Back in 2009, I did an internet search one day to see if there were any fellow composers living near me. To my surprise the top search result was a brief article on Felix Mendelssohn’s visit to North Wales, UK! In all the years that I had known of Mendelssohn and his music, I had never heard of him coming to North Wales, especially as he stayed for ten days in the little village of Rhydymwyn which is a mere seven miles away from my house! My excitement was further heightened when I read in the article, that as well as working on several of his famed compositions during his stay, he also wrote three piano pieces specifically for the daughters of his host as a farewell present! As a pianist and composer myself, I impatiently waited for these compositions to arrive in the post so that I could find out what this great nineteenth century musical legend had written in my very own community! More information was contained in the music book’s Preface which intrigued me further and set me on a fascinating journey of research into a little known area of music history, even amongst locals!
Let me share with you a little of what I’ve discovered so far on my adventure…
First of Ten Visits to Britain, 21st April – 28th November, 1829
In 1829, the famous German composer Mendelssohn visited Britain for the first time. He was just 20 years old and having completed his education, his wealthy banking father offered to fund a three year tour of Europe to help him “find himself as a man and as an artist.” After several months soaking up the rich music scene in London, Mendelssohn journeyed up to Scotland with his travelling companion Karl Klingemann and there found inspiration for what would later become his ‘Scottish’ Symphony No. 3 in A minor (op. 56) and his Hebrides Overture ‘Fingal’s Cave’ (op. 26). After departing from Glasgow and journeying through the Lake District on the top of the Mail Coach at the impressive speed of
“ten miles an hour,” Mendelssohn and his travelling companion parted company at Liverpool; Klingemann’s leave was up.
Mendelssohn’s first impression of Welsh folk music wasn’t the greatest as he reveals in a letter written from his inn in Llangollen on the 25th August! (listen) “Ten thousand devils take all national music! Here I am in Wales, and, heaven help us! A harper sits in the hall of every reputable tavern incessantly playing so-called folk melodies – that is to say, dreadful, vulgar, out-of-tune trash with a hurdy-gurdy going at the same time! It has given me toothache already. Anyone who, like myself, can’t stand Beethoven’s national songs ought to come to Wales and hear them bellowed by rough nasal voices to the crudest accompaniment – and then try to keep his temper. As I write, a fellow in the hall is playing this (scribbled notation) It’s making me so angry I can’t go on!”
After enjoying some sight-seeing around North Wales, including lots of sketching (another one of Mendelssohn’s passions), he decided to abandon his plans to visit Ireland after hearing reports of terrible crossings due to the inclement weather.
Coed Du Hall, Rhydymwyn, North Wales, 27th August – 5th September, 1829
Mendelssohn had met the Taylor family, who were renting Coed Du Hall, previously at their London home a few months earlier. John Taylor was a mining engineer and entrepreneur who was managing, with his sons, six lead mines in the Nant Alyn valley (near the village of Rhydymwyn) and who’s sister had known Mendelssohn’s cousin.
On the 25th of August, two days before his stay at Coed Du, Mendelssohn wrote from Llangollen to his parents in Berlin: (listen)“I then drove out to the Taylors to announce my visit for the day after next. They live in a country manor surrounded by flowers on a broad, well-tended lawn; there is no commotion, noise or people whatsoever. In the distance are the mines which the father oversees, and mountains everywhere. Arriving by foot over the meadows I found the elegant, formal London family as if completely transformed. The father and brother were away on travels (never mind); two daughters were digging in the garden, and the mother was riding a donkey. My, what a vigorous handshake! I noted the absence of the prettiest of the daughters, but on our walk we heard the sound of horses’ hooves and soon she herself appeared wearing a blue riding outfit…[She is] very pretty and goes by the name of Susan.”
Mendelssohn’s sense of humour comes through strongly as he describes some of the other members of the guests staying at the house. “Three long, withered, ugly, spiteful cousins from Ireland – ancient spinsters dressed in short green skirts and incessantly whispering together!”
