The Dead And The Deaf - Mendelssohn The Composer
( Originally Published 1889 )
It is now a luxury to breathe. These spring days are the perfection of delightful weather. Imagine the delicious temperature of our Indian summer joined to the life and freshness of spring, add to this a sky of the purest azure, and a breeze filled with the odor of violets,-the most exquisite of all perfumes-and you have some idea of it. The meadows are beginning to bloom, and I have already heard the larks singing high up in the sky. Those sacred birds, the storks, have returned and taken possession of their old nests on the chimney-tops; they are sometimes seen walking about in the fields, with a very grave and serious air, as if conscious of the estimation in which they are held. Every-body is out in the open air; the woods, although they still look wintry, are filled with people, and the boatmen on the Main are busy ferrying gay parties across. The spring has been so long in coming, that all are determined to enjoy it well, while it lasts.
We visited the cemetery a few days ago. The dead-house, where corpses are placed in the hope of resuscitation, is an appendage to cemeteries found only in Germany. We were shown .in a narrow chamber, on each side of which were six cells, into which one could distinctly see, by means of a large plate of glass. In each of these is a bier for the body, directly above which hangs a cord, having on the end ten thimbles, which are put upon the fingers of the corpse, so that the slightest motion strikes a bell in the watchman's room. Lamps are lighted at night, and in winter the rooms are warmed. In the watchman's chamber stands a clock with a dial-plate of twenty-four hours, and opposite every hour is a little plate, which can only be moved two minutes before it strikes. If then the watch-man has slept or neglected his duty at that time, he cannot move it afterwards, and his neglect is seen by the superintendent. In such a case he is severely fined, and for the second or third offence dismissed. There are other rooms adjoining, containing beds, baths, galvanic battery, &c. Nevertheless, they say there has been no resuscitation during the fifteen years it has been established.
We afterwards went to the end of the cemetery to see the bas-reliefs of Thorwaldsen, in the vault of the Bethmann family. They are three in number, representing the death of a son of the present banker, Moritz von Bethmann, who was drowned in the Arno about fourteen years ago. The middle one represents the young man drooping in his chair, the beautiful Greek Angel of Death standing at his back, with one arm over his shoulder, while his younger brother is sustaining him, and receiving the wreath that drops from his sinking hand. The young woman who showed us these, told us of Thorwaldsen's visit to Frankfort, about three years ago. She described him as a beautiful and venerable old man, with long white locks hanging over his shoulders, still vigorous and active for his years. There seems to have been much resemblance between him and Dannecker-not only in personal appearance and character, but in the simple and classical beauty of their works.
The cemetery contains many other monuments; with the exception of one or two by Launitz, and an exquisite Death Angel in sand-stone, from a young Frankfort sculptor, they are not remarkable. The common tombstone is a white wooden cross; opposite the entrance is a perfect forest of them, involuntarily reminding one of a company of ghosts, with out-stretched arms. These contain the names of the deceased with mottoes, some of which are beautiful and touching, as for instance : "Through darkness unto light; " " Weep not for her; she is not dead, but sleepeth; " "Slumber sweet!" etc The graves are neatly bordered with grass, and planted with flowers, and many of the crosses have withered wreaths hanging upon them. In summer it is a beautiful place; in fact, the very name of cemetery in German-Friedhof or Court of Peace-takes away the idea of death; the beautiful figure of the youth, with his inverted torch, makes one think of the grave only as a place of repose.
On our way back we stopped at the Institute for the Deaf; for by the new method of teaching they are no longer dumb. It is a handsome building in the gardens skirting the city. We applied, and on learning we were strangers, they gave us permission to enter. On finding we were Americans, the instructress immediately spoke of Dr. Howe, who had visited the Institute a year or two before, and was much pleased to find that Mr. Dennett was acquainted with him. She took us into a room where about fifteen small children were assembled, and addressing one of the girls, said in a distinct tone : "These gentle-men are from America; the deaf children there speak with their fingers-canst thou speak so? " To which the child answered distinctly; but with some effort: "No, we speak with our mouths." She then spoke to several others with the same success; one of the boys in particular, articulated with astonishing success. It was interesting to watch their countenances, which were alive with eager attention, and to see the apparent efforts they made to utter the words. They spoke in a monotonous tone, slowly and deliberately, but their voices had a strange, sepulchral sound, which was at first unpleasant to the ear. I put one or two questions to a little boy, which he answered quite readily; as I was a foreigner, this was, the best test that could be given of the success of the method. We con-versed afterwards with the director, who received as kindly, and appointed a day for us to come and witness the system more fully. He spoke of Dr. Howe and Horace Mann, of Boston, and seemed to take a great interest in the introduction of his system in America.
