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Felix Mendelssohn: Felix Mendelssohn, in full Jakob Ludwig Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, (born February 3, 1809, Hamburg [Germany]—died November 4, 1847, Leipzig), German composer, pianist, musical conductor, and teacher, one of the most-celebrated figures of the early Romantic period. In his music Mendelssohn largely observed Classical models and practices while initiating key aspects of Romanticism—the artistic movement that exalted feeling and the imagination above rigid forms and traditions. Among his most famous works are Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1826), Italian Symphony (1833), a violin concerto (1844), two piano concerti (1831, 1837), the oratorio Elijah (1846), and several pieces of chamber music. He was a grandson of the philosopher Moses Mendelssohn.
Felix Mendelssohn was born of Jewish parents, Abraham and Lea Salomon Mendelssohn, from whom he took his first piano lessons. Though the Mendelssohn family was proud of their ancestry, they considered it desirable in accordance with 19th-century liberal ideas to mark their emancipation from the ghetto by adopting the Christian faith. Accordingly, Felix Mendelssohn, together with his brother and two sisters, was baptized in 1816 as a Lutheran. In 1822, when his parents were also baptized, the entire family adopted the surname Bartholdy, following the example of Felix Mendelssohn's maternal uncle, who had chosen to adopt the name of a family farm.
In 1811, during the French occupation of Hamburg, the family had moved to Berlin, where Felix Mendelssohn studied the piano with Ludwig Berger and composition with Carl Friedrich Zelter, who, as a composer and teacher, exerted an enormous influence on his development. Other teachers gave the Felix Mendelssohn children lessons in literature and landscape painting, with the result that at an early age Felix Mendelssohn's mind was widely cultivated. His personality was nourished by a broad knowledge of the arts and was also stimulated by learning and scholarship. He traveled with his sister to Paris, where he took further piano lessons and where he appears to have become acquainted with the music of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
Felix Mendelssohn was an extemely precocious musical composer. He wrote numerous compositions during his boyhood, among them 5 operas, 11 symphonies for string orchestra, concerti, sonatas, and fugues. Most of these works were long preserved in manuscript in the Prussian State Library in Berlin but are believed to have been lost in World War II. He made his first public appearance in 1818—at age nine—in Berlin.
In 1821 Felix Mendelssohn was taken to Weimar to meet J.W. von Goethe, for whom he played works of Johann Sebastian Bach and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and to whom he dedicated his Piano Quartet No. 3. in B Minor (1825). A remarkable friendship developed between the aging poet and the 12-year-old musician. In Paris in 1825 Luigi Cherubini discerned Felix Mendelssohn's outstanding gifts. The next year he reached his full stature as a composer with the A Midsummer Night’s Dream" class="md-crosslink">Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The atmospheric effects and the fresh lyrical melodies in this work revealed the mind of an original composer, while the animated orchestration looked forward to the orchestral manner of Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov.
Felix Mendelssohn also became active as a conductor. On March 11, 1829, at the Singakademie, Berlin, he conducted the first performance since Bach’s death of the St. Matthew Passion, thus inaugurating the Bach revival of the 19th century. Meanwhile he had visited Switzerland and had met Carl Maria von Weber, whose opera Der Freischütz, given in Berlin in 1821, encouraged him to develop a national character in music. Felix Mendelssohn's great work of this period was the String Octet in E Flat Major (1825), displaying not only technical mastery and an almost unprecedented lightness of touch but great melodic and rhythmic originality. Felix Mendelssohn developed in this work the genre of the swift-moving scherzo (a playful musical movement) that he would also use in the incidental music to A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1843).
