February 3, 2021

Songs of Love and Sorrow on Mendelssohn’s Birthday

By Stuart Mitchner

A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window. It had begun to snow again. He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight.

—James Joyce, from The Dead

The snow began falling late afternoon Sunday, January 31, Franz Schubert’s birthday. The snow is still on the ground today, James Joyce’s birthday, and I’m still in a Schubert state of mind. At the tipping point of the year, Vienna and Dublin seem to move closer, side by side on the same map, snow falling on the Danube and the Bog of Allen and softly falling on “the churchyard on the hill where Michael Furey lay buried.”

By now, it’s clear that Monday’s snow will still be with us on Wednesday, February 3, which happens to be Felix Mendelssohn’s birthday. Since Schubert and Joyce are “family” compared to Mendelssohn, I began to give myself a crash course on his life and work last week. Then came the snow.

A Schubertian Mood

Decades ago when I shared M.B. Goffstein’s A Little Schubert with my 3-year-old son, I knew less about Schubert than I do about Mendelssohn. Goffstein sets the scene in “a cold and snowy town called Vienna,” creating a Schubertian mood with her drawing of the composer, “a short fat young man with a small round nose, round eyeglasses and curly hair” who “lived in a bare little room without a fire. …Every morning he sat at a little table and wrote music as fast as it came into his head.” Whether you’re 3 or 43, it’s easy to imagine yourself in the shoes, spectacles, and tiny frockcoat of the elfin composer who heard music when his friends heard nothing, music that no one had ever heard before, “so much music he could not possibly remember it all,” music he was “so very busy writing down, he did not mind his bare room or his shabby clothes. But when the cold made his fingers ache, and he almost could not write his music, Franz Schubert got up, “clapped his hands and stamped his feet,” making “his shabby coattails fly as he danced to keep warm.”

Attached to the back of the book was an envelope containing a plastic disc of the five “Noble Waltzes” that “Franz Schubert wrote down in his little room in Vienna around one hundred fifty years ago” (that was in 1972, so by now it’s around two hundred). The waltzes led to the purchase of a three-LP set of Schubert’s piano waltzes, followed by string quartets and quintets, piano sonatas and symphonies, fantasies and impromptus, and thousands of songs. Early on, we had family birthday celebrations complete with a cake, with “Happy Birthday Franz Schubert” in chocolate icing letters, along with a yellow bird on a branch and some bars of edible music.

Speaking of Family

It’s hard to imagine Goffstein doing A Little Mendelssohn. For one thing, Mendelssohn was a musical prodigy born into a wealthy, cultured Jewish family in Berlin, and acclaimed in Europe and the U.K. as a pianist, composer, and conductor, not to mention his status as a favorite of the Royal Family, playing and singing his songs with Victoria and Albert. As for excluding him from my personal “family” connection, the joke’s on me. I didn’t know or else had forgotten that he not only composed “The Wedding March,” but “Hark the Herald Angels Sing,” which is being by sung by the happy Bailey family and seemingly everyone else in Bedford Falls welcoming Jimmy Stewart back from the brink of death in It’s a Wonderful Life. As for “The Wedding March,” I just found a clipping about the Christmas Day marriage of my parents, where among the musical selections listed is “Wedding March,” from Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream.

More Mendelssohn Surprises

Until now the only work of Mendelssohn’s I’ve ever referred to in a column was the overture and incidental music put to brilliant use by Erich Korngold in the 1935 Hollywood version of Shakespeare’s play. What I didn’t know was that after Mendelssohn and his sister Fanny saw a production of Midsummer Night’s Dream in Berlin, he wrote a piano duet for them that he eventually developed into the overture, which he completed at the age of 17, a feat hailed by contemporary musicologist George Grove as “the greatest marvel of early maturity that the world has ever seen in music.” According to legend, Mendelssohn had to travel 80 miles through a snowstorm to attend the first public performance. He also participated in the same concert, playing one of the two pianos in his own Concerto in A-flat major and then joining the first violins for the concert finale, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.

