The Composer and his Muse: Mendelssohn, Cécile Jeanrenaud and Jenny Lind, the 'Swedish Nightingale'

On 4 May 1836, Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) happily conducted the chorus of the Frankfurt Cäcilienverein, substituting for an indisposed colleague. Although he was certainly concentrating on the music, his eyes got distracted by a 16 year-old girl in the soprano section, which he described as possessing “luxurious golden-brown hair, a complexion of transparent delicacy and the most bewitching deep-blue eyes with dark eyelashes and dark eyebrows. The young lady in question was Cécile Charlotte Sophie Jeanrenaud, youngest daughter of the French Huguenot minister Auguste and his wife Elizabeth Souchay.

Both the Jeanrenaud and Souchay families had immigrated to Frankfurt in
1685, when Louis XIV revoked the Edict of Nantes, which had granted the Calvinist Protestants substantial rights in deeply Catholic France. Contemporaries described Cécile as possessing “a slender figure, and facial features of striking beauty and refinement. She spoke little, with quiet, gentle voice”. And Mendelssohn, never prone to procrastination, fell instantly in love. However, within two days of meeting Cécile, he was forced to leave for Düsseldorf in order to prepare for the premiere performance of his oratorio “Paulus”. Once the Festival had concluded, he traveled to the costal city of Scheveningen, near The Haugue, in hopes that the freezing waters of the North Sea would somehow wash away his feelings for Cécile. Alas, it was hopeless, and by 7 June he had returned to Frankfurt in order to ardently pursue Cécile in courtship.

When Cécile left town for a two-week holiday during the same month, Felix tried to console himself by composing the “Duett ohne Worte” Op. 38, No. 6 for piano solo, which scholars have described as an “instrumental love duet”.

He also began, very carefully indeed, to inform his family of his feelings towards Cécile. He told them that he had met a “beautiful girl” and that he was “dreadfully in love”. Since both Cécile and Felix were talented artists, they spend hours painting portraits of each other, and given their respective Lutheran and Calvinist faiths, that’s surely all they painted! On September 9, in a forest clearing overlooking the city of Frankfurt, Felix asked the faithful question. I suppose Cécile said yes instantly, as he immediately reported to his mother, “my head is quite giddy from the events of the day; it is already late at night and I have nothing else to say; but I must write to you, I feel so rich and happy”.

The wedding on 28 March 1837 at the French Reformed Church in Frankfurt was, entirely in keeping with the social standings of both families, a grand affair. The ceremony was performed in French, and his colleague and fellow musician Ferdinand Hiller composed a special bridal chorus. After a month-long honeymoon — during which they kept a daily journal of activities — the couple settled in Leipzig. Finally, Fanny Hensel was able to visit them, and wrote, “Cécile possessed a wonderfully soothing temperament, that calmed her husband’s whims and promised to cure him of his irritability”. And indeed, it did!

The first of five children was born in February 1838, and the composer rediscovered “a contentment that he had not known since childhood”. On numerous occasions, Cécile would accompany her husband on his professional journeys, but unassumingly stay in the background and quietly support his career. However, both longed to spend more time in the domestic and idyllic tranquility of their stately Leipzig home. Mendelssohn reports to a friend, “I am sitting here at the open window, looking into the garden at the children, who are playing. The omnibus to Königstein passes here twice every day. We have early strawberries for breakfast, at two we dine, have supper at half-past eight in the evening, and by ten we are all asleep. And, to sum up, the best part of every pleasure is gone if Cécile is not there.” Of course, Mendelssohn remained extremely busy. As artistic director of the Leipzig Gewandhaus and founder of the Leipzig Conservatory, he not only initiated the revival of music by Bach, Handel, Haydn and Mozart, he also assured that his brand of musical historicism was disseminated throughout Europe and beyond.

