Child Prodigy Meets Great Master: Mendelssohn & Goethe.

Dr Dick’s Mendelssohn’s World.

In November, when Mendelssohn was 12, Zelter his composition teacher took him to meet the poet, Goethe (pronounced GER-teh), who was a friend of his.

It’s difficult to describe how significant this would have been for a German child. There is no equivalent in today’s world to explain what it would be like to meet Goethe. He wasn’t just a  poet: he was THE Poet, the greatest living German writer who is still regarded as one of the most important writers in the world – of all time. That sounds like over-the-top marketing in today’s world, but what Shakespeare is to people who speak English, Goethe is to people who speak German. His drama, Faust – the story of a man who sells his soul to the devil – is regarded as one of the greatest works of the 19th Century. There was probably no more highly regarded man in Germany – and he had agreed to meet a 12-year-old composer.

In addition to being a poet, dramatist and novelist, Goethe was also a philosopher and scientist, and also wrote about theology and humanism. His interest in music was primarily scientific – the science of sounds – though he enjoyed music. He had played the cello and the piano in his younger days but was puzzled by Beethoven and not at all interested in Schubert. In fact, in 1816 Schubert had sent Goethe a package that included 16 songs he’d written setting some of Goethe’s best-loved poems to music but Goethe didn’t even bother opening it.


Mendelssohn’s teacher had no sooner gotten past the introductions when Goethe opened the lid over the piano keys and asked him to play something.


His composition teacher, Zelter, hummed a tune he had suggested but the boy said he didn’t know that one. So the teacher played it for him. Mendelssohn then played it back to him note perfect, then improvised a fantasy on it – as another person there described it, a wild, surging, torrential fantasia “that poured out like liquid fire.”

Everyone was amazed. Then he played some Mozart, played at sight something by Beethoven that was in manuscript (“looking like it had been written with a broomstick [not a pen] and then he smeared his sleeve over the ink”) but Felix figured it out without too many problems.

Some musicians from town were brought to Goethe’s house. They didn’t know the name Mendelssohn which they saw on the music in front of them. Zelter told them they would meet a boy who so far hasn’t heard much praise or criticism so he hoped they would not go over-board one way or the other and just accept him as a young child beginning his career. “Up to now, I have been able to protect him against vanity and conceit, these two enemies of artistic progress.”

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