Felix Mendelssohn

2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: Performers and composers

Portrait by James Warren Childe 1839
Portrait by James Warren Childe 1839

Jakob Ludwig Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy, born and known generally as Felix Mendelssohn ( February 3, 1809 – November 4, 1847) was a German composer and conductor of the early Romantic period. He was born to a notable Jewish family, being the grandson of the philosopher Moses Mendelssohn. His work includes symphonies, concertos, oratorios, piano and chamber music. After a long period of relative denigration due to changing musical tastes in the late 19th century, his creative originality is now being recognized and re-evaluated, and he is now among the most popular composers of the Romantic era.


Mendelssohn was born in Hamburg, the son of banker, Abraham Mendelssohn Bartholdy, who was himself the son of Moses Mendelssohn, and of Lea Salomon, a member of the Itzig family and the sister of Jakob Salomon Bartholdy.

Abraham sought to renounce the Jewish religion; his children were first brought up without religious education, and were baptised as Lutherans in 1816 (at which time Felix took the additional names Jakob Ludwig). (Abraham and his wife were not themselves baptised until 1822). The name Bartholdy was assumed at the suggestion of Lea's brother, Jakob, who had purchased a property of this name and adopted it as his own surname. Abraham was later to explain this decision in a letter to Felix as a means of showing 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'. Although Felix continued to sign his letters as 'Mendelssohn Bartholdy' in obedience to his father's injunctions, he seems not to have objected to the use of 'Mendelssohn' alone.

Mendelssohn's music room in Leipzig
Mendelssohn's music room in Leipzig

The family moved to Berlin in 1812. Abraham and Lea Mendelssohn sought to give Felix, his brother Paul, and sisters Fanny and Rebecka (who later married the mathematician Lejeune Dirichlet), the best education possible. His sister Fanny Mendelssohn (later Fanny Hensel), became a well-known pianist and amateur composer; originally Abraham had thought that she, rather than her brother, might be the more musical. However, at that time, it was not considered proper for a woman to have a career in music, so Fanny remained an amateur musician.

Mendelssohn is often regarded as the greatest musical child prodigy after Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. He began taking piano lessons from his mother when he was six, and at seven was tutored by Marie Bigot in Paris. From 1817 he studied composition with Carl Friedrich Zelter in Berlin. He probably made his first public concert appearance at the age of nine, when he participated in a chamber music concert. He was also a prolific composer as a child, and wrote his first published work, a piano quartet, by the time he was thirteen. Zelter introduced Mendelssohn to his friend and correspondent, the elderly Goethe. He later took lessons from the composer and piano virtuoso Ignaz Moscheles who however confessed in his diaries that he had little to teach him. Moscheles became a close colleague and lifelong friend.

Besides music, Mendelssohn's education included art, literature, languages, and philosophy. He was a skilled artist in pencil and watercolour, he could speak English, Italian, and Latin, and he had an interest in classical literature.

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. Mendelssohn wrote 12 string symphonies between the ages of 12 and 14. These works were ignored for over a century, but are now recorded and heard occasionally in concerts. In 1824, still aged only 15, he wrote his first symphony for full orchestra (in C minor, Op. 11). At the age of 16 he wrote his String Octet in E Flat Major, the first work which showed the full power of his genius. The Octet and his overture to Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, which he wrote a year later, are the best known of his early works. (He wrote incidental music for the play 16 years later in 1842, including the famous Wedding March.) 1827 saw the premiere — and sole performance in his lifetime — of his opera, Die Hochzeit des Camacho. The failure of this production left him disinclined to venture into the genre again; he later toyed for a while in the 1840s with a libretto by Eugene Scribe based on Shakespeare's The Tempest, but rejected it as unsuitable.

From 1826 to 1829, Mendelssohn studied at the University of Berlin, where he attended lectures on aesthetics by Hegel, on history by Eduard Gans and on geography by Carl Ritter.

In 1829 Mendelssohn paid his first visit to Britain, where Moscheles, already settled in London, introduced him to influential musical circles. He had a great success, conducting his First Symphony and playing in public and private concerts. In the summer he visited Edinburgh and became a friend of the composer John Thomson. On subsequent visits he met with Queen Victoria and her musical husband Prince Albert, both of whom were great admirers of his music. In the course of ten visits to Britain during his life he won a strong following, and the country inspired two of his most famous works, the overture Fingal's Cave (also known as the Hebrides Overture) and the Scottish Symphony (Symphony No. 3). His oratorio Elijah was premiered in Birmingham at the Triennial Music Festival on 26 August 1846.

On the death of Zelter, Mendelssohn had some hopes of becoming the conductor of the Berlin Singakademie with which he had revived Johann Sebastian Bach's St Matthew Passion (see below). However he was defeated for the post by Karl Rungenhagen. This may have been because of Mendelssohn's youth, and fear of possible innovations; it was also suspected by some (and possibly by Mendelssohn himself) to be on account of his Jewish origins.

