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13 January, 2012
The Loves of Great Composers|
Mendelssohn and his Cécile
by Gustav Kobbé
|Mendelssohn was a popular idol. On his death the mournful news was placarded all over Leipsic, where he had made his home, and there was an immense funeral procession. When the church service was over, a woman in deep mourning was led to the bier, and sinking down beside it, remained long in prayer. It was Cécile taking her last farewell of Felix.
Mendelssohn was born under a lucky star. The pathways of most musical geniuses are covered with thorns; his was strewn with roses. The Mendelssohn family, originally Jewish, was well-to-do and highly refined, and Felix's grandfather was a philosophical writer of some note. This inspired the oft-quoted mot of the musician's father: "Once I was known as the son of the famous Mendelssohn; now I am known as the father of the famous Mendelssohn."
Felix was an amazingly clever, fascinating boy. Coincident with his musical gifts he had a talent for art. Goethe was captivated by him, and the many distinguished friends of the Mendelssohn house in Berlin adored him. This house was a gathering place of artists, musicians, literary men and scientists; his genius had the stimulus found in the "atmosphere" of such a household. There was one member of that household between whom and himself the most tender relations existed, - his sister Fanny, who became the wife of Hensel, the artist. The musical tastes of Felix and Fanny were alike: she was the confidante of his ambitions, and thus was created between them an artistic sympathy, which from childhood greatly strengthened the family bond. Growing up amid love and devotion, to say nothing of the admiration accorded his genius in the home circle, with tastes, naturally refined, cultivated to the utmost both by education and absorption, he was apt to be most fastidious in the choice of a wife. Fastidiousness in everything was, in fact, one of his traits. One has but to recall how, one after another, he rejected the subjects that were offered him for operatic composition. "I am afraid," said his father, who was quite anxious to see his famous son properly settled in life, "that Felix's censoriousness will prevent his getting a wife as well as a libretto."
[Illustration: Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy.]
It may have been a regretful feeling that he had disappointed his father by not marrying which led him, after the latter's sudden death in November, 1835, to consider the matter more seriously. He hastened to Berlin to his mother, and then returned to Leipsic, where he had charge of the famous Gewandhaus concerts. He settled down to work again, and especially to finish his oratorio of "St. Paul." In March, 1836, the University of Leipsic made him a Ph.D.
In May or June of this year a friend and colleague named Schelble, who conducted the Caecilia Singing Society at Frankfort-on-the-Main, was taken ill, and, desiring to rest and recuperate, asked Mendelssohn to officiate in his place. The request came at an inconvenient time, for he had planned to take some recreation himself, and had mapped out a tour to Switzerland and Genoa. But Felix was an obliging fellow, and promptly responded with an affirmative when his colleague called upon him for aid. The unselfish relinquishment of his intended tour was to meet with a further reward than that which comes from the satisfaction of a good deed done at some self-sacrifice, and this reward was the more grateful because unexpected by his friends, his family, or even himself. Yet it was destined to delight them all.
Felix was in Frankfort six weeks. So short a period rarely leads to a decisive event in a man's life, but did so in Mendelssohn's case. He occupied lodgings in a house on the Schöne Aussicht (Beautiful View), with an outlook upon the river. But there was another beautiful view in Frankfort which occupied his attention far more, for among those he met during his sojourn in the city on the Main was Cécile, - Cécile Charlotte Sophie Jeanrenaud. Her father, long dead, had been the pastor of the French Walloon Reformed Church in Frankfort, where his widow and children moved in the best social circles of the city. Cécile, then seventeen (ten years younger than Felix), was a "beauty" of a most delicate type. Mme. Jeanrenaud still was a fine-looking woman, and possibly because of this fact, coupled with Felix's shy manner in the presence of Cécile, now that for the first time his heart was deeply touched, it was at first supposed that he was courting the mother; and her children, Cécile included, twitted her on it.
