Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy: Briefe aus Leipziger Archiven

Ed. Hans-Joachim Rothe and Richard Szeskus. Deutseher Verlag/Breitkopf


Archives are the world's collective unconscious: a literal cryptamnesia. Latterly they have become mines of information; just take your pick. Recent lucky strikes have unearthed lodes of Verdi in Paris, Chopin in Oxford, Beethoven in Edinburgh, and Schumann in Leipzig. It will he no surprise if the next hatch of Dead Sea Scrolls includes a musical supplement.

     The latest disclosures appear in this compact and well-produced volume: its 146 letters include 97 previously unpublished. They are addressed to past masters (e.g. of painting or music, such as Bendemann and David) and burgomasters (e.g. of the Leipzig municipality, conservatory and orchestral). All had long since gravitated to the vaults, whence the letters no doubt arose spontaneously with their own levity and effervescence. “In the [Paris] picture galleries as in the theatres there are only two topics – politics and sex”, says Mendelssohn austerely. He then proceeds, with evident delight, to give examples; and adds thoughtfully “to see a wholly innocent girl in a shockingly immoral play pleases the French - and me”. It's a new light on the future composer of Elijah and husband of Cécile Jeanrenaud. So is his advice to David, newly a father, namely that when babies smile at you there’s no point in smiling back – it merely means they have wind, and need camomile tea.

     Under such cool badinage there is warmth and wisdom; just as in the best of Mendelssohn's music. These letters spell him out explicitly as a kindly and generous man a dedicated and masterly artist, a helpful and loyal friend (to Schumann among many others) and a gifted and humane administrator. They are well edited by Hans-Joachim Rothe (known for his report on the medical aspects of Schumann’s call-up papers) and Richard Szeskus. In a few cases the treatment might have been better. For Letter 132 I suggest 1845; it can hardly have been in 1844, as here conjectured, that Mendelssohn met Schumann “bei meiner Abreise im Frühjahr”, for that was on May 8, when Schumann was in Russia. Again,expressly” (p.189) means “besonders”, not “schnell”. And it is surely misleading to say that the Bodleian collection of letters to Mendelssohn was “den Herausgebern leider nicht zugänglich”, as if it were somehow reprehensible of Oxford to be so far away from Leipzig. Perhaps the editors had become so accustomed to reading letters that they never thought of writing one.

     But in general the notes and presentation are de­tailed and impeccable. The result should please confirmed Mendelssohnians, and may well convert both.


The Musical Times, Dec. 1972 (p. 1185) © the estate of eric sams