Jakob Ludwig Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy, known generally as Felix Mendelssohn (February 3, 1809 – November 4, 1847) was a German composer and conductor of the early Romantic period. He revived classical approaches within the Romantic movement, whose excesses and manners he condemned as vulgar.
A child prodigy akin to Mozart and Beethoven, Mendelssohn composed some of his best works as a teenager. He did not experiment with novel forms as his contemporaries Hector Berlioz and Robert Schumann; instead, he employed classical structures such as symphonies, concertos, oratorios, piano music, and chamber music.
Born into a well-to-do Jewish family who later converted to Christianity, Mendelssohn benefited from the best education, was handsome and athletic, and was a master of water-color painting and several European languages. This overabundance of good fortune, and his Jewish background, was resented by certain fellow musicians and critics and even used as a platform for diminishing his talent as lacking in innovation and depth.
Aware of his unique gifts of subtle lyricism and his mastery of technique, Mendelssohn cultivated those rather than allowing himself to be restrained by forms of virtuosity then in vogue. His performance of Bach's St. Matthew Passion triggered Bach's revival and a renewal of respect for sacred music in the era when feeling and sensuality were in fashion. In contrast to the moral excesses many leading figures of the Romantic era, Mendelssohn was devoted to his wife and family, a source of joy and inspiration to him.
A musical genius, Mendelssohn sometimes suffered the scorn of his contemporaries and struggled with the ethos of his times. Yet, Mendelssohn worked tirelessly during his short life and died at age 38 following a series of strokes, spurred by chronic overwork. Following a long period of relative denigration due to changing musical tastes in the late nineteenth century, Mendelssohn's creative originality is being recognized and re-evaluated, ranking him among the most popular composers of the Romantic era.
Felix Mendelssohn was born in Hamburg, Germany. His father, Abraham, was the son of philosopher Moses Mendelssohn, a contemporary of Immanuel Kant, whose treatise on the immortality of the soul, Phaedon, was translated into more than 30 languages. Some of Moses' family left the Jewish faith in an effort to be accepted in European society, but he chose to modernize traditional Jewish learning by reconciling it with the new, secular, environment. His mother, Leah Salomon, was from the Itzig family of prominent and rich Berlin Jews. Mendelssohn's background was cosmopolitan, and he himself traveled extensively.
At the time of Mendelssohn's birth, his father and uncle were running a bank, but the devastating Napoleonic blockade sent the family fleeing to Berlin in 1812, then a provincial town. The position there of Jews had been improved by recent legislation but there was mounting pressure to assimilate. His mother's brother converted to Christianity and took the name Bartholdy, suggesting that his nephew do the same. At this time, Mendelssohn's father even encouraged him to drop the family name of Mendelssohn.
The Mendelssohn children were at first brought up without religious education but were later baptised as Lutherans in 1816 (at which time Felix took the additional names Jakob Ludwig, at the age of seven). Mendelssohn's parents were baptized later. Felix signed his letters as 'Mendelssohn Bartholdy' in obedience to his father's injunctions. The Mendelssohns enjoyed prestige in the city, and Jews and Gentiles alike sought to attend their afternoon gatherings. The family had famous virtuosos, including Franz Liszt, perform in their home. This period did not favor free or indiscreet speech, so music, rather than conversation, was the source of entertainment. They also staged amateur dramatics, performing plays such as Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. Among the family friends were the Humboldt brothers, Heinrich Heine, and Georg Friedrich Hegel.
The Mendelssohns were a hard-working family, which allowed their four children Felix, his brother Paul, and sisters Fanny and Rebecka, to rise after 5 A.M. only on Sundays. Felix and his older sister, Fanny, were musical child prodigies. Mendelssohn is often regarded as the greatest child prodigy after Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and some claim that his precocity exceeded even that of Mozart in intellectual grasp, as demonstrated in early works such as the String Octet, the Overture to A Midsummer Night's Dream, and the String Quartet in A minor. These show an intuitive grasp of form, harmony, counterpoint, color, and the compositional technique of Beethoven.
Abraham and Leah Mendelssohn sought to give their children the best education possible. Fanny became a well-known pianist and amateur composer; originally Abraham had thought that she might be the more musical one. However, at that time, it was not considered proper for a woman to have a career in music, and her father and brother prohibited her from publishing her compositions.
Felix and Fanny doted on each other. Felix was a beautiful boy, whose face the English novelist William Makepeace Thackeray likened to the Saviour's. He was athletic and rode, danced and swam well. However, this fueled his air of self-assurance and moodiness, and he was perceived by some as intolerant, dogmatic, and irritable.