Interestingly, not only do we have the account from Mendelssohn’s perspective, but some 50 years after these events, Anne Taylor, the eldest of the three daughters of John Taylor, recorded her memories of his visit. (listen) “It was in the year 1829 that we first became acquainted with Mr Mendelssohn. He was introduced to us by my aunt Mrs Austin, who had well known his cousin Professor Mendelssohn at Bonn. He visited us early in the season in Bedford Row (London), but our real friendship began at Coed Du, which was a house near Mold in Flintshire, rented for many years by my father, Mr John Taylor. Mr Mendelssohn came down there to spend a little time with us, in the course of a tour in England and Scotland. Soon we began to find that a most accomplished mind had come among us, quick to observe, delicate to distinguish. We knew little about his music, but the wonder of it grew upon us; and I remember one night, when my two sisters and I went to our room, how we began saying to each other: ‘Surely this must be a man of genius … we can’t be mistaken about the music; never did we hear anyone play so before. Yet we know the best London musicians. Surely by-and-by we shall hear that Felix Mendelssohn is a great name in the world.’ My father’s birthday happened while Mr. Mendelssohn was with us. There was a grand expedition to a distant mine, up among the hills; a tent carried up there, a dinner to the miners. We had speeches and health-drinkings, and Mendelssohn threw himself into the whole thing as if he had been one of us. He interested himself in hearing about the condition and way of life of the Welsh miners. Nothing was lost upon him.” Almost every experience inspired the fertile mind of Mendelssohn. Even at the depth of 500 feet in one of Taylor’s mines, inspiration struck Mendelssohn, giving him the basic musical idea for the ending of what would later become his Symphony No. 5 in D major/minor ‘Reformation’ (Op. 107)!
The 20 year old Mendelssohn thoroughly enjoyed the company of the girls, even boasting in his playful manner “with whom I do nothing but flirt, and that in English!” Anne Taylor recalled that (listen) “sometimes he would go out sketching with us girls, sitting down very seriously to draw, but making the greatest fun of attempts which he considered to be unsuccessful. One figure of a Welsh girl he imagined to be like a camel, and she was called ‘the camel’ accordingly. Though he scorned his own drawings, he had the genuine artist-feeling, and great love for pictures. I need not say how deeply he entered into the beauty of the hills and the woods. His way of representing them was not with the pencil; but in the evening his improvised music would show what he had observed or felt in the past day.”
Mendelssohn was famous for his sensitive piano playing; he often stayed up late into the night practicing, even using a dummy keyboard across his lap in bed whilst in London when he thought his playing might disturb his neighbours! He was very pleased to discover “a good English grand-piano” at Coed Du Hall. The middle Taylor daughter Susan who he repeatedly describes as “the prettiest” was “the chief piano-player” and to her Mendelssohn gave “her good advice, how to keep the joints loose and how to hold her fingers.”
Anne Taylor gives us a wonderful insight into the fun that these youths enjoyed together. (listen) “Mr. Mendelssohn was not a bit ‘sentimental,’ though he had so much sentiment. Nobody enjoyed fun more than he, and his laughing was the most joyous that could be. One evening in hot summer we stayed in the wood above our house later than usual. We had been building a house of fir branches in Susan’sgarden up in the wood. We made a fire a little way off it in a thicket among the trees, Mendelssohn helping with the utmost zeal, dragging up more and more wood; we tired ourselves with our merry work; we sat down round our fire, the smoke went off, the ashes were glowing, it began to get dark, but we could not like to leave our bonfire ‘If we had but some music.’ Mendelssohn said, ‘Could anybody get something to play on?’ Then my brother recollected that we were near the gardener’s cottage, and that the gardener had a fiddle. Off rushed our boys to get the fiddle. When it came it was the wretchedest thing in the world, and it had but one string. Mendelssohn took the instrument into his hands, and fell into fits of laughter over it when he heard the sounds it made. His laughter was very catching, he put us all into peals of merriment. But he somehow afterwards brought beautiful music out of the poor old fiddle, and we sat listening to one strain after another, till the darkness sent us home.”
