The Amazing Mr Mendelssohn
Jacob Ludwig Felix Mendelssohn was born in Hamburg on 3 February 1809. His father, Abraham Mendelssohn, was a banker, and Felix’s paternal grandfather, Moses Mendelssohn (who died in 1786), was the pre-eminent Jewish philosopher of the Enlightenment in Germany. In 1811 Abraham Mendelssohn moved his family to Berlin, the city in which Felix spent his formative years.
Felix and his older sister Fanny were given a superb education by their loving parents, and this was principally overseen by their mother, Lea. The family travelled widely, and the children were given marvellous musical experiences and training, as well as a broad education in languages, literature and other arts. In 1816 the four Mendelssohn children (younger than Felix were Rebecka and Paul) were secretly baptised into the Protestant faith. Their parents became Protestants in 1822. (It was at this time surname Bartholdy was added to Mendelssohn. Bartholdy was the name taken by Lea’s brother, Jakob Salomon, when he converted to the Protestant faith some years before. It was the name of a family dairy farm.)
It is no exaggeration to say that Felix was a prodigy. His education proceeded at an astonishing rate and he was performing in public well before the age of ten, with audiences stunned by his skill. His musical studies were very broad, from the latest composers (Beethoven was in his middle period at the time) to Bach and Handel, who were then considered ancient rarities. He played solo works, concertos and chamber music and sang in a choir. By the time he was 12 he had written songs, piano works, choral works and a small opera.
When was 12, Mendelssohn began to write symphonies for string orchestra, and in just over two years had written twelve such works. Here’s the first of these string symphonies, written in 1821 when the composer was twelve and a half. [listen]
In addition to these symphonies, Mendelssohn produced an amazing amount of other music in 1821. This included two more operas, some sacred choral works, a piano sonata, and some fugues for string quartet.
In 1821 Mendelssohn was present at the premiere of Weber’s opera Der Freischütz, one of the most important events in the history of German opera. That same year also met Goethe in Weimar. Both these events were pivotal experiences for the young genius. Each year of his teens he produced amazing quantities of music, and those who heard his works, as well as those who heard him perform, were stunned by his apparently effortless skill. In his teens Mendelssohn also studied drawing and soon became a skilled painter, in addition to all his other abilities.
In 1823 Mendelssohn’s official opus 1 appeared - his first published work. It’s difficult to remember that this Piano Quartet in C minor was composed by a 13 year old. [listen]
At the end of 1823. Mendelssohn received a gift which would have far-reaching consequences: a copy of the score of Bach’s St Matthew Passion. He and Fanny had already established a devotion to the music of Bach, who at the time was not known to the public at large, only to serious students of music. After five years of study, Mendelssohn directed (at the age of 20) the first revival of the Matthew Passion since Bach’s day, and event remembered ever since as the event which returned Bach to the world.
While still in his teens, though, Mendelssohn travelled again to Paris where he met Cherubini and received the old master’s rarely-given approval. On his return to Berlin, in 1825, Mendelssohn completed his first indisputable masterpiece - the string Octet, op 20. Scored for a double string quartet (4 violins, 2 violas and 2 cellos), this incredible work makes us reach yet again for superlatives. Mendelssohn wrote this when he was 16... [listen]
Mendelssohn’s interest in literature and languages was maintained as well during his teens. At about the same time as he write Octet he made a German verse translation of the Latin play The Woman of Andros by the Roman playwright Terence. This was published the following year. He also read Shakespeare voraciously and when he was 17 composed another masterpiece: a concert overture based on A Midsummer Night’s Dream, one of his best-loved and most frequently-performed works. Mendelssohn’s amazing breathless style, as heard just now in the Octet, is one of the things which make the Midsummer Night’s Dream so magical. [listen]
From mid-1829 until mid-1833 Mendelssohn travelled widely, visiting England and Scotland for the first time, as well as going to Paris, Italy and many German cities. One of the works performed in London was his dazzling concerto in E for 2 pianos which had been written some years before and revised for the London performance. Mendelssohn played one of the solo parts; the other was played by the famous piano virtuoso Ignaz Moscheles. [listen]
It was during these travels that Mendelssohn came up with the initial ideas for some of his best-loved works. The visit to Scotland eventually led to the Hebrides overture and the Scottish Symphony. The visit to Italy led to the Italian symphony. The “Reformation” symphony also dated from this period. These symphonies are justly famous, but they tend to overshadow other, smaller-scale gems which Mendelssohn write during his travel years. The Rondo capriccioso op. 14, written in 1830, is a good example. [listen]
Another significant and often overlooked part of Mendelssohn’s output is his songs. The Twelve Lieder op 9, dating also from 1830, are, like the Twelve Songs op 8, beautiful gems on an intimate scale. Both collections are also interesting in that, of the 24 songs, six are actually by Fanny and not Felix. Fanny’s own musical gifts were extensive, and her relationship with her brother intense and loving, but it seems that Felix discouraged her from publishing her own works. The view of a woman’s role in Berlin society at the time didn’t include being a published composer, although a small amount of Fanny’s works were published under her on name. That Fanny’s songs could pass for those of her brother is instructive in itself, but Felix was a true master of the miniature form, as his op 9 songs demonstrate. [listen]
From 1833 to 1835, Mendelssohn was based in Düsseldorf, where he held the position of the city’s music director. This involved conducting and administration and naturally enough led to a reduction in the amount of music he composed. He threw himself into organising and conducting opera and choral music, and he was almost single-handedly responsible for the revival of the oratorio in 19th century Germany. He mounted works by Handel and Haydn, as well as choral works by composers going as far back as Palestrina. Before long he’d composed his own large-scale oratorio, St Paul (or Paulus in German), which was premiered in Düsseldorf in 1836. [listen]
By the time St Paul was performed, though, Mendelssohn had left his post in Düsseldorf and had started an association with Leipzig which would last until his death. In 1835 he became municipal music director of Leipzig and conductor of the Gewandhaus orchestra. He was 26. This position saw Mendelssohn make the Gewandhaus into one of the great European orchestras. He conducted 20 concerts each season (from March to October) and was involved behind the scenes in efforts to improve not only musical standards but also the working lives of his musicians.
