Felix Jakob Ludwig Mendelssohn-Bartholdy (1809-1847) was a German composer, conductor, pianist, and organist. He infused a basic classical approach to musical composition with fresh romantic harmonies and expressiveness.
Felix Mendelssohn was born in Hamburg on Feb. 3, 1809, the son of Abraham and Leah Mendelssohn and the grandson of the famous Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn. In later years Felix's father humorously referred to himself as "formerly the son of my father and now the father of my son." In 1812 the family moved to Berlin, where Abraham established himself as a banker, converted to Protestantism, and changed the family name to Mendelssohn-Bartholdy.
Felix and his elder sister, Fanny, received their initial piano instruction from their mother. In 1816, on a visit to Paris, he studied with the pianist Marie Bigot. The next year he began formal composition studies with Carl Friedrich Zelter, a composer greatly admired by the poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.
Mendelssohn's first public appearance occurred at the age of 9. Famous musicians gave concerts every Sunday at his father's house; in addition to broadening the musical horizons of the gifted boy, they enabled him, as a budding composer, to test many of his works as he wrote them. In 1819 he entered the Singakademie, and from that time on compositions flowed steadily from his pen. In 1820, for example, he produced two piano sonatas, a violin sonata, songs, a quartet for men's voices, a cantata, and a short opera.
In 1821 Mendelssohn became acquainted with Carl Maria von Weber, whose compositions served as a romantic model for his own. Later that year Zelter took him to Weimar to meet Goethe, who described the lad of 12 as having "the smallest modicum of the phlegmatic and the maximum of the opposite quality."
The first public presentation of Mendelssohn's works took place in 1822. That year he also wrote his official Opus 1, a Piano Quartet in C Minor. All these works were well received. He had a private orchestra, for which he wrote the work now known as Symphony No. 1 in C Minor. He also continued with work in other genres, such as the Piano Quartet in F Minor (1823).
In 1824 the famous pianist Ignaz Moscheles arrived in Berlin from London, and for a time Mendelssohn studied piano with him. The following year Mendelssohn visited Paris, where he met many eminent composers and performed his Piano Quartet in B Minor, dedicated to Goethe. Luigi Cherubini, who was present at the performance, offered to take Mendelssohn as a pupil, but he decided to return to Berlin, greatly elated with his French successes. There he wrote with mature craftsmanship the celebrated Midsummer Night's Dream Overture. The remainder of the incidental music to Shakespeare's play did not appear until 1842.
In 1827 Mendelssohn's only opera, Die Hochzeit des Camacho (The Marriage of Camacho), based on Cervantes' Don Quixote, was presented in Berlin. It was not successful, owing in part to the machinations of Gasparo Spontini, who had earlier tried to prevent its production. More successful was the Octet for Strings, one of Mendelssohn's freshest and most original works. The same year he became acquainted with Anton Thibaut, a professor of law and a gifted amateur writer on music who was concerned with revitalizing interest in old church music. Through him, Mendelssohn came to know the masterpieces of Renaissance and early baroque choral music. For some years he also attended the University of Berlin but kept on with his flow of compositions. In 1828 appeared the Goethe-inspired overture Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage.
On March 11, 1829, a great musical event occurred: Mendelssohn conducted the Singakademie in the first complete performance of Johann Sebastian Bach's St. Matthew Passion since the composer's death. The work was a huge success, and the performance was of decisive importance to all subsequent German composers for it marked the beginning of the revival of Bach's works.
Later that year Mendelssohn visited England, where he conducted a concert of the Philharmonic Society. He took a long trip through Scotland, where he sketched the now famous Hebrides, or Fingal's Cave, Overture. On his return to Berlin he was offered the post of professor of music at the university but turned it down.
After writing the Reformation Symphony (1830) Mendelssohn began a series of visits to various European cities that lasted for almost 3 years. After a short stay with Goethe at Weimar, Mendelssohn went to Rome. Both the Scottish and the Italian Symphonies were begun in Italy. In the autumn he returned to Germany and played his newly composed Piano Concerto in G Minor in Munich. In 1832 he left for London, where he conducted the Hebrides Overture and the Piano Concerto in G Minor with great acclaim. That same year his first book of Songs without Words (Lieder ohne Worte) was published.
On Mendelssohn's return to Berlin he tried to succeed Zelter at the Singakademie but was passed over. In 1833 he was made conductor of the Lower Rhine Music Festival in Düsseldorf, where he annually presented both new and old works otherwise rarely heard. As a result of his success with the festival, he was appointed general musical director in Düsseldorf later that year. He also produced the Schöne Melusine Overture and the beginning of his oratorio St. Paul.
In 1835 Mendelssohn became director of the Gewandhaus concerts in Leipzig. He made Leipzig into a musical center of European significance because of his gifts as conductor, his creativity, and his all-encompassing musical erudition. He featured many contemporary compositions, such works as the C Major Symphony of Franz Schubert, newly discovered by Robert Schumann, whom Mendelssohn had met shortly before, and selected compositions of J.S. Bach. The only sadness he experienced was the death of his father in 1835.
In 1836 Mendelssohn received an honorary doctorate from the University of Leipzig. He finished the oratorio St. Paulin the spring, and it was performed in May at the Lower Rhine Festival in Düsseldorf. Later that year he met Cécile Jeanrenaud, the daughter of a Huguenot minister, whom he married in 1837. Five children were born of this marriage.
The next few years witnessed a literal outpouring of new compositions, including the overture Ruy Blas, the Lobgesang (Hymn of Praise), and the Variations sérieuses. In 1837 Mendelssohn visited London, conducted his St. Paul at the Birmingham Festival, and conceived the idea for a new oratorio on the subject of Elijah.
Upon the urging of the king of Prussia, Mendelssohn was appointed music director of the Academy of Arts in Berlin. Until 1845 he worked intermittently in Berlin without relinquishing his post at Leipzig. Interspersed were trips to London, with performances of his works in London and Birmingham.
In 1843 Mendelssohn founded the Leipzig Conservatory of Music, the first of its kind in Germany. He completed the Scottish Symphony, the Violin Concerto, and other major works of his maturity in Leipzig. In 1844 he conducted five Philharmonic concerts in London, and in 1846 he gave the first performance of his Elijah, written for the Birmingham Festival of that year. His chief occupation was still as conductor of the Gewandhaus concerts, but he also functioned as director of the Leipzig Conservatory, teaching piano and composition as part of his duties.
Mendelssohn's health began to fail in 1844. Three years later he was literally devastated by the death of his beloved sister, Fanny, on May 14. From then on his health deteriorated markedly, and although he ventured a short summer trip to Switzerland to recuperate, finishing the String Quartet in F Minor, he returned exhausted to Leipzig, where he died on Nov. 4, 1847, at the age of 38.
The best all-around work in English on Mendelssohn is Eric Werner, Mendelssohn: A New Image of the Composer and His Age (trans. 1963). Also useful are Percy M. Young, Introduction to the Music of Mendelssohn (1949), and Philip Radcliffe, Mendelssohn (1954). For a detailed approach to one of Mendelssohn's major works, which is much broader in its approach than the title suggests, Jack Werner, Mendelssohn's "Elijah": A Historical and Analytical Guide to the Oratorio (1965), is strongly recommended. For general historical background see Donald Jay Grout, A History of Western Music (1960).