Mendelssohn probably made his first public concert appearance at the age of nine, when he participated in a chamber music concert. He was also a prolific composer as a child and wrote his first published work, a piano quartet, by the time he was thirteen. As an adolescent, he saw his works performed at home with a private orchestra for the visitors of his parents' salon. Twelve string symphonies were produced between the ages of 12 and 14. These works were ignored for over a century, but are now recorded and heard occasionally in concerts. In 1824, still aged only 15, he wrote his first symphony for full orchestra (in C minor, Op. 11). At the age of 16, he wrote the String Octet in E Flat Major, the first work which showed the full power of his genius. The Octet and his Overture to A Midsummer Night's Dream to Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, written a year later, are the best known of his early works. He also wrote incidental music for the play 16 years later, in 1842, including the famous Wedding March.
On his fifteenth birthday, after the first rehearsal of his opera Der Onkel aus Boston (The Two Nephews), his composition teacher Zelter told him he was no longer "an apprentice but a fully-fledged member of the brotherhood of musicians" such as Mozart, Haydn, and Bach. However, his parents did not believe that his ability alone would guarantee Felix a career in music and took him to Paris, where he expressed concern that the Parisians did not know Beethoven's Fidelio and held Bach in low regard.
The year 1827 saw the premiere — and due to unfavorable reception, the sole performance in his lifetime — of his opera Die Hochzeit des Camacho. He would not attempt this genre again.
Mendelssohn began taking piano lessons from his mother when he was six. From 1817 he studied composition with the director of the Berlin Singakademie Carl Friedrich Zelter. Zelter introduced him to the elderly Goethe, and when the 12-year old was taken to stay with Goethe in Weimar, he played music for him for rarely less than four hours at a time. He later took lessons from the composer and piano virtuoso Ignaz Moscheles who, however, confessed in his diaries, (Life of Moscheles, with selections from his Diaries and Correspondence, published in 1873 by his wife Charlotte), that he had little to teach him. Moscheles, though, became a close colleague and lifelong friend.
Besides music, Mendelssohn's education included art, literature, languages, and philosophy. He was a skilled artist in pencil and watercolor and spoke English, Italian, and Latin. His enormous correspondence shows that he could also be a witty writer in both German and English, sometimes accompanying his text with humorous sketches and cartoons. He also showed an interest in classical literature.
From 1826 to 1829, Mendelssohn studied at the University of Berlin where he attended lectures on aesthetics, history, and geography. In 1829, Mendelssohn paid his first visit to Britain, where Moscheles, already settled in London, introduced him to the local influential musical circles. Handsome, elegant, witty, and rich, he was in high demand by the hostesses. Had he been seen as merely a professional musician, he would have had to enter their homes by the servants' entrance, like Moscheles did.
With great success he conducted his First Symphony and played in public and private concerts. He visited Edinburgh and became a friend of composer John Thomson. On subsequent visits he met with Queen Victoria and her musical husband Prince Albert, both of whom were great admirers of his music. In the course of ten visits to Britain during his life, he won a strong following, and the country inspired two of his most famous works, the overture Fingal's Cave (also known as the Hebrides Overture) and the Symphony No. 3 (Scottish Symphony). His oratorio Elijah was premiered in Birmingham in 1846.
Mendelssohn declined the offer to become professor of music at the University of Berlin in 1830. Instead he traveled for two years around Europe, eventually moving to the Paris of Balzac, Hugo, Chopin, and Liszt, with Grand Opera at its height. The atmosphere of dandyism and philandering repulsed him, and when the premiere of his Reformation Symphony was canceled because the Paris orchestra saw too much counterpoint in it and too few tunes, he escaped the city, never to return.
On the death of Zelter, Mendelssohn's father ordered him back to Berlin to apply for Zelter's job at the Berlin Singakademie, however the reluctant composer was turned down. This was speculated to be because of either his youth, fear of possible innovations, or his Jewish origins.
In 1833 he took over as director of music at Düsseldorf, where he directed rehearsals and concerts and watched over music, mainly in Roman Catholic churches. He set out to raise the standards of performance but with the orchestra occasionally intoxicated and the orchestral playing generally viewed as stifling the development of modern music (Liszt treated performances as rehearsals; Italian conductors tapped on candleholders), it became obvious that a conductor was essential. Saint Paul, composed during this tenure was performed in 41 German cities within 18 months of its publication and soon reached other European countries as well as America.
