Mendelssohn taste


    "" Paris, December 19th, 1831.

     Dear Father,

Receive my hearty thanks for your letter of the 7th. Though I do
not quite apprehend your meaning on some points, and also may
differ from you, still I have no doubt that this will come all
right when we talk things over together, especially if you permit
me, as you have always hitherto done, to express my opinion in a
straight-forward manner. I allude chiefly to your suggestion, that
I should procure a libretto for an opera from some French poet, and
then have it translated, and compose the music for the Munich

  [25] Felix Mendelssohn, during his stay in Munich, received a
  commission from the director of the theatre, to write an opera
  for Munich.

Above all, I must tell you how sincerely I regret that you have
only now made known to me your views on this subject. I went to
Düsseldorf, as you know, expressly to consult with Immermann on the
point. I found him ready, and willing; he accepted the proposal,
promising to send me the poem by the end of May at the latest, so I
do not myself see how it is possible for me now to draw back;
indeed I do not wish it, as I place entire confidence in him. I do
not in the least understand what you allude to in your last letter,
about Immermann, and his incapacity to write an opera. Although I
by no means agree with you in this opinion, still it would have
been my duty to have settled nothing without your express
sanction, and I could have arranged the affair by letter from here,
I believed however that I was acting quite to your satisfaction
when I made him my offer. In addition to this, some new poems that
he read to me, convinced me more than ever that he was a true poet,
and supposing that I had an equal choice in merit, I would always
decide rather in favour of a German than a French libretto; and
lastly, he has fixed on a subject which has been long in my
thoughts, and which, if I am not mistaken, my mother wished to see
made into an opera,--I mean Shakspeare's "Tempest". I was
therefore particularly pleased with this, so I shall doubly regret
if you do not approve of what I have done. In any event, however, I
entreat that you will neither be displeased with me, nor
distrustful with regard to the work, nor cease to take any interest
in it.

From what I know of Immermann, I feel assured I may expect a
first-rate libretto. What I alluded to about his solitary life,
merely referred to his inward feelings and perceptions; for in
other respects he is well acquainted with what is passing in the
world. He knows what people like, and what to give them; but above
all he is a genuine artist, which is the chief thing; but I am sure
I need not say that I will not compose music for any words I do not
consider really good, or which do not inspire me, and for this
purpose it is essential that I should have your approval. I intend
to reflect deeply on the poem before I begin the music. The
dramatic interest or (in the best sense) the theatrical portion, I
shall of course immediately communicate to you, and in short look
on the affair in the serious light it deserves. The first step
however is taken, and I cannot tell you how deeply I should regret
your not being pleased.

There is however one thing which consoles me, and it is that if I
were to rely on my own judgment, I would again act precisely as I
have now done, though I have had an opportunity of becoming
acquainted with a great deal of French poetry, and seeing it in the
most favourable light. Pray pardon me for saying exactly what I
think. To compose for the translation of a French libretto, seems
to me for various reasons impracticable, and I have an idea that
you are in favour of it more on account of the _success_ which it
is likely to enjoy than for its own _intrinsic merit_. Moreover I
well remember how much you disliked the subject of the "Muette de
Portici," a _Muette_ too who had gone astray, and of "Wilhelm
Tell," which the author seems almost purposely to have rendered

The success however these enjoy all over Germany does not assuredly
depend on the work itself being either good or dramatic, for "Tell"
is neither, but on their coming from Paris, and having pleased
there. Certainly there is _one_ sure road to fame in Germany,--that
by Paris and London; still it is not the only one; this is proved
not only by all Weber's works, but also by those of Spohr, whose
"Faust" is here considered classical music, and which is to be
given at the great Opera-house in London next season. Besides, I
could not possibly take that course, as my great opera has been
bespoken for Munich, and I have accepted the commission. I am
resolved therefore to make the attempt in Germany, and to remain
and work there so long as I can continue to do so, and yet maintain
myself, for this I consider my first duty. If I find that I cannot
do this, then I must leave it for London or Paris, where it is
easier to get on. I see indeed where I should be better remunerated
and more honoured, and live more gaily, and at my ease, than in
Germany, where a man must press forward, and toil, and take no
rest,--still, if I can succeed there, I prefer the latter.

None of the new libretti here, would in my opinion be attended with
any success whatever, if brought out for the first time on a German
stage. One of the distinctive characteristics of them all, is
precisely of a nature that I should resolutely oppose, although the
taste of the present day may demand it, and I quite admit that it
may in general be more prudent to go with the current than to
struggle against it. I allude to that of immorality. In "Robert le
Diable" the nuns come one after the other to allure the hero of the
piece, till at last the abbess succeeds in doing so: the same hero
is conveyed by magic into the apartment of her whom he loves, and
casts her from him in an attitude which the public here applauds,
and probably all Germany will do the same; she then implores his
mercy in a grand aria. In another opera a young girl divests
herself of her garments, and sings a song to the effect that next
day at this time she will be married; all this produces effect, but
I have no music for such things. I consider it ignoble, so if the
present epoch exacts this style, and considers it indispensable,
then I will write oratorios.

Another strong reason why it would prove impracticable is that no
French poet would undertake to furnish me with a poem. Indeed, it
is no easy matter to procure one from them for this stage, for all
the best authors are overwhelmed with commissions. At the same time
I think it quite possible that I might succeed in getting one;
still it never would occur to any of them to write a libretto for a
_German_ theatre. In the first place it would be much more feasible
to give the opera here, and infinitely more rational too; in the
second place, they would decline writing for any other stage than
the French; in fact they could not realize any other. Above all it
would be impossible to procure for them a sum equivalent to what
they receive here from the theatres, and what they draw as their
share from the _part d'auteur_.

I know you will forgive me for having told you my opinion without
reserve. You always allowed me to do so in conversation, so I hope
you will not put a wrong construction on what I have written, and I
beg you will amend my views by communicating your own.--Your


This is one of Mendelsshon's letters sent from Italy and Switzerland. Jyst a taste. This is the new
project of Errant Editions: Emotional and Musical Landscapes. 
You can download the eBook with a rich appendix and listen to some good music 

Martine Besse