Felix Mendelssohn: The Prodigy

The range of Mendelssohn’s intellectual achievements, as well as his musical ability, means he trumps even Mozart in the prodigy stakes. The classical canon boasts several composers who were celebrated prodigies, but few matched the magnitude of Mendelssohn’s precocity.

Early on, the poets Goethe and Heine compared him to Mozart; Goethe spoke with considerable authority and experience, for in 1763 he had witnessed the young Mozart playing a harpsichord with his hands covered by a cloth and effortlessly identifying the pitches of clocks and glasses.

Goethe’s first encounter with Mendelssohn came in 1821, when the 12-year-old, accompanied by his composition teacher Zelter, travelled to Weimar to meet him.

First, the boy was asked to improvise on a popular song, and produced a contrapuntal fantasy one spectator likened to a “turbulent, lustrous parliament of tones.” Then he performed on Goethe’s Viennese Streicher piano (still on view today at the Goethehaus in Weimar) a Bach fugue, the minuet from Mozart’s Don Giovanni, and the Overture To The Marriage Of Figaro.

Next, Goethe asked him to sight-read a Mozart autograph, and when the boy dispatched that task with ease, “as though he had known the work for a year”, returned from his study with a more daunting autograph, this one in Beethoven’s hieroglyphic-like hand – its indecipherable scrawls admittedly gave the trial candidate some pause.

After Goethe heard some of Mendelssohn’s own compositions, including a piano quartet, he declared his judgement to Zelter: “What your pupil already accomplishes bears the same relation to the Mozart of that time, that the cultivated talk of a grown-up person does to the prattle of a child.”

What gives force to Goethe’s judgment is, first, the extraordinary range of Mendelssohn’s musical talents—he was a pianist, organist, conductor (one of the first to use a baton), violinist and viola player and, of course, a composer who matured at an astonishing rate.

At 12 he produced the 200-page full score of his first opera, without assistance from Zelter, and by age 16 and 17 respectively, finished his first two masterpieces, the Octet and Midsummer Night’s Dream Overture.

But what set Mendelssohn apart from the most gifted musical prodigies, Mozart included, was the astonishing range of his intellect – a polyglot, he was fluent in German and French, and later in life, English, and he read Latin and Greek; he was a poet who crafted some of the texts of his own songs, and a skilled draughtsman and painter who produced landscapes of a professional calibre.

Finally, as a virtuoso pianist and organist, Mendelssohn’s exploits were legendary. His keyboard technique was of a refined brilliance, in the school of Hummel and Carl Maria von Weber. He did not pursue the athletic prowess of Liszt, but he was nevertheless capable of dazzling displays of virtuosity, and could improvise on demand quaodlibets on several different themes, as Queen Victoria witnessed years later.