Mendelssohn the Artist

Most people know Mendelssohn as a composer of genius, but he was also a virtuoso pianist, a conductor, and a linguist. He could read, write and speak ancient Greek at the age of 12, and his collection of books shows that he read the novels of Walter Scott in English, The Decameron in Italian and Don Quixote in Spanish.

He was a writer (as well as several articles on music, he was a habitual letter writer, with over 7,000 letters to his name during his lifetime, although he only wrote a handful during his Scottish trip); he was also a chess player, a gymnast, a swimmer, an equestrian, and a consummate administrator. In fact, he was as near to being a “Renaissance Man” as any figure from history, musical or otherwise.

And he possessed another talent which is important in throwing light on his journey through Scotland: he was an accomplished artist. He sketched avidly many of the scenes that he saw, and we are fortunate in having available today the series of over 30 sketches that Mendelssohn made as he travelled northwards through England and around Scotland. From these sketches we can know almost to the hour where Mendelssohn and Klingemann went in Scotland and even the weather that they experienced. Where possible (and in virtually every case it is possible), a still photo or a short video of the same views that we can see today has been placed alongside the original Mendelssohn sketches on this website.

The sketches come from three sources. I am grateful to the Bodleian Library in Oxford for their permission to reproduce the sketches from the first two sources, which both come from the Library’s Margaret Deneke collection.

The first source is a small pocket notebook, about 10cm by 6cm, which Mendelssohn carried with him wherever he went during his visit to England and Scotland in 1829. This notebook had been given to Mendelssohn as a Christmas present from Wilhelm Hensel (his future brother-in-law) in December 1828; it is handsomely bound in black Moroccan leather with all-over gilt tooling. It served as a kind of diary and, as well as several sketches, includes jottings and notes in tiny handwriting. A couple of entries that shine a light on the sort of thing that Mendelssohn got up to in London in 1829 are (17 June 1829): “Diner. [Thomas] Attwood, Biggin Hill, Norwood, Surrey”; and (2 July 1829) “Hampton Court mit Klingemann”! I refer to this source as the “Bodliean notebook”.

Edinburgh from Salisbury Crags, 26 July 1829 – sketch by Mendelssohn from the “Bodliean notebook” 21r

Edinburgh from Salisbury Crags, 26 July 1829 – sketch by Mendelssohn from the “Bodliean notebook”. 21r

The second source is a larger sketch-book, 28cm by 20cm, which Mendelssohn used in London and Scotland in 1829. Interleaved in this book are sheets of tracing paper on which Klingemann wrote poems reflecting on the views that Mendelssohn sketched. One of these poems, written at the Pass of Killiecrankie, is quoted on this website. I refer to this source as the “Bodliean sketchbook”.

Killiecrankie 3 August 1829 – sketch by Mendelssohn from the “Bodliean sketchbook” 19r

Killiecrankie 3 August 1829 – sketch by Mendelssohn from the “Bodliean sketchbook”. 19r

The third source of sketches is from the Beinecke Library at Yale University in the USA, and I am grateful to them for their permission to reproduce them here. I refer to this source as the “Beinecke sketchbook” which comprises 25 sketches that Mendelssohn copied from the Bodliean sketchbook and notebook with seven further sketches (including Bruar Falls, Tummel Bridge and Loch Awe) which do not appear in the Bodliean books. Mendelssohn copied these sketches in 1846 and sent them at the beginning of 1847 as a gift to Klingemann. They include the poems that Klingemann wrote on the tracing paper in the Bodliean sketchbook, meticulously copied out by Mendelssohn (or more accurately, according to a letter from Mendelssohn to Klingemann dated 31 January 1847, by Felix’s sisters, Fanny and Rebecca). It is a testament to the strong friendship that must have existed between Mendelssohn and Klingemann that he should have devoted so many hours to the task of making these copies and giving them to Klingemann in a handsome new book as a memento of their Scottish journey together nearly 20 years earlier. One mystery relating to the Beinecke sketches is: what original source did Mendelssohn use for the “new sketches” of Bruar Falls, Tummel Bridge and Loch Awe and others? They are certainly not copied from either of the Bodliean books so he must have had with him on his Scottish journey a third sketch book from which he made these later copies. They are so detailed that, even for someone with such an extraordinary powers of recall as Mendelssohn, he could not have reproduced them from memory.

Tummel Bridge, 4 August 1829 – sketch by Mendelssohn from the “Beinecke sketchbook”

Tummel Bridge, 4 August 1829 – sketch by Mendelssohn from the “Beinecke sketchbook”

As a condition of use on this site, the folio number (eg 21r) has been shown beside each of the sketches from the Bodliean notebook and Bodliean sketchbook. The shelf number for all Bodliean notebook sketches is g.1 and for the Bodliean sketchbook it is d.2. No shelf/folio numbers are needed, and have not been included, for the Beinecke sketches

Extracts from letters that Mendelssohn and Klingemann wrote, either jointly or separately, are taken from the translation by Sebastian Hensel, son of Wilhelm and Fanny Hensel (née Mendelssohn), in his book “The Mendelssohn Family” published in 1888.

The extracts from performances of Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage, the Hebrides Overture and the Scottish Symphony are by the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Claudio Abbado and I am grateful to Deutsche Grammophon, the LSO and the Musicians’ Union for their permission to use these recordings.

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