Fragments Of An Autobiography Part 2

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In a later letter he announces himself as arriving in June, "ready to act as a G.o.dfather, to play, conduct, and even to be a genius."

He came, and I was duly christened Felix Stone Moscheles in St. Pancras Church. Barry Cornwall wrote some lines commemorative of the occasion.

Alluding to the date of my birth, he begins:--

1. (_February_).

Speak low! the days are dear, Sing load! _A child is born!_ Music, the maid, is watching near, To hide him in her bosom dear, From sights and sounds forlorn.

Happy be his infant days!

Happy be his after ways!

Happy manhood! Happy age!

Happy all his pilgrimage.

2. (_June_).

Breathe soft! the days grow mild, _The child hath gained a name!_ Now sweet maid, Music! whisper wild Thy blessings on the new-named child, And lead him straight to fame.

"_Felix_" should be "_happy_" ever, And his life be like a river, Sweetness, freshness, always bringing, And ever, ever, ever singing!

Well, the "sweet maid, Music" never led the new-named one "straight to fame," nor did the child ever get there by any circuitous route, but Felix was certainly "happy ever."

In this, my case, there certainly must have been something in a name, for my good G.o.dfather endowed me with my full share of happiness.

In later years Berlioz wrote that well-known line of Horace's in my alb.u.m:--

"Donec eris Felix, multos numerabis amicos."

(As long as you are happy you will number many friends.) And when I reflect how much friends.h.i.+p I have enjoyed from the day of my christening to the present hour, I feel certain that the name was of good augury, and that Horace and Mendelssohn were right.

If the complete orchestra was the first G.o.dfather's present, the little alb.u.m was the second. It measures only six inches by four, but that small compa.s.s holds much that is of interest. The book is full now; it required about half a century to cover its pages, for they contain only the autographs of such celebrities as were my personal friends.

Mendelssohn had appropriately inaugurated it with a composition, the "Wiegenlied" (slumber-song), now so popular.

There are also two drawings by him, one of 3 Chester Place, Regent's Park, and another of the Park close at hand. Mendelssohn must have sat out of doors to make these very faithful transcripts of nature, and I sometimes wonder how the street-boys of those days took it. Looking at those contributions, one cannot help being struck by the care which he bestowed on everything he did. His handwriting was always neat and clear, with just enough of flourish and swing to give it originality.

His musical ma.n.u.scripts vie in precision with the products of the engraver's art, and again there is a marked a.n.a.logy between his style of drawing and the way in which he forms the letters of the alphabet, or the notes of the scales. As one peruses his ma.n.u.scripts, one finds oneself admiring the artistic aspect of his well-balanced bars, and on the other hand, the harmonious treatment of his drawings recalls the appearance his pen gives to his scores. In the view he took of the Regent's Park, the leaves, so delicately and yet so firmly pencilled, seem to sway and rustle in unison with the sprightly melody of the scherzo in the "Midsummer-Night's Dream," and just as that melody is discreetly accompanied by the orchestra, so in the drawing, the houses, the old Colosseum in the background, and the trees in the middle-distance, are, one and all, made to keep their places, and deferentially to play second fiddle to the rustling leaves.

In due course of time, and after full enjoyment of the Slumber Song, I got out of my cradle and on to my legs, and it is from that stage in my development that I really date my recollections of my G.o.dfather. Some are hazy, others distinct. I am often surprised when I realise that he was short of stature; to me, the small boy, he appeared very tall. I looked upon him as my own special G.o.dfather, in whom I had a sort of vested interest, and I showed my annoyance when I was not allowed to monopolise him, or at least to remain near him. Being put to bed was at best a hateful process; how much more so, then, when I was just happily installed on my G.o.dfather's knee; occasions of that kind are connected in my mind with vociferous protests, followed by ignominious expulsion.

There were, however, happier times soon to follow, times which recall to me our exploits in the Park. He could throw my ball farther than anybody else; and he could run faster too, but then, to be sure, for all that, _I_ could catch him. There were pitched battles with s...o...b..a.l.l.s, and there was that memorable occasion when I got my first black eye. I remember it came straight from the bat, but--to tell the truth--I was never quite sure that Mendelssohn was in any way connected with that historical event, correctly located though it is, in the Regent's Park.

Our indoor sports must have been pretty lively too, for on one occasion my mother records how "in the evening Felix junior had such a tremendous romp with his G.o.dfather, that the whole house shook." And she adds: "One can scarcely realise that the man who would presently be improvising in his grandest style, was the Felix senior, the king of games and romps."

One of my achievements, when I was a little boy in a black velvet blouse, was the impersonation of what we called "the dead man"; the dying man would have been more correct. From my earliest days I evidently pitied the soldier dying a violent death on the battlefield.

