German composer Felix Mendelssohn wasn’t impressed with his first visit to Wales but it was an unplanned stay in the Flintshire village of Rhydymwyn that was to change all that, leaving the young man so inspired, he wrote several pieces fuelled by his experiences. Jamie Bowman finds out more...

BORN on February 3, 1809, Felix Mendelssohn is regarded as among the greatest composers of any age. His major works looked to infuse the traditions of his German upbringing and the likes of Bach, Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven with his own modern Romantic sensibility and after a long period of neglect in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, he is now among the most popular composers of the romantic era.

In his early 20s, beginning in 1829 with the first of his many visits to England, Mendelssohn spent three years travelling around Europe, meeting almost every cultural figure of note. His sensitivity to the spirit of the places he visited can be heard in such works as the ‘Italian’ and ‘Scottish’ Symphonies and the overture The Hebrides.

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.

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Mendelssohn’s first impression of Welsh folk music was not positive: in a letter he wrote from his inn in Llangollen on August 25, he said: “Ten thousand devils take all national music! Here I am in Wales, and, heaven help us! A harper sits in the hall of every reputable tavern incessantly playing so-called folk melodies – that is to say, dreadful, vulgar, out-of-tune trash with a hurdy-gurdy going at the same time! It has given me toothache already."

Thankfully Mendelssohn's impressions of Wales improved and after a few days sight seeing and sketching, he arrived at the Taylor's Coed Du Hall in Rhydymwyn, near Mold, which he described as "a country house on an expansive cut lawn surrounded by flowers."

The 20-year-old composer was instantly inspired by his surroundings and the company of Mr Taylor's three daughters, Anne, Susan and Honora and threw himself into family life and using Coed Hall as a base for further explorations of Wales. Thanks to his letters we know he made 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 and Conwy Castle.

50 years after his visit, Anne recorded her memories of the German's stay: "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."

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The atmosphere clearly suited the young musician who set to work on a number of compositions, including, as a leaving present and as a token of his gratitude for the hospitality of the Taylor family, three piano pieces, dedicated to each of the girls. All of them were inspired by the flowers, walks and horseback rides across the estate and the River Alyn which flows through the village. Also whilst at Coed Du, Mendelssohn began composing an organ piece for his older sister Fanny’s wedding in October to Wilhelm Hensel and a theatre piece, Die Heimkehr aus der Fremde to celebrate his parents' Silver Wedding anniversary in December.

Mendelssohn suffered from poor health in the final years of his life, probably aggravated by nervous problems and overwork. A final tour of England left him exhausted and ill, and the death of his sister, Fanny, on May 14 1847, caused him further distress. Less than six months later, on November 4, aged 38, Mendelssohn died in Leipzig after a series of strokes. Today he is still remembered in Rhydymwyn with a plaque marking his stay in the little Flintshire village.

Years earlier, Mendelssohn had reminisced to his parents about his visit to Coed Du: 'My stay with the Taylors was one of those periods that will forever remain enshrined in my memory. My spirit almost bursts into flower to think of it, and I shall never forget the meadows, the forest herbs or the pebbles in the babbling brook.'

'Wales is a wonderfully beautiful country,' he added, 'but this sheet is so small that I will have to describe it to you in person.'