Felix Mendelssohn

Recognized as one of Europe’s leading Renaissance men of the 19th century, Felix Mendelssohn is one of the most popular composers of the early Romantic period. Transcending classical circles, his work is perhaps more famous than the man himself, as his Wedding March from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” has provided the soundtrack to the finale of countless nuptial ceremonies.

The grandson of German philosopher Moses Mendelssohn, Felix was born in 1809 to a wealthy, intellectual family from the city of Hamburg. In 1816, shortly after relocating to Berlin, his banker father, Abraham, renounced their Jewish faith and converted to Lutheranism, baptizing the children and taking on the new surname of Bartholdy. In addition, Felix, the second born and oldest son, acquired two new Christian names and was hereunto known as Jakob Ludwig Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy, though he went by his original name on most occasions. The Mendelssohn Bartholdy household was one of intense intellectual vigor, frequently hosting diplomats, famous explorers, and others from the world of science, mathematics, and philosophy.

Felix and his older sister Fanny both took a keen interest in music, taking piano lessons from their mother at an early age, forming a close bond. While both excelled at the instrument, as well as composition, conventional belief at the time regarding women’s societal roles forbade Fanny from proceeding beyond amateur status. Rebelling against cultural stereotypes, she secretly published a number of works under her brother’s name. Felix, with encouragement, quickly became a child prodigy, studying composition at the Berlin Singakademie under Carl Friedrich Zelter and making his performance debut at the age of nine. In addition to formal education, Mendelssohn self educated by befriending musicians, artists, writers, and philosophers from all walks of life, young and old. His friendship with Ignaz Moscheles began with piano lessons, but the teacher quickly realized the pupil was already his equal. The two would go on to form a lasting friendship, and Moscheles would play an important role throughout Mendelssohn’s life.

Mendelssohn completed works of great maturity before he left adolescence, including twelve string symphonies before he was 14. His first symphony for full orchestra, Symphony No. 1 in C Minor, Op. 11, was completed at the age of 15 and owes an obvious debt to Mozart and Bach. Mendelssohn’s display of true originality emerged a year later with the piece Octet for Strings in E Flat Major, Op. 20. Played in the style of a symphony, the piece was the first of its kind with eight individual parts, as opposed to a double quartet, and is still considered one of the greatest examples of the form. Another legendary piece completed before adulthood was the Overture to “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”. Musically evoking scenes from the Shakespearian play, it was one of the earliest concert overtures ever written. Inspired by the German translation of the play, it features the orchestra simulating the sounds of scurrying fairies and a honking donkey. Mendelssohn would go on the write the incidental music for the complete “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” sixteen years later, featuring the ubiquitous Wedding March.

As a young man, Mendelssohn was largely responsible for the resurgence in popularity of the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. Surprisingly, Bach’s music was considered antiquated by the early 19th century and was rarely performed, an issue Mendelssohn sought to rectify. In 1829, with the assistance of Zelter, his former instructor, a revival of St. Matthew’s Passion was staged in Berlin, the first public performance of the work since before Bach’s death 79 years earlier. With Zelter’s orchestra and choir on loan from the Berlin Singakademie, Mendelssohn arranged and conducted the Passion with resounding success, restoring Bach’s legacy. At the age of 20, Mendelssohn’s name was known throughout Europe.

Spending much of his young adulthood on tour, Mendelssohn’s travels throughout Europe fueled his inspiration and bore substantial fruit. His first trip to the United Kingdom, arranged by his friend Moscheles, was met with immediate enthusiasm. Conducting his first symphony with the Royal Philharmonic Society and performing individual piano concerts, Mendelssohn became the toast of English musical society. He would visit the island nation ten times throughout his life, even befriending Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, who were great admirers.

So taken with the landscape of Scotland, Mendelssohn completed two Scottish themed works of great importance. His initial trip to the United Kingdom sparked the idea that would become his final completed symphony, Symphony No. 3 in A Minor, Op. 56, “The Scottish Symphony”, though it would take a dozen years to complete. The island of Staffa, off the west coast of Scotland, held great appeal for Mendelssohn, and was the subject of Hebrides Overture Op. 26. Also known as Fingal’s Cave, named after the natural landform, the piece utilized the rocky lair’s unusual echoing properties as a musical device.

Among his most famous works, Symphony No. 4 in A Major, Op. 90, “The Italian Symphony”, conveys the atmosphere of the Mediterranean country’s people, landscape, and art. However, Mendelssohn was ultimately not satisfied with the work, and it remained unpublished until after his death. Likewise, Symphony No. 5 in D Major, Op. 107, “The Reformation Symphony”, written in honor of the 300th anniversary of the founding of the Lutheran Church was also published posthumously. It is interesting to note that Mendelssohn’s symphonies are not numbered in the order completed, but rather in the order they were published.

In 1835, Mendelssohn became conductor of Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, where he relished the opportunity to contribute to Germany’s musical legacy. Eight years later, he founded the Conservatory of Music in Leipzig. Now known as the Felix Mendelssohn College of Music and Theatre, the institution still thrives today with alumni including Edvard Grieg, Frederick Delius, Robert Schumann, and Arthur Sullivan, among many others.

At the age of 28, he married Cécile Jeanrenaud, and the couple had five children. They shared a conventional home life, but Mendelssohn had a feverish work ethic and often overexerted himself. This led to serious health issues by the time he was 38. His health spiraled further downward following the death of his beloved sister Fanny, resulting in a number of strokes and eventual passing in November of 1847.

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