Letter to Eduard Devrient; 10 July, 1832. Performing Arts Reading Room, Library of Congress.
Letter writing was a carefully cultivated art in the household of Abraham and Lea Mendelssohn, a tradition that was maintained throughout their lives as well as the lives of their children. Felix likely exceeded both his siblings and parents as the family's correspondent extraordinaire: recognized as one of the most prolific letter writers of the time, his corpus of communications bequeaths to the twenty-first century reader an impressive personal account of nineteenth century European cultural history as well as a rich source of information about the writer himself. In retrospect, his exchanges collectively point to the fact that he was one of, if not the leading figure of German musical culture by the final decade of his brief life.
Mendelssohn's output of letters was voluminous, well exceeding five thousand; considering his ceaseless travelling and endeavors as a conductor, composer, teacher, performer, poet or artist, the amount of time he devoted to correspondence is astounding. He once wrote to his mother: "This is my thirty-fifth letter since yesterday..." Together with the approximately seven thousand responses he received (letters which he conscientiously retained throughout his life and are now bound in green-colored volumes in the Bodleian Library in Oxford) we have a unique insight into the man's life and character, a virtual glimpse into his spectrum of emotions -- except for love. Curiously, there are no known love letters written by Felix in the entire epistolary! He was comfortable writing in his native German as well as in French and English. Depending on the letter's intended recipient, his writing style varied from formal to intimate and warmhearted, from highly critical to untiringly sympathetic.
Today, extant Mendelssohn letters are dispersed throughout the United States and Europe in public institutions as well as private collections. The Library of Congress's Music Division holds well over three hundred autograph letters of Mendelssohn. The majority of these exemplars are part of the Gertrude Clarke Whittall Foundation Collection; other autographs are located in the Moldenhauer Archives, the Heinemann Foundation Collection in honor of Edward N. Waters, the Music Division Miscellaneous Manuscripts Collection, the William B. Bradbury Collection, and in the general classed collections under the call number ML95.M36. Rich in content and broad in subject matter, these documents span from 1825 to 1847, and include a multitude of correspondents and topics.
Musicologically significant are the dozens of letters addressed to his English publisher, Edward Buxton, which identify misprints that had crept into the German editions of his works with suggestions of how certain improvements might be effected. In all of the Library's fourteen letters to his longtime friend, the actor, librettist and musician Eduard Devrient (1801-1877), his conversations about music and fellow musicians are refreshingly candid:
London, October 29, 1829
"...When I think of the musicians in Berlin, Devrient, I feel bitter as gall. They don't even have that quality which I expect of my cobbler....I don't mean to be praising English musicians here...but when they eat an apple pie, at least they don't speak of the concept of pie itself and about how it consists of crust and apples, instead they just cheerfully gobble it up."
Often he added his own personal letterhead to the stationary, sketches in ink that related to current musical events. Letters to one of his closest friends (Mendelssohn reportedly referred to him as "the only friend"), the German poet and musician Karl Klingemann (1798-1862) are among the most revealing pieces of Mendelssohniana. In one example from November of 1842, he divulges the details of his audience with King Friedrich Wilhelm IV; a second particularly poignant example to Klingemann was composed shortly after the death of his father:
Leipzig, 14 December 1835
"...The dreadful change in my life is only now gradually making itself felt... I have the definite feeling that on that day my youth passed away, and everything connected with it."
Later on in the same document, in a brief musical discussion about his overture Die schöne Melusine, his obsession by what he referred to as "the revision devil" emerges:
"...Before it was performed here, and before it was printed, I rewrote Melusine because it always seemed to me only half finished. It is now incomparably better....Because of this, I do not want it to exist anywhere in its previous form, and therefore ask you to obtain in my name the score which the Philharmonic has and to burn it..."