Felix Mendelssohn

(History of the World: The 19th Century)

Article abstract: Mendelssohn was one of the great composers of the Romantic period. His music is noted for its exceptionally melodic qualities and its ability to capture a mood. It has been continually performed and studied.

Early Life

Felix Mendelssohn was an unusually gifted and precocious child musically and was the most prominent member of an exceptionally talented family. He worked long and diligently, absorbed in his music, aware of his subtle talent and discernment in music. He loved taking walks in the woods and often wrote down the notes he heard the birds singing. His first musical influence was his mother, Leah, an expert pianist and vocalist. When Felix was only four years old, she gave him five-minute piano lessons, soon extended as the music capivated Felix’s imagination. At age eight, Felix began music lessons with Karl Friedrich Zelter, the director of Berlin’s Singakademie. Before long, the young musical genius was composing fugues, songs, operettas, violin and piano concerti, and piano quartets. He performed Sunday concerts in his home and even conducted a small orchestra.

Abraham Mendelssohn, Felix’s father, was a prominent German banker, and his fashionable home was one of the intellectual and musical centers of Berlin. The excitement of learning reigned in Felix’s “childhood castle,” a home bustling with activity, servants, and tutors. Rebecka sang, Paul played the violoncello, and the eldest child, Fanny, played the piano almost as well as Felix. The children wrote their own newspaper, called at first “The Garden Paper” and, later, “The Tea and Snow Times.” They made paper lanterns to decorate the trees in the garden for dances. Felix particularly loved the park, where he rode his horse. He played billiards and chess and practiced the piano, organ, and violin. He learned landscape drawing and calligraphy.

Felix, a gentle, cheerful, kindly person, was handsome, self-confident, and even-tempered. His hair was dark black and his eyes, dark brown. He dressed elegantly, was very sociable, and loved good meals and stimulating companionship. He was sharply critical of his own work, revising five or six times pieces that had already been performed successfully.

Life’s Work

In a sense, Mendelssohn began his life’s work before he was ten years old, inasmuch as he was already busily composing music by that age. It was, however, the composition of his early masterpiece, A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1826), at the age of seventeen that launched him into a serious career as a composer.

An early extended trip throughout Germany and Switzerland gave Mendelssohn a love of travel. He visited most of the beautiful, historical, cultural, and scenic places of Europe, carrying his sketchbook with him. His first visit to England and Scotland in 1829, at the age of twenty, began his lifelong attraction to English culture. The English were similarly enchanted with both Mendelssohn and his music. Even on this first visit he conducted the London Philharmonic.

Also in 1829, Mendelssohn helped to revive the singing of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Saint Matthew Passion, which he had studied for years. Beginning in 1827, Mendelssohn and his friends assembled a small, dependable choir which met one evening a week for practice of rarely heard works. They secured permission to present the work at the Berlin Singakademie. Mendelssohn shortened the work drastically. He omitted many of the arias and used only the introductory symphonies of others. He edited passages for greater brevity. The performance was a historic success. The chorus numbered 158 and the orchestra included many from the Royal Orchestra. The king was in the royal loge with members of his court. And twenty-year-old Mendelssohn conducted without a score, as he knew the music and lyrics from memory. The historical effect was a Bach revival in Europe.

Despite his many musical activities, Mendelssohn had a very active social life and was often invited by families with girls of marriageable age. He was wealthy, cultured, courteous, handsome, of good moral character, and had a promising...

(The entire section is 1720 words.)