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If you were to go into the woods and hear the rustling of the leaves, the singing of the birds, and the babbling of the brook over the stones, could you come home and describe these things by playing on the piano? Without saying anything, could you tell your mother what you heard? Could you make the piano talk for you? Could you make it babble as the brook did? Could you make it sing the songs of the birds?
There once lived a child in Germany who could do all this. His name was Felix Mendelssohn. He loved to go into the woods. When he returned, he would go straight to the piano. At such times his sister Fanny loved to hear him play. When he had finished, she would say, "Oh, Felix, did a bird sing like that to-day?"
This brother and sister lived in a beautiful home. Their father was a rich banker. He liked to buy things that he thought would please his children. Their mother was a gentle woman, who enjoyed music and could play the piano well. She could speak many languages.
Felix had a dear old grandfather. The child used to climb on his grandfather's knee and beg for a story. The one he liked best told how he got the name Mendelssohn. "Long, long ago," the grandfather would say, "I lived in a small town in Germany. My father was a schoolmaster, whose name was Mendel. Every one in the village knew Mendel, the school-teacher. I used to go about a great deal with my father. When people saw us coming, they would say, 'Here is Mendel and here is Mendel's sohn, too.' So as I grew up, I was not called Moses Mendel, but Moses Mendelssohn."
The child Felix understood then that his last name meant, "the son of Mendel." His first name means "happy," and he was well named. There never lived a brighter, sunnier-tempered little lad.
Felix's mother was his first teacher. She began to give her children music lessons when Felix was only three years of age and Fanny was seven. At first the lesson lasted for five minutes; but as time went on, the lessons were made longer.
Soon they had other studies. They rose every morning at five o'clock and began their work. Besides their music and drawing, they had all the studies that you have and foreign languages besides. Do you not think they were busy little people? When Felix was eleven years old, he could speak French, German, and English.
Though he studied hard, he was a jolly boy. After being hard at work writing his music, he would run into the garden, clearing high hedges with a leap. He could climb a tree as nimbly as a squirrel. Felix and his little friends played all sorts of games in the big garden.
Of all his playmates Felix had none so dear to him as his sister Fanny. The two children were always together, and told each other all their secrets. Felix thought there was no one so kind and patient as Fanny. Fanny thought Felix was the dearest little brother in the world. She often helped her brother with his music.
A composer is one who writes music. Felix became a composer while he was still a small child. When he was eleven, he had composed sixty pieces of music. He had a teacher who helped him with his compositions. This man's name was Zelter. He was very proud of Felix, for he had no other pupil who made such progress.
All of the Mendelssohn children liked music. They had a concert every fortnight at home. At these concerts, Fanny played the piano, Paul the violin, and a younger sister sang. Some of their friends often helped by playing other instruments. When several instruments are played together, there must be a leader to beat the time. This task fell to Felix, and he liked it, too.
Let us imagine that we are at one of the concerts. See, Felix is so much smaller than the others that he mounts a stool, so that the players can see him more plainly. Now they are ready to begin. See how the eyes of the little leader shine! He tosses back the waving black hair from his shoulders. When he raises his arm, the playing begins. How beautiful it is! Can it be that the little Felix has composed this music? Yes, for when the music has stopped and the clapping has died away, his mother says, "Never before, my son, have you written such beautiful music."
The father, too, was pleased with these concerts. He often invited his friends to come in and listen. Mr. Zelter was always there, and encouraged the children to play what Felix had composed.
Although Felix was born in Hamburg, he spent most of his life in Berlin. In 1825 his father bought a beautiful home in that city. There was a garden of seven acres. Fine old trees shaded the lawn. The house had many beautiful rooms. The one Felix liked the best was his mother's sitting room, which had three arches opening into another. The hall thus formed would seat many people. What a fine place for the family concerts!
Felix was a wonderful performer on the piano. When he was eight years old, he played better than many people who had studied for years. If his hands had not been so small, he could have done even better. When the lad was nine, he played at a concert given in a large hall.
In his thirteenth and fourteenth years, Felix was very busy with his studies. He liked to play without his notes. He memorized selections from the works of the greatest musicians. He was especially fond of Bach's and Beethoven's music.
In many of their studies Fanny did as well as Felix. How they enjoyed working together! They loved each other more and more as the years went on. Felix cared for no other praise so much as Fanny's.
GOETHE AND MENDELSSOHN
All American children know and love the poet Longfellow. All German children know and love the poet Goethe. When Felix Mendelssohn was a little boy, Goethe was an old man. Many times Felix heard his father and mother speak of the great German poet. Often Felix and Fanny read his poems together.
