Until the late 1960’s, when so many old houses in Norwood were biting the dust, there stood on the north side of Beulah Hill, west of Hermitage Road, a semi-detached villa named Roselawn, not greatly altered in appearance since the early years of the 19th Century. There lived, from 1821 to 1834, Thomas Attwood, the musical composer, pupil of Mozart and organist of St. Paul’s Cathedral, where he is now buried. To that house in Norwood came the composer Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, as Attwood’s guest, in 1829 and again in 1832.
Attwood had been one of the first to recognise Mendelssohn’s musical genius when the young composer came to London in the spring of 1829. On his return to London from his tour of Scotland and Wales, Mendelssohn had met with an accident, being ‘thrown out of a cabriolet and very severely wounded in the leg.’ The injury kept him two months in London. It was while tied to his lodgings that he received a generous hamper from Thomas Attwood, whom at that time he had never met.
‘On top were splendid flowers which are now smelling deliciously round my fireside; under the flowers lay a large pheasant; under the pheasant a quantity of apples and pies.’
As soon as he was sufficiently convalescent, Mendelssohn was invited to come out to Norwood to be Attwood’s guest at his house.
‘I must above all things describe the place’, wrote Mendelssohn with studious thoroughness. ‘This is Norwood, famous for its good air, for it lies on a hill as high as the cross of St. Paul’s - so say the Londoners - and I am writing late at night in my little room with the wind howling wildly outside my window, whilst the chimney fire burns very quietly.
I have had a walk of two miles today and the air has really had a very salutary effect on me; in the three days that I have been here I can feel how much stronger and healthier I have become.’
At the time of this visit, Mendelssohn was 21 and Attwood 64. Attwood lived there with his wife and daughter. A stable attached to the villa housed a white donkey, an essential member of the Attwood ménage…
There is a musical composition by Mendelssohn entitled The Evening Bell. It bears the date, ‘Norwood, Surrey, November 1829.’ and is a little piece for harp and pianoforte. The circumstances surrounding the composition are that a large party of friends had been to Roselawn to meet Mendelssohn, who had to return to London that night. He was in high spirits, and had been extemporising on the piano in his best manner, accompanied on the harp by Attwood’s daughter. While the music was in progress a ring was heard on the gate bell. It was the coachman announcing the arrival of the carriage that was to carry him back to London. The summons was unheeded. It was repeated again and again, till at last Mendelssohn reluctantly dragged himself away from his friends.
Back in his lodgings in London, and before going to bed, he sat down and composed the piece, and next day sent it to Attwood and his daughter with a dedication in his own handwriting. The melody of The Evening Bell is frequently interrupted by the gate bell note (A) - an affectionate echo of that musical evening on Beulah Hill.
Mendelssohn’s E Minor Cappricio (op. 16) is likewise dated Norwood, Surrey, November 18, 1829, though the music was actually composed in Wales.
In the spring of 1832 Mendelssohn was once more under Attwood’s roof. He had gone there for a few days’ rest and to collect his thoughts after hearing of the death of his old master, Zelter, the intimate friend and correspondent of Goethe. All was the same as before at Norwood, except that he could now smell the lilac, enjoy the apple blossom, and perform his gymnastics in the garden.
It was on this second visit that he composed part of Son and a Stranger, while a lasting memorial of Mendelssohn’s friendship for Attwood is furnished in the dedication of Three Preludes and Fuges for the Organ (op. 37) to his Norwood friend.
While Mendelssohn was staying on Beulah Hill, a note was sent by Attwood to Vincent Novello at 67 Frith Street, Soho:
‘Sunday, May 27, 8 o’clock. Dear Novello, Mendelssohn has just received some MSS of Sebastian Bach, which he proposes trying this morning. Hope you will meet him at 11 o’clock.
Yrs truly, Thos. Attwood.’
When in the late 1960’s Roselawn fell to the picks of the harbingers of suburban progress, the ‘A’ bell, which to the end rang with a true ‘A’ note, was duly salvaged to be retained as a wistful echo of those distant days.
Later research sent to the Editor in 2011 shows that Thomas Attwood married Mary Denton, and they had 6 sons and 1 daughter - Caroline Eliza born in 1796. One son, George, became Rector of Framlingham, Suffolk, and Caroline lived with George and his family for some years. Caroline remained single and died at Ipswich in 1889.
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