The Composer Felix Mendelssohn
Felix Mendelssohn (German, 1809-1847) was a romantic composer and set new standards as a conductor that shaped the self-conception of conductors forever. His most famous compositions are his violin concerto in E minor (1838-1844) which is one of the 4 most played violin concertos ever and his music to the Midsummer Night’s Dream (Overture in 1826 and stage-music in 1842). He was very famous during his time but after his death, Richard Wagner launched a campaign against his legacy because of Mendelssohn’s Jewish background.
The Childhood of Mendelssohn
Felix Mendelssohn was the second of 4 children of the Jewish banker Abraham and Leah Mendelssohn. The children were brought up with Christian believe and the family adopted the Christian family name Bartholdy in 1816. At the same time, Felix received the additional baptismal names Jakob Ludwig. Hence, at the age of 8 years, his name became Jakob Ludwig Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy.
At the age of 6, Felix received piano lessons by his mother, but at 7, he and his older sister Fanny were already enrolled with a then famous piano teacher. When Felix turned 10, both children were taught composition by a composer who was famous at that time in Berlin, Germany. Felix was regarded as being a child prodigy, however, his father thought that Fanny was even more musical than Felix. Since musical careers for women were not considered proper at that time, she remained an active but non-professional musician and pianist. The wealthy family performed house-concerts on Sundays to which they invited their friends and associates which belonged to the intellectual elite. Between the ages of 12 and 14, Mendelssohn composed 12 string symphonies for such concerts but they have not been published until 100 years later.
Mendelssohn’s first published work was a piano quartet which he composed when he was 13. When he was 15, he composed his symphony No. 1 in C minor, Op. 11. The works showing his full genius are considered to be his following compositions: The String Octet in E–flat major that he wrote at the age of 16 and the Overture to Shakespear’s Midsummer Night’s Dream which he wrote at the age of 17. His overture is maybe the earliest example of a concert overture which was not composed to accompany a stage presentation but to present a literary theme in form of music. This genre became popular during the romantic era.
In 1829, at the age of 20, Mendelssohn arranged and conducted a performance in Berlin of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, a piece that had been forgotten since the baroque composer Bach’s death in 1750. The performance was a huge success and the start of the revival of Bach’s music in Germany and Europe in general. During the following years, Mendelssohn was already famous and traveled through Europe.
Starting 1833, Mendelssohn worked as conductor in Duesseldorf for 2 years and then for 12 years in Leipzig, both Germany. During this time, he revived the baroque composer Handel (German, 1685-1759) and the classical-romantic composer Schubert (Austria, 1797-1828) like he had done with Bach before. He also composed a vast number of works, and had a special focus on church music.
In 1837, at the age of 28, he married and had 5 children between 1838 and 1845. His most famous compositions were written in those years: His violin concerto in E minor (1838-1844) which is one of the 4 most played violin concertos ever and his stage music to Shakespeare’s play the Midsummer Night’s Dream in 1842. However, he had already written the famous overture of the piece when he was 17.
In 1843, Mendelssohn founded the very first academy of music in Germany, the major music school in Leipzig. It is now called Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy University of Music and Theatre. Mendelssohn taught at his school, composed and travelled frequently to London for conducting the performances of his works. Starting 1844, he had a love-affair with Swedish soprano Jenny Lind.
When he returned from a trip to London in May 1847, his sister Fanny had died. He retreated right away from all his work and took a long break. Starting in October he suffered from a series of strokes from which he died on November 4, 1847.
Mendelssohn composed works of extraordinary mastery at a very early age and maintained his youthful style. He revived the compositions of the baroque and classical era not only in Germany but also throughout Europe and founded the first academy of music in Germany.
He conducted with the baton, which was a great novelty at that time and innovated conducting through taking great care over tempo and dynamics. He also criticized and praised the orchestral players themselves until the performance was exactly how he wanted it to be. He had great success with this new approach of conducting and the only critic who was not impressed was Richard Wagner who complained that Mendelssohn would use too fast tempi for Beethoven’s symphonies.
After Mendelssohn’s death, Richard Wagner (German, 1813-1883) started a campaign against Mendelssohn due to his Jewish ancestors. Wagner published his pamphlet against Mendelssohn in 1850 and again extended in 1869. He managed that his reading of Mendelssohn’s accomplishments have been spread and that his opinion generally influenced the evaluation of Mendelssohn’s work. During the Nazi era, Mendelssohn’s works were not played and his memorials were removed.