Felix Mendelssohn's study in Leipzig
Felix Mendelssohn's study in Leipzig

Nonetheless, in 1835 he was appointed as conductor of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra. This appointment was extremely important for him; he felt himself to be a German and wished to play a leading part in his country's musical life. In its way it was a redress for his disappointment over the Singakademie appointment. Despite efforts by the king of Prussia to lure him to Berlin, Mendelssohn concentrated on developing the musical life of Leipzig and in 1843 he founded the Leipzig Conservatory, where he successfully persuaded Ignaz Moscheles and Robert Schumann to join him.

Mendelssohn's personal life was conventional. His marriage to Cécile Jeanrenaud in March of 1837 was very happy and the couple had five children: Carl, Marie, Paul, Felix, and Lilli. Mendelssohn was an accomplished painter in watercolours, and his enormous correspondence shows that he could also be a witty writer in German and English — sometimes accompanied by humorous sketches and cartoons in the text.

Mendelssohn suffered from bad health in the final years of his life, probably aggravated by nervous problems and overwork, and he was greatly distressed by the death of his sister Fanny in May 1847. Felix Mendelssohn died later that same year after a series of strokes, on November 4, 1847, in Leipzig. His funeral was held at the Paulinerkirche and he is buried in the Trinity Cemetery in Berlin- Kreuzberg.

Felix Mendelssohn's grave
Felix Mendelssohn's grave

Revival of Bach's and Schubert's music

Mendelssohn's own works show his study of Baroque and early classical music. His fugues and chorales especially reflect a tonal clarity and use of counterpoint reminiscent of Johann Sebastian Bach, by whom he was deeply influenced. His great-aunt, Sarah Levy (née Itzig) was a pupil of Bach's son, Wilhelm Friedemann Bach, and had supported the widow of another son Carl Philipp Emmanuel Bach. She had collected a number of Bach manuscripts. J.S. Bach's music, which had fallen into relative obscurity by the turn of the 19th century, was also deeply respected by Mendelssohn's teacher Zelter. In 1829, with the backing of Zelter and the assistance of a friend, the actor Eduard Devrient, Mendelssohn arranged and conducted a performance in Berlin of Bach's St Matthew Passion. The orchestra and choir were provided by the Berlin Singakademie of which Zelter was the principal conductor. The success of this performance (the first since Bach's death in 1750) was an important element in the revival of J.S. Bach's music in Germany and, eventually, throughout Europe. It earned Mendelssohn widespread acclaim at the age of twenty. It also led to one of the very few references which Mendelssohn ever made to his origins: 'To think that it took an actor and a Jew-boy (Judensohn) to revive the greatest Christian music for the world' (cited by Devrient in his memoirs of the composer).

Mendelssohn also revived interest in the work of Franz Schubert. Schumann discovered the manuscript of Schubert's Ninth Symphony and sent it to Mendelssohn who promptly premiered it in Leipzig on 21 March 1839, more than a decade after the composer's death.


Throughout his life Mendelssohn was wary of the more radical musical developments undertaken by some of his contemporaries. He was generally on friendly, if somewhat cool, terms with the likes of Hector Berlioz, Franz Liszt, and Giacomo Meyerbeer, but in his letters expresses his frank disapproval of their works.

In particular, he seems to have regarded Paris and its music with the greatest of suspicion and an almost Puritanical distaste. Attempts made during his visit there to interest him in Saint-Simonianism ended in embarrassing scenes. He thought the Paris style of opera vulgar, and the works of Meyerbeer insincere. When Ferdinand Hiller suggested in conversation to Felix that he looked rather like Meyerbeer (they were distant cousins, both descendants of Rabbi Moses Isserlis), Mendelssohn was so upset that he immediately went to get a haircut to differentiate himself. It is significant that the only musician with whom he was a close personal friend, Moscheles, was of an older generation and equally conservative in outlook. Moscheles preserved this outlook at the Leipzig Conservatory until his own death in 1870.


This conservative strain in Mendelssohn, which set him apart from some of his more flamboyant contemporaries, bred a similar condescension on their part toward his music. His success, his popularity and his Jewish origins, irked Richard Wagner sufficiently to damn Mendelssohn with faint praise, three years after his death, in an anti-Jewish pamphlet Das Judenthum in der Musik. This was the start of a movement to denigrate Mendelssohn's achievements which lasted almost a century, the remnants of which can still be discerned today amongst some writers (for example, Charles Rosen's essay on Mendelssohn, whose style he criticizes as 'religious kitsch'). The Nazi regime was to cite Mendelssohn's Jewish origin in banning his works and destroying memorial statues.

