When one thinks of prodigies among the classical composers, Mozart is the first to come to mind. He’s the one whose name everyone knows, that cheeky little pigtailed genius who allegedly started composing at age 3. (Sure, but was he potty-trained?) So in Mozart’s shadow, Mendelssohn rarely gets the credit he deserves for being a wunderkind. Interestingly enough, it is because of Goethe (yes, that Goethe, who affected so much of the musical world without being a musician himself) that we know exactly how far-reaching the boy Mendelssohn’s talents were.
Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy was born in 1809 to a wealthy Jewish family, although he was raised as a Lutheran for what was probably a mixture of religious and sociopolitical reasons. Mendelssohn’s privileged family background afforded him early exposure to great culture and art. (Remember how he’s famous for sparking the Bach revival in 1829 by putting on the St. Matthew Passion for the first time in 100 years? Yeah. He knew about the piece because his grandmother bought him the manuscript as a gift.) This rich childhood education included composition lessons for him and his sister with the famous composer Carl Friedrich Zelter, one of Goethe’s close friends and colleagues.
Zelter wrote to Goethe on October 26, 1821 (warning: blatant anti-Semitism ahead):
Tomorrow early, I, with my Doris, and a pupil of mine, Herr Mendelssohn’s son, a lively boy of twelve years old, start for Wittenberg, to attend the fête there….I should like to show your face to my Doris, and my best pupil, before I leave this world,–in which however, it is my desire to remain as long as possible. The pupil is a good and pretty boy, lively and obedient. To be sure, he is the son of a Jew, but no Jew himself. The father, with remarkable self-denial, has let his sons learn something, and educates them properly; it would really be eppes Rores, (something rare,) if the son of a Jew turned out an artist.
At Goethe’s piano, Mendelssohn was told to improvise on a popular tune, upon which the boy devised a contrapuntal fantasia described by another guest as a “turbulent, lustrous parliament of tones.” Then he played for Goethe a Bach fugue and a couple of selections from Mozart operas (the minuet from Don Giovanni, and the overture to The Marriage of Figaro). He sightread a Mozart autograph “as though he had known the work for a year” and played commendably from a Beethoven autograph messy with scrawled notes and ink smears. Obviously impressed, Goethe told his friend Zelter that Mendelssohn was like a young Mozart–but better.
“Musical prodigies … are probably no longer so rare; but what this little man can do in extemporizing and playing at sight borders the miraculous, and I could not have believed it possible at so early an age.” “And yet you heard Mozart in his seventh year at Frankfurt?” said Zelter. “Yes”, answered Goethe, “… but what your pupil already accomplishes, bears the same relation to the Mozart of that time that the cultivated talk of a grown-up person bears to the prattle of a child.“
(Sick burn, Goethe.)
Zelter kept his friend up to date on Mendelssohn’s accomplishments. He wrote to Goethe on November 6, 1825:
My Felix gets on and works hard. He has just finished an Octet for eight obligato instruments; it has hands and feet….He plays the piano like the deuce, and he is not behindhand with stringed instruments; besides this, he is healthy and strong, and is a rare good hand at swimming up stream. In the musical paper they have given rather a cold shower-bath to his Quartetts and Symphonies; that cannot hurt him, for these reviewers are but young fellows, looking for the hat which they hold in their hands. One might despair, if one did not remember how Gluck’s and Mozart’s compositions were criticised, forty years ago. These gentlemen drive slapdash over things that would never have occurred to them, and affect to judge the whole house by a single brick.
Zelter was talking about the String Octet, one of Mendelssohn’s most celebrated pieces today–and composed at only 16 years old:
Mendelssohn’s relationship to Goethe lasted until the great author’s death. When Goethe was 80 years old, 21-year-old Mendelssohn paid him a visit and wrote his parents a letter about it:
Goethe is so friendly and affectionate with me that I do not know how to thank him or how to deserve it. In the morning I must play the piano for him for about an hour, pieces by all the great composers, in chronological order, and tell him what new developments they brought about; meanwhile he sits in a dark corner like Jupiter tonans, with his old eyes flashing. He would have none of Beethoven. But I told him I could not help that, and thereupon played him the first movement of the Symphony in C minor. This affected him strangely. At first he said ‘but it does not move one at all; it merely astounds; it is grandiose’, and went on growling to himself, until after a long time he began again: ‘That is very great, quite mad, one is almost afraid the house will collapse; and imagine when they are all playing this together!’ And at table, in the middle of something else, he again began to talk about it….
- Goethe’s Letters to Zelter, with Extracts from those of Letters to Goethe, selected, translated, and annotated by A.D. Coleridge
- Felix Mendelssohn: The Prodigy by Classic FM