by Gabriel Prynn
Along with Verdi, Wagner, Chopin and Liszt, Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) and Robert Schumann (1810-1856) were part of the ‘1812 generation’: some of the greatest composers who ever lived, all born within a few years of each other. Indeed, Felix and Robert had much in common: they were both sensitive, ambitious, proudly German and yet hostile towards the conservative musical establishment which surrounded them. They shared a passion for J.S. Bach and worshipped Beethoven. They admired the writings of Goethe and Shakespeare.
Be that as it may, it seems unavoidable that their differences in personality and background should create barriers between the two men. Felix Mendelssohn, for his part, was highly sociable, well travelled, multilingual, the prized son of a wealthy and cultivated family who was equally at home at the conductor’s podium as in the royal courts of Europe where he befriended the high and mighty. On his death, Queen Victoria described Mendelssohn as ‘the greatest musical genius since Mozart’ adding that ‘We liked and esteemed the excellent man, and looked up to and revered, the wonderful genius, and the great mind, which I fear were too much for the frail delicate body. With it all he was so modest and simple…’
Robert on the other hand was pathologically shy, frequently more at home in a fantasy life inhabited by imaginary protagonists than in the real world. Robert enjoyed heavy drinking and probably visiting brothels – activities of no interest at all to the refined and high-born Felix.
The contrast between the two men was pointed out by Schumann himself, who stated that Mendelssohn’s handwriting was ‘a picture of inner harmony’:
In 1835, Felix Mendelssohn was named director of the concerts at the prestigious Leipzig Gewandhaus.
And so, at 26 years of age he was famous throughout Europe, and had already written two of his most famous and celebrated works: the overture A Midsummer Night’s Dream– and his Octet for strings.
At the same time Robert Schumann had just founded his review the Neue Zeitschrift für Musik, which would form the basis for his war against the Philistines. He was thus known primarily by the wider public as a music critic as this time, and had yet to find his way as a composer. Felix Mendelssohn, very much the producer/creator, had no interest in music theory or criticism.
Robert was no-doubt happy to have Felix’s comradeship and support – we know that Felix offered Robert suggestions on the writing of his First Symphony for example, in particular concerning orchestration and structure. Robert’s wife Clara was one of the most celebrated pianists of the age, and she and Felix frequently performed four-hand piano works together, both in private events and in public concerts. The correspondence between Clara and Felix reveals warm feelings and mutual admiration. Robert’s high opinion of Mendelssohn is also clear from both his personal diary and his published reviews, describing him as ‘an unforgettable’ man after their first meeting. Mendelssohn’s opinion of Schumann is harder to grasp however: Mendelssohn actually hardly mentions him in his surviving correspondence.
Tickets can be bought online, by phone (514-285-2000, option 1), or in person at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts ticket office (1380 Sherbrooke West)
Webcast concert also available starting Saturday, May 22.