At the tender age of 36, fate cruelly intervened and claimed Mendelssohn life. Clara Schumann hastened to comfort the young widow and writes in her diary, “Cécile received me with the tenderness of a sister, wept in silence, and was calm and composed as ever. 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.” Apparently, both women were completely unaware — or pretended not to know — that in 1844 Mendelssohn met and fell in love with the “Swedish Nightingale” Jenny Lind.

Mendelssohn and Jenny Lind, the 'Swedish Nightingale'

By 1843, Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) was at the pinnacle of his career. He was almost universally acknowledged as an exceptional composer, conductor and educator.

In his private life, he was married to the ravishingly beautiful Cécile Charlotte Sophie Jeanrenaud, who not only had born him five children and established a domicile of idyllic tranquility, but also distinctly calmed her husband’s persistent irritability with her caring and soothing temperament. And then Felix met Jenny in October 1844, and his world was never the same again!

Mendelssohn’s immediate infatuation is expressed in a series of letters, where he write: “Jenny Lind has fairly enchanted me; she is unique in her way, and her song with two concertante flutes is perhaps the most incredible feat in the way of bravura singing that can possibly be heard”. “I have not in my life met with such a noble, genuine, true artist as Jenny Lind; I have nowhere found natural capacity, study, and deep sensibility so perfectly united.”

Whenever he could, Felix would attend her performances, and he even wrote the soprano solo for his oratorio “Elijah” specifically for Lind.

There was even talk of an opera entitled “Lorelei”, yet it was never completed. Things seemingly got somewhat more complicated in 1847. According to an affidavit in the archives of the Mendelssohn Scholarship Foundation, Jenny’s husband Otto Goldschmidt destroyed a letter from Felix to Jenny. In this letter, Felix apparently declared his passionate love, and threatened suicide if she did not elope to America with him. We can only assume that Jenny, mindful of Mendelssohn’s family status, rejected the proposal.

Upon Mendelssohn’s death, Lind wrote, “He was the only person who brought fulfillment to my spirit, and almost as soon as I found him I lost him again”. One might also argued that the tormented String Quartet in F minor, Op. 80, composed during the final year of his life, not only responds to the death of his sister Fanny, but also mirrors the devastating rejection he received from Jenny.  

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HAPPY VALENTINE'S DAY! Measures Of Affection: Five Musical Love Letters

If you've ever written a love letter, you know it's not easy. Amid a swirl of emotions, balancing elegant language and hormone-fueled passion can be tricky. Composers for centuries have skirted this problem by doing what comes naturally — writing their love letters in the language of music.

Gustav Mahler to Alma Schindler: "Liebst du um Schönheit"

Gustav Mahler composed dozens of songs but only one, "Liebst du um Schoenheit," is an outright love song. He wrote it in 1902 as a wedding gift for his new bride, Alma. The text by Friedrich Rückert rejects the idea of love for beauty, age or treasure, concluding, "but if you love for love, then love me always, as I will always love you." Mahler's music, a beautiful mix of soaring melody and bittersweet harmonies, was eerily prescient. Little could he know then that he and Alma would eventually drift apart.

Leoš Janáček to Kamilla Stösslová: 3rd mvt from String Quartet No. 2, "Intimate Letters"

Talk about love letters. Leoš Janáček wrote more than 700 of them to Kamilla Stösslová, the wife of an antiques dealer 36 years his junior. The sad fact is that she was never interested in Janáček romantically. But that didn't stop him from composing music specifically fueled by his passion. In February 1928, while writing his Second String Quartet, subtitled "Intimate Letters," he wrote to her about the third movement: "It will be very cheerful, and then dissolve into a vision of your image, transparent, as if in the mist, in which there should be a suspicion of motherhood." The music rocks softly, pivots to a daydream and then cries out in a piercing scream.