In the spring of 1829 Felix Mendelssohn made his first journey to England, conducting his Symphony No. 1 in C Minor (1824) at the London Philharmonic Society. In the summer he went to Scotland, of which he gave many poetic accounts in his evocative letters. He went there “with a rake for folksongs, an ear for the lovely, fragrant countryside, and a heart for the bare legs of the natives.” At Abbotsford he met Sir Walter Scott. The literary, pictorial, and musical elements of Felix Mendelssohn's imagination are often merged. Describing, in a letter written from the Hebrides, the manner in which the waves break on the Scottish coast, he noted down, in the form of a musical symbol, the opening bars of The Hebrides (1830–32). Between 1830 and 1832 he traveled in Germany, Austria, Italy, and Switzerland and in 1832 returned to London, where he conducted The Hebrides and where he published the first book of the piano music he called Lieder ohne Worte (Songs Without Words), completed in Venice in 1830. Felix Mendelssohn, whose music in its day was held to be remarkable for its charm and elegance, was gradually becoming the most popular of 19th-century composers in England. His main reputation was made in England, which, in the course of his short life, he visited no fewer than 10 times. At the time of these visits, the character of his music was held to be predominantly Victorian, and indeed he eventually became the favourite composer of Queen Victoria herself.
Felix Mendelssohn's subtly ironic account of his meeting with the queen and the prince consort at Buckingham Palace in 1843, to both of whom he was affectionately drawn, shows him also to have been alive to both the pomp and the sham of the royal establishment. His Symphony No. 3 in A Minor–Major, or Scottish Symphony, as it is called, was dedicated to Queen Victoria. And he became endeared to the English musical public in other ways. The fashion for playing the “Wedding March” from his A Midsummer Night’s Dream at bridal processions originates from a performance of this piece at the wedding of the Princess Royal after Felix Mendelssohn's death, in 1858. In the meantime he had given the first performances in London of Ludwig van Beethoven's Emperor and G Major concerti. He was among the first to play a concerto from memory in public — Felix Mendelssohn's memory was prodigious — and he also became known for his organ works. Later the popularity of his oratorio Elijah, first produced at Birmingham in 1846, established Felix Mendelssohn as a composer whose influence on English music equaled that of George Frideric Handel. After his death this influence was sometimes held to have had a stifling effect. Later generations of English composers, enamoured of Richard Wagner, Claude Debussy, or Igor Stravinsky, revolted against the domination of Felix Mendelssohn and condemned the sentimentality of his lesser works. But there is no doubt that he had, nevertheless, succeeded in arousing the native musical genius, at first by his performances and later in the creative sphere, from a dormant state.
A number of new experiences marked the grand tour that Felix Mendelssohn had undertaken after his first London visit. Lively details of this tour are found in his long series of letters. On Goethe’s recommendation he had read Laurence Sterne’s Sentimental Journey, and, inspired by this work, he recorded his impressions with great verve. In Venice he was enchanted by the paintings of Titian and Giorgione. The papal singers in Rome, however, were “almost all unmusical,” and Gregorian music he found unintelligible. In Rome he describes a “haggard” colony of German artists “with terrific beards.” Later, at Leipzig, where Hector Berlioz and Felix Mendelssohn exchanged batons, Berlioz offered an enormous cudgel of lime tree covered with bark, whereas Felix Mendelssohn playfully presented his brazen contemporary with a delicate light stick of whalebone elegantly encased in leather. The contrast between these two batons precisely reflects the violently conflicting characters of the two composers.
In 1833 Felix Mendelssohn was in London again to conduct his Italian Symphony (Symphony No. 4 in A Major–Minor), and in the same year he became music director of Düsseldorf, where he introduced into the church services the masses of Beethoven and Cherubini and the cantatas of Bach. At Düsseldorf, too, he began his first oratorio, St. Paul. In 1835 he became conductor of the celebrated Gewandhaus Orchestra at Leipzig, where he not only raised the standard of orchestral playing but made Leipzig the musical capital of Germany. Frederic Chopin and Robert Schumann were among his friends at Leipzig, where, at his first concert with the Gewandhaus Orchestra, he conducted his overture Meeresstille und glückliche Fahrt (1828–32; Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage).
