© Robert W. Eshbach, 2013

Previous Post in Series: Gewandhaus Debut

JJ Initials

Berliner Geselligkeit



The Mendelssohn Home: Leipzigerstrasse No. 3

Having visited with the Mendelssohn family in Berlin on the occasion of the Midsummer Night’s Dream premiere, Joseph was now introduced to a wider circle of Berlin society, performing on February 11th (1844) in one of Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel’s celebrated Sunday musicales. Like all of Hensel’s late-morning Sonntagsmusiken, this matinée took place in the Mendelssohns’ family home, the former “Reck’sche Palais” at Leipzigerstrasse No. 3, later lovingly portrayed by Fanny’s son, and Joseph’s boyhood friend, Sebastian Hensel:

To the members of the family this house was not a piece of property of a certain value, or mere dead bricks and mortar, but a living individuality, one of themselves, sympathising with and sharing their happiness, and considered by them and their nearest friends somehow as the representative of the family. In this sense Felix often uses the expression ‘Leipziger Strasse 3,’ and in this sense they all loved it and mourned its loss when, after the deaths of Fanny and Felix, it was sold, and became the Upper Chamber of the Prussian Parliament. […] The rooms were stately, large, and lofty, built with that delightful spaciousness which architects have almost entirely given up since the price of ground has become so high, and for which kind of comfort either the taste or the means have almost entirely disappeared. One room especially, overlooking the court, and opening by means of three arches into an adjoining apartment, was beautiful, and most suitable for theatrical representations. For many, many years, at Christmas and on birthdays and other festive occasions, this was the scene of delightful performances, overflowing with wit and humour. Generally it was Leah’s [Mendelssohn’s mother] sitting-room. The windows opened upon a very spacious court, surrounded by low side-buildings, and closed by a one-storied garden-house, over which looked the tops of ancient trees. In this garden-house Fanny and Hensel lived after their marriage. It has since been pulled down, to make room for the session-chamber of the Prussian House of Lords. In the winter it had great drawbacks, […] but in summer the house was perfectly delightful. The windows were embowered in vines, and all opened on to the garden, with its blooming lilacs and avenues of stately old trees. And for all times of the year it had certain special advantages, especially complete peace and quiet. The large court and high front building kept off every sound; in the garden-house, no more than 100 yards away from the noisy street, you lived as in the deepest loneliness of a forest—vis-à-vis, the magnificent trees of the garden, with merrily twittering birds, no lodger above or below, after the noise of streets the quietest and almost rural seclusion, and at your windows green leaves. [1] The center part of the house, and its most invaluable and beautiful portion, consisted in a very spacious hall, too large to be called a drawing-room. There was space in it for several hundred people, and it had on the garden side a movable glass wall, interrupted by pillars, so that the hall could be changed into an open portico. The walls and ceiling (a flat cupola) were covered with fantastic fresco-paintings. This was the real scene of the Sunday matinées. The hall commanded a view of the garden — or rather the park — (about seven acres), which touched the gardens of Prince Albrecht; in Frederick the Great’s time it had been a part of the Tiergarten, and was therefore rich in most beautiful old trees. [ii]

With her brother Felix’s explicit encouragement, Fanny had begun her Sonntags-Morgenmusiken in 1831, taking up a family tradition that had lain dormant for several years. By the 1840’s, what had begun as private entertainments had taken on a more public face. As Fanny described it in 1846: “It has gradually — and naturally without our doing — become a remarkable cross between private and public in character, so that 150-200 people are present at every concert, and such that, if I have to cancel, and don’t give notice, no one comes, because the fact publicizes itself.” [iii]

“I have once again taken up my Sunday morning musicales,” Fanny wrote to Anna Dirichlet [2] of this first concert of 1844, “and — think of it — in the garden room; it heats up quite well, and it was just lovely, since we happened to have good weather just then.” [iv] Fanny’s neighbor, the writer, political free-thinker and women’s rights advocate Fanny Lewald, was among the guests, and remembered the event in her memoirs: [v]

