Felix Mendelssohn was a German composer of the Romantic era in the first half of the nineteenth century whose life presents many challenges for a biographer. Mendelssohn’s musical reputation has undergone extreme shifts from high to low and back to greater, but more nuanced appreciation of his musical contributions. Mendelssohn was a prodigy, gifted not only in music but also intellectually and artistically. He was born to a German Jewish family but after his baptism as a Protestant Christian in his childhood, he remained a Christian throughout his life.
R. Larry Todd, a professor of Musicology at Duke University, brings his expertise in Mendelssohn studies to this biography. The result is a detailed examination of every aspect of Mendelssohn’s life grounded in primary manuscript sources and the extensive published literature on this composer. The book begins with Mendelssohn’s family background to understand his place within the German Jewish community. The author gives much attention to Mendelssohn’s youth and conservative musical education. Professor Todd interweaves events in the musician’s life, the people with whom he interacted, and his travels with analysis of the works he composed. The book ends with Mendelssohn’s death and funeral in 1847.
Despite the thoroughness of information and the excellent analysis of the musical works, the author only hints at the deeper meaning of major issues in Mendelssohn’s life. Examples include the intense relationship with his musical sister, Fanny, and the composer’s conflicted expressions of religious sensibility as seen in his many works of sacred music. Mendelssohn: A Life in Music, however, will remain a standard source and will provide a solid grounding for future explorations of problems surrounding Mendelssohn’s life and work.