More Than One Genius In The Family

3D front cover of The Mendelssohn Family (1729–1847) From Letters and Journals by Sebastian HenselWe have recently reissued ‘classic’ biographies of some of the great figures in classical music. The German philologist and archaeologist Otto Jahn (1813–69), whose edition of Sophocles’ Electra we have also published, was inspired to write a scholarly biography of Mozart following a conversation at Mendelssohn’s funeral in 1847. He immersed himself in intensive research on the composer and his music, publishing the first edition between 1856 and 1859. A second edition followed in 1867, incorporating new material and making use of Köchel’s 1862 catalogue of Mozart’s works, and from this Pauline D. Townsend made her three-volume English translation, first published in 1882.

The three-volume work known as ‘Thayer’s Beethoven’ had an extraordinary gestation: for the American Alexander Wheelock Thayer (1817–97), it represented a lifelong labour of love, yet it remained unfinished at his death. His friend Hermann Deiters edited and translated Thayer’s work into German, publishing three volumes which covered Beethoven’s life to 1816. Since Deiters also died before the biography could be completed, musicologist Hugo Riemann was called upon to conclude the work. The final German volumes appeared in 1907 and 1908. Eventually, the American critic Henry Edward Krehbiel (1854–1923) prepared the first and considerably revised English version, published in three volumes in 1921.

I have been reading the two-volume ‘family biography’ of the Mendelssohns by Sebastian Hensel, the nephew of Felix and son of Fanny, who was thus also a descendant of the Moses Mendelssohn, the Enlightenment philosopher. This is a different kind of biography: Hensel was writing about his own family, people whom he knew well and had opportunities of observing in all sorts of different contexts.

Contemporary biographies, whether by family members or friends, are a mixed blessing: they can obviously provide insights unavailable to later writers, who have to make do at third hand with written records and perhaps the reminiscences of the elderly. On the other hand, they are likely to be partisan to the point of hagiography. Moreover, at a time when even the most critical biographical works deliberately glossed over anything that was even remotely salacious (as Bowdler said, ‘Words and Expressions Are Omitted which Cannot with Propriety Be Read Aloud in a Family’), a biography by a keeper of the flame like Lady Burne-Jones was not going to be explicit about her husband’s notorious affair with Marie Zambaco.

But even with suppression, evasion, omission and hero-worship, there is much to be said for reading Thornbury’s view of Turner, or Tom Moore or Trelawny on Byron. And in the case of the Mendelssohns, Hensel relies on letting the copious letters exchanged among the family and with close friends tell the story. The book is not ideally well presented: there are typos, missing letters, and at one point at least one missing line. But the content is extraordinary.

Mendel Dessau was a primary school teacher employed by the Jewish community of Dessau when his son Moses was born on 6 September 1729. His upbringing by his severe father, the rabbi who took over his education when he was five, his move to Berlin, to follow his teacher, at the age of fourteen, his crippling poverty as he pursued his studies, are all graphically described, and the restrictions on Jews in the various German states are explained. It nevertheless comes as a shock to be told that, about the year 1744, ‘he learnt German’. Not only that, but Hensel asserts that a pupil of this fifteen-year-old teacher, who had helped him by acquiring a German book for him, was expelled from Berlin by the Jewish authorities when the ‘crime’ came to light.

Moses Mendelssohn’s subsequent career, his writings and his friendships, especially with Lessing, are illustrated largely through his own letters. One of the deeply troubling aspects of this otherwise enchanting portrait of a close and loving family through four generations is the shadow cast by hindsight. Mendelssohn did not believe in the project of reassembling the scattered Jewish nation in its own homeland in Palestine. He wanted their homeland to be the ‘cultured society’ of the countries in which they lived, and, as a historical precedent, had published Menasseh ben Israel’s pamphlets to Cromwell in German, with his own preface.

At a time when Jews were not citizens of most of the German states, and had no right of abode unless they petitioned the government with the support of a powerful patron, and when the Jewish community itself punished those who attempted to bridge the gap, this was a revolutionary idea, and, as Hensel says, like his namesake, Moses ‘did not see accomplished the entrance of his people into the land to which he had conducted them. The work continues until this day, and the Jews are daily gaining a more assured and honourable position in society, art and science…’.