Now Felix acted in a manner characteristic of his bringing up and of the bent of his genius. Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, Schumann, Liszt, Wagner - not one of these hesitated a moment where his heart was concerned. If anything, they were too impetuous. They are the masters of the passionate expression in music; Mendelssohn's music is of the refined, delicate type - like his own bringing up. The perfectly polished "Songs without Words," the smoothly flowing symphonies, the lyric violin concerto - these are most typical of his genius. Only here and there in his works are there fitful flashes of deeper significance, as in certain dramatic passages of the "Elijah" oratorio. And so, when Felix found himself possessed of a passion for Cécile Jeanrenaud, the beautiful, he did not throw himself at her feet and pour out a confession of love to her. Far from it. With a calmness that would make one feel like pinching him, were it not that after all the story has a "happy ending," he left Frankfort at the end of six weeks, when his feelings were at their height, and in order to submit the state of his affections to a cool and unprejudiced scrutiny, he went to Scheveningen, Holland, where he spent a month. Anything more characteristically Mendelssohnian can scarcely be imagined than this leisurely passing of judgment on his own heart.
Just what Cécile thought of his sudden departure we do not know. No doubt by that time she had ceased twitting her mother on Felix's supposed intentions to make Frau Mendelssohn of Mme. Jeanrenaud, for it must have become apparent that the attentions of the famous composer were not directed toward the beautiful mother, but toward the more beautiful daughter. If, however, she felt at all uneasy at his going away at the time when he should have been preparing to declare himself, her doubts would have been dispelled could she have read some of the letters which he dispatched from Scheveningen. That she herself was captivated by him there seems no doubt. It was an amusing change from her preconceived notion of him. She had imagined him a stiff, disagreeable, jealous old man, who wore a green velvet skull-cap and played tedious fugues. This prejudice, needless to say, was dispelled at their first meeting, when she found the crabbed creation of her fancy a man of the world, with gracious, winning manners, and a brilliant conversationalist not only on music, but also on other topics.
[Illustration: Fanny Hensel, sister of Mendelssohn.]
It is a curious coincidence that when Felix left Frankfort for Scheveningen, with the image of this fair being in his heart, the Caecilia Society should have presented him with a handsome dressing-case marked "F. M.-B. and Caecilia.'"  He had come to Frankfort to conduct the Caecilia; he had met Caecilia; and now he was at the last moment reminded that he was leaving Caecilia behind; yet he was carrying Caecilia with him. If there is anything prophetic in coincidences, everything pointed to the fact that Caecilia was to play a more prominent part in his life than that of a mere name.
Even before Felix left Frankfort there were some who were in his secret. Evidently the Mendelssohn family had received reports of his attentions to the fair Cécile Jeanrenaud and were all a-flutter with happy anticipation. For there is a letter from Felix to his sister Rebecca which must have been written in answer to one from her containing something in the nature of an inquiry regarding the state of his feelings. "The present period in my life," he writes to her, "is a very strange one, for I am more desperately in love than I ever was before, and I do not know what to do. I leave Frankfort the day after to-morrow, but I feel as if it would cost me my life. At all events I intend to return here and see this charming girl once more before I go back to Leipsic. But I have not an idea whether she likes me or not, and I do not know what to do to make her like me, as I already have said. But one thing is certain - that to her I owe the first real happiness I have had this year, and now I feel fresh and hopeful again for the first time. When away from her, though, I always am sad - now, you see, I have let you into a secret which nobody else knows anything about; but in order that you may set the whole world an example in discretion, I will tell you nothing more about it." He adds that he is going to detest the seashore, and ends with the exclamation, "O Rebecca! What shall I do?" Rebecca might have answered, "Tell Cécile, instead of me;" and, indeed, I wonder if she did not take occasion to drop a few hints to Cécile during her brother's absence in Holland.
There was another who might have told Cécile how Felix felt toward her, - his mother. For to her he wrote from Scheveningen that he gladly would send Holland, its dykes, sea baths, bathing-machines, Kursaals and visitors to the end of the world to be back in Frankfort. "When I have seen this charming girl again, I hope the suspense soon will be over and I shall know whether we are to be anything - or rather everything - to each other, or not." Evidently his scrutiny of his own feelings was leading him to a very definite conclusion. He was in Scheveningen, but his heart was in the city on the Main, and he was wishing himself back in the Schöne Aussicht - longing for that "beautiful view" once more.
