Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy

(3 February 1809 - 4 November 1847)

Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy was one of the greatest and most versatile prodigies in 19th century Western music. His music reflects both Classicism and Romanticism, coming from the generation of German composers shortly after Beethoven’s time. His musical style draws upon diverse influences, particularly the complex chromatic counterpoint of Bach, the clarity and sophistication of forms of Mozart and the drama and power of Beethoven.

Mendelssohn was the grandson of Moses Mendelssohn, the pre-eminent Jewish philosopher of the Enlightenment in Germany, who campaigned for the religious tolerance of German Jews. Mendelssohn’s father Abraham set up a bank with his brother in 1804 and in the same year married Lea Solomon, the daughter of another Jewish banker. Mendelssohn was born in Hamburg in 1809, one of four children. In March 1816, the Mendelssohn children were secretly baptised as Protestant and eventually the parents also converted to Protestantism as a result of increasing religious intolerance. Abraham and Lea added the name ‘Bartholdy’ as a way to distinguish the family from other Mendelssohns. Bartholdy was not Lea’s surname, but the name of a farm that belonged to members of her family.

The Mendelssohn-Bartholdys were a prominent, well-educated family and the children were raised without religious education. Although young Felix Mendelssohn and his older sister showed talent early on, his parents never sought to exploit or capitalise on their talent. Mendelssohn’s early musical education was overseen by his mother, a decent amateur pianist. In 1816 the family visited Paris and Mendelssohn and his older sister took lessons from Marie Bigot, whose playing had been praised by Haydn and Beethoven. By 1818 he had finished elementary school and his father arranged private tuition for him. He began learning piano with Ludwig Berger and the following year started violin with the court violinist C. W. Henning, music theory with Zelter and a general education with Karl Ludwig Heyse, in which he showed academic brilliance. He joined the chorus of the Berlin Singakademie with his sister, where they encountered instrumental works by Handel and Bach. The Singakademie was founded in order to preserve 18th century sacred choral music, particularly that of Bach.

The pieces I have composed with least reference to the public are precisely those which gave them the greatest satisfaction.

In 1825, the same year that the family moved into the mansion belonging to his mother’s side of the family on Leipzigerstrasse in Berlin, 16-year old Mendelssohn completed his famous Octet op. 20. Dedicated to his friend the violinist Eduard Rietz, it is his indisputable masterpiece. A year later, Mendelssohn completed the concert overture of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which was premiered privately at the Mendelssohn residence. The house had become a rich cultural centre for an ever increasing social circle of poets, philosophers, scientists and musicians. The Irish writer and critic George Bernard Shaw described A Midsummer Night’s Dream as ‘the most striking example of a very young composer astonishing the world by a musical style at once fascinating, original and perfectly new’.

Every day I feel more eager to write an opera. I think that it may become something fresh and spirited, if I begin it now; but I have got no words yet, and I assuredly never will write music for any poetry that does not inspire me with enthusiasm.

Mendelssohn made a trip to England and Scotland in 1829. He first arrived in London on the 21st of April and made private piano performances at soirées and gatherings. A month later, he conducted the English premiere of his Symphony in C minor, conducting from the piano. On midsummer day of that year, the 24th of June, he conducted the overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which was faced with immensely positive reviews. Together with Klingemann, he departed for Edinbrugh, arriving on July 26 for a walking tour of Scotland. They visited the Highlands, Oban, where they could look out at the Hebrides, Fingal’s Cave on the Island of Staffa, the equally remote island of Iona, and finally Glasgow. This remarkable trip inspired him to composer Der Hebriden. Mendelssohn also visited Wales, staying with John Taylor, the owner of lead mines, which inspired him to write the Reformation Symphony, which he finished in May of the following year.

In November 1830, he arrived in Rome and composed various sacred works there, such as Non Nobis domine, op. 31, four more chorale cantatas, and two motets. There, he met Berlioz and they became friends, although Berlioz’s Symphony Fantastique was not to Mendelssohn’s taste. In Rome, Mendelssohn made the first draft of his Hebrides overture, inspired by his Scottish holiday, announced as a birthday present for his father on December 11. He also noted some ideas for his Scottish and Italian Symphonies.

On 9 December 1831 he arrived in Paris which overall, turned out to be an unhappy time for him. He found the musical style there to be rather contrived and his Reformation Symphony was was rejected before it could be performed. Moreover, he was becoming increasingly depressed by the death of his childhood friend, the violinist Eduard Rietz, for whom he composed a new slow movement for the String Quintet op.18, the Intermezzo. There was an outbreak of Asiatic cholera in Paris that year, which Mendelssohn contracted.

When I have composed a piece just as it sprang from my heart, then I have done my duty towards it; and whether it brings hereafter fame, honour, decorations, or snuff-boxes, is a matter of indifference to me.

After he recovered from cholera, he travelled to London in April of 1832, where he performed his new compositions and  enjoyed the English cultural life. His first volume of Lieder Ohne Worte, op. 19b, (Songs Without Words) was prepared to be published, as was the Hebrides Overture, which was finally premiered by the Philharmonic Society as The Isles of Fingal.

On October 1st 1833, Mendelssohn was offered a three-year contract as the Dusseldorf music director, which included conducting the choral and orchestral societies and a three-month annual holiday. During his tenure there, he conducted Handel's Israel in Egypt for the visit of the Crown Prince Friedrich Wilhelm of Prussia, as well as Beethoven's Egmont overture, Mozart's Die Zauberflote, Weber's Oberon.

These seem to me so ambiguous, so vague, so easily misunderstood in comparison to genuine music, which fills the soul with a thousand things better than words.

In January 1835, he had the opportunity to conduct the Gewandhaus Orchestra in Leipzig for a handsome salary and an annual leave of six months. In the end of August of that year, he finally arrived to begin his new post, where he met Schumann, Chopin, Friedrich Wieck and his teenage daughter Clara. On the 13th of September 1835 Mendelssohn held his first rehearsal at the Gewandhaus as its new director, which was to be the beginning of a fruitful 12-year association with musical life in the city of Leipzig. His concert programming showed a preference for Mozart and Beethoven and consolidated the importance of German instrumental repertoire. He also held a concert series focusing on historical music, such as Bach and Handel. Leipzig became a haven for top performing artists such as pianists Franz Lizst and Ignaz Moscheles and the violinists Ole Bull and Ferdinand David as well as writers such as Hans Christian Andersen who often visited him there.

The 22nd of May 1835 was Pentecost Sunday and for the opening of the Niederrheinisches Musikfest in Dusseldorf, Mendelssohn's St. Paul was premiered. St. Paul was regarded as a very significant step in the revival of the oratorio and Mendelssohn was elevated to the status of one of Germany’s top musicians, which secured him international fame.

In 1846, Mendelssohn began his Elijah, finishing the orchestral score on the 11th of August and first performed in Birmingham, England on the 26th of August.

Aged only 38, Mendelssohn died on the 4th of November 1847 after a series of strokes. He had left several works unpublished, such as Sechs Lieder, op 71 and Sechs Kinderstucke, op. 72, Lauda Sion, op. 73 and Responsorium et Hymnus, op. 121. Already during his lifetime, he held a hugely significant position in the development of music and additionally he had considerable posthumous fame, with his death being announced as the ‘eclipse of music’.

Johann Sebastian Bach

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