This article is about the German musician. For other people with the same surname, see Mendelssohn (surname). For other uses, see Mendelssohn (disambiguation).
Stretching to the heart
Portrait of Mendelssohn by the English miniaturist James Warren Childe, 1839
Jakob Ludwig Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy[n 1] (3 February 1809 – 4 November 1847), born and widely known as Felix Mendelssohn,[n 2] was a German composer, pianist, organist and conductor of the early Romanticperiod. Mendelssohn’s compositions include symphonies, concertos, pianomusic and chamber music. His best-known works include his overture and incidental music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the Italian Symphony, the Scottish Symphony, the oratorioElijah, the overture The Hebrides, his mature Violin Concerto, and his String Octet. The melody for the Christmas carol “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” is also his. Mendelssohn’s Songs Without Words are his most famous solo piano compositions.
A grandson of the philosopher Moses Mendelssohn, Felix Mendelssohn was born into a prominent Jewish family. He was brought up without religion until the age of seven, when he was baptised as a Reformed Christian. Felix was recognised early as a musical prodigy, but his parents were cautious and did not seek to capitalise on his talent.
Mendelssohn enjoyed early success in Germany, and revived interest in the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, notably with his performance of the St Matthew Passion in 1829. He became well received in his travels throughout Europe as a composer, conductor and soloist; his ten visits to Britain – during which many of his major works were premiered – form an important part of his adult career. His essentially conservative musical tastes set him apart from more adventurous musical contemporaries such as Franz Liszt, Richard Wagner, Charles-Valentin Alkan and Hector Berlioz. The Leipzig Conservatory,[n 3] which he founded, became a bastion of this anti-radical outlook. After a long period of relative denigration due to changing musical tastes and antisemitism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, his creative originality has been re-evaluated. He is now among the most popular composers of the Romantic era.
Felix Mendelssohn aged 12 (1821) by Carl Joseph Begas
Felix Mendelssohn was born on 3 February 1809, in Hamburg, at the time an independent city-state,[n 4] in the same house where, a year later, the dedicatee and first performer of his Violin Concerto, Ferdinand David, would be born. Mendelssohn’s father, the banker Abraham Mendelssohn, was the son of the German Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn, whose family was prominent in the German Jewish community. Until his baptism at age seven, Mendelssohn was brought up largely without religion. His mother, Lea Salomon, was a member of the Itzig family and a sister of Jakob Salomon Bartholdy. Mendelssohn was the second of four children; his older sister Fanny also displayed exceptional and precocious musical talent.
The family moved to Berlin in 1811, leaving Hamburg in disguise in fear of French reprisal for the Mendelssohn bank’s role in breaking Napoleon’s Continental System blockade.Abraham and Lea Mendelssohn sought to give their children – Fanny, Felix, Paul and Rebecka – the best education possible. Fanny became a pianist well known in Berlin musical circles as a composer; originally Abraham had thought that she, rather than Felix, would be the more musical. But it was not considered proper, by either Abraham or Felix, for a woman to pursue a career in music, so she remained an active but non-professional musician. Abraham was initially disinclined to allow Felix to follow a musical career until it became clear that he was seriously dedicated.
Mendelssohn grew up in an intellectual environment. Frequent visitors to the salon organised by his parents at their home in Berlin included artists, musicians and scientists, among them Wilhelm and Alexander von Humboldt, and the mathematician Peter Gustav Lejeune Dirichlet (whom Mendelssohn’s sister Rebecka would later marry). The musician Sarah Rothenburg has written of the household that “Europe came to their living room”.