Mendelssohn lost his job at Düsseldorf after a fight with the management, but was soon accepted by Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra. There a better orchestra was at his disposal, and he took a personal interest in the musicians who worked for him, helping those in need. He worked as conductor there from 1835 until his death in 1847, turning it into one of the greatest orchestras in Germany. This appointment was extremely important for him; he considered himself a German and wished to play a leading part in this country's musical life.
In 1843 he founded the Leipzig Conservatory, where he successfully persuaded Moscheles and Robert Schumann to join him. After a personal interview with the King of Prussia, Frederick William IV, he accepted the post of director of the musical side of the new Berlin Academy of Arts, but his focus remained on developing the musical life of Leipzig.
Mendelssohn's personal life was traditional, without excesses. When he met his future wife Cécile Jeanrenaud in March 1837, he decided to test the depth of his true feelings in the solitude of a gloomy North Sea town. Having found them unchanged, he proposed to her. His family was not present at the wedding, held the same year. His sister Fanny was jealous and his mother unhappy. Cecile's mother thought her daughter could have done better. Still, the couple lived a happy life and gave birth to five children: Carl, Marie, Paul, Felix, and Lilli.
Mendelssohn suffered from bad health in the final years of his life, probably aggravated by nervous problems and overwork; he described himself as leading a 'vegetable existence'. When he finally returned to Leipzig, he could only compose, not conduct. Then came his sister Fanny's death in May 1847, which distressed him to the point that Cecile organized a holiday in Switzerland to help him recover. However, when Mendelssohn came back and went to Fanny's room, the pain resurfaced to the extent that he had to cancel a performance of Elijah. He suffered from fatigue and died in Leipzig in November of the same year, after a series of strokes and of a brain hemorrhage at age of 38.
His funeral was held at the Paulinerkirche (Saint Paul's Church). Thousands came to pay homage. Music lovers in Germany and several other countries, particularly Britain, where he had been so popular, mourned his death. After the service, the train left for Berlin, and during a stop at Dessau, a chorus sang on the platform. In Berlin a great crowd attended. Mendelssohn was laid to rest in the family vault in the Dreifaltigkeitsfriedhof (Trinity Cemetery) in Berlin-Kreuzberg beside his beloved sister.
Mendelssohn's works show an influence of Baroque and early classical music. He was greatly influenced in his childhood by the music of Bach, Beethoven and Mozart, which can be seen in the twelve early symphonies, mainly written for performance in the Mendelssohn household and not published or publicly performed until long after his death. His fugues and chorales particularly reflect a tonal clarity and the use of counterpoint reminiscent of Bach, who had fallen into relative obscurity by the turn of the nineteenth century and whose works were hard to come by.
His great-aunt Sarah Levy was a pupil of Bach's son Wilhelm Friedemann Bach, and she had collected a number of Bach's manuscripts. Mendelssohn's teacher Zelter also deeply respected Bach's music, and in 1829, with the backing of Zelter and the assistance of a thespian friend, Mendelssohn arranged and conducted a performance in Berlin of Bach's St Matthew Passion. The orchestra and a choir of 400 were provided by the Berlin Singakademie. Mendelssohn trimmed the score, filled out the instrumentation and provided sound effects, and thus began the process of alteration and truncation that was employed throughout the Bach revival.
The success of this performance (the first since Bach's death in 1750) was an important element in the revival of Bach's music in Germany and, eventually, throughout Europe. It earned Mendelssohn widespread acclaim at the age of 20. It also led to one of the very few references which Mendelssohn ever made to his origins: "To think that it took an actor and a Jew-boy to revive the greatest Christian music for the world."
Mendelssohn also revived interest in the work of Franz Schubert. He conducted the premiere of Schubert's Ninth Symphony in Leipzig in 1839, more than a decade after the composer's death.
Throughout his life, Mendelssohn was wary of the more radical musical developments undertaken by some of his contemporaries. He was generally on friendly, if somewhat cool, terms with Hector Berlioz, Franz Liszt, and Giacomo Meyerbeer, but in his letters expressed his frank disapproval of their works. He considered Berlioz' instrumentation "filthy." Compared to Berlioz, Mendelssohn seemed overly refined and restrained, his structures classical in clarity. In his life, as in his music, there was little excessive enthusiasm or exaggeration displayed by Berlioz. Yet he was also a superb interpreter of the fairy kingdom, particularly in the form of scherzo, which in his hands was transformed into a vehicle for the fleeting dance of fairies, elves and spirits. He was aware of his weaknesses in terms of depth or drama, so he cultivated his strengths. He was associated with Victorian values of religiosity and sentimentality, and the Victorians loved his oratorios and melodious sacred music.
