Bodleian Library unites illustrated Mendelssohn compositions

28 February 2008

Schilflied,_fol._1r_smallIn 2007, the Bodleian Library acquired the last of the two existing illustrated autographs of a composition by Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy. Featuring a watercolour by the composer and inspired by the song lyrics, the documents are virtually unique in the history of music by blending Mendelssohnís musical and artistic gifts.

The newly acquired lyrical piece, Schilflied (ĎReed songí), was composed in November 1842 to words by Nikolaus Lenau. The opening words of the song, translated as ĎOn the lakeís unruffled surface rests the moonís fair beamí, are echoed in a watercolour by the composer, which drapes itself round the first bar of the score. Eventually included in the last set of Lieder Mendelssohn prepared for publication, the illustrated composition is a presentation copy prepared in Frankfurt am Main in March 1845 for Henriette Keyl, the wife of a local wine merchant.

The other surviving illustrated masterpiece, Im Walde (In the Forest), is already part of the Bodleian Library collection. Mendelssohn was often prevailed upon to provide mementos for friends in the form of copies of short compositions, but he produced only two such illustrated examples.

The acquisition of the Schilflied wasmade possible by the generosity of the B.H. Breslauer Foundation, and the Bodleian Library is putting on public display a small exhibition to celebrate the event. Beside the two illustrated composition copies, two other items related to the composerís personal life will be on show:

  • a drawing of the family group in their sitting room at a rented house in the spa town of Soden, north of Frankfurt. Sketched in 17 September 1844, this is one of the composerís few non-landscape drawings
  • Mendelssohnís account book for 1840-46. Keeping careful record of his financial affairs, in April 1845, the expenses included music copying, having the piano tuned, dinner at a well-known Frankfurt inn, the Mainlust, for the composer Félicien David and rent for their house.


The Bodleianís Music collections form the second largest research library for music in the UK. Apart from natural strengths in British music from the medieval period onwards, its collections cover music and its literature from many parts of the world. The Mendelssohn Collection, received largely by donation directly or indirectly from descendants of the composer, makes it one of the two principal centres in the world for Mendelssohn research.


Peter Ward-Jones, Music Librarian at the Bodleian Library, said: ĎThis is one of the most beautiful of all Mendelssohn manuscripts. It is a wonderful addition to the Bodleianís already outstanding collection of the composerís manuscripts, a few of which can be viewed alongside the new acquisition.í


The display can be viewed between 1 March and 12 April 2008, Monday to Friday 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Saturday 9 a.m. to 4.30 p.m. in the Exhibition Room, Old Schools Quadrangle, Catte Street, Oxford. Admission free.


Back to top