Peter Lieberson to Lorraine Hunt Lieberson: "Amor Mio" (from Neruda Songs)

It doesn't get more profound than this musical love letter and its back story. The text, by Pablo Neruda, starts: "My love, If I die and you don't, let's not give grief an even greater field." Lieberson set five of Neruda's love sonnets to music for his wife, mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Lieberson. Less than eight months after she made this extraordinary recording she would succumb to cancer at age 52. With its warm, autumnal strings and plaintive oboe, this final song is part lullaby, part tribute to love everlasting. In the final line, Neruda says love "is like a long river, only changing lands, and changing lips."

Tchaikovsky: Tatiana to Onegin "Letter Scene" (from Eugene Onegin)

Musical love letters also get delivered on the operatic stage. In Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin, there's an emotionally charged scene that resonates with almost everyone. Tatiana falls in love and takes that vulnerable step in composing her first love letter, not knowing if Onegin, the man she just met, will feel the same. Since it's opera, he doesn't — at least not until it's too late. In her letter, Tatiana says that at first she wanted to stay quiet but she can't control her feelings. "I have lived my whole life waiting to meet you," she writes, as Tchaikovsky's music rises with passion.

Edward Elgar to Alice Elgar: Variation 1 (from the Enigma Variations)

Edward Elgar began writing his "Enigma" Variations as something of a joke, improvising a short tune at the piano. Then he and his wife Alice had the idea that the tune could be altered to depict or, in some cases, caricature their various friends. Elgar loved it and spent part of two years writing 13 variations for orchestra, each one a portrait of someone close to him. He started with an affectionate sketch of Alice (identified as C.A.E. on the score), which features Elgar's lilting mystery theme lovingly dressed in warm, Brahmsian winds and strings.

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16 Inspiring Love Quotes from Great Musicians - Happy Valentine's Day!

In honor of Valentine’s Day, 16 best love quotes from composers, musicians, singers and other music personalities.

Franz Schubert

franz schubert
Some people come into our lives, leave footprints on our hearts, and we are never the same.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

wolfgang amadeus mozart
Neither a lofty degree of intelligence nor imagination nor both together go to the making of genius. Love, love, love, that is the soul of genius.

Benjamin Britten

Benjamin Britten
These two are not two, love has made them one. Amo Ergo Sum! And by its mystery each is no less but more.

Hildegard von Bingen

Hildegart von Bingen
Love, which, in concert with Abstinence, established Faith, and which, along with Patience, builds up Chastity, is like the columns that sustain the four corners of a house. For it was that same Love which planted a glorious garden redolent with precious herbs and noble flowers–roses and lilies–which breathed forth a wondrous fragrance, that garden on which the true Solomon was accustomed to feast his eyes. (Letter to the Monk Guibert, 1176)

Gian Carlo Menotti

gian carlo menotti
I know of no better definition of love than the one given by Proust - Love is space and time measured by the heart.

Maurice Ravel

maurice ravel
The only love affair I have ever had was with music.

Robert Schumann

robert schumann
You appear in the Novelletten in every possible circumstance, in every irresistible form… They could only be written by one who knows such eyes as yours and has touched such lips as yours.

Clara Schumann

clara schumann
I do not want horses or diamonds – I am happy in possessing you.

Igor Stravinsky

igor stravinsky
What force is more potent than love?

Luciano Pavarotti

Learning music by reading about it is like making love by mail.

George Gershwin

For suddenly, I saw you there
And through foggy London town
The sun was shining everywhere…

Johannes Brahms

“I can do nothing but think of you… What have you done to me? Can’t you remove the spell you have cast over me?”

Ludwig van Beethoven

…you know my faithfulness to you, never can another own my heart, never – never – never…

Richard Wagner

We fell silent and all joking ceased. We gazed mutely into each other’s eyes and an intense longing for the fullest avowal of the truth forced us to a confession, requiring no words whatever, or the incommensurable misfortune that weighed upon us. With tears and sobs we sealed a vow to belong to each other alone.

