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Bernese Oberland shows off Mendelssohn's hidden talents

Felix Mendelssohn's sketch of Unterseen in his travel correspondance


A new exhibition in canton Bern shows that Felix Mendelssohn, one of the most famous composers of the nineteenth century, wasn't only a musical genius, but also an accomplished artist.

During his travels in the days before postcards, Mendelssohn sketched hundreds of scenes in Switzerland, Italy, England and Scotland. A handful of the Swiss sketches, which capture views of his favourite haunts around Interlaken, Lake Geneva and the Bernese Oberland, are displayed in the hamlet of Ried, above Wilderswil, in canton Bern.

The pencil sketches show the composer's distinctive style, which differed from the romantic paintings in vogue at the time.

"He had a very naturalistic style," says Thomas Wach, Mendelssohn's great grandson, "He obviously had a great eye for detail, he was very particular."

The black and white sketches enabled the composer to catalogue his Swiss adventures and share his experiences with his family and friends back home in Germany. Many of the pictures were attached to letters or sketched amid his written words.

One letter shows a sketch of Unterseen, where Mendelssohn stayed after being turned away from his favourite hotel in Interlaken.

"He was travelling alone and he was caught in very bad weather, there were floods," says Wach, "He wanted to stay at the Interlakenerhof and he must have looked very scruffy because they said no to him. They must have thought he was a vagabond or something because they sent him away."

High profile guest

During his short lifetime, Mendelssohn returned to Switzerland four times and each time he stayed at the Interlaken hotel. He was such a high profile guest that there's a plaque on the side of the building saying he stayed there. Other famous guests include the romantic writer, Lord Byron.

Mendelssohn first came to the country with his parents when he was 13. One of the earliest sketches in the exhibition is of Lausanne's cathedral, which he drew during that trip. It is drawn with surprising accuracy for such a young artist.

"His technique is obviously not that developed," Wach explains, " but he drew the cathedral's spire and then measured the distance again and noticed that it wasn't quite right and so he moved it a quarter of an inch to the right. This is typical of him, everything had to be absolutely accurate."

The sketches are housed in an airy room behind the Wach family home in Ried, a traditional Swiss chalet built by Mendelssohn's son-in-law in 1881. The Wach family married into the Mendelssohn family and the chalet was built more than thirty years after the composer's death. Although Mendelssohn never saw its idyllic location, Wach believes he would have found the setting inspirational.

"He probably would have made a sketch or a painting of it," says Wach, "He may have composed something, possibly a "Song without Words"."

Larger collection of watercolours

The exhibition shows around ten of Mendelssohn's sketches, leaving the display with "a less is more" kind of feel. The composer's pictures do however share wall space with a larger collection of watercolours by Marie and Margita Wach, members of the extended Mendelssohn family.

"We always used to say that the musical talent hasn't really been passed on to his descendents," says Wach. "But what has been passed on at least to some of his descendents is his talent for drawing and painting."

The exhibition in Ried runs until September 14, and is open between 14.30 and 17.00 on Monday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday.

by Sally Mules

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