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About Felix Mendelssohn

Learn about the composer, Felix Mendelssohn

Felix Mendelssohn: Overview

  • Born: 1809 - Hamburg, Germany
  • Died: 1847 - Leipzig, Germany
  • Historical Period: Romantic 
  • Musical Media: orchestra, chamber music, keyboard, opera, songs, theatrical 

Jakob Ludwig Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy or simply Felix Mendelssohn was born into a Jewish family in Germany in the year 1809. He was alive at a time when German, and European music as a whole, was undergoing transition and change. Mendelssohn spent his career writing operas, symphonies, sonatas, concerti and much more before passing away in 1847 in Leipzig. 

Dive deeper into Felix Mendelssohn's life and music: The Underrated Austrian Tunesmith

When Hamburg was under French dominion, Mendelssohn’s family shifted to Berlin, where the young man grew up learning music from the likes of Ludwig Berger and Carl Friedrich Zelter. This hugely developed his mental faculties for the piano and composition. Traveling to Paris, Mendelssohn received more piano lessons and made his public debut in 1818.  

The composer dedicated his Piano Quartet No. 3. in B Minor (1825) to writer J.W. von Goethe. Going ahead from here, he was widely acknowledged as a bona fide composer after writing the Overture from A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1826). In 1829, Mendelssohn acted as the conductor for the St. Matthew Passion at Sing-Akademie zu Berlin. Notable pieces of this period were the String Octet in E Flat Major (1825), which highlighted his technical mastery and originality. 

The year 1829 marked the artist’s first visit to England, where he conducted Symphony No. 1 in C Minor (1824) for the London Philharmonic Society. Additionally, in the next years, he kept himself busy with The Hebrides (1830–32) and published Lieder ohne Worte (1832), a book for piano musical pieces. The Song No. 6, better known as the Spring Song or Frühlingslied from Lieder ohne Worte, was also named Camberwell Green in England. Mendelssohn re-visited London in 1833 and conducted his Symphony No. 4 in A Major–Minor or Italian Symphony, as it’s more commonly known. That very year, he assumed the position of Düsseldorf’s music director and started writing the oratorio, St. Paul, Op. 36, performed in 1836. Meeresstille und glückliche Fahrt (1828–32) was an overture which deserves a special mention for having the same inspiration source as Beethoven's cantata from 1815. 

After Mendelssohn’s father passed in 1835, and in 1837, the young man married Cécile Jeanrenaud, who was 10 years younger than him. She was just 16 when they got engaged. Mendelssohn fathered five children. 

Some of his notable works post-marriage were: 

  • Violin Concerto in E Minor–Major (1838)
  • Variations sérieuses (1841)
  • Lobgesang (1840)
  • Piano Concerto No. 2 in D Minor (1837)

Mendelssohn’s dedicated Symphony No. 3 in A Minor–Major (1829-42) to Queen Victoria. An ever-energetic man, Mendelssohn built up the swift-moving scherzo genre, which he also used in his incidental music version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1842).

Mendelssohn was instrumental in his efforts to bring Bach’s music to the forefront of musical conductions and discussions. He had an exceptional memory which allowed him to perform a public concerto without the written music. Elijah (1846), an oratorio, announced him as one of the greatest influences on English music, rivaling the influence of even George Handel. 

It is true that Mendelssohn's music does not demonstrate innovations in harmonic perception or structural scale comparable to the likes of Beethoven or Mozart. Even so, his body of work is huge and extremely identifiable with him. The problem that appeared with his work was that he wrote music in styles that were fast becoming old fashioned and anachronistic as opposed to the more popular symphonies in his time. This significantly contributed to Mendelssohn's shift into obscurity.

Future anti-Semitism and racial oppression, along with Richard Wagner’s own racial words and the Nazi era spelled further doom for Mendelssohn's artistry. His music was banned and his name was supposedly struck off every German record that the Nazis could find. Even before that eventuality, however, the composer’s reputation declined in the 1880s. 

Felix Mendelssohn’s brilliance lay in the fact that he skillfully integrated his original pieces with elements of Romantic and Classical music to form an extremely unique style. He became a leader among composers in the 1830s, and enjoyed great fame and respect until his death in Leipzig in 1847. His music has affected Western styles of his time is undeniable and his own tireless efforts to resurrect forgotten tunes from the past make him a wonderful artist, as well as an enduring human being. 


 

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