Since then I have learnt to extend my commiseration to the tax-payer, and to the many innocent victims of a barbarous and iniquitous system.

Well, the dying man in the blouse was stretched full length--say some three feet--on the Brussels carpet. Mendelssohn or my father were at the piano improvising a running accompaniment to my performance, and between us we ill.u.s.trated musically and dramatically the throes and spasms of the expiring hero. I was much offended once, because they told me I acted just like a little monkey; I did not know then, but I am quite sure now, that behind my back they said in a very different tone, admiring and affectionate: "He is _such_ a little monkey."

That black velvet blouse I particularly remember, because John Horsley, now the veteran R. A., then but a rising artist, painted me in it; and also because Hensel, Mendelssohn's brother-in-law, made a sketch of it in my alb.u.m, at my particular request, representing me on horseback.

What honours that garment might not further have attained I do not know, had I not once for all checked its career by climbing over some freshly painted green railings in the Park, and thus irreparably spoiling it.

The dead-man improvisations remind me of the marvellous way in which my father and G.o.dfather would improvise together, playing _a quatre mains_, or alternately, and pouring forth a never-failing stream of musical ideas. I have spoken of it before, but it was in a preface, and who reads a preface? So I may perhaps once more be allowed to describe it. A subject started, it was caught up as if it were a shuttlec.o.c.k; now one of the players would seem to toss it up on high, or to keep it balanced in mid-octaves with delicate touch. Then the other would take it in hand, start it on cla.s.sical lines, and develop it with profound erudition, until perhaps the two joining together in new and brilliant forms, would triumphantly carry it off to other spheres of sound. Four hands there might be, but only one soul, so it seemed, as they would catch with lightning speed at each other's ideas, each trying to introduce subjects from the works of the other.

It was exciting to watch how the amicable contest would wax hot, culminating occasionally in an outburst of merriment, when some conflicting harmonies met in terrible collision. I see Mendelssohn's air of triumph when he had succeeded in twisting a subject from a composition of his own into a Moscheles theme, while the latter was obliged to second him in the ba.s.s. But not for long. "Stop a minute,"

said the next few chords that my father struck. "There I have you, you have taken the bait." Soon they would be again fraternising in perfect harmonies, gradually leading up to the brilliant finale that sounded as if it had been so written, revised and corrected, and were now being interpreted from the score by two masters.

Besides my G.o.dfather there were many of my father's friends who were kindly disposed towards me. Malibran is one of those I a.s.sociate with my earliest days. Perhaps I remember her, perhaps I but fancy I do, for I was only three or four years old when she died. But I have impressions of her sitting on the floor and painting pretty pictures for us children; a certain black silk bag, from the depths of which she produced paint-box, brushes, and other beautiful and mysterious things, had an irresistible charm for us, as had also her big dark eyes, and that wonderful mouth of hers, which she showed us could easily hold an orange. And then she would sing to us Spanish songs by her father, Manuel Garcia, and other celebrities. In my alb.u.m she wrote, "Nei giorni tuoi felici ricordati di Marie de Beriot," and the flourish appended to the signature takes the shape of an apocryphal bird. For my father's alb.u.m, one of the completest of its kind, she composed an Allegretto, a song which I believe has never been published.

The words, probably by herself, run thus:--

"Il est parti sans voir sa fiancee Lorsque le bal etait pret a s'ouvrir; Si pour une autre il m'avait delaissee, Malheur a moi, je n'ai plus qu'a mourir."

It is dated July 16, 1836: she died on the 23rd of September following.

Thalberg was also a children's man. He was not much of a romp, but always full of jokes, musical and otherwise. Interested as I was in the outward appearance of my home pianists, I was duly impressed by Thalberg's rigid appearance at the piano, contrasting as it did with the lively ways of Liszt and others. He had trained himself to this truly military bearing by practising his most difficult pa.s.sages whilst he smoked a long Turkish chibouk, the cup of which rested on the ground.

Another source of wonder, not unmixed with awe, was the bulky frame of Lablache, the great singer. It was indeed a profondo which emerged from the depths of his ponderous figure. The beauty of his voice, the perfection of his style, and his unconventional deportment on the stage, I learnt to appreciate in later years. I particularly recollect him as Bartolo in Rossini's "Barbiere," on an occasion when Sontag and Mario took the other leading parts. As a small boy I just liked to walk round him, and thought the hackney-coach driver, as they called the cabby then, was not far wrong when he inquired whether his fare expected to be conveyed in one lot.

