This was a serious difficulty; but Felix was deeply in earnest in whatever he undertook, and decided he must have an orchestra to try out his operatic efforts. It looked like an impossibility, but love and money can accomplish wonders. A small orchestra was duly selected from among the members of the Court band.
The lad Felix was to conduct these sedate musicians, which he did modestly but without embarrassment, standing on a footstool before his men, waving the baton like a little general. Before the first performance was quite ready, Felix felt there must be some one present who could really judge of the merits of his little piece. Who would do so better than his old professor of thorough bass and composition, Carl Zelter, the director of the Berlin Singakademie. Zelter agreed to accept this delicate office, and a large number of friends were invited for the occasion.
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This was only the beginning of a series of weekly musical evenings at the Mendelssohn home. Felix, with his dark curls, his shining eyes, and charming manners, was the life of anything he undertook. He often conducted his little pieces, but did not monopolize the time. Sometimes all four children took part, Fanny at the piano, Rebekka singing, Paul playing the 'cello and Felix at the desk.
Old Zelter was generally present, and though averse to praising pupils, would often say a few words of encouragement at the close. Felix was at this time but little more than twelve years old. He had within the last year composed fifty or sixty pieces, including a trio for piano and strings, containing three movements, several sonatas for the piano, some songs and a musical comedy in three scenes, for piano and voices.
All these were written with the greatest care and precision, and with the date of each neatly added. He collected his pieces into volumes; and the more work he did the more neatly he wrote. The boy Felix had a wonderful gift for making friends. One day he suddenly caught sight of Carl Maria von Weber walking along the streets of Berlin, near his home. He recognized the famous composer at once, as he had lately visited his parents. The boy's dark eyes glowed with pleasure at the recognition, and tossing back his curls, he sprang forward and threw his arms about Weber's neck, begging him to go home with him.
When the astonished musician recovered himself, he presented the boy to Jules Benedict, his young friend and pupil who walked at his side, saying, "This is Felix Mendelssohn. Weber stood by smiling at the boy's enthusiasm.
Again Felix besought them to come home with him, but Weber had to attend a rehearsal. Felix again embraced Weber, and then challenged his new friend, Mr. Benedict, to race him to the door of his house. The young musician received a warm welcome, and was not able to leave until he had played on the piano all the airs he could remember from the wonderful new opera, which Weber had come to Berlin to superintend.
Benedict was so pleased with his first visit that he came again. This time he found Felix writing music and asked what it was. To say that Benedict was surprised at such an answer from a boy of twelve hardly expresses what he felt.
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It was quite true he did not yet know Felix Mendelssohn. After that they went into the garden, and Felix for the moment, became a rollicking boy, jumping fences and climbing trees like a squirrel. Toward the close of this year, , his teacher Zelter announced he intended going to Wiemar, to see Goethe, the aged poet of Wiemar, and was willing to take Felix with him. The poet's house at Wiemar was indeed a shrine to the elect, and the chance of meeting the object of so much hero worship, filled the impressionable mind of Felix with reverential awe.
Zelter on his part, felt a certain pride in bringing his favorite pupil to the notice of the great man, though he would not have permitted Felix to guess what he felt for anything he possessed. When they arrived, Goethe was walking in his garden. He greeted both with kindness and affection, and it was arranged that Felix should play for him next day. Zelter had told Goethe much about his pupil's unusual talents, but the poet wished to prove these accounts by his own tests.
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Selecting piece after piece of manuscript music from his collection, he asked the boy to play them at sight. He was able to do so with ease, to the astonishment of the friends who had come in to hear him. They were more delighted when he took a theme from one of the pieces and improvised upon it. Withholding his praise, Goethe announced he had a final test, and placed on the music desk a sheet which seemed covered with mere scratches and blotches. The boy laughingly exclaimed, "Who could ever read such writing as that?
He always wrote as if he used a broomstick for a pen, then wiped his sleeve over the wet ink! The boy picked out the strange manuscript bit by bit; when he came to the end he cried, "Now I will play it through for you," which he did without a mistake. Goethe was well pleased and begged Felix to come every day and play, while he was in the city. The two became fast friends; the poet treated him as a son, and at parting begged he would soon return to Wiemar, that they might again be together. During the following summer the whole family made a tour through Switzerland, much to the delight of Felix, who enjoyed every moment.
There was little time for real work in composition, but a couple of songs and the beginning of a piano quartet were inspired by the view of Lake Geneva and its exquisite surroundings. When Felix returned to Berlin, he had grown much, physically as well as mentally. He was now tall and strong, his curling locks had been clipped, and he seemed at a single bound to have become almost a man. His happy, boyish spirits, however, had not changed in the least.
About this time the family removed from their home on the Neue Promenade, to a larger and more stately mansion, No. As those who know the modern city realize, this house, now no longer a private residence, stands in the very heart of traffic and business. The rooms of the new home were large and elegant, with a spacious salon suitable for musicals and large functions. A fine garden or park belonged to the house, where were lawns shaded by forest trees, winding paths, flowering shrubs and arbors in shady nooks, offering quiet retreats.
Best of all there was a garden house, with a central hall, which would hold several hundred people, having long windows and glass doors looking out upon the trees and flowers. Sunday concerts were soon resumed and given in the garden house, where, on week days the young people met, with friends and elders, to play, and act and enjoy the social life of the home. The mansion and its hospitality became famous, and every great musician, at one time or another, came to pay his respects and become acquainted with this art-loving family.
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At a family party in honor of Felix's fifteenth birthday, his teacher Zelter saluted him as no longer an apprentice, but as an "assistant" and member of the Brotherhood of Art. Very soon after this the young composer completed two important works. The first was an Octet for strings.
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He was not yet seventeen when the Octet was finished, which was pronounced the most fresh and original work he had yet accomplished. It marked a distinct stage in the gifted youth's development. The composition which followed was the beautiful "Midsummer Night's Dream" music. He and his sister Fanny had lately made the acquaintance of Shakespeare through a German translation, and had been fascinated by this fairy play.
The young people spent much of their time in the lovely garden that summer, and amid these delightful surroundings the music was conceived. The Overture was first to spring into being. When it was written out, Felix and Fanny often played it as a duet. In this form the composer-pianist Moscheles heard it and was impressed by its beauty.
The fascinating Scherzo and dreamy Nocturne followed. When all were elaborated and perfected, the complete work was performed by the garden house orchestra for a crowded audience, who abundantly expressed their delight. Sir G. Macfarren has said of it: "No one musical work contains so many points of harmony and orchestration that are novel yet none of them have the air of experiment, but all seem to have been written with a certainty of their success.
And now a great plan occupied Mendelssohn's mind, a project which had been forming for some time; this was nothing less than to do something to arouse people to know and appreciate the great works of Johann Sebastian Bach. Two years before Felix had been presented with a manuscript score of Bach's "Passion according to St. Matthew," which Zelter had allowed to be copied from the manuscript preserved in the Singakademie. The old man was a devoted lover of Bach's music, and had taught his pupil in the same spirit. When Felix found himself the possessor of this wonderful book, he set to work to master it, until he knew every bit of it by heart.
As he studied it deeply he was more and more impressed with its beauty and sublimity.