Everything You Never Knew You Wanted to Know About Berlin
Did you know that an exquisite piece of music by one of Berlin´s most famous artists, Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy – a grandson of the heavyweight of German history, philosopher Moses Mendelssohn – was originally named after a London location?
Mendelssohn´s first visit to the British capital took place in 1829 upon the invitation of his friend and colleague, Ignaz Moscheles (their friendship began when after having been hired as Felix´s tutor, the latter discovered there had been hardly anything new he could, indeed, teach him). Mendelssohn´s fame as a composer and performer grew with each stay until one day in 1842 he was invited to play in front of Queen Victoria and her royal husband, Albert. The monarch found both his music and the performance quite delightful but as her diary entry shows beyond any doubt, she was also concerned about the artist´s health after the music had gone silent: ‘”Really I have never heard anything so beautiful. Poor Mendelssohn was quite exhausted when he had done playing.” Queen Victoria was right to worry: it was the exhaustion that led to a series of strokes that eventually killed Mendelssohn five years later, on November 4, 1847 – exactly 170 years ago today.
Back in 1841 Mendelssohn visited London for the seventh time. During his previous stays he mostly lodged with the Hanoverian embassy secretary, Karl Klingemann, at his house in 4 Hobart Place in Belgravia (today, the building bears a memorial plaque). This time, however, he was travelling with his wife, Cécilie, whose relatives, the Benneckes, owned an equally elegant house near today´s Ruskin Park in the district of Brixton. Their lodgings, Dane House, at 168 Denmark Hill, was one of eight residential buildings standing in the then peripheral London street.
The composer was very taken with the neighbourhood: a spreading green, tranquil and inviting to take long, refreshing walks. Eventually he did what every delighted artist would do: he wrote a musical piece praising the place. He called it “Camberwell Green”, after the name the area had at the time. Ruskin Park, named after a great British author, intellectual and social reformer, John Ruskin who lived at No. 163 Denmark Hill, had not been created until early in the twentieth century.
Later that beautiful, compact piece of music – whose graceful passages and cheerful note are known to most (whether they are aware of the author or not) – was included by Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy in his collection of lyrical piano pieces Lieder Ohne Worte (“Songs without Words”). It is possible that the change of name was meant to improve the piece´s reception.
Today it features as “Frühlingslied” (Spring Song) or “No. 6 Allegretto grazioso in A major” in Book 5, Opus 62 of Mendelssohn´s short piano works.
Enjoy this lovely rendition of Mendelssohn´s piece played in 1946 by Vladimir Horowitz. If you are in Berlin, you might want to pay a visit to Felix Mendelssohn´s grave: the composer is buried along many illustrious members of his family at the Dreifaltigkeits-Kirchhof I in Berlin-Kreuzberg.