AN UNEXPECTED TREASURE
JEANETTE HANSCOME talks to
author Helen Martens about her new book
'Felix Mendelssohn: Out of the Depths of His Heart'
When music professor Helen Martens took a sabbatical year in Oxford, England in 1980 she planned to do research, knowing that published work often made or broke one's ability to move forward in the world of higher education.
She already knew that there were many Mendelssohn letters in private possession somewhere in Oxford, but did not know how many letters would shed new light on composer Felix Mendelssohn, She wondered if she would find more information about his relationship with his close-knit family, and perhaps even find something totally unknown, She had not planned to get so hooked by the letters that she would write, not an academic paper, but an engrossing story about Mendelssohn's life, and complex relationship with a beautiful young pianist.
Helen was raised in Canada in a German-speaking home by parents who were refugees from Stalinist Russia. While growing up she learned the old German gothic script that eventually equipped her to translate thousands of German letters.
Like many of the great composers that she has studied, music was a part of her life from a young age. Helen, however, was in many ways self-taught. 'One of our neighbors gave my family a pump organ when I was eight years old,' Helen explains. 'I remember my mother showing me where middle C was.' Another friend gave her a hymnal, and she learned to play every hymn in the book. By age twelve she was playing in church, and in high school she was choir accompanist and began formal training in piano performance. She eventually earned a series of music degrees, culminating with an LRSM (Licentiate of the Royal Schools of Music) in piano in 1953. In 1956 she received an MA from the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, USA, and finally a PhD from Columbia University in 1968. Helen has since worked as a Professor of Music at Bluffton College in Bluffton, Ohio, USA, and at Conrad Grebel College at the University of Waterloo, in Waterloo, ON, Canada. She has directed choirs in schools, churches and her community, in addition to teaching. Her doctoral dissertation about Hutterite songs (the music of a small Anabaptist sect) caught the attention of Leonard Nimoy, who called on Helen to advise him and look after the music in the film Holy Matrimony. For Helen this opportunity came as an unexpected, delightful treat.
During that fateful Sabbatical to England in 1980, she learned that the owners of the approximately five thousand letters addressed to Felix, had died. After a brief period of near panic, she discovered that the letters had been placed in the Bodleian Library at Oxford. Being fluent in German and knowing that old Gothic script, she began to read the letters and found a virtual treasure trove. Soon she came upon the name of a brilliant, aristocratic, heretofore virtually unknown pianist, named Delphine von Schauroth. A few years later, she discovered seven hundred and fifty letters from Mendelssohn to his family in the New York Public Library, She also found important letters in dozens of other archives and libraries in Germany, Austria, France, the UK, Sweden and the US. It was the letters in the NYPL that revealed to her, for the first time, what Delphine von Schauroth really meant to Mendelssohn. 'I was hooked,' Helen Martens says.
In Munich she found a great deal of heretofore unknown information about Delphine's less-than-honorable father, and his whole family. She flew to Europe dozens of times to do more research. 'I think I am a born detective. I thoroughly enjoyed chasing clues and trying to find answers to questions that came up.'
Martens recalls the pleasure of getting to know, in Mendelssohn, an admirable, although certainty not flawless human -- admirable because of his amazing musical prowess but also for who he was as a son, brother, friend, husband and father, as well as a musician. Whereas many other musicians and other artists got swept up in the Bohemian lifestyle of the nineteenth century Felix Mendelssohn did not and thereby avoided the maladies that composers like Schubert and Schumann and many others suffered.
Learning about the complexities in the relationship between Felix and Delphine, and recalling the books and movies that had dwelt too much on the foibles and moral failures of some of the great composers, fed Helen's desire to share this man's life with others.
Writing the book involved the arduous task of translating the letters, creating a three hundred page chronology, as well as figuring out how to make something interesting and readable out of research material that could have easily filled a two thousand page book. Because she was more experienced in writing academic papers than in creative writing, she attended numerous writing clinics and seminars.
While working on the book, doors opened up for rich experiences; they included spending five days at the elegant villa of Baroness von Schauroth; having tea with the great-granddaughter of Felix Mendelssohn's sister; and spending a delightful afternoon with a great-grandson of Mendelssohn's cousin, who gave her a copy of an original watercolor done by the composer. The result of her hard work is Felix Mendelssohn: Out of the Depth of His Heart, soon to be published by WinePress.
Now retired in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Helen Martens is pleased about the prospect of sharing aspects of this composer's life that had remained unknown. With 2009 being the 200th anniversary of Mendelssohn's birth, the timing seems perfect for a book about his life. When asked who might enjoy the book, she expects that list to include lovers of biography, music and history, in age brackets ranging from middle school students to octogenarians. She is hoping that readers will discover, as she did, an admirable, brilliant human being who swam against the stream. Although many of the scenes grew from the author's imagination, the dialogue is based on, and often directly quoted from, the letters themselves. As the leading authority on Mendelssohn in the UK, the Music Librarian Peter Ward Jones, put it, the book is, 'a most refreshing approach to an infinitely fascinating man.'
Helen is currently putting the finishing touches to a second book on the life of Mendelssohn, following his life from 1845.
Copyright © 4 April 2009 Jeanette Hanscome,