One of the friends of those early days was Dante Gabriel Rossetti. His father was giving my elder sisters Italian lessons, and that led to most friendly intercourse with him and his two sons. I mention Gabriel's name with a twinge of regret, for the chief records of that intercourse, a number of drawings by his hand, are irretrievably lost. There were--I see them still--knights in armour, fair ladies, and graceful pages, bold pen-and-ink drawings, ill.u.s.trating a story that ran through several numbers of our own special paper the "Weekly Critic." What, or by whom the story was, I do not recollect, probably by Chorley, who was a frequent contributor to that weekly publication of ours. The drawings in no way foreshadowed Gabriel's later manner; they were just what an imaginative young fellow of seventeen or eighteen would draw, but I feel sure there were no beautiful peculiarities or other poetical deviations from the natural in this his early work. I often wonder where the "Weekly Critic" is in hiding. If this should meet the eye of anybody who knows, I trust he will come forward and receive my blessing in exchange for the drawings which we will give to an expectant world.

When I was about twelve I made my first appearance on the stage under peculiar circ.u.mstances. My father had announced a concert in Baden, where we were spending the summer, he the centre of a musical circle, I a schoolboy enjoying my holidays, and specially devoted to the climbing of trees and the picking of blackberries. The impresario of the Court Theatre in Carlsruhe (he seemed to me a sort of Grand Mogul) had graciously permitted the stars of his Opera to sing at that concert of my father's. At the eleventh hour, however, there was a hitch, and the stars were needed to s.h.i.+ne on their own Grand-Ducal boards. In the hope that matters might yet be settled in his favour, my father sent me to him with urgent messages. On my arrival I made straight for the theatre, and entering by an unguarded back door, I soon found myself in a maze of dark pa.s.sages. The sounds of music guided me to the stage, where a rehearsal of the "Vier Haymons-Kinder" was going on, and from the wings I found my way into a rustic arbour destined for the trysting-place of the lovers in the particular scene which was being rehea.r.s.ed; there I was biding my time when I was discovered by the lady who had come to meet the tenor. The performance was abruptly stopped; the lady was no other than the great prima donna and our old friend Madame Haizinger.

Rus.h.i.+ng at me with a cry of dramatic exultation, she seized me and carried me triumphantly on to the middle of the stage. "Here," she cried, holding me up to the a.s.sembled company, my arms and legs dangling in mid-air--"here, ladies and gentlemen, you see Felix, the son of my old friend Moscheles." The Grand Mogul sat at a table covered with papers to my left, and happily looked upon the interruption and the rapturous outburst as nothing uncommon. As soon as I was replaced on my feet, I delivered my messages, but my influence as a diplomatic agent was not proof against untoward circ.u.mstances, and I failed in my mission.

That same Court Theatre was destined soon to become the prey of flames; it was the scene of a terrible catastrophe when many lives were lost.

I was soon to see more of Carlsruhe. Chiefly with a view to improving my German, I was put to school there. Now Carlsruhe was in those days one of the dullest places rational man ever condescended to inhabit. I think it was Heine who said that the dogs came up to you in the street and begged as a favour that you would tread on their toes, just to relieve them of the intolerable monotony of their lives. How it is to-day I don't know; probably they now have music-halls and motor cars, jingoes and pickpockets, but in my time all was slow, sure, and safe. The Grand-Duke sat in his palace like a royal spider in his web; all the streets radiated fan-like from the centre he occupied. In the forest, at the back of the palace, the avenues were cut out so as to form a counterpart to the city, one and all converging towards the abode of the Ruler. A fine s.p.a.cious market-place there was, however, with a town-hall and a church and a monument to a departed Markgraf, round which cl.u.s.tered on certain days quaint old apple-women whom we school-boys patronised to the fullest extent of our limited means. We were close at hand, for the "Gymnasium" was happily situated in this most attractive part of the town. For all that, it took me some time before I could get accustomed to my new home.

Professor Schummelig, to whose care I was entrusted, was good in his way; I give him a fict.i.tious name, as I have to record that he could also be bad in his way. I don't think he made my lessons more tedious or my tasks more irksome than any other ordinary German professor would have done; but he was pedantic and I was imaginative, so we did not always give one another satisfaction. We had one or two grand rows, in which the wrongs cannot have been all on my side, for, as soon as convenient, he granted me a free pardon, in consideration of which I was required not to mention the unpleasant incident in my letters to my parents (my father paid a hundred florins per quarter). I acquiesced, and so we were soon on good terms again.

But I always felt he was an egoist. He would carve the daily little piece of boiled beef just so as to give himself the particular portion which I coveted. The bread, too, was under his control: he would never take much of it at a time, but he would just cut himself little t.i.tbits, crisp corners, and knotty excrescences, until the loaf took the appearance of a dismantled wreck. He also squinted, not with that broad outside squint, ever ready to see both sides, to embrace all things, but with a narrow selfish inside squint which slid down his nose, and from there watched the focussing and absorption of the t.i.tbits with keen interest and an irritating show of gratified tastes.

