantially an opera of that wonderful creation, — an opera, too, with the unique merit of not distorting the original in order to beautify it.

The father of Felix, Abraham Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, the wealthy banker, was a man of sterling character and a finely appreciative nature. After his death his daughter Fanny wrote, “ The most remarkable feature in his character, to my mind, was the harmonious development of his whole faculties, including the intellectual organs, which produced a unity of thought, feeling, and action such as we seldom see.” His broad. liberal mind is shown in his letter to Fanny on her confirmation in the Christian church. His saying, “ Formerly I was the son of my father, and now I am the father of my son,” is one that cannot easily be forgotten. A thoroughly delightful incident is that of the courtship of Moses Mendelssohn. Fromet, the daughter of Abraham Gugenheim, of Hamburg, admired him, but objected to his deformity. “ He went up-stairs, and sat down by the young lady, who was sewing. They conversed in the most friendly manner, but the girl never raised her eyes from her work, and avoided looking at him. At last, when he had cleverly turned the conversation in that direction, she asked him, —

“ ' Do you believe, then, that marriages are made in heaven ? ’

“ ‘ Yes, indeed,’ said he; ‘ and something especially wonderful happened to me. At the birth of a child proclamation is made in heaven, He or she shall marry such and such a one. When I was born, my future wife was also named; but at the same time it was said, Alas, she will have a dreadful humpback. O God, I said then, a deformed girl will become embittered and unhappy, whereas she should be beautiful. Dear Lord, give me the hump-back, and let the maiden be well made and agreeable ! ’

“ Scarcely had Moses Mendelssohn finished speaking when the girl threw herself upon his neck. She afterwards became his wife. They lived happily together, and had good and handsome children, whose descendants are still living.”

  1. The Mendelssohn Family. 1729-1847. By SEBASTIAN HENSEL. Translated by CARL KLINGEMANN and an American collaborator, with a notice by GEORGE GROVE, ESQ., D. C. L. New York : Harper & Brothers. 1882.