My journey of discovery into the extraordinary relationship that the famous German composer Felix Mendelssohn enjoyed with Queen Victoria and Prince Albert began back in 2009. Whilst researching his visit to North Wales, as outlined in my previous article (“Mendelssohn: Part 1 – In North Wales”), I discovered that he had made several visits to Buckingham Palace in London where he and the royals struck up a close friendship based on their mutual love of music and the arts.
Queen Victoria and Prince Albert as Musicians
Queen Victoria (1819-1901) and Prince Albert (1819-1861) were both very accomplished pianists and singers. Prince Albert was also a keen composer from an early age, writing many songs and choral pieces. It was their shared love of music that helped them form an attraction to each other. Victoria noted Albert’s skill at the piano when they first met in 1836. The day after the Queen’s proposal of marriage to Albert, she wrote, “…he sang to me some of his own compositions, which are beautiful, & he has a very fine voice. I also sang for him.” They enjoyed playing piano duets together and accompanying as the other sang, always taking their sheet music with them wherever they would travel. They were both keen followers of theatre and opera, Queen Victoria seeing up to 50 performances per year! Whilst in London as a youngster she would attend two or three performances in the West End each week!
Enter Mendelssohn: 14th and 15th of June, 1842
Prince Albert was an enthusiastic follower of Mendelssohn’s music and it was he who introduced the Queen to Felix’s works for piano and voice. The composer first met just the Prince on the morning of the 14th of June 1842 when he hand delivered a letter from Albert’s cousin, the King of Prussia (Frederick William IV). He was then invited to Buckingham Palace the following evening to meet the Queen. According to an account by Kupferberg, the royals were feeling quite nervous about meeting their musical hero; “for all their exalted station, [they] were quite fluttery!” Apparently, Mendelssohn felt the same way.
Victoria wrote this fascinating account of her first encounter with Mendelssohn in her journal the following day (16th June 1842, Buckingham Palace): “After dinner came Mendelssohn, whose acquaintance I was so anxious to make. Albert had already seen him the other morning. He is short, dark, & Jewish looking, delicate, with a fine intellectual forehead. I should say he must be about 35 or 6. He is very pleasing & modest… He played first of all some of his ‘Lieder ohne Worte (Songs without Words)’, after which…he asked us to give him a theme upon which he could improvise. We gave him 2, ‘Rule Britannia’, & the Austrian National Anthem. He began immediately & really I have never heard anything so beautiful, the way in which he blended them both together & changed over from one to the other, was quite wonderful as well as the exquisite harmony & feeling he puts into the variations, & the powerful rich chords, & modulations, which reminded me of all his beautiful compositions. At one moment he played the Austrian National Anthem with the right hand, he played ‘Rule Britannia’ as the bass, with his left! He made some further improvisations on well-known tunes & songs. We were all filled with the greatest admiration. Poor Mendelssohn was quite exhausted when he had done playing.”
Mendelssohn, realising how much Victoria and Albert enjoyed playing piano duets together, sent them a special arrangement of his ‘Scottish’ symphony.
Saturday the 9th of July, 1842
Felix Mendelssohn next met with Queen Victoria and Prince Albert at Buckingham Palace on the 9th of July, 1842. He describes what happened in a letter to his mother: “Prince Albert sent for me on the Saturday (9th of July, 1842) at half past one so that I could also try his organ before I left England. I found him by himself; but while we were talking, in came the Queen dressed quite informally. She was just saying that she had to leave for Claremont in an hour’s time, when she looked round and exclaimed, “Heavens, how untidy!” – for the wind had scattered some sheets of music from a large portfolio all over the room and even among the organ pedals. Down she got on hands and knees and started picking them up… I begged the Prince to begin playing me something, so that I could boast of it in Germany. He played a chorale by heart, with the pedals – and so charmingly, precisely and accurately that it would have done credit to a professional…Meanwhile the Queen, who had finished what she was doing, came and joined him, listening with pleasure. Then it was my turn, and I began with the chorus from St. Paul, ‘How lovely are the messengers.’ Before I had come to the end of the first verse they both began singing the chorus, and Prince Albert managed the stops so cleverly for me…that I was quite enchanted.
