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06:45 GMT, Friday, 19 June 2009 07:45 UK

Mendelssohn in Mold

Felix Mendelssohn

By Dr Rhian Davies
Music historian

It's well-known that Mendelssohn's visit to Scotland inspired his Hebrides Overture, but details of his time in Wales a few weeks later have been almost entirely overlooked.

Mendelssohn made a total of 10 trips to the UK and, during his first in April 1829, he was introduced to John Taylor, a mining engineer and entrepreneur, through London society circles. In August, when bad weather frustrated the composer's plans to sail to Ireland following his Scottish tour, he altered his itinerary to stay with the Taylor family instead. Mendelssohn described their home, Coed Du Hall at Rhydymwyn, near Mold, as a country house on an expansive cut lawn surrounded by flowers.

Two of the three Fantasies for piano, composed as gifts for Taylor's daughters Anne, Susan and Honora, were inspired by the sight of these flowers - carnations, roses and a creeping plant with trumpet-shaped blossoms. The third Fantasy evokes the rivulet where Mendelssohn and the girls sometimes stopped to rest during walks and horseback rides across the estate.

Other works drafted by Mendelssohn during this period were an organ piece to be played at his sister Fanny's marriage in October, and a theatre piece, Die Heimkehr aus der Fremde (Son and Stranger, or Return of the Roamer), Op. 89, to celebrate his parents' Silver Wedding anniversary in December. The bass aria 'I am a roamer', popular at concerts and sometimes heard as a test piece in Eisteddfodau, is taken from this score.

Using Coed Du as a base, Mendelssohn travelled widely across North Wales including visits to Bangor, Caernarfon, Corwen, the Vale of Ffestiniog, Valle Crucis Abbey and Holywell. He jotted down some musical motifs at Beddgelert and Capel Curig while his sketchbooks include pencil drawings of the Brücke über den Menay (Bridge over the Menai) on Sunday, 23 August 1829, and Conwy Castle the following Wednesday.

The composer also chronicled his time in Wales by writing long letters home to his family. A famously trenchant passage was prompted by overhearing a harpist and a hurdy-gurdy player perform in a Llangollen hotel - an experience so painful, Mendelssohn claimed, that it gave him toothache! He also complained about the Welsh weather: 'Yesterday was a good day, i.e. I only got soaked three times!' But there were brighter days, as Anne Taylor recalled:

My father's birthday happened while Mr Mendelssohn was with us. There was a grand expedition to a distant mine, up among the hills; a tent carried up there, a dinner to the miners. We had speeches, and health-drinkings, and Mendelssohn threw himself into the whole thing, as if he had been one of us.

Mendelssohn's overall assessment of his Welsh experience was also positive. 'Wales is a wonderfully beautiful country,' he told his father, 'but this sheet is so small that I will have to describe it to you in person.'

Mendelssohn's time at Coed Du Hall is commemorated by a plaque in the nearby village of Rhydymwyn.

The 2009 Gregynog Festival featured a recital to mark the bicentenary of the birth of Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy by the BBC New Generation Artists, The Aronowitz Ensemble.




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