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            “The Cherub” (Mendelssohn’s word was ‘Posaunenengel’ — ‘trombone-angel’) “has no need of a conservatory for his instrument; no need at all of a violin teacher. He can easily work on by himself, and from time to time play something for [Ferdinand] David to get his opinion and advice.” Mendelssohn’s words at Joseph’s audition were undoubtedly not what the Wittgensteins had expected to hear from the founder of the new conservatory. Mendelssohn had listened as Joseph played a few solos. Together, they played Beethoven’s Kreutzer sonata, after which Mendelssohn gave Joseph a few harmony exercises to complete. When it came time to render judgment, Mendelssohn first asked what the Wittgensteins would like him to do for the boy. “Let him breathe your air!” Hermann is reputed to have replied. [1]

Mendelssohn responded with the most generous offer conceivable: the gift of his own precious time and attention. “I will regularly and frequently play with him myself, and be his artistic advisor in musical matters. The boy has also completed his Harmony tests so easily and correctly that I strongly advise him to continue these studies with [Thomaskantor Moritz] Hauptmann, so that he will learn everything that one could and should expect from a true artist. I place by far the greatest value on his receiving a careful and thorough instruction in the academic subjects, and will see to it myself that this is undertaken by a competent teacher.” [i]

To the extent possible, [2] Mendelssohn stood by his promise to play regularly and frequently with his young “Teufelsbraten.” [3] Mendelssohn was not a teacher in a systematic sense, however: for that he lacked the time and interest, and perhaps, as he himself said, the patience. His Sunday meetings with Joseph were likely similar to those mentioned by Charles Edward Horsley (1822-1876), who studied privately with Mendelssohn from 1841 to 1843:

When those who had the right to call themselves [private] pupils of Mendelssohn assert the fact, it must not be thought that he gave lessons in the ordinary acceptation of the word. In the first place I do not believe there is a single instance in which he received pecuniary recompense for his advice. Next, his instruction was not imparted in a formal manner. Speaking of myself as an example of the course he followed with others, I generally went to him three times a week. Previous to fixing an hour he would advise me to practice certain pieces, generally by Bach or Beethoven, and when I played them to him he would either criticize the performance, or more frequently play them to me. His favorite mode of giving advice was, however, by taking a walk during which he would invariably talk on musical subjects. One of his favorite haunts was a little Inn in a small forest near Leipzig, called the Rosenthal. I have frequently walked with him there, and during our wanderings he would invariably select for consideration a Symphony by Beethoven, an Opera of Mozart, or an Oratorio of Handel, or a Fugue of Bach. He would analyze these, point out the various beauties of their ideas, the ingenuity of their instrumentation, or the subtleness of their counterpoint in a most masterly manner. After the rehearsals of the Gewandhaus, which were free to all his pupils, we had generally to undergo a pretty keen examination as to the construction and peculiarities of each […]. [ii]


Rosenthal Meadows, Leipzig

While not systematic, Mendelssohn’s teaching was nevertheless extraordinarily rigorous. Thoroughness and accuracy were the first order of business. At the same time technique was always to be subordinated to a higher purpose. Mendelssohn taught that “art only rises above handicraft when it devotes the greatest possible technical perfection to a purely spiritual end: to the expression of a higher thought.” [iii] We hear an echo of this philosophy in Joachim’s maxim, entered in Brahms’s commonplace book in 1853: “There is a degree of technique that becomes spiritual, since it inclines to perfection.” [iv]

“Every word that the master spoke, grounded in rich experience, deep insight and vision, was worth its weight in gold,” recalled Wilhelm Joseph von Wasielewski, who attended Mendelssohn’s composition classes in the first years of the Conservatory’s existence. “Mendelssohn possessed the rarest gift of expressing himself, on every matter to be taught, in plain language — briefly, clearly, and specifically, and since he always combined the most refined taste with an unfailingly pointed judgement, his teaching was always truly helpful. After more than fifty years, I still well remember what demands he made for the comprehension and performance of a piece of classical music, and how he was able to guide a student without wasting time, with a brief remark or even only a suggestion.” [v] In this, Wasielewski echoed Schumann, who after Mendelssohn’s death wrote: “His judgments in musical matters — especially on composition — the most trenchant imaginable, go straight to the innermost core. — He instantly and everywhere recognized flaws and their cause.” [vi]