“Then the young Prince of Gotha came in, and we talked for a while. The Queen asked me whether I had written any new songs, because she was very fond of singing my published ones. ‘You ought to sing one to him,’ said Prince Albert; and after a moment’s hesitation she said she would try the ‘Spring Song’ in B flat – ‘if it’s still here, because all my music is packed for Claremont.’ Prince Albert went in search of it, but returned saying it was already packed. ‘ Couldn’t it possibly be unpacked?’ I ventured. ‘We must send for Lady___,.’ Said the Queen – I didn’t catch the name. So the bell was rung and servants dispatched, but to no avail. At last the Queen went herself, and while she was out of the room Prince Albert said to me, ‘She begs you will accept this gift as a memento,’ and gave me a case containing a beautiful ring on which was engraved ‘V.R., 1842.’
“Then the Queen returned and said, ‘Lady___ has gone and she’s taken all my things with her; it’s really most annoying.’ (You can imagine how that amused me!) I now begged her that I might not be the loser by this mischance, and hoped she would sing another song. She consulted her husband, who then said, ‘She will sing you something by Gluck.’ Meanwhile the Princess of Gotha had come in, an all five of us proceeded through various rooms and corridors to the Queen’s boudoir, where there stood near the piano a very plump rocking-horse and two large bird-cages…The Duchess of Kent came in, and while they were all talking I rummaged about among the music on the piano and soon discovered my first set of songs; so of course I asked the Queen to sing one of these instead of the Gluck, and she agreed.
“Just as we were about to begin, she said, ‘But first we must get rid of the parrot, or he will scream louder than I can sing.’ Prince Albert rang the bell and the Prince of Gotha said ‘I’ll take him out;’ so I came forward and said, ‘Please allow me!’ and lifted up the big cage and carried it out to the astonished servants.
“And which of my songs did she choose? ‘Schöner und schöner schmückt sich’ – and sang it quite charmingly, strictly in time and in tune, and very nicely enunciated. Only when it came to the line ‘Der Prosa Last und Müh,’where it goes down to D and then rises again chromatically, each time she sang D sharp; and since I gave her the note the first two times, in the third verse she sang D where it ought to have been D sharp! But except for this little mistake it was really charming, and I’ve never heard an amateur sing the last sustained G better, more purely or more naturally.
“Then I had to confess – I found it very hard, but pride goeth before a fall – that Fanny had written that song, and would she now sing one of mine? She said she would gladly try, so long as I gave her plenty of help, and then she sang ‘Lass dich nur nichts dauern’ really quite faultlessly and with much feeling and expression. I thought that this wasn’t the moment to indulge in extravagant compliments, so I merely thanked her several times. But when she said ‘Oh, if only I hadn’t been so frightened! I generally have a pretty long breath,’ then – and with the clearest conscience – I praised her warmly, because it was precisely that particular passage at the close, with the long-sustained C, that she had managed so well…
“After this Prince Albert sang ‘Es ist ein Schnitter’ and then said that I must play him something before I left, and gave me as themes the chorale which he had played on the organ and the song he had just sung. Usually when I particularly want to improvise well I do it badly – and that would have spoilt my whole morning. But it was as if everything conspired to make it perfect, for I never improvised better…I played for a long time, and enjoyed it so much myself that, besides the two given themes, I brought in quite spontaneously the songs that the Queen had sung…The Queen said several times, ‘I hope you will come back to England again soon and pay us another visit.’ Then I took my leave; and down below I saw the beautiful carriages waiting, with their scarlet outriders, and a quarter of an hour later the flag was lowered and the Court Circular announced, ‘Her Majesty left the Palace at thirty minutes past three.’ I walked back in the rain to Klingemann’s [his close friend], and the best moment of all was when I gave him and Cécile [Mendelssohn’s wife] a stop-press account of everything. It was a delightful morning! I must add that I asked permission to dedicate to the Queen my A minor symphony [No. 3 ‘Scottish’ Op. 56].”
Queen Victoria wrote in her diary on the 9th of July 1842 her version of events: “Mendelssohn came to take leave of Albert, previous to his returning to Germany, & he was good enough to play for us, on Albert’s organ, which he did beautifully. As he wished to hear me sing, we took him over to the large room, where, with some trepidation, I sang, accompanied by him, 1st a song which I thought was his composition, but which he said was his sister’s, & then one of his beautiful ones, after which he played to us a little. We thanked him very much & I gave him a handsome ring as a remembrance.”
30th of May, 1844
On the visit of Mendelssohn on the 30th of May, 1844, Queen Victoria wrote (Buckingham Palace): “We went over to the Drawing room to see Mendelssohn & talked to him for some time, then he played to us beautifully, some of the fine compositions he has written lately, amongst them music for the ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream,’ 2 of his ‘Lieder ohne Worte (Songs Without Words),’ & improvised wonderfully on Gluck’s beautiful chorus ‘Que de grâces, que de Majesté’ bringing in besides a song by his sister, which I often sing. He is such an agreeable, clever man & his countenance beams with intelligence & genius.”