With this position assured, and with the premiere of St Paul the following year, Mendelssohn by the age of 27 was in the forefront of German musicians. He appeared as a guest conductor all over Germany, as well as in England. He revolutionised concert life in Leipzig, kept up his appearances as a pianist, and also became famous as an organist. Yet among all this he continued to compose, and among the works from the late 1830s is the Piano Trio in D minor op 49. [listen]
From 1840 onwards, Mendelssohn undertook duties in Berlin in addition to those in Leipzig, but Leipzig was his principal focus (in addition to his travels and guest engagements all over Europe). The Scottish symphony - one of my favourite works - was premiered in Berlin in 1842. [listen]
In 1842 Mendelssohn was 33. Tragically, he had only five years left to live. His life was a dazzling succession of concerts, administration, travelling and composing. He continued to produce music of almost every type - choral music, chamber music, orchestral music... The six organ sonatas appeared in 1845, as did one of his most famous works, the E minor Violin Concerto. [listen]
Mendelssohn’s connection with England remained strong throughout his life. He made many trips across the Channel, and was on close terms with Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. His second oratorio, Elijah, was premiered in Birmingham in 1846, and the revised version was heard in London, Manchester and Birmingham the following year - and all these performances were conducted by the composer. These travels were undertaken in conjunction with his continued duties in Leipzig and his frequent guest appearances elsewhere. It’s not surprising that he was exhausted by the time he returned to Frankfurt in late May, 1847. It was then he heard the shattering news that Fanny had died earlier that month. [listen]
Mendelssohn couldn’t bring himself to attend Fanny’s funeral. He wasn’t able to return to composition for some weeks; rather it was watercolour painting which provided him with important therapy immediately after Fanny’s death. Eventually he completed the Three Motets op 69 and the other-worldly F minor String Quartet op 80. Right to the end of his life Mendelssohn was busy, but a visit to Fanny’s grave in Berlin was so disturbing for him he had to cancel his next conducting engagement in Leipzig. In late October 1847 he suffered a series of strokes, and he died on 4 November. The pallbearers at the funeral on 7 November included Robert Schumann, and the following day he was buried next to Fanny in Berlin.
In 1995 I conducted Bach’s St Matthew Passion for the first time, for the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. I later received a letter from a woman who had been in the audience and read in the program notes about Mendelssohn’s pivotal role in reviving the work. She wanted to know if I would like to see a letter in her possession which was written by Mendelssohn to one of her forebears. We met the following week and I held in my white-gloved hands a very precious document: a letter in Mendelssohn’s own handwriting. This woman’s relative had been the conductor of the Dublin Philharmonic Society and he’d written to Mendelssohn inviting him to Dublin to conduct the Irish premiere of Elijah. This letter, dated 15 February, 1847, was Mendelssohn’s reply, saying that he would be happy to accept the invitation once they could find a workable date, and that he would happily accept any fee the Society was able to offer. It also contained helpful information as to how the Society could gain access to the performance parts from London. The copperplate handwriting, in impeccable English, was itself a work of art, and I felt immense sadness at the fact that the composer’s untimely death prevented him from making the journey to Ireland. This was one of his last letters, and I was holding it right before it was placed under glass by document conservators. I’m lucky enough to own a photograph of the letter, kindly given to me by its owner (see below).
On the happy side, Felix Mendelssohn left for posterity some of the most dazzling and moving music in the western tradition. Quite apart from his compositions, he started the Bach revival, laid the foundations for modern European concert and opera performance, and he helped revive forms such as the oratorio, which gave voice to amateur music makers as well as professionals. It’s almost inconceivable that one man could do what he did in a mere 38 years. The music of Felix Mendelssohn is always worth studying; I’d encourage you to dive in with both feet and have fun. I can highly recommend the biography by R. Larry Todd entitled, Mendelssohn: A Life in Music (OUP) for further reading.
This article is based on a Keys To Music program first aired on ABC Classic FM (now ABC Classic) in January, 2006.