There were still individual women in whose salons a mixed company comprising all classes gathered, and among these Fanny Mendelssohn, the oldest sister of Felix Mendelssohn who was married to the painter Wilhelm Hensel, took pride of place. She was small, and except for her large soulful eyes, actually homely, but she had a sharp intellect, was very well-informed, very self-confident, and as a musician she was her brother’s equal. Her younger sister Rebecka, the wife of the famous mathematician Lejeune Dirichlet, and her youngest brother, the banker Paul Mendelssohn were also exceedingly musical, and the matinées that Frau Hensel hosted in the peaceful, spacious rooms of her garden house were exceptionally interesting. She lived in the garden wing of her parents’ house, the same as the upper house of the legislature now occupies, and out of the floor-length windows of this back section of the house, which consisted only of a Rez de Chaussée, from her art-bedecked rooms one looked out on the old trees of a large garden while enjoying the most superb performances, in which artists and first-rate amateurs took part together. It was in such a matinée that I first saw and heard Felix Mendelssohn. Among the listeners were Henrik Steffens, Friedrich von Raumer, the artists Wach and Tieck, a princess from Dessau, Princess Radzivill with her families, the English ambassador Count Westmoreland [sic], two of Bettina’s [von Arnim] daughters, a daughter of Prince Karl of Prussia with her governess, Schönlein, and a multitude of others, whose names were important, or would later acquire importance, such as that of the musician Joseph Joachim, who was then still a boy, and, accompanied by Felix Mendelssohn, performed very brilliant variations by David.

In the middle of the performance, all eyes suddenly turned to the doors, and a cheerful smile passed over all faces as a still-youthful man appeared in the doorway of the room. He was a slim, mobile figure. He entered silently, head held high, with sparkling eyes, which had something uncommonly startling, indeed overwhelming about them. It was Franz Liszt. [3] […]

That morning they began the music with a quartet of Weber that Frau Hensel played, and which the Gans [Ganz] brothers and Felix Mendelssohn accompanied. Then Frau Hensel and her brother played the latter’s variations à quatre mains. Pauline von Schätzel, at that time the wife of court-printer Decker, sang an aria with chorus from The Creation, and latter with an excellent singer (I think he was named Bär [Behr]) a few large scenas from the Templer und der Jüdin. Felix Mendelssohn accompanied the singing on the piano, and finally Mendelssohn played the previously mentioned variations with the young Joachim.

What is a public? In Joachim’s youth, the contemporary phenomenon of an audience as a gathering of strangers, unknown to one another, hardly existed. A “public,” as Joachim’s contemporaries would have understood it, was a social organism: unlike a crowd, it had structure and texture. As Lewald’s account implies, this “mixed company comprising all classes” consisted of a nexus of consequential people: a fabric of family, friendship, business relations, and celebrity. The same could be said, even of such ostensibly fully “public” events as Leipzig’s Gewandhaus concerts, or the concerts of Berlin’s Singakademie.

The modern idea of public life had its origins in the Enlightenment “Republic of Letters” — that group of thinkers, who, unfettered by linguistic or national boundaries, began to challenge traditional notions of nation and state, daring to imagine new and better ways of organizing and regulating human relations. When Beethoven received a letter from his brother, signed “Johann van Beethoven, land-owner,” his sharp reply, signing himself “Ludwig van Beethoven, brain-owner,” was entirely in the spirit of that Enlightenment project. In the modern, enlightened world, traditional markers of status and power were challenged and overturned by a newly emerging public — a new aristocracy of “brain-owners.” “What! Because you are a great Man, you fancy yourself a great Genius,” Beaumarchais had his Figaro say. “How came you to be the rich and mighty Count Almaviva? Why truly, you gave yourself the trouble to be born! While the obscurity in which I have been cast demanded more abilities to gain a mere subsistence than are requisite to govern Empires.”

In Figaro we also find a common Enlightenment trope: that men are disputatious, mutually threatening, agonistic. By contrast, women were taught to be accommodating, and to make common cause across class boundaries. Masculine intellectual life, so cultural historian Dena Goodman tells us, had always been a form of combat. [vi] In the Republic of Letters, however, men’s innate combativeness was restrained, their discourse moderated and governed by a particularly strong and brilliant group of women — salonnières — who invited the sparring intellectuals into their homes, and taught them to converse. Thus, as Goodman writes, “the central discursive practices of the Enlightenment Republic of Letters were polite conversation and letter writing, and its defining social institution was the Parisian salon.” [vii]

Upper- and middle-class social life in Berlin was inevitably influenced by Prussia’s Francophile court. By the turn of the 19th century, Berlin’s intellectual and social life likewise centered on the salon — a regular gathering involving tea and conversation, and a kind of culturally edifying sociability (Geselligkeit). Through their occupation as salonnières, women such as Rahel Varnhagen, Henriette Herz, Sarah Levy, Caroline and Wilhelmine Bardua, Bettina von Arnim, and later Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel took on a powerful role as leaders in Berlin’s intellectual and cultural life.

