A letter from the thirteen-year-old William Michael Rossetti

The following letter is from the thirteen-year-old William Michael Rossetti (1829-1919) in London to his mother Frances Rossetti (1800-1886). It mentions his elder sister Maria (1827-76), the Bohemian pianist Ignaz Moscheles (1794-1870), his wife Clara Moscheles, his son Felix (1833-1917), and his daughter, also called Clara.  The real interest of the letter, however, is firstly the description of what must have been one of Ernst’s first performances in England (although Rossetti misheard the violinist’s name as ‘Herst’ and thought he was German); and secondly, his description of a performance by a French boy ‘apparently of about my own age’ who is more than likely to be the Romanian (but French-speaking) Carl Filtsch (1830-45) frequently reviewed that year– ecstatically – alongside Ernst in the English press.

Chopin rarely taught children, and yet he exclaimed of this pupil: “My God! What a child! Nobody has ever understood me as this child has…It is not imitation, it is the same sentiment, an instinct that makes him play without thinking as if it could not have been any other way. He plays almost all my compositions without having heard me [play them], without being shown the smallest thing – not exactly like me [because he has his own approach], but certainly not less well.” [Reported by Ferdinand Denis in an article in Vienna’s Der Humorist, February 1843]. Filtsch also received lessons from Liszt who said that he would ‘shut up shop’ when the boy came of age. Given these accolades, Rossetti’s remark, “his performance […] appeared to me really surprising for one of his age” shows a nice sense of adolescent caution; it is also not surprising that Moscheles paid such close attention. Tragically, Filtsch would die of tuberculosis less than two years later.

2nd July 1843

Dear Mamma,

In her last letter Maria told you that I had been invited to a musical soirée by Mrs Moscheles, and that she reserved an account of my proceedings on that occasion since she considered it probable that I might wish to do so myself. I now confirm her belief; and will inform you of all the particulars of that delightful conversazione. Arriving there before anyone else, I was ushered into the drawing room, where I amused myself for at least half an hour in looking over the annuals, etc. etc., which lay on the table. Not long after this in came a cousin of young Moscheles, who asked me about Papa’s health with great apparent empressement; and she was soon followed by Mrs. And Miss Moscheles who reiterated the question. By degrees the room began to fill; and after a short period during which tea was carried round, a French boy, apparently of about my own age, sat down at the piano; Mr Moscheles watched his every movement with the eye of a connoisseur, beating time meanwhile, and seemed much pleased with his performance, which appeared to me really surprising for one of his age. Among the company was a German gentleman of the name, I believe, of Herst, a rival in playing the violin of Sivori the second Paganini, who favoured the ladies and gentlemen assembled with two or three airs on that instrument, which were universally, and to my poor judgement, most justly applauded. Miss Adelaide Kemble sang some Italian airs very beautifully, which excited almost or quite as much admiration as the instrumental music of Mr. Herst. At a little before twelve o’clock I took leave, having spent a far more pleasant evening than I had anticipated, my expectations having been none of the most favourable. […]

Selected Letters of William Michael Rossetti (ed) Roger W.Peattie (Pennsylvania: Penn State University Press, 2009), p.1.

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