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.