The curious case of the missing opera composer
By: Nigel Simpson
February 23, 2016
Just four years older than Richard Wagner, Felix grew up in a famously intellectual and artistic household: in the words of one commentator, “Europe came to their living room”. It was in this environment that the young Felix began writing singspiels. Die Soldatenliebschaft or the soldier’s love affair was the first, started when he was just ten or eleven. A family friend, Dr Ludwig Caspar provided the libretto which he adapted from the French Vaudeville style to make it suitable for family entertainment. Felix, a budding impresario, directed the performance which was performed by family and friends, augmented by a few professionals. Over the next two years, Caspar supplied three more libretti: “The Two Teachers”, “The Wandering Comedians” and “The Uncle from Boston or The Two Nephews”. Among the guests to these private events were many artistic heavyweights; for example, Mendelssohn treated Johann Nepomuk Hummel to a string orchestra rendering of his second Singspiel, “The Two Teachers”. What were these early efforts like? Not surprisingly, and with reason, they have been likened to the first efforts by the young Mozart – attractive, impressive but lightweight and not showing much individuality
With four singspiels under his belt, Felix was to see his first fully-staged singspiel at the grand old age of 18 on the stage of the Berlin Schauspielhaus. This work, “Die Hochzeit des Camacho”, drawing on a story from the evergreen Don Quixote, clearly owes a debt to Mozart, Weber, even Marschner. And yet it looks forward too, for Felix uses a horn motif signifying the Don himself which opens and closes the opera, indicating he was thinking of a unifying theme in the way that was to be expanded into the concept of Leitmotif by Wagner nearly two decades later. Illness in the cast, polite but not wild enthusiasm by the mostly invited audience, and poor reviews, some with anti-semitic overtones, caused Mendelssohn to withdraw the opera after its first performance; indeed, he was dissatisfied by the performance himself and did not stay through to the curtain fall.
Though the performance was not a disaster, young Mendelssohn must have been upset by criticism of the work from the old lion of opera, Gaspare Spontini, who despite having been given the musical directorship of the most prestigious stage in Prussia, made no secret of this dislike of German opera. On top of this, Baron Lichtenstein, who managed the theatre, made it a condition of performance that he would have final say over the libretto which had originally been penned by a Mendelssohn family friend. Mendelssohn was very particular about his librettos, so much so that his father Abraham Mendelssohn quipped that Felix’s “fastidiousness will prevent him from getting a wife as well as a libretto.”
Letters written home by Felix, in his early 20s and now travelling around Europe, indicate that he still harboured the desire to write serious opera. In one, for example, he talks of composing an opera for the French stage – not the Opera Comique similar in tradition to the Singspiel, but Grand Opera. Then in a later letter he rejects the idea, proclaiming that there are no good French librettists! No fewer than fifty subjects were suggested to Mendelssohn over the next twenty years, with ingénues through to Grand Masters such as Eugene Scribe contracted as librettist, yet not one of them was able to sway the young man to begin composition… with the exception of one slender work – “Die Heimkehr aus der Fremde” (“The Homecoming of the Stranger” or, more colloquially, “The Rover’s Return”).
As with his other singspiels, this was composed for a family gathering, in this case to celebrate his parents’ silver wedding anniversary. The libretto was supplied by an advisor to the German ambassador in London, Karl Klingemann, who was a minor poet. Felix had been befriended by Klingemann during a trip to England in 1829. The overture was, surprisingly for such a delicately scored work, admired by the young Richard Strauss. Once again the performance was a family affair with brother and sisters Paul, Fanny and Rebekka performing. The extent to which Felix catered for his singers is demonstrated by the part he wrote for his brother-in-law, Wilhelm Hensel, who was according to the rest of the family tone-deaf. Hensel was given a line in a trio with just one note to sing … which he still managed to get wrong despite sotto-voce prompting from the other singers!
Felix was just 20; he was to live another 18 years and yet, apart from a barely begun work based on the legend of The Lorelei he got no further than discussing ideas. Among these is one fascinating what-if: Felix and sister Fanny considered creating an opera based on the Niebelunglied. Other aborted projects, such as that between Felix and an industrial chemist William Bartholomew, on subjects such as Sappho, led to other positive outcomes. In this case Mendelssohn was so impressed with Bartholomew’s flair for creating verse in English that Bartholomew became translator for several of Mendelssohn’s works including the oratorio Elijah.
And then in 1844 when Felix was now 35 years old he met Jenny Lind. Falling madly in love, he proposed elopement and despite her rejection, he was finally inspired to overcome his reluctance to collaborate with librettists and begin in earnest on composing opera that would, in his own words be “a legend of the Rhine, or some other national event or tale.” And yet… unlike Richard Wagner who was to bend the world to his will in his creation of his ”legend of the Rhine” Mendelssohn’s personality would not allow him to overcome skulduggery by theatre impresarios, the loss of his beloved sister Fanny to a stroke and his own ill health. “Die Lorelei” was left largely unfinished at Felix’s death. The surviving fragments see Felix developing the fairy music he had composed 17 years before for A Midsummer Night’s Dream into something grander, more forceful. And in another foreshadowing of Wagner, the heroine of Die Lorelei renounces love and develops a burning hatred against all mankind.
How different the history of opera might have been had Mendelssohn lived to complete this work. As it is, we are left with tantalising glimpses. The oratorio Elijah is so stage-worthy that it has been performed in full costume. According to Professor Clive Brown, scholar of early romantic opera, and in 1987 conductor of the first performance of Die Hochzeit des Camacho since its premiere 160 years earlier, Camacho “…perhaps the most remarkable achievement of any composer in his mid-teens, is undoubtedly a masterpiece. It is a work of great charm and considerable depth.”
And yet… if only…
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