On March 11, 1829, history was made at the Berlin-Singakademie. For the first time in about a century, Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion” was presented to the German public by the then 20-year old Mendelssohn. When Mendelssohn had first come upon the work, a young man of 15, he had seen in it both beauty and artistic proficiency and had dreamt of one day bringing them to life. This was not only realized five years later but – according to the public, reviewers, and critics – was brilliantly so (Kamien 29). That was Mendelssohn. Everything he set to achieve, which included a lot, he did seemingly with ease and success.
Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy had three siblings, one older and two younger than him, with his birthday being on February 3,1809. His father was a wealthy banker Abraham Mendelssohn based in Hamburg, and his mother was Leah Salomon. Abraham was himself the son of Moses Mendelssohn, a famous Jewish philosopher of the time. Owing to the family’s well-to-do intellectual background, young Felix received a good education and grew up in an environment that favored both artistic and intellectual growth. Like Mozart, Mendelssohn was considered a child prodigy. Abraham Mendelssohn would often joke that where previously he had been his father’s son, he was now his son’s father (Martens 47). Having begun piano and violin lessons at the age of six, Felix showed such great musical talent that from 1819, he and his older sister, Fanny, began lessons with Friedrich Zelter who was to have a profound influence on the music of Mendelssohn. Zelter also introduced the young impressionable Felix to German poet Johann von Goethe, then 72, to whom he dedicated one his later works, Piano Quartet in B minor. In addition to playing instruments, young Mendelssohn also painted and was highly gifted in languages
By this time, the Mendelssohn family had moved to Berlin and in their home, the intellectual elite of the city often intermingled. This group was Mendelssohn’s first audience of his performances as well as his works. In his early teens, Mendelssohn had written about 12 symphonies for such gatherings and had composed a piano quartet for publication. However, it is largely due to his musical proposition to Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” which he composed at 17, that Mendelssohn’s popularity extended beyond his living room into the world. This work is often referred to as one of the first illustrations of a concert overture, a popular genre of the Romantic era that is meant for concert performance, rather than accompaniment of a staged performance (Kennedy and Joyce 128). Mendelssohn studied at Berlin University from 1826 to 1829, deciding on music as his chosen career and culminating in his revival of Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion.”
In the years that followed, Mendelssohn travelled widely to such places as London, Milan, Rome, Florence and Vienna, inspiring in him such works as Hebrides Overture and the Italian and Scottish symphonies. He moved to Leipzig at the age of 26 where he became the lead director of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, therefore formulating his own works as well as replicating those of Handel, Bach and Beethoven. He also continued composing prolifically and gained great admiration in Britain where he premiered his oratorio Elijah, on 26 August 1846. In addition to composing, conducting and performing, Mendelssohn also worked on advancing Leipzig’s orchestral scene. With the help of various musical institutions, such as the orchestra and the opera house, Mendelssohn organized a series of concerts that helped place Leipzig’s musical life among the best in Europe. His contemporaries often offered their works to Mendelssohn for performance. On discovering Schubert’s 9th Symphony for instance, Robert Schumann had the idea of Mendelssohn conducting it and the latter individual presented it in Leipzig in 1839.
Added to Mendelssohn’s many duties too were his roles as husband and father. He had met and married Cecile Jeanrenaud in 1832 and with her had a happy marriage, blessed with five children. He was very close to his family including his parents, and the oldest of his siblings, Fanny. Fanny was herself an excellent musician who, due to her gender however, was not as widely known as her brother. During the time, a career in music was not considered appropriate for women; therefore, Fanny never got a chance to refine her talent. Interestingly, some works previously thought to be Mendelssohn’s have been discovered in recent years to be by Fanny but due to the closeness between the two siblings, had been published under Mendelssohn’s name (Kamien, 2006). He differed from those in his generation including Wagner, Berlioz and Schumann, as he led a happy, untroubled, conventional life. When his father died in 1835 however, Mendelssohn suffered a great loss. The death of his mother seven years later added to the tragedy. However, it was the untimely demise of Fanny in March 1847 that he would never be able to recover from. Devastated by the loss, Mendelssohn suffered two strokes, the second of which killed him eight months after his sister’s death. Just like Mozart, he died painfully young.
Mendelssohn’s contributions to the musical world are numerous. He wrote for every genre known at the time and his large volume of work includes five symphonies, concert overtures, an opera, two oratorios, numerous chamber compositions, piano music, organ music, songs and concertos, including his famous Violin Concerto in E minor, Op. 64, considered among the best in the repertoire (Kamien, 2006). His music’s effects extend to this day. Indeed, his well-known Wedding March in C major has guided many a bride down the aisle. Mendelssohn was also a proficient keyboard performer, a noted conductor, a teacher and an editor, chiefly of Baroque music. It is true that he experienced more popularity during his lifetime than he does posthumously. Critics argue that had his life been more tortured, perhaps like Wagner’s or Schumann’s, Mendelssohn would have been another Bach or Mozart (Martens 137). Whatever the case may be, it is undeniable that Felix Mendelssohn is deserving of a place in the pantheon of great musical gods.
Kamien, Roger. Music: An appreciation. Dubuque: McGraw-Hill Higher Education, 2006. Print.
Kennedy, Michael and Joyce Bourne. The Oxford dictionary of music. London: Oxford University Press, 1994. Print.
Martens, Helen. Felix Mendelssohn: Out of the depths of his heart. Enumclaw: Annotation Press, 2009. Print.