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JULY AND OCTOBER 1862.
CHAPMAN AND HALL, 193 PICCADILLY.
THE NATIONAL REVIEW.
ART. I.-FELIX MENDELSSOHN BARTHOLDY. Letters from Italy and Switzerland. By Felix Mendelssohn Bar
tholdy. Translated from the German by Lady Wallace. London:
Longmans. 1862. Sketch of the Life and Works of the late Felix Mendelssohn Bar
tholdy. By Jules Benedict. Second edition. London: John
Murray. 1853. Of all the paths which intellectual greatness can tread, none are more beset with temptation than that of imaginative genius. The statesman, the historian, the thinker, the warrior, the man of science, have each and all their special difficulties, but the common ground between them and the world at large is sufficiently wide to admit of a fair reciprocity of comprehension and sympathy between the individual genius and his contemporaries. Such is scarcely yet the case with art. It stands in a sort of exceptional position; on the one hand touching the inspirations of heaven, on the other allied to the outcasts of earth. And the root of this anomaly lies in the fact that although the Eternal Beauty is as sacred as the Eternal Truth, yet the former is that side of the Divine Life whose pure service is the most trying to mortal frailty. Those who devote themselves to the arts of expression, whether in poetry, painting, or music, must inevitably be exposed to a host of subtle temptations that are inseparable from the artistic temperament. Now and then we meet with a stoical poet like Milton, or Michael Angelo, who can pass through fire and not be scorched; but in these casco the tenderer and lovelier phases of the soul seem to have been less prominently developed. Natures like Mozart's or Byron's come nearer to the representative type. Those very susceptibilities which raise the poet above the comprehension of average
No. XXIX. JULY 1862.
minds, at once place him in need of a stronger moral control, and render bim less likely to acquire it through the common channels. It is very seldom that his contemporaries can rightly measure his greatness, or understand the nature of his shortcomings; and the result on his part is an almost unavoidable sense of irresponsible power, which it is only too easy to abuse. Hence, to quote the admirable words of Arthur Hallam, " The number of pure artists is small; few souls are so finely tempered as to preserve the delicacy of meditative feeling, untainted by the allurements of accidental suggestion. The voice of the critical conscience is still and small, like that of the moral; it cannot entirely be stifled where it has once been heard, but it may be disobeyed. Temptations are never wanting; some immediate and temporary effect can be produced at less expense of inward exertion than the high and more ideal effect which art demands; it is much easier to pander to the ordinary and often-recurring wish for excitement, than to promote the rare and difficult intuition of beauty.”
Among the faithful few who have accepted the service of art in the highest spirit, and religiously obeyed its fullest inspirations, none have left a nobler memory than the great composer whose name we have placed at the head of this article. His works and character are the more interesting to us from his having shared (as well as originated) so much of the life of our own day, to which he belongs as truly as Tennyson or Carlyle. His career is also remarkable for the singular contrast which it presents to the history of so many men of genius. Mendelssohn was not cradled in poverty, nor cramped by neglect, and it could rarely be said of him that he “learnt in suffering what he taught in song.” On the contrary, he was, like the Cid, “ born in a happy hour,” and rightly denominated Felix. Health, wealth, personal beauty, intellectual culture, a refined and affectionate home, appreciative friends, a happy marriage, and an admiring public,-every blessing that heaven and earth could bestow seemed to be showered upon him through life. And yet he was not spoiled by all this sunshine. It ripened his nature, without deadening either his conscience or his energy. How this came to pass is a problem which all who observe it must long to solve. During the fourteen years which have elapsed since his death, no memoir of him has appeared, excepting a little sketch of his life and works by Mr. Benedict, which, though very interesting and acceptable, as far as it goes, makes no pretension to be more than an outline. But we have now the pleasure of welcoming a volume of Mendelssohn's Letters, published by his brother
Paul, which ranges over two years of his life at a very interesting period of his mental bistory. These Letters explain so much of his mind, and confirm in so many directions the impressions we had already derived from his music, that we shall take them as the basis of a general view of his life and characteristics, supplementing the narrative by gleanings from Mr. Benedict's Sketch, and from a brief memoir of Mendelssohn published in Novello's Musical World during his lifetime.*
Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy was born at Hamburg on the 3d of February 1809. His father, Abraham Mendelssohn, was a wealthy banker, and son to the celebrated Moses Mendelssohn, the friend of Lessing, and the original of “ Nathan the Wise.” Felix's mother (whose maiden name of Bartholdy was afterwards adopted by her husband in addition to his own) also belonged to a family celebrated for talent and accomplishments. Felix
was the second of four children, the eldest being a daughter, possessed, like himself, of rare musical gifts; this was his favourite sister Fanny, afterwards Madame Hensel. The two children seem to have studied and composed in common for several years; and the tie between them was unusually strong to the end of their lives. Their first musical instruction was derived from their mother, who was well grounded in the school of Sebastian and Emmanuel Bach. Felix's musical powers were manifested at a very precocious age, and, happily for him, his father recognised the fact, and at an early period took measures for the boy's musical education. After one or two removals, the family settled at Berlin, where Felix was placed under the tuition of Zelter, the director of the Berlin Singing Academy, for thorough-bass and composition. In pianoforte playing he was instructed by Berger; and after this siad continued some time, he used to take lessons from all the distinguished professors who happened to visit Berlin, such as Hummel, Moscheles, &c. Before Mendelssohn was eight years old, he was able to execute with playful facility the most difficult passages of works requiring a very skilful performer. He played publicly for the first time in his ninth year, at Berlin, and that, too, with so much lightness, certainty, and spirit, that it was beyond the power of the most practised critic to detect from the performance that there was only a child of nine years old seated at the pianoforte. "Meanwhile Zelter induced his pupil “ to write symphonies for the quartetts of stringed instruments; and the father allowed the children once a fortnight, at their house, a small family concert, consisting of a string quartett band, with an occasional flute. At these little assemblies the
• It forms a supplement to the volume for 1837, the year in which Mendelssohn's St Paul was first brought out in England.
† Musical World, p. vii.