Now I am going to tell you the story of one of the happiest boys that ever lived, Felix Mendelssohn. In the first place, when he came into this world, in a German city named Hamburg, in the same year that Frederic Chopin was born, 1809, his parents named him “Felix” because this means happy. So I think his parents’ dearest wish for him was that he should be happy, and certainly happiness was the good fairy’s birthgift to him, for you will find that no one ever thinks of writing about Felix Mendelssohn without telling in the very first place about what a happy boy he was.
He was a very handsome boy too, but that did not amount to much; at least his music-teacher did not allow it to, for he had a very wise old teacher named Zelter, who knew a vast amount about music—and abhorred vanity. He taught his pupils all about the science of music, but he also taught them that along with being musicians they must be men. Herr Zelter himself was a stonemason as well as a musician, and every day he worked some at his trade, “for,” said he, “every man should work some with his hands,” and he carried out his belief by laboring among the stones. This good teacher it was who kept Felix from the weakness of being vain, either over his personal beauty or his great talent, even thought he was a most remarkable boy and developed early a most wonderful talent.
Felix’s mother taught him to love work, keeping him and his sister Fanny busy at their studies from 5 o’clock in the morning until bedtime. This made them really enjoy holidays when they came, making holidays as much fun in proportion as their working days had been serious.
They studied many things besides the “three R’s” and music. Felix learned to be quite an artist and to love botany. He read Italian and Greek with his sisters and practiced jumping and ran races with his chums, but best of all was music. Here lay his greatest talent, and many wonderful accounts have been written of his playing, improvising, and composing when a boy. When he was 12 years old he had written two operettas, five symphonies, a cantata, two pieces for the piano, four for the organ, one for violin, and three songs, “besides,” one biographer says, “a multitude of smaller pieces.” These are still preserved in the library at Berlin, Germany, to show what a little child may do.
On every one of these pieces written when Mendelssohn was a child, as well as on his later compositions, are to be seen three initials “H. D. M.” They stand for three German words Hilf Du Mir, meaning Help Thou Me,—a little prayer to God at the beginning of every task, showing how well the child had learned the lesson that no one of us must undertake any lightest duty without first asking God’s aid. (I wonder how many of the little readers of The Etude send up some such little prayer at the beginning of the practice hour.)
These are some of the things which helped to make Mendelssohn a happy boy: being always industrious, being always a good boy, and being kept from vanity.
Of course he was tempted to be vain and to think a great deal of himself and his accomplishments. He used to get an orchestra together (they used to have musicales at his house every Sunday) for the purpose of practicing the music which he had composed, and he would stand up on a chair conducting the playing of musicians much bigger and older than himself, with his long brown curls bobbing around a face as solemn and important as an owl’s, while fond relatives and friends sat around and said pretty, admiring things about him. Enough to make any boy vain.
Then Herr Zelter would come in and say, “Tut, tut, you’re making a Miss Nancy of the boy,” and threaten that he would never give the boy another lesson if they did not stop spoiling him. He would find all manner of faults in the music which Felix had been so confidently conducting, and the boy would have to jump down from his elevated position and sit humbly down to desk or piano to work harder than before, for he found that it was really more worthwhile to gain one word of praise from the great master than whole volumes of flattery from anyone else.
This Master Zelter brought Felix to visit an old friend of his, one Goethe, greatest of German poets, and Goethe became a lifelong friend, teaching him many things. When he grew up Mendelssohn set to music Goethe’s poem, the “Walpurgis Nights.”
Another lifelong friend of Mendelssohn’s was Shakespeare, who, though he had been dead for many years, yet seemed a living, breathing reality to the boy, so that he said that as a child he fairly lived in Shakespeare’s “Midsummer Nights’ Dream” – and seemed to breath in the very essence of its spirit. To this, also, he made beautiful music.
Mendelssohn loved whatever was sweet and dainty, wholesome and holy, and these tastes grew with him to manhood, so that his best work was in delicate things like the “Midsummer Night’s Dream” and the “Songs Without Words,” and in his religious writings, the oratorios, anthems, etc.
Enjoy Mendelssohn's Overture to "Midsummer Night's Dream" performed by the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, Kurt Masur conducting:
Also he kept his childish taste for sweets in a real sense, for a friend of his, telling about a festival at which Mendelssohn conducted one of his own oratorios, says that he conductor’s desk was “garlanded with flowers,” and that beside his music was a package of sweetmeats from which he helped himself anon with his left hand, while with his right he conducted.
He was very dainty and nice about his personal appearance, too. After he grew too old to wear long, brown curls he went to London and cultivated a small and curly beard, which he wore in a very modified imitation of a fashion then known in England as “Piccadilly weepers.”
Mendelssohn was successful because, although he was of a wealthy family, lived in a beautiful house, with a “Garden House” where Felix and his sisters used to “run a newspaper,” and could travel whither he would, he was always industrious. He used to carry a portable piano about with him when traveling and practice on trains and coaches, and he wrote music in all sorts of places and under many and various circumstances. He was industrious. Add to the fact that he was good, and you have the whole and entire reason for his success. There is no better combination than virtue and industry.If you wish to know about Mendelssohn after he grew up read Rockstro’s “Life of Mendelssohn” in the “Great Musicians Series.”
Enjoy of one of Mendelssohn’s "Song Without Words" (Opus 109), performed by Jacqueline and Iris du Pré: