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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction

By Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy (1809–1847)

OF the personality of Mendelssohn the musician, and of the professional activities of a career of perhaps as complete artistic felicity and success as can be pointed out, few essential facts are unfamiliar at this date. In connection with a literary work they need but general review. Not many masters in art have come into the world with so many amiable fairies to rock the cradle, so prompt to bestow almost a superfluity of gracious gifts. Born at Hamburg, February 3d, 1809, of Hebrew blood, and of a prosperous and distinguished family that numbered the Platonist, Moses Mendelssohn, among its immediate ancestry, the boy’s temperament and talents received peculiarly careful cultivation. Indeed, so far was this the case that it would not have been singular had Felix made music a mere avocation, instead of accepting it as the business and passion of his life; one which he pursued with that splendid system and industry, in nine cases out of ten having much to do with the recognition of what the world thinks the irresistibility of genius. From being a youthful prodigy at the pianoforte and in original composition, from studying diligently with his charming sister Fanny, the lad outgrew the interest attaching to merely a young virtuoso, and stood forth as one of his art’s mature and accepted masters. Mendelssohn’s career of triumph may be spoken of as beginning with the familiar music to Shakespeare’s ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream’; its later milestones are familiar in a long series of orchestral works of large form, and in the large body of chamber music, vocal and instrumental, of greater or less interest; and it can be said to have culminated in ‘Elijah,’ the best of his oratorios,—indeed, the best oratorio on a Handelian pattern yet heard. Life to him from year to year meant incessant and delightful labor, bringing admiration and substantial honor. Only Mozart—with whom Mendelssohn’s affinity is emphatic—was as prolific, with so little that in the general result can be dismissed as dull or trashy. After Germany and England had been the scene of a career which, reviewed at this date, appears to us to have brought not only fame but a personal and musical idolatry, the composer died in the flush of manhood, at Leipzig, in 1847. There was soon after a certain natural reaction against his music, save in England. Lisztian influences affected it, in especial. Much of it still is laid aside, if not actually dismissed. But his place in his art seems securer now than it was a decade ago; and however the forms and the emotional conception of music have changed, whatever the shifting currents of popular taste, it seems now probable that Mendelssohn’s best orchestral works, his best compositions for the voice, and even the best of his pianoforte pieces, will long retain their hold on the finer public ear and the more sensitive musical heart. The world has begun to re-esteem them, and to show signs of feeling a new conviction of their beauty of idea and their singular perfection of form. This is the day of the dramatic in music; but Mendelssohn’s expression of that element is not feeble nor uncertain, albeit it must be caught rather between the lines by a generation concentrated on Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, and Wagner.

Mendelssohn’s letters are—like his music, like his drawings, like everything that he did—a faithful and delightful expression of himself. His temperament was charming, his nature was sound, his heart affectionate, and his appreciations wide. His sense of humor was unfailing. He poured himself out to his friends and relations in his correspondence in all his moods, whether on professional tours or stationary in one city or another. Every mood, every shade of emotion, is latent in his “pages of neat, aristocratic chirography.” He knew everybody of note; he wrote to dozens of people—musical and unmusical—regularly and voluminously. His epistolary style is as distinct as his musical one,—what with its precision in conveying just what came into his head, united to lucidity, elegance, finish, a knack of making even a trifling thing interesting; and showing a serious undercurrent from a deeply thoughtful intelligence. He was a born letter-writer, just as he was a born musician. Those few volumes that the kindness of his friends has gradually given to the world (for the original letters of the composer have always been difficult to procure), depict his moral and æsthetic nature, so limpid and happily balanced, with an obvious fidelity and an almost lavish openness.