In Berlin as in Paris, salons were held at a regular day and time, and guests had standing invitations to attend at their pleasure. The gatherings took place in the salonnières’ homes (while the majority of guests were men, salons were conducted by women), and it was they who organized the activities and guided the conversation of the gathering. Regular guests would frequently have the privilege of introducing their friends at the salon. Once included, these friends were permanently welcomed as members of the circle. There were various types of salons: political, literary, musical, etc., each according to the interests of the salonnière. Berlin’s salons, whose ideal was “a mixed company comprising all classes,” were mostly intellectual gatherings, serving the purposes of Bildung in an inclusive, non-threatening social context, and always with a feminine emphasis on bridging the worlds of intellect and feeling. [4] Political conversation was generally of a liberal bent, with a romantic-nationalistic flavor, advocating democratic and constitutional rights, and participation in societal reform. Salons served as both impetus and venue for much of the music, art and literature of the period (a prominent example being Wilhelm Müller’s poetic cycle Die Schöne Müllerin, originally improvised and performed by a circle of young poets, painters and musicians — including Fanny Mendelssohn’s future husband Wilhelm Hensel — in the Staegemann salon in Berlin). Conversation about the arts was strongly influenced by current aesthetic theory. The involvement of the salon in the growth of professional criticism remains largely unexplored. Many of the journals that appeared during this period were in effect an extension of the critical conversations of salon Geselligkeit.

The Mendelssohn family played a crucial role in the development of the Berlin salon. Moses Mendelssohn (1729-1786), the great philosopher of the Haskalah (Jewish Enlightenment) had been one of the first to keep an “open house,” in which the leading intellectuals of the day gathered. There, according to historian Petra Wilhelmy: “When guests gathered in the evening, the discussions did not center on strictly scholarly topics, but rather, matters of literature and art. Hospitality was modest. It is noteworthy that practically all of the subsequent Salonnières and salon women before 1800 gathered in his house, and in many cases were friends of his daughters, among them the gifted Dorothea (Veit-Schlegel). […] The celebrated Henriette Herz was well aware of the model that Moses Mendelssohn provided for the women of her generation. “Foreign intellectuals seldom visited Berlin, without allowing themselves to be introduced by him,” she wrote. “His friends, and his friends’ friends came uninvited, and therefore also the brilliant friends of the daughters of the house.” [viii] One consequence of Mendelssohn’s Geselligkeit can be seen in the large number of Berlin’s salonnières who were Jewish. In 1798 theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher wrote to his sister: “It is very natural that young scholars and men of fashion frequent the big Jewish houses in Berlin, for they are much the wealthiest middle-class families here, almost the only ones which keep open house [5] and in which, because of their extensive connections in all countries, one meets foreigners of every rank. So anyone who wants to see something of good society in a very unceremonious way obtains an introduction to such houses, where any man of talent, even if it is only social talent, is welcome and will certainly find plenty to amuse him, because Jewish women — their husbands are rushed too early into trade — are highly cultivated, can talk about everything and are usually very accomplished in one or other of the arts.” [ix]

Ultimately, the Berlin salon became a kind of Jewish woman’s university. [6] Berlin’s Jewish salonnières were influential in promoting the ideals of Bildung, as well as the twin ideals of women’s rights and religious tolerance. The harvest of the salonnières’ sowing is everywhere to be found in nineteenth-century art, music, literature, and political philosophy — though it was most often claimed by men — and it informed the nineteenth-century’s concept of the “public” as a fabric of diverse, yet interrelated individuals. The epigraph to John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, for example, quoted from Wilhelm von Humboldt’s Sphere and Duties of Government[7] is a Bildungsideal that Humboldt absorbed from Berlin’s Jewish salonnières: “The grand, leading principle, towards which every argument unfolded in these pages directly converges, is the absolute and essential importance of human development in its richest diversity.” [x] “The worth of a State, in the long run, is the worth of the individuals composing it,” wrote Mill at the end of his essay, “and a State which postpones the interests of their mental expansion and elevation […], a State which dwarfs its men, in order that they may be more docile instruments in its hands even for beneficial purposes, will find that with small men no great thing can really be accomplished […].” [xi] For early nineteenth-century Germany, the salon was simply the ideal state in a nutshell, and the salonnière’s goal was to make sure that the mental expansion and elevation of her guests was satisfied. Though by 1843 the golden age of the Berlin salon was largely over, Joseph would discover on his own journey of Bildung, that without the example and influence of great women imbued with this tradition — Fanny Hensel, Bettina von Arnim, Clara Schumann and others — boys like him would have grown into small men indeed.