Back to Frankfort he hied himself as soon as the month in Holland was happily over. It was not only back to Frankfort, it was back to Cécile, in every sense of the words; for if Rebecca and his mother had not conveyed to the delicate beauty some suggestion of the feelings she had inspired in Felix's heart, she herself must have become aware of them, and of something very much like in her own, since matters were not long in coming to a point after his return. He spent August at Scheveningen; in September his suspense was over, for his engagement to Cécile formally took place at Kronberg, near Frankfort. Three weeks later he was obliged to go back to his duties at Leipsic. How much he was beloved by the public appears from the fact that at the next Gewandhaus concert the directors placed on the programme, "Wer ein Holdes Weib Errungen" (He who a Lovely Wife has Won) from "Fidelio," and that when the number was reached, and Felix raised his bâton, the audience burst into applause which continued a long time. It was their congratulations to their idol on his betrothal.
[Illustration: Cécile, wife of Mendelssohn.]
"Les Feliciens" was the title given to Felix and Cécile by his sister Fanny later in life. At this time Mendelssohn himself was indescribably happy. At least, he could not himself find words in which to express all he felt. It is pleasant to find that a great composer is no exception to the rule which makes lovers "too happy for words." "But what words am I to use in describing my happiness?" he writes to his sister. "I do not know and am dumb, but not for the same reason as the monkeys on the Orinoco - far from it."
We gain an idea of Cécile's social position from Felix's statement, contained in this same letter, that he and his fiancée are obliged to make one hundred and sixty-three calls in Frankfort. This was written before he had returned to his duties in Leipsic. Christmas again found him with his betrothed and again writing to Fanny - this time about a portrait of Cécile, which her family had given him. "They gave me a portrait of her on Christmas, but it only stirred up afresh my wrath against all bad artists. She looks like an ordinary young woman flattered." (Rather a good bit of criticism.) "It really is too bad that with such a sitter the fellow could not have shown a spark of poetry." It is quite evident that Felix was much in love with his fair fiancée.
He and Cécile were married in her father's former church in March, 1837. During their honeymoon Felix wrote to his friend, Eduard Devrient, the famous actor, from the Bavarian highlands. A rare spirit of peace and contentment breathes through the letter. "You know that I am here with my wife, my dear Cécile, and that it is our wedding tour; that we already are an old married couple of six weeks' standing. There is so much to tell you that I know not how to make a beginning. Picture it to yourself. I can only say that I am too happy, too glad; and yet not at all beside myself, as I should have expected to be, but calm and accustomed, as though it could not be otherwise. But you should know my Cécile!" Evidently such a love as was here described was not a mere sentimental flash in the pan. It was an affection founded on reciprocal tastes and sympathies, the kind that usually lasts. Cécile was refined and delicate, and beautiful. She was just the woman to grace the home that a fastidious man like Mendelssohn would want to establish.
The most insistent note to be observed in his correspondence from this time on is that of a desire to remain within his own four walls. Fanny had been advised to go to the seashore for her health, but had delayed doing so because loath to leave her husband. "Think of me," writes Felix, urging her to go, "who must in a few weeks, though we have not been married four months yet, leave Cécile here and go to England by myself - all, too, for the sake of a music festival. Gracious me! All this is no joke. But possibly the death of the King of England will intervene and put a stop to the whole project." The life of a king meant little to Felix in the distressing prospect of being obliged to leave his Cécile. Felix, the husband, was not as eager to travel as Felix, the bachelor, had been.
