Book review: The Soul of the Journey, by Diana Ambache

This account of Felix and Fanny Mendelssohn’s travels around Europe sheds fascinating new light on some of their greatest works, writes Stuart Kelly

Diana Ambache

Although, as you might very well expect, literature in all its forms is my first love, I have always had a keen interest in other art forms. During the lockdowns, it was a pity not to be able to go to galleries; and looking at portraits and sculptures online is a paltry substitute. When I was in hospital, I seriously considered making a legal complaint that the lack of Radio 3 constituted a breach of my human rights. My daily routine is comprised of reading while listening to classical music from dawn till noon, so this book was a unique pleasure. Subtitled “The Mendelssohns in Scotland and Italy”, it is written by a pianist, author and musicologist. But it is very much more than a dry academic tome.

Felix Mendelssohn came to Scotland in 1829, and two recognisable pieces are the result of that: the Hebrides Overture and the Third (“Scottish”) Symphony. Although he also travelled to Italy, and ever-so-slightly hectored his sister about what to see, do and eat (ham and broccoli salad, anyone?) her trip in 1839-40 also led, more askance-wise, to major productions. Ambache has a noted interest in the recovery of female composers, and her work on Fanny Mendelssohn is the most fascinating part of this book.

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The reason for the book being such a joy is that the Mendelssohns were not just composers and performers. They were interested in the arts, and the beautiful illustrations here show what an accomplished draughtsman Felix Mendelssohn was, with images of Arthur’s Seat, Killiecrankie, the Falls of Braan and Birnam Wood, which are remarkably precise. Oddly, there is no drawing by him of Fingal’s Cave at Staffa, the alternate title of the Hebrides Overture. Given how seasick he was getting there, this is perhaps unsurprising. What is surprising is that he started the piece before getting to Staffa. In its misty opening it was more about the idea of Scotland, drawn from the Ossianic poems and the work of Walter Scott, than an actual encounter.

The Soul of the Journey, by Diana Ambache

It has always struck me as slightly ironic that Scotland did not produce much music in the classical or Romantic form in the 19th century, when so many European composers were besotted with Scottish soundscapes, from Berlioz to Donizetti and Verdi, even to Beethoven, who produced so many songs and flute sonatas in the Scottish style, despite not particularly liking the flute. Even today, audiences will recognise Peter Maxwell Davies as sounding Scottish, despite being born in Salford.

Most readers of this will know the pieces inspired by Scotland, but Ambache is a good guide to the technical aspects of each. My decayed musical knowledge is still enough to be able to parse through the notes on key changes and cadences, however, even if you didn’t have to pick out Fūr Elise on the piano, it will make you listen to the works more attentively. As well as the visual material and the expertise about the actual compositions – and it is useful to know that for Mendelssohn the works were in a state of constant revision – there is an appendix with the letters between Felix and Fanny. I had not read these before and there is a sprightly, teasing, sharp-eyed quality to their prose. Mendelssohn might not rank with Boswell and Johnson but the small details of wooden shoes, an innkeeper’s wife singing a lullaby in a minor key and “incomprehensible Gaelic” give a vividness to the prose. The siblings are gloriously bitchy about the singing in the Vatican and the noise of Italian bagpipes (“the most horrid music ever produced by human lungs and goat skin”).

The real revelation here is in the detail about Fanny Mendelssohn’s sequence Das Jahr. Although she was acknowledged as a bravura performer and an ingenious programmer of musical evenings, sharing her brother’s love of Bach and Beethoven, and introducing German music to Italy, she was still somewhat sidelined. A male, fellow musician noted “she would frighten people with her cleverness”, and Felix only reluctantly encouraged her to publish her work.

Das Jahr is a complex work. In some ways it is a conundrum. We have, of course, the music. But the score is a thing apart. It has 12 pieces and a finale, covering the months of the year. Moreover, each has a epigram from the great German writers, such as Goethe, Schiller and Luther. Even more, the manuscript was illustrated by her husband Wilhelm Hensel, which adds another layer of interpretation. More even than that, she selected different coloured papers for each of the pieces. In uniting music, text and visual art, the thing itself is an out-of-time multimedia creation.

There is a great deal to enjoy here, though it may be a niche interest. What it did do was make me listen carefully to Das Jahr, which is a truly wonderful piece of work. Anything that makes a reader think again and anew is of value as well as virtue.

The Soul of the Journey, by Diana Ambache, Birlinn, £14.99

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