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Mendelssohn composes a Swiss legacy

Felix Mendelssohn was a great admirer of Switzerland Keystone

The great German composer Felix Mendelssohn, whose 200th birthday is being marked this year, drew much inspiration from Switzerland's dramatic alpine landscape.

His beloved mountains later became a refuge for the next generations of his family as they fled Nazi Germany, saving many of the composer’s precious musical works for posterity.

Mendelssohn was born in Hamburg on February 3, 1809 into a wealthy and accomplished Jewish family. The Mendelssohns were later baptised as Christians, adding the name Bartholdy.

The young Felix showed musical promise from an early age – his contemporary Schumann even called him the Mozart of the 19th century – and was writing music in his early teens.

By the time he died aged 38, he had composed more than 400 pieces. Among the most famous are his Overture to a Midsummer Night’s Dream, from which many brides will know the Wedding March, and the Italian and Scottish symphonies.

Less well known perhaps are his Swiss symphonies, two pieces of music composed at the tender age of 14 following a family sightseeing trip to Lucerne and the Bernese Oberland.

The works feature two Swiss folk music melodies, which Mendelssohn collected during his trip, including a dance tune from the Emmental.

Yodelling fascination

“He was fascinated by yodelling,” Ernst Lichtenhahn, an emeritus professor of music at Zurich University, told swissinfo.

“He once wrote in a letter that this kind of singing was rough and disagreeable when executed in a room, but outdoors, answered by the echo of the mountains, it was beautiful and really part of the Swiss landscape.”

The composer visited Switzerland a further three times, and was an accomplished mountaineer. The scenery around Interlaken, then a small village, was a particular favourite, with Mendelssohn writing in 1842 that it was “the finest of all in this unbelievably beautiful country”.

Another Swiss connection was to be found through his wife. Cécile Jeanrenaud’s father, a Protestant clergyman in Frankfurt, was of Swiss origin, with roots in Neuchâtel.

For Mendelssohn, who was an extremely busy man – he worked in Leipzig and Berlin and made many trips to Britain – the Alps came to represent time away from the musical world.

A talented painter, he devoted many hours to detailed sketches of the Swiss landscape, even on occasion, as is recorded in a letter, working until his fingers and eyes were aching.


He last visited the Interlaken area in 1847, shortly after the death of his beloved sister Fanny, an accomplished musician in her own right. While there he painted a series of 13 watercolours.

“He was looking for quietness and solace and we have very touching testimonies of his sorrow,” explained Lichtenhahn.

“On the one hand it is in his last string quartet, the Opus 80, and on the other, in the three drawings made of the Rhine Falls near Schaffhausen, in which he tries to show the perturbation of the water, representing his own inner perturbations.”

It was to be his last visit. Mendelssohn died shortly afterwards from a series of strokes. He had five children.

Next generations

It was one of his daughters, Elisabeth, known as Lili, who carried on the Swiss connection. She married Adolf Wach, a Leipzig law professor, and the family often spent summer holidays in the Interlaken area.

Lili’s husband bought a plot of land above the village of Wilderswil, building a chalet there.

The Ried, as it became known, is still in the Wach-Mendelssohn family. The present owner is Thomas Wach, Mendelssohn’s great grandson, a retired lawyer who lives near Zurich.

Wach said that many great musical names of the time, family acquaintances, came to the Ried.

“Clara Schumann even played on the piano which is in the concert hall,” Wach told swissinfo.

Nazi times

Mendelssohn’s Jewish background had already resulted in some discrimination during the 19th century. Under the Nazi regime 100 years later, his works were banned and his statue in Leipzig was pulled down.

Many of the composer’s descendents fled the country. Adolf Wach, Thomas Wach’s father and son of Lili, came to Zurich. His sister Marie went to the Ried.

“She took along a lot of the Mendelssohn memorabilia, including his famous 13 Swiss watercolours and some letters, and probably saved them from destruction by the Nazi regime,” said Wach.

When Marie died in 1964, it was decided to give the collection to museums in Berlin and Oxford.

“We felt we had a responsibility towards posterity and you can’t keep these things under lock and key,” said Wach.

In 1997 the family founded what is now called the “Mendelssohn Association Switzerland, in memorium Lili Wach Mendelssohn”, which organises concerts at the Ried.

Mendelssohn’s legacy

The post-war years saw Mendelssohn slowly regain his reputation, driven largely by the efforts of people in Leipzig, where the composer conducted the Gewandhaus Orchestra and founded the city’s music Conservatory.

Last October Wach and his wife Prem travelled to the eastern German city to witness the unveiling of an exact copy of the statue destroyed by the Nazis.

“My hope is that with the 200th anniversary Mendelssohn will get the place he deserves in musical history,” said Wach.

For Lichtenhahn, Mendelssohn should be remembered as an “extremely gifted composer”.

Although influenced by Mozart and Beethoven – he also rediscovered Bach and Handel – his own work was “always in his own language”, said the academic.

Mendelssohn’s music, he adds, should not be considered superficial – a criticism that has been levelled at the German composer in the past. Careful listening reveals its qualities.

“It should also not be played too fast, but that’s also an issue for conductors and artists. They have to find a new Mendelssohn image,” he said.

swissinfo, Isobel Leybold-Johnson in Zurich

The Mendelssohn Association Switzerland, which has around 150 members, is helping to organise several events to mark the 200th anniversary, including four musical concerts from May to September.

The Zurich Festival, June 19-July 12, will also be celebrating the composer with performances of several works and a symposium.

An exhibition of Mendelssohn’s watercolours will be held in Wengen from August 3-28, in the Bernese Oberland. Wengen, which has its own memorial to Mendelssohn, is also holding its annual Mendelssohn Music Week from August 15-22.

“Felix”, an exhibition at the Berlin State Library-Prussian Cultural Heritage from January 30-March 14, includes some of Mendelssohn’s Swiss watercolours.

Mendelssohn was 14 years old when he composed Symphony for the strings no.9 in C and Symphony for the strings no.11 in F – the Swiss Symphonies.

The third movement of the no.9 is called Switzerland and is reminiscent of mountain echoes and includes an alpine yodel.

The Scherzo from no.11 uses percussion. It is named “Commodo Swiss song” and again uses a Swiss folk melody, this time a wedding march from the Emmental region.

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