There are various "appreciations" of Cécile. The least enthusiastic, perhaps, is that of Hensel, Felix's brother-in-law. He says that she was not a striking person in anyway, neither extraordinarily clever, brilliantly witty, nor exceptionally accomplished. But to this somewhat indefinite observation he adds that she exerted an influence as soothing as that of the open sky, or running water. Indeed, Hensel's first frigid reserve yielded to the opinion that Cécile's gentleness and brightness made Felix's life one continued course of happiness to the end. It was some time after the marriage before Mendelssohn's sisters saw Cécile for the first time. The good they heard of her made them the more impatient to meet her. "I tell you candidly," the clever Fanny writes to her, "that by this time, when anybody comes to talk to me about your beauty and your eyes, it makes me quite cross. I have had enough of hearsay, and beautiful eyes were not made to be heard." When at last Fanny did see Cécile, this fond sister of Felix's, who naturally would be most critical, was enthusiastic over her. "She is amiable, simple, fresh, happy and even-tempered, and I consider Felix most fortunate. For though loving him inexpressibly, she does not spoil him, but when he is moody, meets him with a self-restraint which in due course of time will cure him of his moodiness altogether. The effect of her presence is like that of a fresh breeze, she is so light and bright and natural."
To my mind, however, Devrient has drawn the best word portrait of her. After their first meeting he wrote: "How often we had pictured the kind of woman that would be a true second half to Felix; and now the lovely, gentle being was before us, whose glance and smile alone promised all that we could desire for the happiness of our spoilt favorite." Later, Devrient finished the picture: "Cécile was one of those sweet, womanly natures whose gentle simplicity, whose mere presence, soothed and pleased. She was slender, with strikingly beautiful and delicate features; her hair was between brown and gold; but the transcendent lustre of her great blue eyes, and the brilliant roses on her cheeks, were sad harbingers of early death. She spoke little and never with animation, and in a low, soft voice. Shakespeare's words, 'my gracious silence,' applied to her, no less than to Cordelia."
[Illustration: The Mendelssohn Monument in Leipsig.]
Thus, while Cécile does not seem to have been an extraordinarily gifted woman from an artistic or intellectual point of view, it is quite evident that she possessed a refinement that must have appealed forcibly to a man brought up in such genteel surroundings and as sensitive as Mendelssohn. Such a woman must have been, after all, better suited to his delicate genius than a wife of unusual gifts would have been. For it is a helpmeet, not another genius, that a man of genius really needs most. The woman who, without being prosy or commonplace and without allowing herself to retrograde in looks or in personal care, can run a household in a systematic, orderly fashion is the greatest blessing that Providence can bestow upon genius. Evidently Cécile was just such a woman. Her tact seems to have been as delicate as her beauty. Without, perhaps, having directly inspired any composition of her husband's, her gentleness, her simple grace, doubtless left their mark on many bars of his music.
It seems doubly cruel that death should have cut Felix down when he had enjoyed but ten happy years with his Cécile. Yet had his life been long, the pang of separation would soon have come to him. Devrient had not been mistaken when he spoke of "those sad harbingers of early death;" and Cécile survived Felix scarcely five years.
Felix's death occurred at Leipsic in 1847. In September, while listening to his own recently composed "Nacht Lied" he swooned away. His system, weakened by overwork, succumbed, nervous prostration followed, and on November 4 he died. Sudden death had carried off his grandfather, father, mother and favorite sister; and he had a presentiment that his end would come about in the same way. During the dull half-sleep preceding death he spoke but once, and then to Cécile in answer to her inquiry how he felt - "Tired, very tired."
Devrient tells how he went to the house of mutual friends in Dresden for news of Mendelssohn's condition, when Clara Schumann came in, a letter in her hand and weeping, and told them that Felix had died the previous evening. Devrient hastened to Leipsic, and Cécile sent for him. I cannot close this article more fittingly than with his description of their meeting in the presence of the illustrious dead - the cherished friend of one, the husband of the other.
"She received me with the tenderness of a sister, wept in silence, and was calm and composed as ever. She thanked me for all the love and devotion I had shown to her Felix, grieved for me that I should have to mourn so faithful a friend, and spoke of the love with which Felix always had regarded me. Long we spoke of him; it comforted her, and she was loath for me to depart. She was most unpretentious in her sorrow, gentle, and resigned to live for the care and education of her children. She said God would help her, and surely her boys would have the inheritance of some of their father's genius. There could not be a more worthy memory of him than the well-balanced, strong and tender heart of this mourning widow."
 The "-B" on the dressing-case stands for "-Bartholdy." When the Mendelssohn family changed from Judaism to Protestantism, it added the mother's family name.