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
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
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
"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
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'
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
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
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
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
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
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."