Abraham Mendelssohn renounced the Jewish religion prior to Felix’s birth; he and his wife decided not to have Felix circumcised, in contravention of the Jewish tradition. Felix and his siblings were first brought up without religious education, and were baptisedby a Reformed Church minister in 1816, at which time Felix was given the additional names Jakob Ludwig. Abraham and his wife Lea were baptised in 1822, and formally adopted the surname Mendelssohn Bartholdy (which they had used since 1812) for themselves and for their children. The name Bartholdy was added at the suggestion of Lea’s brother, Jakob Salomon Bartholdy, who had inherited a property of this name in Luisenstadt and adopted it as his own surname. In an 1829 letter to Felix, Abraham explained that adopting the Bartholdy name was meant to demonstrate a decisive break with the traditions of his father Moses: “There can no more be a Christian Mendelssohn than there can be a Jewish Confucius”. (Letter to Felix of 8 July 1829). On embarking on his musical career, Felix did not entirely drop the name Mendelssohn as Abraham had requested, but in deference to his father signed his letters and had his visiting cards printed using the form ‘Mendelssohn Bartholdy’. In 1829, his sister Fanny wrote to him of “Bartholdy […] this name that we all dislike”.
Mendelssohn began taking piano lessons from his mother when he was six, and at seven was tutored by Marie Bigot in Paris. Later in Berlin, all four Mendelssohn children studied piano with Ludwig Berger, who was himself a former student of Muzio Clementi. From at least May 1819 Mendelssohn (initially with his sister Fanny) studied counterpoint and composition with Carl Friedrich Zelterin Berlin. This was an important influence on his future career. Zelter had almost certainly been recommended as a teacher by his aunt Sarah Levy, who had been a pupil of W. F. Bach and a patron of C. P. E. Bach. Sarah Levy displayed some talent as a keyboard player, and often played with Zelter’s orchestra at the Berliner Singakademie; she and the Mendelssohn family were among its leading patrons. Sarah had formed an important collection of Bach family manuscripts which she bequeathed to the Singakademie; Zelter, whose tastes in music were conservative, was also an admirer of the Bach tradition. This undoubtedly played a significant part in forming Felix Mendelssohn’s musical tastes, as his works reflect this study of Baroqueand early classical music. His fuguesand chorales especially reflect a tonal clarity and use of counterpoint reminiscent of Johann Sebastian Bach, whose music influenced him deeply.
First page of the manuscriptof Mendelssohn’s Octet (1825) (now in the US Library of Congress)
Mendelssohn probably made his first public concert appearance at the age of nine, when he participated in a chamber music concert accompanying a horn duo. He was a prolific composer from an early age. As an adolescent, his works were often performed at home with a private orchestra for the associates of his wealthy parents amongst the intellectual elite of Berlin. Between the ages of 12 and 14, Mendelssohn wrote 12 string symphonies for such concerts, and a number of chamber works. His first work, a piano quartet, was published when he was 13. It was probably Abraham Mendelssohn who procured the publication of this quartet by the house of Schlesinger. In 1824 the 15-year-old wrote his first symphonyfor full orchestra (in C minor, Op. 11).
At age 16 Mendelssohn wrote his String Octet in E-flat major, a work which has been regarded as “mark[ing] the beginning of his maturity as a composer.” This Octet and his Overture to Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which he wrote a year later in 1826, are the best-known of his early works. (Later, in 1843, he also wrote incidental music for the play, including the famous “Wedding March”.) The Overture is perhaps the earliest example of a concert overture – that is, a piece not written deliberately to accompany a staged performance but to evoke a literary theme in performance on a concert platform; this was a genre which became a popular form in musical Romanticism.
In 1824 Mendelssohn studied under the composer and piano virtuoso Ignaz Moscheles, who confessed in his diaries that he had little to teach him. Moscheles and Mendelssohn became close colleagues and lifelong friends. The year 1827 saw the premiere – and sole performance in his lifetime – of Mendelssohn’s opera Die Hochzeit des Camacho. The failure of this production left him disinclined to venture into the genre again.
Besides music, Mendelssohn’s education included art, literature, languages, and philosophy. He had a particular interest in classical literature and translated Terence’s Andria for his tutor Heyse in 1825; Heyse was impressed and had it published in 1826 as a work of “his pupil, F****” [i.e. “Felix” (asterisks as provided in original text)].[n 5] This translation also qualified Mendelssohn to study at the Humboldt University of Berlin, where from 1826 to 1829 he attended lectures on aesthetics by Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, on history by Eduard Gans.