You remember that Mr. Zelter taught Felix music. Mr. Zelter and Goethe were great friends. Sometimes they wrote letters to each other; sometimes the music teacher visited the poet at his own home. In the letters Mr. Zelter often spoke of his pupils in music. Once he wrote: "I want to show you my best pupil. May I bring him to your home?" You will guess, of course, that the "best pupil" was Felix Mendelssohn.
After a few days the answer to the letter came. The poet said that he should be pleased to see Mr. Zelter and his pupil. Felix had not known that this visit was being planned. His teacher had told him nothing about it until the answer from Goethe arrived. Felix danced up and down for joy when he heard about it. He ran to tell Fanny the good news. He promised to write and tell her all about his visit.
The parents were overjoyed at their son's good fortune, and made everything ready for the journey. In the fall of 1821 Felix and his teacher left Berlin. The lad was only twelve years old and had never been away from home before. He wished very much that Fanny might go with him. Before he started, his mother gave him good advice. As he kissed her good-by, he promised to remember all that she had told him.
Felix was so anxious to see the great poet that he was glad when the journey was over. He stayed more than a fortnight in Goethe's house. Every day he played for his friend, who was delighted at his skill. Sometimes he played for two hours without rising from the piano.
Felix received many letters from home. In one of these his father said:--
"My dear Son:
"Keep a strict watch over yourself. Be very particular in your behavior at meals. Speak clearly and to the point. Take pains to use the correct word. I have no need to remind you to obey your friend, for you are a good boy."
One day Felix received a letter from his mother. How pleased he was. She said: "Would I were a tiny mouse, to have an eye on my Felix far away! I should like to see how he behaves as an independent lad. Snap up every word that falls from Goethe, for I want you to know all about him when you return."
While Felix was away from home, he sent many letters to his parents. He wrote long letters to Fanny, too. In one letter he told what great friends he and Goethe had become. He said: "Every morning I receive a kiss from the great German poet. Every afternoon I have two kisses from my friend and father, Goethe."
Goethe was very much pleased with his little visitor. Felix was happy too. He liked to rise bright and early in the morning. What frolics he and the poet's grandchildren had in the great garden! They romped and ran all the morning, but in the afternoon Felix played for Goethe.
Goethe's friends often came to hear Felix play. One morning, at eleven o'clock, the child was called in from the garden. When he entered the music room, he saw a number of guests, among whom was a prince. Felix was asked to give them a little music.
Quickly he went to the piano, and opening it, played a few simple melodies. His listeners were charmed. Pleased with their praise, the little musician played on and on. The more the guests heard, the more they wished to hear. They begged the child to go on; so he played the music of his favorite composers for them. The perfect quiet of the room showed how much the company were enjoying the sweet music. The boy's happy face told how much pleasure it was giving him. From eleven in the morning until ten in the evening Felix played, with only two hours' rest.
Another time Felix played for other guests. Goethe said: "Well, come, you have played only pieces you know. Now we will see whether you can play something that you do not know. I will put you on trial." He went out and came back with a roll of music in his hand. He said: "Now we will try you. Do you think you can play this?"
He placed some sheets of music on the piano. The notes were very small and closely written. The music was far from easy reading, but Felix played it, not making the slightest mistake. Indeed, one might have thought that he had practiced it for years.
All the people clapped their hands, except Goethe, who said: "That is nothing. Others could read that too. Now I will give you something you can not do. Take care!"
He laid another paper on the piano. It certainly did look strange, for the notes looked like splashes of ink. Felix was surprised and laughed merrily, saying, "Who wrote that, Father Goethe?"
Just then Mr. Zelter came up behind Felix and looked over his shoulder. "Why!" he exclaimed, "that is Beethoven's writing. One can see that a mile off. He always writes as if he used a broom-stick for a pen and then wiped his sleeve over the wet ink."
The boy kept his eyes on the music. Goethe said: "I told you that you could not do it. Now begin." Without a word Felix began, and played it through once. He stopped several times, saying, "No, not that way." When he had finished he exclaimed, "Now I will play it to you." The second time not a note was missing.
Once three members of the king's band were invited to Goethe's house. Mr. Zelter took them to the music room, where sheets of music were scattered all about. The musicians examined them. The notes were written in a firm, neat hand. On every sheet was the same name, Felix Mendelssohn. The musicians had never heard of such a composer, yet they thought that the music was fine.