Mendelssohn later reminisced to his parents about his visit to Coed Du a few days later from London on the 10th of September. (listen) “My stay with the Taylors was one of those periods that will forever remain enshrined in my memory. My spirit almost bursts into flower to think of it, and I shall never forget the meadows, the forest herbs or the pebbles in the babbling brook. We have, I think, struck up a friendship, and I am exceedingly fond of the girls. I even believe they are kindly disposed toward me, for we had a merry time together. Incidentally, it is to them that I owe three of my best piano pieces.”
As a leaving present and as a token of his gratitude for the hospitality of the Taylor family, Mendelssohn composed three piano pieces, one for each of the girls and published today as ‘Trois Fantaisies ou Caprices’ (Op. 16). Anne Taylor describes the very special piano composition that Mendelssohn wrote for her. (listen) “The piece (an Andante and Allegro) which Mr. Mendelssohn wrote for me was suggested by the sight of a bunch of carnations and roses. The carnations that year were very fine with us. He liked them best of all the flowers, would have one often in his button-hole. We found he intended the arpeggio-passages in that composition as a reminder of the sweet scent of the flower rising up.” Mendelssohn, perhaps surprisingly, found the project challenging as he candidly admitted, “I have somewhat hastily promised Miss Anne to set to music the nosegay of carnations with a rose in the centre which she gave me the other day and it is rather a hard task!”
Mendelssohn described the inspiration for the second piano piece that he wrote for the youngest daughter. (listen) “When the two sisters saw that I was serious about the carnations and the rose and had begun to compose (in Susan’s house, of course), the youngest came by with her hair full of little yellow flowers that had opened their cups. She assured me that they were trumpets, and asked whether I would like to put them into my orchestra. After all, she insisted, I said I needed new instruments, and as we had danced to a miner’s band that evening and the trumpets were very shrill, surely it would be better to dance to these flowers. On the spot I wrote her a dance in which the yellow trumpet-flowers strike up.” Anne Taylor adds, (listen) “we observe how natural objects seemed to suggest music to him. There was in my sister Honora’s garden a pretty creeping plant, new at the time, covered with little trumpet-like flowers. He was struck with it, and played for her the music which (he said) the fairies might play on those trumpets. When he wrote out the piece (called a capriccio in E minor) he drew a little branch of that flower all up the margin of the paper.” Interestingly, parts of this very piece were used in the 1939 film, ‘The Wizard of Oz’ when Toto escapes from the Witch of the West!
And the third piece? Mendelssohn writes, (listen) “and to the middle daughter I made a present of the brook that had so caught our fancy during our ride that we dismounted and sat down at its side… This last piece is, I feel, the best of its kind that I have yet dreamt up: it is so slow-moving and quiet, and a bit boringly simple, that I played it to myself day after day and got quite sentimental in the process. I would send you the pieces except that I hope to have my quartet finished by the next mail day and want to post it to you. So I will need to take along something new with me in December and will keep these three pieces for myself – not ‘lions’, as Becky wrongly calls them, but ‘darlings’ of mine. After all, one of them I don’t even have in my own manuscript!”
Mendelssohn mentions in the above quote his String Quartet No. 1 in E flat (Op. 12), which he had started back in Berlin, had been working on throughout his visit to Britain and finally completed in London on the 14th of September. It contains a secret dedication to Betty Pistor for whom Mendelssohn had feelings for, in the form of not just her intials “B.P.” at the top of the autograph but also Mendelssohn cleverly begins the melody of the first subject of the first movement with the notes B flat followed by E flat; the first two musical letters of her name BEtty!