Mendelssohn viewed Paris and its music with contempt and an almost Puritanical distaste. He thought its style of opera vulgar and the works of Meyerbeer insincere. Attempts to interest him in Saint-Simonianism ended in embarrassing scenes. When he was told that he looked rather like Meyerbeer (they were distant cousins), Mendelssohn got so upset that he immediately got a haircut to differentiate himself. It is significant that the only musician with whom he was a close personal friend, Moscheles, was of an older generation and equally conservative in outlook.
Mendelssohn's fellow musicians reciprocated his unfavorable views. His success, popularity and Jewish origins irked Richard Wagner sufficiently to damn Mendelssohn with faint praise, three years after his death, in an anti-Jewish pamphlet Das Judenthum in der Musik. He described the Hebrides Overture as "so clear, so smooth, so melodious, as definite in form as a crystal, but also just as cold" and called Mendelssohn "a landscape painter, incapable of depicting a human being." This was the start of a movement to denigrate Mendelssohn's achievements that lasted almost a century and can still be discerned, for example, in Charles Rosen's essay on Mendelssohn, whose style he criticizes as 'religious kitsch'. Schumann saw in him the reconciliation of the classical and the Romantic but with too much elegance and refinement. The Nazi regime was to cite Mendelssohn's Jewish origin in banning his works and destroying memorial statues.
In contrast, in England, Mendelssohn's reputation remained high; the novel Charles Auchester by the teenaged Sarah Sheppard, published in 1851, which features Mendelssohn as the 'Chevalier Seraphael', remained in print for nearly 80 years. Queen Victoria demonstrated her enthusiasm by requesting, when The Crystal Palace was being re-built in 1854, that it include a statue of Mendelssohn. Mendelssohn's "Wedding March" from A Midsummer Night's Dream was first played at the wedding of Queen Victoria's daughter to the Crown Prince of Prussia in 1856 and is still popular today. However, Bernard Shaw condemned his music for its association with Victorian cultural insularity.
Over the last half century, a new appreciation of Mendelssohn's work has developed, which takes into account not only pieces such as the Violin Concerto and the Symphony No. 4, but has also removed the Victorian varnish from Elijah, and explored the intense and dramatic chamber works. Virtually all of his published work is available on compact disc. Recent criticism has have stressed the subtlety of his compositional technique. The Hebrides Overture has been interpreted as presenting a musical equivalent to the aesthetic subject in the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich: the first lyrical theme represents the person apprehending the landscape described by the music behind this theme. Similarly, the use of French horns in the opening movement of the Italian Symphony may represent a German presence (Mendelssohn himself on tour) in an Italian scene.
Mendelssohn wrote twelve symphonies for the string orchestra between 1821 and 1823. The numbering of his mature symphonies is approximately in the order of publishing rather than of composition. The order of actual composition was 1, 5, 3, 4, and 2.
The Symphony No. 1 in C Minor for a full-scale orchestra was written in 1824 and was experimental, showing the influence of Bach, Beethoven, and Schubert. Between 1829 and 1830 he wrote Symphony No. 5 in D Major, but despite its quality, he remained dissatisfied with it and did not allow publication of the score. The Scottish Symphony was written and revised intermittently between 1830 and 1842. This piece evokes Scotland's atmosphere in the ethos of Romanticism but does not employ actual Scottish folk melodies. Mendelssohn published the score of the symphony in 1842.
Mendelssohn traveled widely in Europe throughout his life, and a visit to Italy inspired him to write the Symphony No. 4 in A major, known as the Italian. He conducted the premiere in 1833 but did not allow this score to be published during his lifetime, as he continually sought to rewrite it. In 1840, he wrote the choral Symphony No. 2 in B flat Major, entitled Lobgesang (Hymn of Praise), and this score was published in 1841.
Mendelssohn wrote the concert overture The Hebrides (Fingal's Cave) in 1830, inspired by visits to Scotland around the end of the 1820s. He visited the cave on the Hebrides isle of Staffa as part of his Grand Tour of Europe, and was so impressed that he scribbled the opening theme of the overture on the spot, including it in a letter he wrote home the same evening.
Throughout his career he wrote a number of other concert overtures; those most frequently played today include Ruy Blas written for the drama by Victor Hugo and Meerestille und Glückliche Fahrt (Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage) inspired by the poem by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.
The incidental music to A Midsummer Night's Dream (op. 61), including the well-known "Wedding March," was written in 1843, seventeen years after the overture.