Of the children of Moses and his wife Fromet, six lived to adulthood. The eldest, Joseph was the founder of the Mendelssohn bank, and a successful and prosperous merchant, but had a profound interest in the arts and sciences, and was a close friend of Alexander von Humboldt. There is a charming anecdote of Humboldt (along with his extensive natural history collections) being threatened by his landlord with eviction. Mendelssohn quietly bought the house, allowing Humboldt to continue undisturbed.

Of Moses’ three daughters, Dorothea attained some fame as an author, but also considerable notoriety when she left her husband to live with (and later marry) Friedrich Schlegel. But Hensel’s focus in this generation is, not unnaturally, Abraham, who married Leah Salomon, and was the father of Fanny, Felix, Rebecka and Paul. From this point, letters  drive the story, with relatively little linking narrative.

Fanny and Felix were undoubtedly precocious – Rebecka was later reported as saying ‘My older brother and sister stole my reputation as an artist. In any other family I would have been highly regarded as a musician and perhaps been leader of a group. Next to Felix and Fanny, I could not aspire to any recognition’ – but the otherwise enlightened Abraham focussed all his pride and hopes on Felix, while Fanny was urged to ‘prepare more earnestly and eagerly for your real calling, the only calling of a young woman – I mean the state of a housewife’.

Despite this, the girls as well as the boys had an excellent education: but it was Felix who was taken to meet and play for the elderly Goethe, and who had his father’s whole-hearted support (against the disapproval of some relatives) in becoming a professional musician. Felix’s letters on his travels within Germany, and through France, Italy and Britain (including the famous visit to the Hebrides) are delightful in their enthusiasm for everything: even a rather anti-climactic meeting with Sir Walter Scott is treated with wry good humour. (See also his friend Eduard Devrient’s memoirs, and the letters therein.)

Meanwhile, at home in Berlin, in 1829 Fanny married the artist Wilhelm Hensel (whose portraits of his new family adorn the book), and the artistic and literary circle in which the family moved was extended to include the sitters for his portraits. Among those listed are Weber, Gounod, Liszt, Clara Schumann, Ingres, Clara Novello, Brentano, Hoffmann, Heine, Goethe, Jacob Grimm, Lepsius, Böckh, Quetelet, and Dirichlet, who in 1832 married Rebecka.

The first volume ends with the sudden and unexpected death of Abraham in 1835. Only twelve years later, both Fanny (in May 1847) and Felix (in November) were dead too – both seem to have died of strokes. The teenaged Sebastian Hensel was taken into the Dirichlet family, as his father gave up both his home and his career after his wife’s death. Felix’s children were doubly orphaned when his widow Cécile died of consumption six years after his death: the boys were adopted by his youngest brother Paul, and the girls brought up by Cécile’s mother.

If I had actually transcribed even half the passages of humour, sadness and fascinating  detail which I flagged as I read, this blog would be three times as long. But I must end with Hensel’s 1879 eulogium to the German state: ‘We are now a united Fatherland, high in the respect of Europe, and to this generation has been granted that highest of human destinies – to have lived in a great time.’ He clearly believed that the Jews of Germany had moved beyond the experience of Moses and his children, who,  every time they went out into the street, were jeered and spat upon by a mob.


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5 Responses to More Than One Genius In The Family

  1. Stephen Barber says:

    I think you should note that Otto Jahn’s life of Mozart was completely revised by Hermann Abert and an English translation of this appeared in 2007 (Yale University Press) complete with extensive notes which update the information where necessary. Similarly Elliott Forbes updated Thayer’s Life of Beethoven in 1964 (Princeton University Press). Given this, reprints of the original versions will necessarily be of limited interest.

  2. Thanks for this, Stephen. It’ll be interesting to see if the world has got room for the originals as well as the updated versions – and so far the signs are promising. But we do baulk at doing Yale’s and Princeton’s publicity for them!

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