Mendelssohn on Creative Integrity, the Refusal to Sell Out, and the Measure of Artistic Satisfaction
“When I have composed a piece just as it sprang from my heart, then I have done my duty towards it; and whether it brings hereafter fame, honor, decorations, or snuff-boxes, etc., is a matter of indifference to me.”
By Maria Popova
The German composer, pianist, and conductor Felix Mendelssohn (February 3, 1809–November 4, 1847) performed his first public concert at the age of 9. Upon meeting the 12-year-old musical prodigy, Goethe compared him to Mozart and gasped, “What this little man can do in extemporizing and playing at sight borders the miraculous, and I could not have believed it possible at so early an age.” At twenty, Mendelssohn arranged and performed a forgotten Bach piece, the manuscript of which his grandmother had given him four years earlier. The performance was an astonishing success, became instrumental in the revival of Bach’s music throughout Europe, and catalyzed Mendelssohn’s career and his extensive travels across the continent.
Although anti-Semitism and a fickle popular taste prevented Mendelssohn from reaching success commensurate with his brilliance during his lifetime, history’s hindsight conferred upon him recognition as a true creative genius. His music influenced generations of composers and nursed Oliver Sacks back to life. The wellspring of its singular power was Mendelssohn’s unflinching creative integrity — throughout his life, he maintained an ethos of writing only for his own pleasure, only from his heart, and never for the sake of pleasing the public or the critics.
In an 1831 letter to his friend and mentor Eduard Devrient, found in Letters of Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy from Italy and Switzerland (free ebook | public library), young Mendelssohn articulates this uncommonly heartening artistic integrity:
You reproach me with being two-and-twenty without having yet acquired fame. To this I can only reply, had it been the will of Providence that I should be renowned at the age of two-and-twenty, I no doubt should have been so. I cannot help it, for I no more write to gain a name, than to obtain a Kapellmeister’s place. It would be a good thing if I could secure both. But so long as I do not actually starve, so long is it my duty to write only as I feel, and according to what is in my heart, and to leave the results to Him who disposes of other and greater matters. Every day, however, I am more sincerely anxious to write exactly as I feel, and to have even less regard than ever to external views; and when I have composed a piece just as it sprang from my heart, then I have done my duty towards it; and whether it brings hereafter fame, honor, decorations, or snuff-boxes, etc., is a matter of indifference to me.
He illustrates this credo with an example from his recent work, a musical adaptation of Goethe:
I have written a grand piece of music which will probably impress the public at large [but] I began it simply because it pleased me, and inspired me with fervor, and never thought that it was to be performed… I have hitherto found that the pieces I have composed with least reference to the public are precisely those which gave them the greatest satisfaction.
He goes even further in his creative idealism, noting that simply having his heart into a piece isn’t enough to give it merit — he must also refine the craft through which he channels that raw passion:
Every day I feel more eager to write an opera. I think that it may become something fresh and spirited, if I begin it now; but I have got no words yet, and I assuredly never will write music for any poetry that does not inspire me with enthusiasm.
Mendelssohn applies the same ethos to choosing his collaborators:
I am now going to Munich, where they have offered me an opera, to see if I can find a man there who is a poet, for I will only have a man who has a certain portion of fire and genius.
Complement this particular portion of Letters of Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy from Italy and Switzerland with children’s literature patron saint Ursula Nordstrom on creative integrity in the face of commercialism and William James on choosing purpose over profit.
Published February 3, 2016