In an age of artistic license, Mendelssohn was an early advocate of Werktreue — faithfulness to the text as the composer had set it forth. Moser writes in his History of Violin Playing that Joseph “had been urged at first by Böhm, but more insistently by Mendelssohn, to respect the artwork and its author under all circumstances, and never to misuse it for the gratification of personal vanity or for the sake of external effect.” [vii] “It is inartistic, barbaric even, to alter so much as a note of their works,” Mendelssohn told him. [viii] These statements must be understood within the context of the extraordinary liberties with text and time taken by Mendelssohn’s contemporaries. Mendelssohn was strict, but not rigid in this approach; if an alteration was done with a legitimate artistic objective, it was likely to meet with his approval. At the time, for example, it was widely considered inappropriate to use a springing bow in classical works. [4] Here, Mendelssohn advised Joseph not to be dogmatic, but to follow his own taste — “if it is appropriate to the passage concerned and sounds good.” [ix]

Mendelssohn’s pedagogical approach reflected the outlook that he had assimilated from his own parents and teachers — that the musical canon represents a treasure of timeless spiritual truth, rooted in communal values and built up over time; that music, though personal, is not wilful; that in music there are certain rules to be followed and skills to be mastered, and that these rules and skills can be both taught and learned, through discipline and hard work. Mendelssohn pursued this outlook with a characteristic restless energy that he expected to be matched by his students. “Talent is industry,” he told Moritz Hauptmann. On occasion he could be (in the words of Eric Werner) “an autocratic, high-strung, irascible, extremely sensitive, proud, almost haughty personality.” Underlying these occasional foibles, however, breathed a man of “selfless generosity, captivating charm, warm feeling, impeccable integrity, and great noblesse,” without “the faintest trace of conceit, smugness, or… complacency.” [x]

William Smith Rockstro, who entered the Conservatory in 1845, left an account of Mendelssohn at work in the classroom:

“Carelessness infuriated him. Irreverence for the composer he could never forgive. “Es steht nicht da!”  (“It isn’t there”) he almost shrieked one day to a pupil who had added a note to a certain chord. To another, who had scrambled through a difficult passage, he cried, with withering contempt, “So spielen die Katzen!”  (“That’s the way cats play!”) But when he saw an earnest desire to do justice to the work at hand, he would give direction after direction, with a lucidity which we have never heard equalled. [xi]

Mendelssohn’s uncompromising musical ethic became a cornerstone of Joachim’s own artistic creed. “Quite naturally, Joachim was still completely under the spell of virtuosity when he appeared in Leipzig,” recalled Carl Reineke, “but through his interactions with Mendelssohn, who loved and fostered the boy like a father, he was soon initiated into the sanctity of art, and from then on he made use of his artistic abilities solely for the consummate rendition of genuine artworks of the violin literature.” [xii] Leopold Auer, who studied with Joachim in Hanover from 1863-1865, wrote that Joachim “was considered to be the greatest among the virtuoso musicians who practiced the aphorism, ‘Music first, and then the virtuoso.’ It held good not only for his playing, but also for his programs, which contained nothing but good music.” [xiii] Auer, too, traced this attitude to Mendelssohn’s influence.

All in all, Mendelssohn gave Joseph a thorough education in the Leipzigerian res severa: a way of thinking about music that was opposed in its nature to the “artistic” license of virtuosity.  This local ethic was well expressed by Chorley:

