When Felix Mendelssohn met Queen Victoria

FIRST ENCOUNTERS

One had to be careful, Victoria and Albert agreed, about foreign musicians. Many of them drank and were involved with women. But this Mendelssohn was a gentleman and a family man, always invited to the best houses when he came to England. At 33, he was only ten years older than they were. They often sang duets from one of his song collections, and had heard that he played superbly; his Jewish ancestry seemed hardly to matter - really, not at all. When he played the organ at St Paul's, all London went to listen. Albert played the organ, too. Music was, Victoria said - after herself and the children, of course - his greatest love.

So Felix was invited to Buckingham Palace, after dinner, one June evening in 1842. Victoria and Albert were almost fluttery with anticipation. They accompanied the composer to the piano and listened with rapt attention as he played selections from his Songs Without Words. When he asked them for a theme to improvise on, they enthusiastically offered two, and the queen much admired his rendition of the Austrian national anthem with the right hand and "Rule, Britannia" with the left. "Really I have never heard anything so beautiful," she wrote in her diary, adding, "Poor Mendelssohn was quite exhausted when he had done playing."

Needless to say, he was asked back. Albert wanted Felix to try his organ, and Victoria wanted what Albert wanted, so there was Mendelssohn, on a Saturday afternoon, at Buckingham Palace again. The prince explained the organ registers and played a chorale. Felix followed with the chorus from St Paul, the three of them singing along and Albert pulling the stops. Next they trooped to the queen's salon, where, at the piano, Victoria sang "Italien". Except that she sang D sharp where it should have been natural, as Mendelssohn later reported, and natural where it should have been sharp, she performed "most charmingly". In fact, he said, "the only really nice, comfortable house in England... where one feels completely at home, is Buckingham Palace"

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