In 1835 Felix Mendelssohn was overcome by the death of his father, Abraham, whose dearest wish had been that his son should complete the St. Paul. He accordingly plunged into this work with renewed determination and the following year conducted it at Düsseldorf. The same year at Frankfurt he met Cécile Jeanrenaud, the daughter of a French Protestant clergyman. Though she was 10 years younger than himself, that is to say, no more than 16, they became engaged and were married on March 28, 1837. His sister Fanny, the member of his family who remained closest to him, wrote of her sister-in-law: “She is amiable, childlike, fresh, bright and even-tempered, and I consider Felix Mendelssohn most fortunate for, though inexpressibly fond of him, she does not spoil him, but when he is capricious, treats him with an equanimity which will in course of time most probably cure his fits of irritability altogether.” This was magnanimous praise on the part of Fanny, to whom Felix Mendelssohn was drawn by musical as well as emotional ties. Fanny was not only a composer in her own right—she had herself written some of the Songs Without Words attributed to her brother—but she seems to have exercised, by her sisterly companionship, a powerful influence on the development of his inner musical nature.
Works written over the following years include the Variations sérieuses (1841), for piano, the Lobgesang (1840; Hymn of Praise), Psalm CXIV, the Piano Concerto No. 2 in D Minor (1837), and chamber works. In 1838 Felix Mendelssohn began the Violin Concerto in E Minor–Major" class="md-crosslink">Violin Concerto in E Minor–Major. Though he normally worked rapidly, throwing off works with the same facility as one writes a letter, this final expression of his lyrical genius compelled his arduous attention over the next six years. In the 20th century the Violin Concerto was still admired for its warmth of melody and for its vivacity, and it was also the work of Felix Mendelssohn's that, for nostalgic listeners, enshrined the elegant musical language of the 19th century. Nor was its popularity diminished by the later, more turgid, and often more dramatic violin concerti of Johannes Brahms, Béla Bartók, and Alban Berg. It is true that many of Felix Mendelssohn's works are cameos, delightful portraits or descriptive pieces, held to lack the characteristic Romantic depth. But occasionally, as in the Violin Concerto and certain of the chamber works, these predominantly lyrical qualities, so charming, naive, and fresh, themselves end by conveying a sense of the deeper Romantic wonder.
In 1843 Felix Mendelssohn founded at Leipzig the conservatory of music where, together with Robert Schumann, he taught composition. Visits to London and Birmingham followed, entailing an increasing number of engagements. These would hardly have affected his normal health; he had always lived on this feverish level. But at Frankfurt in May 1847 he was greatly saddened by the death of Fanny. It is at any rate likely that for a person of Felix Mendelssohn's sensibility, living at such intensity, the death of this close relative, to whom he was so completely bound, would undermine his whole being. In fact, after the death of his sister, his energies deserted him, and, following the rupture of a blood vessel, he soon died.
Though the music of Felix Mendelssohn, stylish and elegant, does not fill the entire musical scene, as it was inclined to do in Victorian times, it has elements that unite this versatile 19th-century composer to the principal artistic figures of his time. In the Midsummer Night's Dream music, with its hilarious grunting of an ass on the bassoon and the evocative effect of Oberon’s horn, Felix Mendelssohn becomes a partner in Shakespeare's fairyland kingdom. The blurred impressionist effects in The Hebrides foreshadow the later developments of the painter J.M.W. Turner. Wagner understood Felix Mendelssohn's inventive powers as an orchestrator, as is shown in his own opera The Flying Dutchman, and, later, the French composers of the 20th century learned much from his grace and perfection of style.
The appeal of Felix Mendelssohn's work has not dwindled in the 21st century. It is true that Elijah is not so frequently performed as it once was and some of his fluent piano works are now overshadowed by the more-enduring works of Beethoven and Schumann. But the great pictorial works of Felix Mendelssohn, the Scottish and Italian symphonies, repeatedly yield new vistas, and the Songs Without Words retain their graceful beauty. Felix Mendelssohn was one of the first of the great 19th-century Romantic composers, and in this sense he remains even today a figure to be rediscovered.
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