Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Mendelssohn’s honeymoon

Felix Mendelssohn, a famous German composer, was born two hundred years ago today. Although not a regular diarist, he did keep a diary for seven months jointly with his new wife after they were married. This was published for the first time about a decade ago; a few short extracts are available online.

Mendelssohn was born in Hamburg, Germany, on 3 February 1809, into a wealthy Jewish family, although his father converted to Christianity and took on the name Bartholdy. The young Mendelsshon grew up in Berlin, where the family moved when he was two, and where he was soon considered a child prodigy, performing at the piano and composing music. While still a boy he met the writer Johann Goethe who was to prove an enduring influence. Apart from music, Mendelssohn learned to sketch and to speak several languages.

By 15, Mendelssohn had composed his first symphony, and by 16 his famous string octet. Alongside composing, he also worked as a conductor, touring Europe, becoming especially loved in his native Germany and in England, where he became Queen Victoria’s favourite composer. In time, he would hold positions in Dusseldorf, Berlin and Leipzig. Among his most well-known compositions are Overture to a Midsummer Night’s Dream, Songs without Words and the Scottish Symphony. In the last years of his life, he suffered ill health and died young in 1847 after a series of strokes.

However, ten years earlier in 1937, he married Cécile, a union that was to prove happy and to produce five children. After the wedding, and while on honeymoon, the couple kept a joint diary for seven months. The manuscript is held by the Bodleian Library, Oxford, where one of the librarians, Peter Ward Jones, is something of a specialist in Mendelssohn. His edited text of the diary was published by Clarendon Press in 1997 as The Mendelssohns on Honeymoon: 1837 Diary of Felix and Cécile Mendelssohn Bartholdy, Together with Letters to Their Families.

The publisher’s blurb says this of the book: ‘Enlivened by the couple’s private sense of humour, [the diary] begins by chronicling their seven-week honeymoon journey in the Rhineland and Black Forest, and later includes an extensive account of the composer’s visit to England in the summer that year, when he conducted and played at the Birmingham Music Festival.’ Here is a short extract, culled from Amazon.co.uk, in which Mrs Mendelssohn is less than complimentary about Rhinelanders.

Wednesday 5 April 1837
‘In the morning we walked for a good half-mile along the Rhine as far as the river crossing. Misunderstandings on the way. Made plans at the boatman’s cottage. Return at three for lunch. In the afternoon Felix played the organ of an atrociously decorated church - a wretched box of whistles. Walk to the cathedral and down into the crypt, but no spring. The sacristy - the subterranean chapel with its strange pillars. In the course of the evening and well into the night endured the loathsome company of Rhinelanders who behaved little better than their large dogs.’

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