Tuesday, February 3, 8809

Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) - Revivals

Jakob Ludwig Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy, born and generally known as Felix Mendelssohn

(February 3, 1809, Hamburg, Germany - November 4, 1847) was born to a notable Jewish family which later converted to Lutheranism; he was a grandson of the

philosopher Moses Mendelssohn.

Felix was the son of a banker, Abraham Mendelssohn (who later changed his surname to Mendelssohn Bartholdy, and of Lea Salomon, a member of the Itzig family and the sister of Jakob Salomon Bartholdy.

Mendelssohn grew up in an environment of intense intellectual ferment. The greatest minds of Germany were frequent visitors to his family's home in Berlin, including Wilhelm von Humboldt and Alexander von Humboldt. His sister Rebecka married the mathematician Lejeune Dirichlet.

Abraham sought to renounce Judaism; his children were first brought up without religious education, and were baptized as Lutherans in 1816 (at which time Felix took the additional names Jakob Ludwig). (Abraham and his wife were not themselves baptized 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.

The family moved to Berlin in 1812. Abraham and Lea Mendelssohn sought to give Felix, his brother Paul, and sisters Fanny and Rebecka, the best education possible.

His sister Fanny Mendelssohn (later Fanny Hensel), became a pianist and 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 (by either Abraham or Felix) for a woman to have a career in music. Six of her early songs were later published (with her consent) under Felix's name. Incredible.

Like Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart before him, Mendelssohn was regarded as a child prodigy. 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 13. 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 (besides his native German) 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 1821 and 1823, 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 Symphony No. 1 in C Minor, Op. 11. At the age of 16 he wrote his String Octet in E Flat Major (Op. 20), the first work which showed the full power of his genius. The Octet and his overture to Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, Op. 21 (1826),

which he wrote a year later, are the best known of his early works.

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.

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 1840's with a libretto by Eugène Scribe based on Shakespeare's The Tempest, but rejected it as unsuitable.


Op. 27, Meeresstille und glückliche Fahrt (Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage, after Goethe), Overture in D major for orchestra (1828)


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 whose music 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 Emanuel 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 J.S. 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's son (Judensohn) to revive the greatest Christian music for the world!' (cited by Devrient in his memoirs of the composer).

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 Symphony No. 1 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

[The Marriage of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, 1840 -- both bride and groom at 21]

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


Hebrides Overture ("Fingal's Cave), Op. 26 (1830)


Symphony No. 4 in A major ("Italian"), Op. 90 (1833)

The work has its origins, like the composer's Scottish Symphony and the orchestral overture The Hebrides (Fingal's Cave), in the tour of Europe which occupied Mendelssohn from 1829 to 1831. Its inspiration is the colour and atmosphere of Italy. The Italian Symphony was completed in 1833, and was first performed in London at a Royal Philharmonic Society concert. However, Mendelssohn remained unsatisfied with the composition and even wrote an alternate version of the second, third, and fourth movements. He never published the symphony, which only appeared in print after his death.

The piece is scored for 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, timpani and strings. It is in four movements:

I. Allegro vivace

II. Andante con moto

III. Con moto moderato

IV. Saltarello: Presto

The joyful first movement, in sonata form, is followed by an impression in D minor of a religious procession the composer witnessed in Naples. The third movement is a minuet and trio, while the final movement (which is in the minor key throughout) incorporates dance figurations from the Roman saltarello and the Neapolitan tarantella.

A typical performance lasts about half an hour.


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.

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.

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.


St. Paul (Oratorio) for choir and orchestra (1836), Op. 36

Psalm 42 for choir and orchestra (1837), Op. 42


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 Mendelssohn Bartholdy, Felix, and Lilli. Mendelssohn was an accomplished painter in watercolors, 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 also revived interest in the work of Franz Schubert. Schumann discovered the manuscript of Schubert's Symphony No. 9 ("The Great") and sent it to Mendelssohn who promptly premiered it in Leipzig on 21 March 1839, more than a decade after the composer's death.


Antigone for male choir and orchestra (1841), Op. 55

Symphony No. 3 in A Minor ("Scottish"), Op. 56 (1841): II. Vivace non troppo


In 1842, Mendelsson wrote incidental music for William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, Op. 61, including II. Scherzo,

VI. Nocturne and

VII. Wedding March,

16 years after penning his overture to the same drama.


Op. 62, Songs Without Words for piano, Book 5, Op. 62 (1842-1844)

No. 6 Allegretto grazioso in A major ("Frühlingslied" or "Spring Song")


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.

Violin Concerto in E Minor, Op. 64 (1844): I

Elijah, Op. 70 (1846): XXIX. He Watching Over Israel

Elijah was premiered in Birmingham at the Triennial Music Festival on August 26, 1846.


Loreley, Op. 98 (opera) (unfinished) (1847)


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.

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.


Saint-Simonianism was a French socialist movement of the first half of the 19 Century. The movement is named after Claude Henri de Rouvroy, comte de Saint-Simon who promoted ideas of Christian socialism but after his death, the movement that formed around his ideas became increasingly extreme in its religious views.

The movement was centered around the École Polytechnique. After roughly 1830, the Saint-Simonians led by Barthélemy Prosper Enfantin formed an increasingly religiously-minded Messianic group, before being banned by the authorities in 1832.

Saint-Simonianism had some influence in England, particularly among the followers of Joanna Southcott who shared the Saint-Simonian idea that a female messiah would come soon.


Mendelssohn thought the Paris style of opera vulgar,

and the works of Meyerbeer insincere.

When Ferdinand Hiller, himself Jewish, 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,

[Richard Wagner, 1850]

irked Richard Wagner sufficiently to damn Mendelssohn with faint praise, three years after his death, in the 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. The Nazi regime was to cite Mendelssohn's Jewish origin in banning his works and destroying memorial statues. Such avowedly anti-Semitic political opposition to Mendelssohn should of course be differentiated from expressions of artistic or aesthetic disdain for Mendelssohn's music such as those found in Charles Rosen's essay, who disparages Mendelssohn's style for "religious kitsch."

In England, Mendelssohn's reputation remained high for a long time; the adulatory novel Charles Auchester by the teenaged Sarah Sheppard, published in 1851, which features Mendelssohn as the "Chevalier Seraphael," remained in print for nearly 80 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.

Mendelssohn's Wedding March from A Midsummer Night's Dream was played as a piece of ceremonial music at the wedding of Queen Victoria's daughter, Princess Victoria, The Princess Royal, to Crown Prince Frederick of Prussia in 1858 and it is still popular today at marriage ceremonies. His sacred choral music, particularly the smaller-scale works, remain enduringly popular in the choral tradition of the Church of England. However many critics, including Bernard Shaw, began to condemn Mendelssohn's music for its association with Victorian cultural insularity.

[8810 Chopin / 8809 Mendelssohn / 8803 Berlioz]