Next Post in Series: Growing Pains/Travel Plans

[1] “Next Sunday I shall play with obbligato nightingale and lilac blossom accompaniment,” Fanny wrote in a May 6, 1846 letter to the painter Julius Elsasser. [Klein/MUSIKVERANSTALTUNGEN, p. 49.]

[2] The mother-in-law of her sister Rebecka.

[3] This is the first documented encounter between Joachim and Liszt, the two musical lions of the nineteenth-century. They would next meet some years later in Vienna.

[4] Viennese salons, on the other hand, tended to be sharply differentiated by class — the middle- and lower-class salons being little more than occasions for card playing, light conversation and dancing.

[5] “The term salon was applied to the social and intellectual gatherings at the homes of Jewish women in Berlin only in retrospect,” writes Steven M. Lowenstein. “At the time the institution was referred to by many different terms such as ein offenes Haus (an open house), Thee-gesellschaft (tea society), Theetisch (tea table), äesthetischer Tee (aesthetic tea), or Kränzchen (social circle). Often all sorts of circumlocutions were used. Thus one “opened one’s home “to social intercourse.” Often the salon guests were referred to by the term Hausfreund (friend of the family).”  [Lowenstein/COMMUNITY p. 105]

[6] This is meant quite literally. Much to their chagrin, Jewish women could not be admitted to Humboldt’s Berlin University, which was founded, to a large extent, on ideas of Bildung that Humboldt first encountered in their company. Humboldt was a guest of, among other salonnières, Fanny Hensel, Henriette Herz, Hedwig von Olfers, Henriette Paalzow, Luise Radziwill, Elisabeth von Staegemann, Rahel Varnhagen and Luise von Voß [Wilhelmy/SALON, p. 918]. As a teenager, he was a member, together along with Henriette Herz and Moses Mendelssohn’s daughters Dorothea and Henriette, of a Tugendbund — a league of virtue — whose goal, according to Herz was “mutual moral and mental development, as well as performing practical acts of love.” “He was then 17 years old,” wrote Herz, “and I a married woman […] It might sound arrogant now when I say that I exercised a certain superiority over him, without at all intending it. To a certain extent, I introduced him to the world, and soon he was a friend to all my women friends, most of whom excelled in spirit and heart.” [J. Fürst, Henriette Herz. Ihr Leben und ihre Erinnerungen, Berlin: 1850, p. 149.]

In an essay on Berlin’s salons during the Restoration, Barbara Hahn calls attention to a critical difference between the university and the salons: whereas the salons emphasized mutual discovery, discussion and sharing of ideas, university education was based upon talking heads delivering information ex cathedra while students took notes. Without the give-and-take of conversation, she claims, “knowledge is as though imprisoned.” [Klein/MUSIKVERANSTALTUNGEN, p. 14.]

[7] Currently known by the title: The Limits of State Action.

[i] Wikipedia, public domain, from Adolph Kohut, Berühmte Israelitische Männer und Frauen, vol. 1, Leipzig: 1900.

[ii] Hensel/MENDELSSOHN vol. 1, pp. 121-122


[iv] Letter dated February 22, 1844, quoted in Klein/SONNTAGSMUSIKEN, p. 59.

[v] Lewald/LEBENSGESCHICHTE, pp. 105-107 [my translation]

[vi] See Goodman/REPUBLIC pp. 91 ff.

[vii] Goodman/REPUBLIC, p. 4.

[viii] Wilhelmy/SALON, p. 45.

[ix] Quoted in Bruford/TRADITION, p. 4.

[x] Mill/LIBERTY, p. 4.

[xi] Mill/LIBERTY, p. 207.