THE BONSAI SEQUOIA
JENNIFER PAULL tells the story of
Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847),
on the anniversary of the composer's death
People travel to wonder at the height of mountains, at the huge
waves of the sea, at the long courses of rivers, at the vast compass of
the ocean, at the circular motion of the stars; and they pass by themselves
without wondering. -- Saint Augustine (354-430)
Had Mendelssohn's compositions been more consistent in their quality,
there would be no disputing his claim to rank amongst the greatest of composers.
As many before and after him, he started out upon his musical career as
a child prodigy. Together with his sister Fanny, the pair studied piano,
and learned many languages with a rich, diverse artistic awareness from
their talented mother. As a young boy, Felix met and befriended the elderly
Goethe in his family circle. He was to prove a lifelong influence upon the
Felix Mendelssohn was a radiant figure in the musical Romantic Movement.
He was undoubtedly the most successful musician of the nineteenth century.
Perhaps when the scholars of a thousand years hence attempt to analyse the
five hundred years of European music between 1500 and 2000, they will be
tempted erroneously to conclude that the early Victorian idol was not the
same persona as the master pen behind the overtures to A Midsummer-Night's
Dream, The Hebrides, and the Violin Concerto.
Increasing evidence indicates that it was not Mendelssohn but his sister
Fanny who composed many of the Songs Without Words. How much else:
will we ever know? The family still holds some manuscripts, and a dense
overgrowth of thorny brambles seems to flourish in that particular, shady
There's only one woman I know of who could never be a symphony
conductor, and that's the Venus de Milo -- Margaret Hillis (1921-2001)
founder and director laureate of the Chicago Symphony Chorus: New York
Times, 13 June 1979
Very true, no doubt, but history is littered with George's Elliot
(Mary Ann Evans 1819-1880), and Sand (Amandine Aurore Lucie Dupin, Baronne
Dudevant 1804-76), and those like Fanny (1805-47) hidden beneath a milliner's
burkha, not allowed to be themselves by the constraints of society as much
as the whale bone; often deprived of the education they deserved, let alone
the outlet of its resulting fruits. Fanny's works were mostly allowed
free-range as far as the family's Sunday afternoon, salon concerts.
Felix had the world.
Mendelssohn is one of the strangest anomalies in musical history. He
remains underrated. Many of his critics maintain that his powers of inspired
melody and brilliance in orchestration were at their height when he was
in his 'teens and then simply declined. Perhaps there was, and in some
cases still is a degree of jealousy at the adulation and worship he received
during his lifetime. He was devastatingly attractive, an almost Rudolph
Valentino figure. It is said that no portrait ever did him justice. He knew
none of the setbacks and struggles that were and still are the general rule
for the composer and creative performer. Being born into a wealthy family
is always a wise move.
Copyright © 4 November 2002
Jennifer Paull, Vouvry, Switzerland