Also whilst at Coed Du, Mendelssohn began composing an organ piece for his older sister Fanny’s wedding on the 3rd of October to Wilhelm Hensel. However, due to a carriage accident on the 17th of September, in which he injured his knee, he never arrived back in Germany in time, nor did his piece. So Fanny, herself an excellent composer, was still hastily writing an organ recessional in G major at nine o’clock the night before her wedding! Her brother later incorporated his piece into the opening of his Organ Sonata No. 3 in A major (Op. 65). An interesting story was in the naming of the Hensel’s (Fanny’s married name) one son, whom she called Sebastian Ludwig Felix Hensel after her three most favourite composers. Sebastian after Bach, Ludwig after Beethoven and Felix after her brother Felix Mendelssohn!
Whilst at Coed Du, ideas were developing in Mendelssohn’s head for a surprise 25th wedding anniversary present for his parents, to take back with him to Berlin. He’d already discussed ideas earlier in Scotland with his travelling companion Karl Kingemann, who then went onto to write the libretto in German for what would become a little operatta called ‘Die Heimkehr aus der Fremde’ (Op. 89) translated as ‘Son and Stranger’ or ‘Return of the Roamer.’ This work was first performed privately for just 120 family and friends on the 26th of December 1829 at the family home in Berlin. Mendelssohn insisted that all his siblings should take a singing part, however because he was still recovering from his accident, decided to participate as conductor instead. He was determined that even Fanny’s “tone deaf” new husband, the painter Wilhelm Hensel should take a singing part! Mendelssohn tried to assure him in a letter, “Hensel; do not be afraid of singing, everything is taken care of for you.” His solution was to give Hensel the bass part of the Mayor and restrict him to one song where he simply had to sing one note (F) in a very simple, repeated rhythm. Well! Try as Hensel might, he couldn’t get it right and struggled to come in despite the best efforts of his fellow performers to help him. Good intentions to help him quickly fell by the wayside as Mendelssohn fell about laughing and the whole assembly burst into hysterics! Poor Hensel!
Returning back to Anne Taylor’s final recollections of Mendelssohn’s visit to her family in Wales; (listen) “I suppose some of the charm of his speech might lie in the unusual choice of words which he, as a German, made in speaking English. He lisped a little. He used an action of nodding his head quickly, till the long locks of hair would fall over his high forehead with the vehemence of his assent to anything he liked. Sometimes he used to talk very seriously with my mother. Seeing that we brothers and sisters lived lovingly together and with our parents, he spoke about this to my mother, told her how he had known families where it was not so, and used the words, ‘You know not how happy you are.’ He was so far away from any sort of pretension, or from making a favour of giving his music to us, that one evening when the family from a neighboring house came to dinner, and we had dancing afterwards, he took his turn in playing quadrilles and waltzes with the others. He was the first person who taught us gallopades, and he first played us Weber’s last waltz. He enjoyed dancing like any other young man of his age. He was then twenty years old. He had written his ‘Midsummer-night’s Dream’ (Overture) before that time. I well remember his playing it. He left Coed Du early in September 1829.”
Writing from London, the composer summarised his impressions in a letter of thanks to John Taylor junior. (listen) “I would like to express my thanks and my joy, and to say how happy you made me feel in Coed Du. The source of my pleasure was not solely you or your father, or your mother or sisters, or the delightful surroundings, but everything at once; and it is thus doubly difficult for me to say much more about it. You gave me the gift of a period of great happiness, and I can only wish the same may befall you one day in a place of your choosing. Nor do I know what I can wish for each of you, for you have everything you could possibly desire.”
Whenever Mendelssohn visited London, he would look up the Taylor family. After his marriage on 28th March 1837, Anne Taylor recalls another visit from Mendelssohn, this time with his new wife. “We saw Mr Mendelssohn whenever he came to England…The happiest visit to us was that one when he first brought his sweet young wife to see my mother. Madame Felix Mendelssohn was a bride then, and we all of us said he could not have found one more worthy of himself.”
Next time, in ‘Part 2,’ I would like to share with you the extraordinary friendship Mendelssohn developed with Queen Victoria and Prince Albert as well as the attempts of Wagner and later the Nazis to stamp out the legacy of Mendelssohn!