In England, Mendelssohn's reputation remained high for a long time; the adulatory (and today scarcely readable) novel Charles Auchester by the teenaged Sarah Sheppard, published in 1851, which features Mendelssohn as the 'Chevalier Seraphael', remained in print for nearly eighty years. Queen Victoria demonstrated her enthusiasm by requesting, when The Crystal Palace was being re-built in 1854, that it include a statue of Mendelssohn. It was the only statue in the Palace made of bronze and the only one to survive the fire that destroyed the Palace in 1936. (The statue is now situated in Eltham College, London). Mendelssohn's Wedding March from A Midsummer Night's Dream was first played at the wedding of Queen Victoria's daughter, The Princess Victoria, The Princess Royal, to Crown Prince Frederick of Prussia in 1858 and it is still popular today. However many critics, including Bernard Shaw, began to condemn his music for its association with Victorian cultural insularity.

Over the last fifty years a new appreciation of Mendelssohn's work has developed, which takes into account not only the popular 'war horses', such as the E minor Violin Concerto and the Italian Symphony, but has been able to remove the Victorian varnish from the oratorio Elijah, and has explored the frequently intense and dramatic world of the chamber works. Virtually all of Mendelssohn's published works are now available on CD.

Recent critical evaluations of Mendelssohn's work have stressed the subtlety of his compositional technique. For example, the Hebrides Overture has been interpreted as presenting a musical equivalent to the aesthetic subject in the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich. The first lyrical theme, in this interpretation, represents the person apprehending the landscape described by the music behind this theme. Similarly, the use of French Horns in the opening movement of the Italian Symphony may represent a German presence in an Italian scene -- Mendelssohn himself on tour.


A portrait by Gustav Zerner of Felix Mendelssohn.
A portrait by Gustav Zerner of Felix Mendelssohn.

Juvenilia and early works

The young Mendelssohn was greatly influenced in his childhood by the music of Bach, Beethoven and Mozart and these can all be seen, albeit often rather crudely, in the twelve early 'symphonies,' mainly written for performance in the Mendelssohn household and not published or publicly performed until long after his death.

His astounding capacities are, however, clearly revealed in a clutch of works of his early maturity: the String Octet (1825), the Overture A Midsummer Night's Dream (1826) (which in its finished form owes much to the influence of Adolf Bernhard Marx, at the time a close friend of Mendelssohn), and the String Quartet in A minor (listed as no. 2 but written before no. 1) of 1827. These show an intuitive grasp of form, harmony, counterpoint, colour and the compositional technique of Beethoven, which justify the claims often made that Mendelssohn's precocity exceeded even that of Mozart in its intellectual grasp.


Mendelssohn wrote 12 symphonies for string orchestra from 1821 to 1823 (between the ages of 12 and 14).

The numbering of his mature symphonies is approximately in order of publishing, rather than of composition. The order of composition is: 1, 5, 4, 2, 3. (Because he worked on it for over a decade, the placement of No. 3 in this sequence is problematic; he started sketches for it soon after the No. 5, but completed it following both Nos. 5 and 4.)

The Symphony No. 1 in C minor for full-scale orchestra was written in 1824, when Mendelssohn was aged 15. This work is experimental, showing the influence of Bach, Beethoven and Mozart. Mendelssohn conducted this symphony on his first visit to London in 1829 with the orchestra of the Royal Philharmonic Society. For the third movement he substituted an orchestration of the Scherzo from his Octet. In this form the piece was an outstanding success and laid the foundations of his British reputation.

During 1829 and 1830 Mendelssohn wrote his Symphony No. 5 in D Major, known as the Reformation. It celebrated the 300th anniversary of the Lutheran Church. Mendelssohn remained dissatisfied with the work and did not allow publication of the score.

The Scottish Symphony ( Symphony No. 3 in A minor), was written and revised intermittently between 1830 and 1842. This piece evokes Scotland's atmosphere in the ethos of Romanticism, but does not employ actual Scottish folk melodies. Mendelssohn published the score of the symphony in 1842 in an arrangement for piano duet, and as a full orchestral score in 1843.

Mendelssohn's travels in Italy inspired him to write the Symphony No 4 in A major, known as the Italian. Mendelssohn conducted the premiere in 1833, but he did not allow this score to be published during his lifetime as he continually sought to rewrite it.

In 1840 Mendelssohn wrote the choral Symphony No. 2 in B flat Major, entitled Lobgesang (Hymn of Praise), and this score was published in 1841.

Other orchestral music

Mendelssohn wrote the concert overture The Hebrides (Fingal's Cave) in 1830, inspired by visits he made to Scotland around the end of the 1820s. He visited the cave, on the Hebridean isle of Staffa, as part of his Grand Tour of Europe, and was so impressed that he scribbled the opening theme of the overture on the spot, including it in a letter he wrote home the same evening.

