Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Wasn't this a Novel?

A story in Monday's The Independent sounds like the plot of a novel. A secret love between Swedish singer Jenny Lind and the married-with-children composer Felix Mendelssohn? Is the evidence buried in the bowels of the Royal Acadamy of Music?

In 1896, Lind's husband, Otto Goldschmidt, allegedly placed in the archive of the Mendelssohn Scholarship Foundation (housed at the RAM) an affidavit in which – according to Professor Curtis Price, former principal of the RAM – he declares that he'd destroyed a letter that would have been deeply injurious to the reputations of his wife and Mendelssohn: an 1847 missive from the composer to the soprano declaring passionate love for her, begging her to elope with him to America, and threatening suicide if she refused. Lind, one infers, did refuse. Several months later, Mendelssohn was dead.

Until now Mendelssohn was known to have had a happy marriage and five children. It was thought that Jenny Lind had an unrequited love for him but that his attachment to her was friendly and professional.

Friends, including [Hans Christian] Andersen and the pianist Clara Schumann, remarked on their attachment. An acquaintance who met Lind at the Mendelssohns' home in 1846, remarked: "She is such a fine and beautiful character. Yet she is not happy. I am convinced that she would exchange all her triumphs for domestic happiness. That sort of happiness she observes in Mendelssohn's home with his wife and children."

Goldschmidt's 100 year embargo on the mysterious document expired 12 years ago but the document has not been released. It isn't explained why.

Although Medelssohn did die shortly after the alleged letter, it seems unlikely that Mendelssohn killed himself.

Eye-witness accounts and medical reports into the composer's death all assert that he suffered a series of strokes. One could speculate that these could have been induced by self-administered poison, but that seems unlikely since [his sister] Fanny, too, died of a stroke, and it ran in the family. Yet Mendelssohn's crisis could have precipitated his fatal haemorrhage, casting a horrible irony over his alleged suicide threat. Mourning Mendelssohn, Lind wrote: "[He was] the only person who brought fulfilment to my spirit, and almost as soon as I found him I lost him again." In 1869, she and Goldschmidt, a former student of Mendelssohn's whom she married in 1852, erected a plaque to Mendelssohn's memory at his birthplace in Hamburg. (The Nazis tore it down in 1936.)

Isn't this suspiciously like the plot of AS Byatt's novel Possession? The article even includes a line that I swear is out of that novel: It could transform critical views of his music. (Ok change the word music to poetry, but you get the picture.)

For those not familiar with any Mendelssohn, here is the third movement of Mendelssohn's First Violin Concerto. The violinist? Itzhak Perlman at age 13 - yes he was that good at age 13: