Felix Mendelssohn 

Composer (1809-1849)

Felix Mendelssohn was born in Hamburg and was of a distinguished, intellectual and banking family. His grandfather was the renowned Jewish philosopher of the Enlightenment, Moses Mendelssohn. His family converted to Christianity and adopted the name of Bartholdy. Moses Mendelssohn's son Abraham worked in Paris as a banker in 1803-4 and there he met Lea Salomon whom he married in 1804. Her grandfather, was a factory and property owner and financial adviser to Friedrich II. He was one of the most affluent citizens of Berlin and therefore enjoyed special privileges. Abraham moved to Hamburg after his marriage and went into partnership with his brother into the banking business. He and Lea had four children, one of whom was Felix. Then in 1811 Abraham and his family fled to Berlin to avoid persecution from French occupying forces. Felix's father became town councillor in Berlin after the victory against the Napoleonic alliance and he enjoyed a rapidly advancing position.

At first Felix was educated by his parents and from a young age he proved to be very artistic, not only in music, but also in poems and drawings. From 1815 his piano instructor was Ludwig Berger. The nine-year-old Felix made an extremely successful private début with a Concert militaire by F. X. Dusek. Carl Friedrich Zelter, friend of Goethe and principal of the Berlin Singakademie, began to instruct Mendelssohn in theory and composition in 1819. Thereafter, a profusion of sonatas, concertos, string symphonies, piano quartets and Singspiels revealed his increasing master of counterpoint and form. In 1821 he wrote the G minor Sonata which was first published posthumously as op.105. Early influences included the poetry of Goethe (whom he knew from 1821) and the Schlegel translations of Shakespeare; these are traceable in his best music of the period, including the exuberant String Octet op.20 and the vivid, poetic overture to A Midsummer Night's Dream op.21.

Felix and his family travelled to Switzerland in 1822 and soon afterwards Swiss folk songs were incorporated into two of the early symphonies. He also wrote the C Minor Piano Quartet op.1 around this period. He composed four more string symphonies, the F minor Violin Sonata op.4, the F Minor Piano Quartet op.2 and the C Minor Symphony op.11, a double concerto for violin and piano and two for two pianos.

Mendelssohn set out on his travels in 1829, having been greatly encouraged by his parents. He arrived in London, having been invited to go there by Klingemann who lived there as a diplomat. The latter, along with others, introduced the artist to the social scene in London and Mendelssohn appeared before the public in four large-scale concerts. He travelled to Scotland after the concert season and was inspired to compose the Scottish Symphony. Also the island of Staffa, with its 'Fingal's Cave', inspired the composer to write the overture Die Hebriden Op.26. He arrived back in Berlin on December 7th and here he staged the Liederspiel Die Heimkehr aus der Fremde for the silver wedding anniversary of his parents.

At the age of 21, the composer was offered the chair of music at the University of Berlin but he declined and the following year in 1830 he set off for Italy, a trip which was recommended to him by Goethe. In Rome Mendelssohn completed the Overture Die Hebriden and started composing the Italian Symphony. He was deeply impressed by Pompeii and by the poverty in Naples. He visited many of the major cities in Italy and arrived back in Germany in October where he gave a concert in Munich that included the Symphony op.11, the overture to A Midsummer Night's Dream and the completed G Minor Piano Concerto. In the winter he travelled to Paris where he met Chopin and also gave successful concerts at the Conservatoire.

Following a performance by Mendelssohn in Düsseldorf in 1833, he received a promising commission that required his services there for two years as city music director, receiving an annual salary of 600 thalers with three months' leave of absence. He was required to conduct Catholic church music and organize the city music society.

Mendelssohn deputized for his friend J.N. Scheible as director of the Cäcilienverein, an amateur choral society in Frankfurt am Main, in the summer of 1836, a period when the composer was shattered due to the recent death of his father. During this time he lived with relatives of a friend of his, a widow and her two daughters. He got engaged to one of her daughters, Cécile Charlotte Sophia Jeanrenaud and got married in Frankfurt on March 28th, 1837. He composed the String Quartet in E Minor op.44 no.2, the D Minor Piano Concerto and a setting of Psalm xlii on his honeymoon and during the following summer when he was on a visit to Bingen am Rhein. Mendelssohn moved to Leipzig with his young wife and they had three sons and two daughters together.

Mendelssohn's most important achievement as a conductor and music organizer was in Leipzig between the years 1835 and 1847 when he conducted, on and off, the Gewandhaus Orchestra which met with great success. Here in Leipzig Mendelssohn campaigned for the recognition of forgotten 18th century works, introducing Bach's orchestral suites, Mozart's symphonies, as well as symphonies and concertos of Beethoven. Also Mendelssohn wanted to cultivate the general musical appreciation of his audiences and thus introduced listeners to music by Handel and Mozart and other famous artists as well as contemporary composers. He conducted works like Schubert's C Major Symphony and Schumann's first two symphonies and piano concerto. He also founded and directed the Leipzig Conservatory in 1843.

The death of Friedrich Wilhelm III, King of Prussia, was very significant in Mendelssohn's career. His son and successor, Friedrich Wilhelm IV made great changes to the artistic sectors in Berlin, for example adding a section for music, painting, sculpture and architecture in the Academy of Arts. The king asked the dynamic Mendelssohn to move to Berlin to be in charge of the whole enterprise. Mendelssohn's first task was to help the King to accomplish the assignment of ushering in a renaissance of Greek tragedy with incidental music. With the help of artists and linguistic advisers, Mendelssohn was able to accomplish this task but despite this success, the composer did not find the field of activity that had been promised him in Berlin. The King was not able to keep all his promises of reforming the artistic sectors of the city. Mendelssohn was only afforded one opportunity of public appearance during the winter season 1841-2. During the same winter he travelled to Leipzig several times to fulfil his concert obligations.

During the summer of 1842 he went to London once again and performed the Scottish Symphony at the Philharmonic Society on June 13th. He was received twice by Queen Victoria and the Prince Consort Albert and in gratitude Mendelssohn dedicated the Scottish Symphony to the queen.

Mendelssohn decided to withdraw from his Berlin obligations but did not sever his ties with the King of Prussia due to his mother's influence. The King appointed him general music director and entrusted him with the supervision and direction of sacred music. In this way, even though he was still in the King's service, he had no binding duties and could devote himself completely to the Gewandhaus orchestra.

When Mendelssohn's mother died in 1842, he went into an emotional crisis but overcame it by undertaking a complete revision of the cantata Die erste Walpurgisnacht. This was performed in 1843 at the Gewandhaus and had Berlioz as a member of the audience.

In August 1845 Felix resumed his earlier activities at the Gewandhaus, following a request by the Saxon Minister Falkenstein, and here he shared his duties with an assistant. That summer he completed the Quintet B Flat op.87.

When the composer returned to Frankfurt am Main on May 12th 1847, following his final visit to England, he learnt the devastating news of the death of his sister Fanny. He went to Baden-Baden to try and recover from the shock. In July he went to Interlaken where he composed his last great work, the String Quartet in F minor op.80 which was composed as a 'Requiem for Fanny'. When he returned to Leipzig his friends were not happy with the condition he was in which was worsened by a week's journey to Berlin to visit his sister's grave. He became seriously ill and suffered a slight stroke in October. He died on November 4th at 9.24p.m and his coffin, after the mourning ceremony, was taken by special train to Berlin where he was buried in the Trinity Cemetery near the grave of his sister Fanny.


 
 
 
On Stage
Siebte Konzert FilarmonicoDonnerstag 17 April
um 20:00
in Teatro Filarmonico
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