Mendelssohn wrote some Singspiels for family performance in his youth. In 1827 he wrote a more sophisticated work, Die Hochzeit von Camacho, based on an episode in Don Quixote, for public consumption. It was a failure, prompting Mendelssohn to leave the theatre before the conclusion of the first performance. There were no subsequent performances.
Although he never abandoned the idea of composing a full opera, and considered many subjects, including that of the Nibelung saga later adapted by Wagner, he never wrote more than a few pages of sketches for any project. In his last years, attempts were made to contract him to write an opera on The Tempest on a libretto by Eugène Scribe, and even announced as forthcoming in the year of his death, but the libretto was eventually set by Fromental Halévy.
Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto in E Minor, op. 64 (1844), written for Ferdinand David, has become one of the most popular of his compositions. Many violinists have commenced their solo careers with a performance of this concerto, including Jascha Heifetz, who gave his first public performance of the piece at the age of seven.
He also wrote two piano concertos, a less well known (early) violin concerto, and a "double concerto" for piano and violin. In addition, there are several works for the soloist and orchestra in one movement. Those for piano are the Rondo Brillant, Op. 29 of 1834; the Capriccio Brillant, Op. 22 of 1832; and the Serenade and Allegro Giojoso, Op. 43 of 1838. Opp. 113 and 114 are Konzertstücke (concerto movements) for clarinet, basset horn, and piano that were orchestrated and performed in that form in Mendelssohn's lifetime.
Mendelssohn's mature output contains many chamber works that display an emotional intensity some people deem lacking in his larger works. In particular his String Quartet, op. 80 in F minor (1847), his last major work, written following the death of his sister Fanny is both powerful and eloquent. Other pieces include two string quintets, sonatas for the clarinet, cello, viola and violin, and two piano trios. For the first of these trios, in D minor (1839), Mendelssohn unusually took the advice of a fellow-composer, Ferdinand Hiller, and rewrote the piano part in a more Romantic, 'Schumannesque' style, considerably heightening its effect.
The two large biblical oratorios, St. Paul in 1836 and Elijah in 1846, show a great influence by Bach. Elijah is particularly popular, combining some of Mendelssohn's most dramatic music with his most sublime. One of the most frequently performed sacred pieces is "There Shall a Star Come out of Jacob," a chorus from the unfinished oratorio, Christus, which together with the preceding recitative and male trio comprises all of the existing material from that work. Mendelssohn also wrote many smaller-scale sacred works for unaccompanied choir and for choir with organ, including "Hear My Prayer," which includes the famous solo "O for the wings of a dove."
Strikingly different is the more overtly 'Romantic' Die Erste Walpurgisnacht (The First Walpurgis Night), a setting for chorus and orchestra of a ballad by Goethe describing pagan rituals of the Druids in the Harz mountains in the early days of Christianity. This remarkable score has been seen by scholar Heinz-Klaus Metzger as a "Jewish protest against the domination of Christianity."
Mendelssohn wrote numerous songs for solo voice and duet. Some of these, such as "O for the Wings of a Dove" (adapted from the anthem "Hear My Prayer"] became extremely popular.  A number of songs written by his sister Fanny originally appeared under Felix's name; this was partly due to the prejudice of the family, and partly to her own diffidence.
Mendelssohn's Lieder ohne Wörte (Songs Without Words), eight cycles each containing six lyric pieces (2 published posthumously), remain his most famous solo piano compositions. They became standard parlour recital items, and their overwhelming popularity has caused many critics to underrate their musical value. Other composers who were inspired to produce similar pieces included Charles Valentin Alkan, Anton Rubinstein, Ignaz Moscheles, and Edvard Grieg.
Other notable piano pieces include his Variations sérieuses op. 54 (1841), the Seven Characteristic Pieces, op. 7 (1827) and the set of six Preludes and Fugues op. 35 (written between 1832 and 1837).
Mendelssohn played the organ and composed for it from the age of 11 to his death. His primary organ works are the Three Preludes and Fugues, Op. 37 (1837), and the Six Sonatas, Op. 65 (1845).
There are numerous published editions and selections of Felix's letters. A complete edition is now (2006) in preparation but is expected to take twenty years to complete.
The main collections of Mendelssohn's original musical autographs and letters can be found in the Bodleian Library, Oxford University, the New York Public Library, and the Staatsbibliothek in Berlin. His letters to Moscheles are in the Brotherton Collection, Leeds University.
All links retrieved April 5, 2017.
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