On Sunday, I heard a great performance of the Mendelssohn F minor string quartet in a concert in Palm Beach by the St. Lawrence String Quartet, and besides the musical excellence of what I heard, I also thought about the two other 200th-birthday boys: Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin.
Mendelssohn’s last string quartet was written in the summer of 1847, three months after the death of his sister Fanny and four months before he died after a series of strokes. The Mendelssohns had a history of fatal strokes in the family, and it’s likely Felix, Fanny (as well as their father, Abraham, and grandfather, Moses) died of what was an inherited condition.
The quartet is a great piece, and I remember on hearing the six mature quartets of Mendelssohn how astonished I was at how good these pieces are. I’m happy to be hearing them more often this year, but this last one is particularly remarkable, and it’s worth thinking about where that might have led him had he lived past 38.
I mentioned this idea in an earlier post when I talked about Lincoln, but after the concert I started thinking about the same question from the vantage point of Mendelssohn: What were Lincoln and Darwin doing at this point? Lincoln and Darwin were both born on Feb. 12, 1809; Mendelssohn was born nine days earlier.
If Lincoln and Darwin had the exact same lifespan as Mendelssohn, they would have died in mid-November of 1847, and their legacies would have been profoundly different.
Lincoln was in Washington, waiting to take his seat in the 30th Congress, which assembled in December 1847 for its first session. The former four-term state legislator had been elected on the Whig ticket, and remained a loyal party man during his sole Congressional term, working hard in 1848 to get out the vote for Zachary Taylor.
But in November 1847, he was living in a Washington boarding house with his family and other Congressmen-elect, and had made only a limited impact on the national stage. Only historians would have heard of him had he departed the scene when Mendelssohn did.
Charles Darwin was living in Kent, in the house he had moved to a few years earlier., and was working on barnacles, the study of which helped buttress the opinions he had laid out in an 1844 sketch for a paper that would form the basis on which he would build On the Origin of Species, published in 1859.
Darwin had written a note to his wife in 1844, essentially staking the claim for the species theory, and instructing her to get it published if he were to die. But he was not ready to publish, and it took him the barnacles study plus a painstaking review of his work aboard the HMS Beagle, not to mention pressure from the work of Alfred Wallace, who had independently arrived at the same conclusion.
Had he died in November 1847, certainly historians of science would have given him credit for the 1844 paper as well as his Beagle memoir, and he would be recognized as an early proponent of a theory that perhaps would now be associated with Alfred Wallace instead. But again, the world at large would not have heard of Charles Darwin.
As it happened, the world is familiar with the work of all three men, and for me, it says something about the essential unpredictability of life and the part that luck plays in it. And it also says that while Mendelssohn’s life was far too short, he was in those 38 years granted to him to leave a large body of great work that secured his posthumous legacy.
It is certainly easier with an art like music to make a strong impression early in life and leave something of your time on the earth for future generations; the history of music is full of short lives that contained tremendous accomplishments. But it’s often been noted that even someone like Mozart, who lived an even shorter life (only 35 years), was a late bloomer artistically, and what he could have done had he lived as long as Beethoven (56 years, which would have meant Mozart dying in 1812) remains a tantalizing what-if that music lovers like me can’t resist speculating about.
The most important thing to do is celebrate the life and music of Mendelssohn as it was and is, and appreciate a masterpiece like the F minor quartet without asking for more. Still, it’s worth remarking that had Mendlessohn lived as long as Darwin, he would have died in April 1882 — just a couple months before the birth of Igor Stravinsky.
Reviews: Here are some other recent reviews (all positive, as it turns out) I’ve done of violinist Yi-Jia Susanne Hou, the Mozart Piano Quartet and the Palm Beach Symphony. The season’s in full swing here, and it’s only going to get busier next month.