The three men took their instruments from their cases. While they were busy tuning them, Felix came springing into the room. He was a handsome, bright-looking boy, with clear and sparkling eyes. His waving black hair fell over his shoulders. After looking about him for a moment, Felix went forward and cordially shook hands with each of the musicians.
Goethe had come in with Felix. Pointing to Mr. Zelter, he said: "My friend has brought with him a little gentleman from Berlin. He has already given us great surprise as a musician. We wish now to see if he can compose as well as he plays. Will you help me?" Turning to Felix, he gently stroked the lad's long, glossy locks, saying, "Let us hear what this young head has thought of."
The boy took his notes at once, and gave each of the musicians a part. The little composer looked at the players with sparkling eyes. They laid their bows on their strings, and the performance began.
When it was finished and the musicians laid down their instruments, Felix sprang up. He looked eagerly about him, for he wanted to hear something about his work. Goethe said: "Excellent, my boy! You have only to look at the faces of these gentlemen to see that your piece has pleased them. But they are waiting for you in the garden." Without a word, the boy left the room.
After he had gone, the musicians began to talk of Felix. One of them said, "Did young Mendelssohn compose the music that we just played?" "Surely, a child could not have done such work," said another. They turned to Mr. Zelter, who said, "Felix did the work entirely alone."
Felix never forgot the time spent under Goethe's roof. It was the beginning of a long friendship. When he went home, he had much to tell. The next autumn the boy paid a second visit to Goethe. He was accompanied by his father, mother, and sister Fanny. Goethe was happy to see his young friend again.
They had not been in the house long, before Goethe went to the piano and opened it. He said, "Come, and wake up for me all the winged spirits that have long slumbered here. You are my David. If I am ever ill and sad, you must banish my bad dreams by your playing. But you may be sure that I shall never throw a spear at you as Saul did at David."
After that Felix visited Goethe many times. They often wrote letters to each other, and at holiday time they exchanged gifts. In 1832, when Felix Mendelssohn was twenty-three years old, the great poet died.
(Music: (Elijah.) If with all your hearts ye truly seek Me,
Ye shall ever surely find Me.)
MENDELSSOHN'S TRAVELS AND WORKS
You must not think that Felix spent all his time in visits and pleasures. Indeed, his vacations came seldom and were very short. Most of his time was spent in hard work. He had learned to draw and paint nicely. He could speak French and English as well as his own language. He was fond of reading English books. He admired the works of Sir Walter Scott. As he especially liked to study Shakespeare's writings, he read his plays again and again.
When he was seventeen years old, he wrote one of his most beautiful compositions. It is called Overture to Midsummer Night's Dream. Young Mendelssohn and his sister had been studying this play of Shakespeare's. They were delighted with the fairy story. If you could hear the beautiful music of the overture, you might imagine that you were in fairyland. You might fancy that you heard the songs of the elves and woodland sprites.
Young Mendelssohn's father believed that much could be learned from travel. When Mendelssohn was about fifteen, he traveled in France and Switzerland. Soon after he was sixteen, his father took him to Paris, where he made the acquaintance of several great musicians. From these men he learned much that was of value to him.
When he was twenty years old, he decided to devote all of his time to music. He had spent considerable time in traveling. He had studied so hard that he might have entered a university, had he wished. From that time on, he was to earn his living as a musician.
One day his father said: "My son, you have decided to be a musician. In what city do you intend to carry on your work?" Mendelssohn did not know where he wished to live. His father said: "Do not decide at once. Travel in different countries of Europe. Visit the large cities, and become acquainted with the great musicians; then make up your mind where you can best do your work."
So in April, 1829, Mendelssohn went to London and stayed until November. English people were delighted with his music. At one concert the Overture to Midsummer Night's Dream was played. They thought that they had never heard such music before. They often invited Mendelssohn to play in the large churches. He played the great organ in St. Paul's Cathedral.
Before he returned to Germany, he visited Scotland, as he wished to see Sir Walter Scott. Mendelssohn was charmed with the scenery of Scotland, and made many sketches while in that country. He wrote home, "When God Himself paints the landscape, it becomes strangely beautiful."
While in Scotland, Mendelssohn visited some islands near the coast. He had a stormy voyage on the Atlantic, but at last he reached land. On one of the islands is a noted cavern called Fingal's Cave. Mendelssohn visited this wonderful spot. He had never seen anything like it before. The cave was dark and filled with echoes; the gray sea moaned among the pillars of the cavern. The wind seemed to sigh and sob as it swept through the empty passageways. Mendelssohn often spoke of his visit to Fingal's Cave.