At Leipsic I found that the merits most cordially admired in instrumental composition and performance were a sober breadth of reading — grandeur without ponderosity — expression without caricature — light and shade without needless flourish. Whether I was listening to the orchestra, or to the pianoforte-playing of Mendelssohn, or to the organ-playing on the piano of Madame Schumann […] who commands her instrument with the enthusiasm of a Sybil, and the grasp of a man, — or to the leading or the quartett playing of my incomparable friend David, — the same characteristic preferences forced themselves on my notice, to the satisfaction of the heart and mind, if not always of the imagination. A Leipsic audience seemed to me difficult, and perhaps over-exquisite, in its likings and dislikings, but not captious without the power of giving reason. Among Beethoven’s symphonies, for instance, the “Pastorale” is the least in favour, and the worst-played: the taste of the town not tending towards musical punning, or (to speak more reverently) to such literal imitation as calls up rivulets, birds, and thunder-storms, even when wielded by a Beethoven. … In spite of the residence there of Herr Schumann, the German Berlioz, whose “Kreissleriana,” and other pianoforte compositions, are in the very wildest strain of extravagant mysticism, a regular concerto will probably be better relished at Leipsic than the most airy and delicate piece of fantasy of the newer schools. “C’est un peu perruque ici!” said —— to me one day; a little chagrined, I suspect, at my smiling at his enthusiastic arrogation to Paris of all the musical excellence now remaining in the world. “Perhaps,” replied I, “you would call bread, or wine, or any thing else that nourishes without unhealthy stimulus, perruque, also? — or think, with the lady in the comedy, that spasms and fits of epilepsy are but an extravagance of health?” “Bah!” was the answer, as he turned upon his heel on his road to L’Académie and the conservatoire of the French metropolis. [xiv]

© Robert W. Eshbach, 2013

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[1] Wittgenstein/FAMILIENERINNERUNGEN, p. 10. According to an early, 1856, biographical sketch (that likely originated with information provided by Joachim’s parents), Mendelssohn first heard Joseph play at a gathering in his own house in late 1842. When the boy with long curls finished playing, Mendelssohn reportedly kissed him on the forehead, saying enthusiastically: “I, too, was probably once a boy like this!” This kiss, “that impressed the consecration of Art upon his forehead,” resembles the famous Weihekuss that Beethoven supposedly bestowed on the young Liszt — and may be an apocryphal element of myth-making in both cases. [Reich/BETH-EL, p. 63.]

[2] At that time, Mendelssohn was simultaneously engaged both in Leipzig and Berlin — a feat made possible only by the recent inauguration of the Leipzig-Berlin railroad line. It is not known whether, or how often, Joseph may have followed him to Berlin. We know, at least, that he travelled to Berlin on his own for the premiere of Mendelssohn and Tieck’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. For much of 1845, Mendelssohn resided in Frankfurt, during which time Joseph would have had little or no contact with him. Mendelssohn returned to Leipzig in September 1845, and maintained a home there until his death in November, 1847.

[3] “Scoundrel” (literally: “Devil’s-roast” —  a meal for the devil) — Mendelssohn’s nickname for Joseph (“I suppose it was because I was a fat boy,” Joachim said later). [The Musical Times, Vol. 39, No. 662 (April 1, 1898), p. 226.]

[4] For an enlightening history of bow-stroke usage, see Clive Brown’s excellent article: Bowing Styles, Vibrato and Portamento in Nineteenth-Century Violin Playing, (Journal of the Royal Musical Association, Vol. 113, No. 1 (1998): 97-128.

[i] Moser/JOACHIM 1908, I. p. 45. [author’s translation]

[ii] Todd/WORLD, p. 240.

[iii] Mendelssohn/BRIEFE, p. 454.

[iv] Brahms/SCHATZ, p. 57.

[v] Wasielewski/SIEBZIG, p. 34

[vi] Jacob/MENDELSSOHN, pp. 105-106.

[vii] Moser/VIOLINSPIEL, p.265.

[viii] Moser/JOACHIM 1908, p. 54.

[ix] Moser/JOACHIM 1908, p. 55. “Immerhin, mein Junge, wenn es für die betreffende Stelle paßt und gut klingt.”

[x] Eric Werner, Mendelssohn Sources, Notes, 2nd Ser., Vol. 12, No. 2 (March, 1955), p. 204

[xi] Rockstro/MENDELSSOHN, p. 106.

[xii] Reineke/ERLEBNISSE, p. 261. m.t.

[xiii] Auer/LIFE, p. 57.

[xiv] Chorley/MUSIC, pp. 124-125.