We went again at the appointed time, and as their drawing teacher was there, we had an opportunity of looking over their sketches, which were excellent. The director showed us the manner of teaching them, with a looking-glass, in which they were shown the different positions of the organs of the mouth, and afterwards made to feel the vibrations of the throat and breast, produced by the sound. He took one of the youngest scholars, covered her eves, and placing her hand upon his throat, articulated the second sound of A. She followed him, making the sound softer or louder as he did.
All the consonants were made distinctly, by placing her hand before his mouth. Their exercises in reading, speaking with one another, and writing from dictation, succeeded perfectly. He treated them all like his own children, and sought by jesting and playing, to make the exer cise appear as sport. They call him father and appear to be much attached to him.
One of the pupils, about' fourteen years old, interested me through his history. He and his sister were found in Sachsenhausen, by a Frank-fort merchant, in a horrible condition. Their mother had died about two years and a half before, and during all that time their father had neglected them till they were near dead through privation and filth. The boy was placed in this Institute, and the girl in that of the Orphans. He soon began to show a talent for modelling figures, and for some time he has been taking lessons of the sculptor Launitz. I saw a beautiful copy of a bas-relief of Thorwaldsen which he made, as well as an original, very interesting, from its illustration of his history. It was in two parts; the first represented himself and his sister, kneeling in misery before a ruined family altar, by which an angel was standing, who took him by one hand, while with the other he pointed to his benefactor, standing near. The other represented the two kneeling in gratitude before a restored altar, on which was the anchor of Hope. From above streamed down a light, where two angels were rejoicing over their happiness. For a boy of fourteen, deprived of one of the most valuable senses, and taken from such a horrible condition of life, it is a surprising work and-gives brilliant hopes for his future,
We went lately into the Roemberg, to see the Kaisersaal and the other rooms formerly used by the old Emperors of Germany, and their Senates. The former is now in the process of restoration. The ceiling is in the gorgeous illuminated style of the middle ages ; along each side are rows of niches for the portraits of the Emperors, which have been painted by the best artists in Berlin, Dresden, Vienna and Munich. It is remarkable that the number of the old niches in the hall should exactly correspond with the number of the Ger-man Emperors, so that the portrait of the Emperor Francis of Austria, who was the last, will close the long rank coming down from Charlemagne. The pictures, or at least such of them as are already finished, are kept in another room ; they give one a good idea of the changing styles of royal costumes, from the steel shirt and helmet to the jewelled diadem and velvet robe. I looked with interest on a painting of Frederic Barbarossa, by Lessing, and mused over the popular tradition that he sits with his paladins in a mountain cave under the Castle of Kyffhauser, ready to come forth and assist his Father-land in the hour of need. There was the sturdy form of Maximilian ; the martial Conrad ; and Ottos, Siegfrieds and Sigismunds in plenty many of whom moved a nation in their day, but are now dust and forgotten.
I yesterday visited Mendelssohn, the celebrated composer. Having heard some of his music this winter, particularly that magnificent creation, the " Walpurgisnacht," I wished to obtain his autograph before leaving, and sent a note for that purpose. He sent a kind note in answer, adding a chorus out of the Walpurgisnacht from his own hand. After this I could not repress the desire of speaking with him. He received me with true German cordiality, and on learning I was an American, spoke of having been invited to attend a musical festival in New York. He invited me to call on him if he happened to be in Leipsic or Dresden when we should pass through, and spoke particularly of the fine music there. I have rarely seen a man whose countenance bears so plainly the stamp of genius. He has a glorious dark eye, and Byron's expression of a "dome of thought," could never be more appropriately applied than to his lofty and intellectual forehead, the marble whiteness and polish of which are heightened by the raven hue of his hair. He is about forty years of age, in the noon of his fame and the full maturity of his genius. Already as a boy of fourteen he composed an opera, which was played with much success at Berlin; he is now the first living composer of Germany. Moses Mendelssohn, the celebrated Jewish philosopher, was his grand-father; and his father now living, is accustomed to say that in his youth he was spoken of as the son of the great Mendelssohn ; now he is known as the father of the great Mendelssohn !