Felix and Fanny

Mendelssohn died of a stroke in 1847 at the age of 38, five months after his beloved sister Fanny’s death at 41 of complications from a stroke. A gifted musician and composer in her own right, she had been rehearsing her brother’s cantata Die erste Walpurgisnacht at the time she was stricken. If you know how close Felix and Fanny were, you’ll sympathize with the thesis of the recent piece in The American Scholar (“Requiem for Fanny”), wherein Sudip Bose discusses Mendelssohn’s last composition, the F minor Quartet, “arguably the most tormented piece of music” he ever wrote. Bose quotes from a letter Mendelssohn wrote shortly afterward: “What we, her brothers and sisters, have lost! And I in particular, to whom she was present every moment with her kindness and love; I, who could never experience any happiness without thinking how she would share it; I, who was spoiled, and made so proud, by all the riches of her sisterly love, and whom I thought nothing could ever harm because in everything hers was always the best and leading part.”

Curious to know more about this intense, loving sibling relationship, I found a letter online from 1830, a few years after her marriage to artist Wilhelm Hensel, who painted the portrait of Mendelssohn shown here: “I wish I were with you, and could see you, and talk to you; but this is impossible, so I have written a song for you expressive of my wishes and thoughts. You were in my mind when I composed it, and I was in a tender mood.” The letter ends: “You know that I am always your own; and may it please God to bestow on you all that I hope and pray.”

I haven’t been able to locate the song, but it’s most likely included among those in Mendelssohn’s Songs Without Words. (The painting of Fanny shown here was painted by Moritz Daniel Oppenheim.)

Jenny Lind

At this point it’s worth mentioning Jenny Lind, “the Swedish nightingale” with whom Mendelssohn fell in love in October 1844. Along with his grief over Fanny’s death, he was still shaken by Lind’s refusal to run away with him, but that’s, as they say, “another story.” After his death, Lind wrote: “[He was] the only person who brought fulfillment to my spirit, and almost as soon as I found him I lost him again.” In 1849, she established the Mendelssohn Scholarship Foundation, which offers an award to a young resident British composer every two years. In 1869, she erected a plaque in his memory at his Hamburg birthplace.

Half a century later, citing Mendelssohn’s Jewish origins, the Nazi regime banned performance and publication of his works and went so far as to ask Nazi-approved composers to rewrite the incidental music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Mendelssohn was presented as “a dangerous accident of music history, who played a decisive role in rendering German music in the 19th century ‘degenerate.’ “ The monument dedicated to him erected in Leipzig in 1892 was removed by the Nazis in 1936, the same year the bronze statue of Mendelssohn outside the Düsseldorf Opera House was removed and destroyed.

Love and Sorrow

The masterful closing paragraphs of Joyce’s The Dead refer to “that region where dwell the vast hosts of the dead,” their “wayward and flickering existence” sensed but not apprehended by Gabriel Conroy seconds before he turns to the window and sees the snow “falling obliquely against the lamplight.” It was a song, “The Lass of Aughrim,” that reminded Gabriel’s wife of her love for Michael Furey.

I like to imagine the song Schubert might have composed for the prose aria that concludes “The Dead.” If anyone could set falling snow to music, it was the composer who “sang continuously” during the last days of his life, according to baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau’s biographical study, Schubert’s Songs. The songs Schubert was singing would have been from his song cycle Winterreise, which he was working on in November 1828. Six years earlier, in his journal, he wrote: “Through long, long years I sang my songs. But when I wished to sing of love it turned to sorrow, and when I wanted to sing of sorrow it was transformed for me into love.”


Note: It was exciting to see a Fanny Mendelssohn String Quartet featured in today’s New York Times web edition feature, “5 Minutes That Will Make You Love String Quartets.” She’s sixth in a list of 15 that includes Ravel, Haydn, Beethoven, and Schubert. Other equally impressive compositions by her can be found on YouTube.