Queen Victoria and Prince Albert sat “just ten steps away from Felix” at a Philharmonic concert directed by Mendelssohn on the 10th of June 1844. Mendelssohn was given many encores for his ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream’ music. It was during that month that the composer arranged seven of his ‘Lieder ohne Worte’ as piano duets for his royal friends to play together.
The Elijah Performance, 23rd of April, 1847
Queen Victoria and Prince Albert attended the second London performance at Exeter Hall of Mendelssohn’s oratorio ‘Elijah.’ Afterwards, the Prince sent Felix his own copy of his programme with the following inscription which he had personally written in German: “To the noble artist who, surrounded by the Baal-worship [a reference to the story of ‘Elijah’] of debased art, has been able, by his genius and science, to preserve faithfully, like another Elijah, the worship of true art, and once more to accustom our ear, amid the whirl of empty, frivolous sounds, to the pure tones of sympathetic feeling and legitimate harmony: to the Great Master, who makes us conscious of the unity of his conception, through the whole maze of his creation, from the soft whispering to the mighty raging of the elements. Inscribed in grateful remembrance by Albert. Buckingham Palace, 24 April 1847”
1st of May, 1847
Queen Victoria wrote on the 1st of May 1847 of what would be Mendelssohn’s last visit to Buckingham Palace: “We had the great treat of hearing Mendelssohn play, & he stayed an hour with us, playing some new compositions, with that indescribably beautiful touch of his. I also sang 3 of his songs, which seemed to please him. He is so amiable & clever. For some time he has been engaged in composing an Opera ['Lorelei'] & an Oratorio ['Christus'], but has lost courage about them. The subject for his Opera is a Rhine Legend, & that for the Oratorio, a very beautiful one, depicting Earth, Hell & Heaven, & he played one of the Choruses out of this to us, which was very fine.”
Afterwards, the Queen said to Mendelssohn: “You have given me so much pleasure; now what can I do to give you pleasure?” He replied that he would love to see the royal children playing in their nursery. As a father himself, he was very pleased to accompany the Queen, as she later reported, “all the while comparing notes with him on the homely subjects that had a special attraction for them both.”
Mendelssohn saw Albert for the last time on the 5th of May (1847) at a ‘Concert of Ancient Music’ organised by the Prince at the Hanover Square Rooms. The composer performed an organ prelude and fugue by Bach on an instrument the ‘Times’ described as “one of the worst in the metropolis.”
In response to the Prince’s gift of his inscribed ‘Elijah,’ programme notes, Mendelssohn made a special piano duet arrangement of his ‘Lieder ohne Worte’ in B flat major, Op. 85 No. 6, especially for Victoria and Albert to play, sent with a note of appreciation on the 8th of May 1847, the day of his departure from London.
Fanny, Mendelssohn’s sister with whom he had enjoyed an incredibly close relationship, died on the 14th of May, 1847. Felix collapsed on hearing the news. She had suffered a stroke whilst rehearsing her choir for a performance of her brother’s ‘Walpurgis Night and by evening was dead.
Mendelssohn died on the 4th of November 1847 of a series of strokes, aged just 38. Overworked and exhausted, he never recovered from the grief of losing his beloved sister Fanny. A mere six months after her death, he was buried next to her in the Trinity cemetery, Berlin. Two nations went into mourning. Queen Victoria recorded her personal grief in her diary on learning the news of his death:
“November 10, 1847…We were horrified, astounded and distressed to read in the papers of the death of Mendelssohn, the greatest musical genius since Mozart, & the most amiable man. He was quite worshipped by those who knew him intimately, & we have so much appreciated & admired his wonderfully beautiful compositions. We liked & esteemed the excellent man, & looked up to & revered, the wonderful genius, & the great mind, which I fear were too much for the frail delicate body. With it all he was so modest and simple…”
Three days later she wrote, “We read & played that beautiful ‘Lied ohne Worte,’ which poor Mendelssohn arranged & wrote out himself for us this year. To feel, when one is playing his beautiful music, that he is no more, seems incomprehensible!”
Victoria and Albert had built up an extraordinary relationship with Mendelssohn and her reaction to the news of his death goes some way to showing the depth of her feelings for him, as a musician and a friend. Later in her life, she would proudly exaggerate that Felix Mendelssohn had been her “singing teacher!”
In the third and final part, I would like to share with you the extraordinary attempts of Wagner and later the Nazis to stamp out the legacy of Mendelssohn!