Composer Profile: Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847)

Felix-Mendelssohn
Felix Mendelssohn

Perhaps the greatest of the Romantic composers, Jakob Ludwig Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy never lost the respectable middle-class sensibilities with which he was raised. Not for him the crass showmanship of Liszt, or the drug-induced excesses of Berlioz. In this he was likely the product of his upbringing: his parents were Jewish and his father, Abraham, was a banker and the son of the noted German Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn. His mother, too, was an educated and cultured woman (she spoke several languages, and could ‘read Homer in the original [Greek]’). The Mendelssohn household was a place filled with music and intellectual life, but also with a careful avoidance of religious commitment. Felix was not circumcised, and received the name Jakob only when he was baptised as a reformed Protestant at the age of seven. His parents had begun using the German surname Bartholdy, adopted from Lea Mendelssohn’s brother, in 1812 and were baptised in 1822.

In other words, Felix was raised to be clever, cultured, and ‘acceptable’. As a Jewish family in the anti-Semitic culture of 19th century Europe that meant adopting the trappings of Christianity. Musically, it would mean composing music that pleased, rather than confronted, the hearer, and at this Mendelssohn would excel.

Both Felix and his older sister Fanny (there were also two younger siblings, Paul and Rebeckah, although they never achieved the fame of their older brother and sister) were recognised as having exceptional musical talent from an early age, but while they were trained and encouraged to develop their talents their parents did not initially support a musical career for either child. For Fanny, social convention dictated that a well-bred woman did not pursue a career of any kind (the power, once again, of social convention), and she remained an amateur pianist and composer all her life, although she was reckoned to be the equal of her brother. In the case of Felix, however, Abraham relented once he felt assured that his son was sincerely committed to a musical career.

That commitment was obvious from an early age. Felix began composing before he reached his teens, and one of his most famous works is his ‘Overture to Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, composed when he was just seventeen. This was one of the first overtures which drew inspiration from, and made musical reference to, a play whilst being intended for standalone performance rather than performance as part of the play, something which would become common during the Romantic period.

At twenty, Mendelssohn conducted a performance of Bach’s ‘St. Matthew Passion’ in Berlin, having received a copy of the score from his grandmother four years earlier. This performance was a runaway success which sparked a revival of popular interest in the work of Bach. He would later be responsible for similar revivals of interest in the works of Handel and Schubert. In 1843 he founded the Leipzig Conservatory, now the Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy University of Music and Theatre, and still a major centre for musical education, and he made no fewer than ten visits to Britain over the course of his career, premiering a number of works there and gaining a significant British following as a result.

Fanny Mendelssohn
Fanny Mendelssohn

The Mendelssohn family were always close. In 1836, following the premiere of his ‘St. Paul’ oratorio, which occurred shortly after his father’s death, Mendelssohn wrote that he would “never cease to endeavour to gain his approval […] although I can no longer enjoy it”. When his beloved sister Fanny died in May of 1847 Mendelssohn, who had been experiencing ill health for several years, went into decline. He died six months later, at the age of 38.

In spite of his early death, Mendelssohn left behind a significant body of work, much of which continues to be enjoyed today. Perhaps his most recognisable piece is the ‘Wedding March’ from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but ‘Fingal’s Cave’ (The Hebrides Overture) must rank a close second. Then there are his ‘Songs Without Words’, the ‘Italian’ and ‘Scottish’ symphonies, the St. Paul and Elijah  oratorios (link is to the confrontation between Elijah and the priests of Baal), concertos and chamber music, works for the piano and organ… the list goes on.

Are you familiar with the works of Mendelssohn? Do you have a favourite piece?

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