Throughout his career he wrote a number of other concert overtures; those most frequently played today include Ruy Blas written for the drama by Victor Hugo and Meerestille und Glückliche Fahrt (Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage) inspired by the poem by Goethe.

The incidental music to A Midsummer Night's Dream (op. 61), including the well-known Wedding March, was written in 1843, seventeen years after the overture.


Mendelssohn wrote some Singspiels for family performance in his youth. His opera "Die beiden Neffen" was rehearsed for him on his fifteenth birthday. In 1827 he wrote a more sophisticated work, Die Hochzeit von Camacho, based on an episode in Don Quixote, for public consumption. It was produced in Berlin in 1827. Mendelssohn left the theatre before the conclusion of the first performance and subsequent performances were cancelled.

Although he never abandoned the idea of composing a full opera, and considered many subjects - including that of the Nibelung saga later adapted by Wagner - he never wrote more than a few pages of sketches for any project. In his last years the manager Benjamin Lumley tried to contract him to write an opera on The Tempest on a libretto by Eugène Scribe, and even announced it as forthcoming in the year of Mendelssohn's death. The libretto was eventually set by Fromental Halévy. At his death Mendelssohn left some sketches for an opera on the story of Lorelei.


Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto in E Minor, op. 64 (1844), written for Ferdinand David, has become one of the most popular of all of Mendelssohn's compositions. Many violinists have commenced their solo careers with a performance of this concerto, including Jascha Heifetz, who gave his first public performance of the piece at the age of seven.

Mendelssohn also wrote two piano concertos, a less well known, early, violin concerto, two concertos for two pianos and orchestra and a double concerto for piano and violin. In addition, there are several works for soloist and orchestra in one movement. Those for piano are the Rondo Brillant, Op. 29 of 1834; the Capriccio Brillant, Op. 22 of 1832; and the Serenade and Allegro Giojoso Op. 43 of 1838. Opp. 113 and 114 are Konzertstücke (concerto movements, originally for clarinet, basset horn and piano, that were orchestrated and performed in that form in Mendelssohn's lifetime.

Chamber Music

Mendelssohn's mature output contains many chamber works many of which display an emotional intensity some people think lacking in his larger works. In particular his string quartet op. 80 in F minor (1847), his last major work, written following the death of his sister Fanny, is both powerful and eloquent. Other works include two string quintets, sonatas for the clarinet, cello, viola and violin, and two piano trios. For the first of these trios, in D minor (1839), Mendelssohn unusually took the advice of a fellow-composer, ( Ferdinand Hiller) and rewrote the piano part in a more romantic, 'Schumannesque' style, considerably heightening its effect.


The two large biblical oratorios, ' St Paul' in 1836 and ' Elijah' in 1846, are greatly influenced by Bach. One of Mendelssohn's most frequently performed sacred pieces is "There Shall a Star Come out of Jacob", a chorus from the unfinished oratorio, 'Christus' (which together with the preceding recitative and male trio comprises all of the existing material from that work). Mendelssohn also wrote many smaller-scale sacred works for unaccompanied choir and for choir with organ including 'Hear my prayer', which includes the famous solo 'O for the wings of a dove'.

Strikingly different is the more overtly 'romantic' Die erste Walpurgisnacht (The First Walpurgis Night), a setting for chorus and orchestra of a ballad by Goethe describing pagan rituals of the Druids in the Harz mountains in the early days of Christianity. This remarkable score has been seen by the scholar Heinz-Klaus Metzger as a "Jewish protest against the domination of Christianity".


Mendelssohn wrote many songs for solo voice and duet. Some of these, such as 'O for the wings of a Dove' (adapted from the anthem Hear My Prayer) became extremely popular. A number of songs written by Mendelssohn's sister Fanny originally appeared under her brother's name; this was partly due to the prejudice of the family, and partly to her own diffidence.


Mendelssohn's Lieder ohne Worte ( Songs without Words), eight cycles each containing six lyric pieces (2 published posthumously), remain his most famous solo piano compositions. They became standard parlour recital items, and their overwhelming popularity has caused many critics to under-rate their musical value. Other composers who were inspired to produce similar pieces of their own included Charles Valentin Alkan (the five sets of Chants, each ending with a barcarolle), Anton Rubinstein, Ignaz Moscheles and Edvard Grieg.

Other notable piano pieces by Mendelssohn include his Variations sérieuses op. 54 (1841), the Seven Characteristic Pieces op. 7 (1827) and the set of six Preludes and Fugues op. 35 (written between 1832 and 1837).


Mendelssohn played the organ and composed for it from the age of 11 to his death. His primary organ works are the Three Preludes and Fugues, Op. 37 (1837), and the Six Sonatas, Op. 65 (1845).

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