And not only was the professor's field of vision thus distressingly limited, but there was also some moral obliquity in his composition. He mistook certain piles of fire-logs, which had been stocked for the use of the public school, for his own private property. When this was discovered, the authorities, happily for the professor, winked at his delinquencies with an eye to avoiding a scandal--a course they might be well justified in taking, as Justice herself is admitted to be blind.

There were two female servants to minister to our wants--two female drudges, I should say. In lieu of their real names they had been dubbed "Die grosse Biene" and "Die kleine Biene"--the great bee and the little bee--with a view, I suppose, to encouraging them in the delusion that they were not born white slaves, one large and the other small, but busy bees whose nature it was to improve the s.h.i.+ning hour, whether it shone by the light of the day or the oil of the night.

The German language, as spoken in the Fatherland, its irregularities, vagaries, and varieties, gave me much trouble. In Hamburg I had learnt to p.r.o.nounce the words "stehen" and "stossen" with a sharp and incisive _st_; in the south, all the stiffness and stubbornness was taken out of it, and I had to say "schtehe" and "schtosse." Then the words themselves changed, and "laufen" stood for "gehen," "springen" for "laufen." This surprised me, as I did not know then that the Southerner generally calls running what the Northerner calls walking.

t.i.tles, too, puzzled me, especially when applied to ladies. The first time I heard the "Frau Professorin" mentioned, I looked so blank, not to say shocked, that I evoked general mirth. (It is surprising how well one remembers the occasions when one was laughed at.) But the "Frau Professorin" seemed a strange creature to me in those days, and I little thought that for many a year I was to hear my own mother called by that t.i.tle.

I had my first skirmishes with the French language too, and I certainly thought I was being made a fool of when I was told there was no word in French for our verb, "to stand." I had learnt the German "stehen" and the ditto "schtehe," and I had conjugated every tense of the Latin "stare," and now I refused to believe that the French language could have a _locus standi_ amongst civilised nations without an equivalent for those words. I did not know then how much civilisation can put up with, and it took me a long while to overcome my mistrust of a language so evidently unsound at its base.

We all know to what wearisome length an average schoolmaster can draw out a single hour, and my teachers were no exception to the rule. Time went slowly, as did all things fifty years ago in Carlsruhe.

What a blessed relief it was then when a holiday came round! Perhaps it was when we were liberated in honour of our glorious Grand-Duke's birthday, perhaps when we were to join in the commemoration of some great deed or greater misdeed of one of his ancestors, or perhaps--best of all--when once or twice Mother Earth was clad in so much loveliness, that it was just impossible to keep masters and boys indoors, dissecting dead languages and putting historical bones together. Nature herself seemed to proclaim a free pardon for us prisoners and for our warders: off we went all together to the woods.

How we ran and shouted when we got into those avenues of trees behind the Grand-Ducal Palace, how madly we raced, how heroically we fought the boys we hated, and how solemnly we swore eternal friends.h.i.+p with the ones we loved! We climbed trees, cut sticks, and did what little harm we could to exuberant prolific Nature; we chased b.u.t.terflies and deprived spiders of their legitimate prey, and then--selfish little lords of creation that we were--we settled down where the gra.s.s grew thickest, to discuss large haunches of bread and red-cheeked apples, and to crack nuts and jokes in true schoolboy fas.h.i.+on.

The masters forgot for the while that they were German professors, with spectacles on their noses and Latin quotations on their lips. They were just human, and felt themselves as much at home in the woods as we did, gratefully inhaling the same balmy air, and greedily swallowing the same glittering dust. They knew something, too, to tell us about G.o.d's creation, and in those blessed hours taught us wonderful and beautiful things that stirred our little souls, and made us glad to live and wonder and wors.h.i.+p.

Oscar--I have forgotten his surname--was not a professor, and did not even wear spectacles, but he was a sort of monitor, had long silky eyelashes, and he certainly was in love. He never told me so, but I am sure he was, and remembering him and his eyelashes as I do, I can easily reconstruct the simple story of his love. She was a Gretchen, a sweet German maiden, blue-eyed and golden-haired. They first met at a Kranzchen where their feet waltzed to the same step and their hearts beat to the same tune. Then on two ever-to-be-remembered Sunday afternoons they took coffee together in the "Restauration zum blauen Stern," and on the second occasion, as they were going home through the pine-woods, he said something to her she had never heard before; her answer was inaudible, but I know she left her hand where he wanted it to remain, and the good old moon did the rest. They soon received the paternal and maternal blessings, and now they were happy in the knowledge that in six or eight years nothing would stand between them and their fondest hopes, when he probably would have pa.s.sed his examinations and have secured his first appointment.

Fragments Of An Autobiography Part 2

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