A previously unseen letter by Felix Mendelssohn is to go on public display in an exhibition about an unrealised British musical prodigy, revealing that he narrowly missed an opportunity to meet the great composer and perhaps transform his career.

Mendelssohn’s letter is fascinating. Presumably the questions put to him by Lunn’s father had to do with his son’s musical prospects and how his talents might best be developed. Lunn might well have followed a different musical path had he met and been advised by the composer.

John Rink

A signed letter, believed to be one of the last ever written by the German composer Felix Mendelssohn, is going on public display for the first time as part of an exhibition about an unrealised musical prodigy of the Victorian age.

The document, which was written by the composer just months before his death in 1847, was a reply to the father of John Robert Lunn – a gifted musician and composer who is the subject of a new exhibition at St John’s College, University of Cambridge, where he studied.

Although he is now regarded as a highly talented composer, Lunn never pursued a musical career and his compositions remain almost entirely unknown. The letter suggests, however, that not only was Mendelssohn impressed by the young Lunn’s musical ability, but that Lunn’s father had requested a meeting with the great composer, who regretfully had to decline as he was due to leave the country and return to Germany.

Lunn’s father wrote to Mendelssohn in 1847, following a performance of the composer’s oratorio Elijah, during which the 16-year-old Lunn transcribed the music he was listening to by ear. Judging by the response, his original correspondence, now lost, appears to have sought guidance regarding how best to develop his son’s musical talents. Mendelssohn replied, saying that Lunn “must possess a very good ear for music and must be able to form at once a correct idea of what he is listening to”.

The letter expresses Mendelssohn’s regret at not being able to meet with Lunn and his father before leaving England, and states that he would have liked to have the time to form “a personal acquaintance” with Lunn in order to best advise him in his future career.

It offers a tantalising insight into what might have been had the meeting taken place. Professor John Rink, a Fellow of St John’s and Director of Studies in Music at Cambridge, said:

“Mendelssohn’s letter is fascinating. Presumably the questions put to him by Lunn’s father had to do with his son’s musical prospects and how his talents might best be developed. Lunn might well have followed a different musical path had he met and been advised by the composer. His ability to “form at once a correct idea” of the music he was listening to indicates that he had an excellent ear. No doubt he would have excelled in music had he not chosen to study mathematics instead.”

As it was, Lunn never took on a career in music, choosing instead the quiet life of a country vicar in Yorkshire. Music remained his passion, however, and he wrote a great number of settings and compositions, most of which were never published. During his lifetime, Lunn performed only small concerts and recitals in local church halls. His music is today regarded as being an outstanding paradigm of Victorian composition.

Mendelssohn’s letter was given to St John’s after Lunn’s death in 1899, but was presumed lost several decades ago after the College Chapel’s Song Room where it was held was flooded. It was only recently rediscovered in a vault in the College by Library Graduate Trainee Richard Sellens, who curated the exhibition. Richard said:

“It was surprising to find such an important document among a stack of frames and papers. The letter was probably the last Mendelssohn wrote in England, and one of the last in his lifetime. It acts as a bridge between a brilliant composer coming to the end of his career and one who could have been just starting out on his, had things taken a different turn”.

The exhibition, which can be seen in St John’s College Library, explores Lunn’s life and influences from being a childhood prodigy, through his time at St John’s, when he refused to allow himself a piano in his room so as not to distract him from his mathematical studies, to his many unpublished and unheard compositions.

“Lunn may not be very well-known”, Richard said, “but he is a great example of a typically Victorian composer”.

Featuring previously unseen material from Lunn’s own personal collection, the exhibition brings to light the creative process of this gifted, but obscure, musical figure.

Unpublished Prodigy will run until 25 September. It can be seen free of charge Monday-Friday from 9:00-5:00 in the Library of St John’s College, Cambridge. 


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