Frédéric Chopin

Inspiration and ideas only come to me when I have not had a woman in a very long time… Ballads, polonaises, even a whole concerto may have been lost forever up your des durka, I can’t tell you how many. I have been so deeply engulfed in my love for you I have hardly created anything.

Claude Debussy

I love music passionately. And because I love it I try to free it from barren traditions that stifle it.

Ten black composers whose works deserve to be heard!

English composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1912). Photograph: Unknown/Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS

In the past 200 years, dozens of prominent black composers from America and other parts of the African diaspora have fought to be recognized by the western classical tradition.

The earliest example is Chevalier de Saint-Georges (1745-99). Born in Guadeloupe, the son of a wealthy plantation owner and a female slave, Saint-George was brought to France at a young age. As well as being a champion fencer, a violin teacher to Marie Antoinette and a colonel in the republican army, his prodigious musical talents led to him being dubbed “le Mozart noir”. He was a prolific composer (with several operas, 15 violin concertos, symphonies and numerous chamber works to his name) and a rare French exponent of early classical violin composition. (Listen to Chi-chi Nwanoku’s radio documentary about him here, available until 3 July.)

Saint-Georges would have perhaps come into contact with George Bridgewater (1778-1860), a violinist of African origin born in present-day Poland. By the age of nine, his father (who was probably born in Barbados) had taken him to London, where he was shown off as a child prodigy, performing in front of the likes of Thomas Jefferson and George IV. Several of Bridgewater’s compositions survive, although few have been recorded. His story was also the basis for a 2007 opera, written by Julian Joseph.

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1912) was born in Croydon, the son of a white English mother and a Creole man from Sierra Leone. As a violin scholar at the Royal College of Music, he was taught composition under Charles Villiers Stanford and soon developed a reputation as a composer, with Edward Elgar recommending him to the Three Choirs festival in 1896. By the time he died of pneumonia – aged only 37 – he had already toured America three times and performed for Theodore Roosevelt at the White House.

Compositions such as Coleridge-Taylor’s African Suite attempted to incorporate African influences in the same way that, say, Dvorák used Hungarian folk themes, but much more successful is Hiawatha’s Wedding, which is occasionally performed today. Even better are Coleridge-Taylor’s works for violin and orchestra, which are elegant pieces of fin de siècle romanticism.

Maurice Arnold Strothotte (1865-1937) studied in Berlin and wrote an opera and a symphony that were highly praised by Dvorák, but his work was rarely performed and has all but dropped off the musical map – he ended up making his living teaching violin and conducting provincial operettas.

Like Strothotte, Will Marion Cook (1869-1944) also studied in Berlin and was praised by Dvorák. He was acclaimed for his Broadway shows and ragtime-influenced songs, but found it almost impossible to break into “straight” composition.

Most sorrowful of all was Scott Joplin (1867-1917). The son of an ex-slave from Texas, he started as a travelling musician around the southern states, playing piano in “gentleman’s clubs”. By the turn of the century his piano rags, such as Maple Leaf Rag, had become a national sensation, but he was desperate to be taken seriously as an orchestral composer. His opera Treemonisha was all but ignored, and he died insane in 1917 after his brain was destroyed by syphilis.

Other black American composers had happier endings. William Grant Still (1895-1978) wrote 150 works, studied with Edgard Varèse, was the first African American to conduct a major US symphony orchestra (the New Orleans Philharmonic), composed for Hollywood and found his works performed by leading orchestras around the world, including his 1930 Afro-American Symphony.

Florence B Price (1887-1953) was the first African American woman to have a work played by a major orchestra – the Chicago Symphony premiered her Symphony in E minor in 1933, but despite success during her lifetime, her many compositions are rarely played today.

And George Walker, born in 1922 and still working today, was the first black American composer to win the Pulitzer prize for music (for Lilacs, a piece for voice and orchestra, in 1996). However, for all his acclaim, he still remains a cult figure in the world of contemporary composition.

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