When he returned to Berlin, his sisters asked Felix to tell them something about the noted cave. "It can not be told, only played," he replied, and straightway seated himself at the piano. The music that he played told his sisters how the waves dashed against the rocky walls. It described to them the moaning and sighing of the wind. Later the music was written down. It is called the Fingal's Cave Overture.
After several months spent in England, Mendelssohn returned to Berlin. After a little while, he went to Italy, visiting Rome, Venice, and Florence. He worked daily at his music. He visited the art galleries. He enjoyed meeting the leading musicians.
From Italy Mendelssohn journeyed to Switzerland. From there he went to Paris, where the Midsummer Night's Dream Overture was played. Leaving France, he went once more to London. While he was in the great English city, the first book of Songs without Words was printed.
"How could there be a song without words?" you ask. Just as Felix, long ago, told in music the story of his walk in the woods, so now he told other stories with other music. One of the airs in the first book of Songs without Words is called the Hunting Song. What do you suppose you could hear in that music?
Mendelssohn visited England many times. In the year 1842 he met Queen Victoria. The queen's husband, Prince Albert, invited Mendelssohn to visit the palace, for he wished him to try his organ. The great musician accepted the invitation and went to the palace.
While they were talking, the queen entered. "Goodness, what confusion!" she said. The wind had littered the room with sheets of music. She knelt down and began to pick them up, Mendelssohn and Prince Albert helping her. Then Mendelssohn began a song. Before he was through the queen and the prince joined in. The queen then sang alone one of Fanny Mendelssohn's songs. Turning to the composer, she said: "Have you written any new songs lately? I am very fond of singing your music." This pleased Mendelssohn greatly.
Soon the queen went to drive, and Mendelssohn's visit came to an end. Before he left, Prince Albert gave him a beautiful ring, saying, "This gift is from the queen. She begs you will accept it as a remembrance."
Mendelssohn played at many concerts. He never would perform a piece that he had not carefully studied. He used to say: "Whatever is worth doing at all, is worth doing well. That takes time."
Mendelssohn's greatest work is an oratorio. Now you must know that an oratorio is a composition for many voices and instruments. The words of the songs and choruses are taken from the Bible. This great oratorio, written in 1846, is called Elijah. The words are set to exquisite music. Ten years before Mendelssohn had written another oratorio, called St. Paul, which is very beautiful also. Even now these two oratorios are often sung.
Several volumes of Songs without Words were written. Some of the daintiest and most beautiful music Mendelssohn ever wrote is found among these songs. One of the loveliest and best known of them all is the Spring Song. Have you ever heard it?
Mendelssohn used music as we do words. Once a young English girl put some roses and carnations on the piano for him. The sweet flowers pleased him. He thanked the thoughtful giver in a little musical poem.
When he was in London, he received news that his sister Fanny was to be married. Mendelssohn could not go to her wedding; so he wrote her a letter. It did not express the thoughts that he had in mind. He tore the letter in pieces and composed some music, which he sent instead.
Fanny Mendelssohn had great talent as a musician. She composed some pieces of music, some of which were published. Do you remember that Queen Victoria sang one of her songs? Fanny Mendelssohn died when she was forty-two years of age. If she had lived longer, perhaps the world would know more about her music.
When Mendelssohn heard of his sister's death, he was heartbroken. He felt that his best friend was gone. He remembered how her acts of kindness had brightened his life. He recalled her words of appreciation and cheer.
Mendelssohn once had a visitor whom he entertained for a while by showing his statues and pictures. Then he said, "Now let us go to an open-air concert." He led the way to a lonely corner of the garden, where a nightingale was pouring out its soul. "He sings here every evening," said the great musician, "and I often come to listen. I sit here sometimes when I want to compose."
Mendelssohn enjoyed hearing his own music. Some young people once planned a concert for him. He was so delighted and so eager to hear it that he and his lovely young wife arrived much too early. While his songs were being sung, his whole face beamed; his eyes sparkled with pleasure. He called out after each song, "Again, again, please once more." They had to sing the Lark's Song three times.
In 1847, when he was thirty-eight years of age, Felix Mendelssohn died. His own life was a beautiful one, and he filled the lives of his friends with love and sunshine. He once wrote a little verse of poetry which shows the spirit of his life:--
"Love the beautiful,
Seek out the true,
Wish for the good,
And the best do."
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