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Marvelous Musical Memory

When Mendelssohn played on the piano or the organ, the listener felt the great musician and composer in every bar. The man’s musical memory was marvelous. Sir Charles Halle, who, in 1843, spent several weeks with Mendelssohn at Frankfort, describes, in his “Autobiography,” three instances of the composer’s memory. He writes:

“The greatest treat was to sit with him at the piano and listen to innumerable fragments from half forgotten, beautiful works of Cherubini, Gluck, Bach, Palestrina, and Marcello. It was only necessary to mention one of them to hear it played to perfection, until I came to the conclusion that he knew every bar of music ever written, and, what was more, could produce it immediately.

“One morning Hiller and I were playing together one of Bach’s organ pieces on the piano—one of no particular interest, but which we wished to know better. When we were in the middle of it—a part hardly to be distinguished from many similar ones—the door opened, Mendelssohn entered, and, without interrupting us, rose on tiptoes, and with his uplifted finger pointed significantly at the next bar which was coming and contained an unexpected and striking modulation.

“So, from hearing through the door a bar or two of a—for Bach—somewhat commonplace piece, he not only recognized it at once, but he knew the exact place we had arrived at, and what was to follow in the next bar. His memory was prodigious and his knowledge intimate.

“It is well known that when he revived Bach’s ‘Passion Music’ and conducted the first performance, he found, on stepping to the conductor’s desk, that a score similar in binding and thickness, but of another work, had been brought by mistake. He conducted this amazingly complicated work by heart, turning leaf after leaf of the book he had before him in order not to create any feeling of uneasiness on the part of the musicians and singers.”

 

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You are reading Marvelous Musical Memory from the July, 1898 issue of The Etude Magazine.

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