Mendelssohn: "There's No One Quite Like Grandad"

How does it feel to have a great composer in the uppermost branches of your family tree? Is music in the genes? Or could it be the result of constant childhood exposure? Most likely a bit of both.

For those who can trace their bloodline back to a great composer, it’s not easy to shake off the family legacy. Some have found it intimidating to pursue their own musical interests in the shadow of the family past. Others strive to keep the works of their illustrious forebears in the public eye. For one at least, knowledge of the darker side of his famous ancestor set the path of his own life’s work.

Surely no one had more musical offspring than Johann Sebastian Bach. 

CPE Bach did his father proud, becoming possibly the most important composer of his own generation. 

Johann Christian was also a versatile composer. And then there was the so-called Bückeberg Bach, the talented Johann Christoph Friedrich whose great-great-great-great-grandson Elmar von Kolson is living in Germany today. 

He claims not to possess much musical prowess himself, but he still loves music – albeit of the Scottish and Irish folk variety.

Leopold Mozart, the patriarch of another hugely musical family, was probably more accomplished as a teacher than a composer. But he was nonetheless highly musically talented; he quickly recognised that his daughter was a piano prodigy and his son supernaturally gifted. 

Music also waltzed through the veins of the Strauss family, which boasted three generations of composers. Then there were the Mendelssohns – although the custom of the time meant that brother Felix wasn’t very keen for his sister Fanny to have her music published under her own name. Descendants of them both are still living in the UK and continuing the family tradition of loving and playing music.

Cecile Talma Stheeman-Mendelssohn Bartholdy was born in Berlin and lives in England.

"Neither my father nor my grandfather had any particular talent for music, but the whole family always went to concerts in Berlin. I had my first piano lessons at the age of six. These were not a great success, as I am not naturally musical, and I am quite sure my excellent music teacher was most disappointed in me.

"I cannot say there were pressures on me to become a musician. It obviously wasn’t going to happen! But a good knowledge of classical music is considered to be part of one’s culture and education. My grandchildren are all learning to play instruments and their parents go to concerts regularly."

Sheila Hayman is a documentary filmmaker and writer, and leader of the second violin section of the Camden Chamber Orchestra. She is proud of her link to Mendelssohn’s sister but at school wished Fanny had been Elton John instead.

"I was aware as a child of having these composers in our family and we always had Fanny’s music stand in our possession. But I always thought I would have had much more playground credibility had I been related to John Lennon or Elton John rather than some dead German composer. 

"I am now very aware of the family and keen to bring their story to light. My sisters and I played music, but I never thought we were really good enough to justify this great legacy. Between our six children, only two continue to play their instruments. My children don’t particularly like classical music – but they are all musical."