Born: February 3, 1809, Hamburg, Germany.
Died: November, 4, 1847, Leipzig, Germany.
* Randel, pp. 574-6
4. Lord’s Day
7. Nun Danket
8. Praise Song
Born: February 3, 1809 - Hamburg, Germany
Died: November 4, 1847 - Leipzig, Germany
Jakob Ludwig Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy, now known generally as Felix Mendelssohn was a German composer of the early Romantic period. His work includes symphonies, concertos, oratories, piano and chamber music. After a long period of relative denigration, his creative originality is now beiong recognised and re-evaluated.
Mendelssohn was the son of a banker, Abraham, who was himself the son of the famous Jewish philosopher, Moses Mendelssohn, and of Lea Salomon, a member od the Itzig family. Abraham sought to renounce the Jewish religion; his children were first brought up without religious education, and were baptised as Lutherans in 1816. (Abraham and his wife were not themselves baptised 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 fsther's injunctions, he seems not to have objected to the use of 'Mendelssohn' alone.
The family moved to Berlin in 1812. His sister Fanny Mendelssohn (later Fanny Hensel), became a well-known pianist and amateur composer; originally Abraham had thought that she, rather than her brother, might be the more musical.
Mendelssohn is often considered the greatest child prodigy after Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. 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 thirteen. Zelter introduced Felix to his friend and correspondent, the elderly Goethe. Felix later took lessons from the composer and virtuoso Ignaz Moscheles who however confessed that he had little to teach him. Moscheles became a close colleague and lifelong friend.
As an adolescent, Felix's 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 his first twelve symphonies in his early teens (more specifically, from ages twelve to fourteen). These works were ignored for over a century, but are now recorded and heard occasionally in concerts. At fifteen he wrote his first acknowledged symphony for full orchestra, his opus 11 in C minor in 1824. At the age of sixteen he wrote his String Octet in E Flat Major, the first work which showed the full power of his genius, and, together with his overture to Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream, which he wrote a year later, the best known of his early works. (He wrote incidental music for the play in 1842, including the famous Wedding March). In 1827 he saw the first production of his opera, Die Hochzeit des Camacho.
In 1829 Mendelssohn paid his first visit to England, where Moscheles, already settled in London, introduced him to influential musical circles. Felix had a great success, conducting his First Symphony and playing in public and private concerts. On subsequent visits he met with 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, and the country inspired two of his most famous works, the overture Fingal's Cave (also known as the Hebrides Overture) and the Scottish Symphony (Symphony no.3). His oratorio Elijah was premiered in Birmingham on August 26, 1846.
In 1835, he was appointed as conductor of the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig. This appointment was extremly important for him as he felt himself to be a German and wished to play a leading part in his country's musical life. Despite efforts by the king of Prussia to lure him to Berlin, Mendelssohn sought to develop the musical life of Leipzig and in 1843 he founded the Leipzig Conservatory, where he succesfully persuaded Moscheles to join him.
Mendelssohn's personal life was conventional. His marriage to Cécile Jeanrenaud in March of 1837 was very happy and the couple had five children. Felix was an accomplished painter in water-colour, and his enormous correspondence shows that he could also be a witty writer (in both German and English - and sometimes accompanied by humorous sketches and cartoons in the text).
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, in Leipzig. He is buried in the Dreifaltigkeitsfriedhof (Trinity Cemetery) I in Berlin-Kreuzberg.
Mendelssohn's Revival of the Music of Bach and Schubert
Mendelssohn was deeply influenced by the music of J.S. Bach. His 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 Felix's teacher Zelter. In 1829, with the backing of Zelter and the assistance of Felix's friend, the actor Eduard Devrient, Felix arranged and conducted a performance in Berlin of Bach's St. Matthew Passion (BWV 244). 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 Felix ever made to his origins: 'To think that it took an actor and a Jew-boy (Judensohn) to revive the greatest Christian music for the world'.
Mendelssohn also revived interest in the work of Franz Schubert. He conducted the premiere of Schubert's Ninth Symphony at Leipzig on March 21, 1839, more than a decade after the composer's death.
Mendelssohn and his Contemporaries
Throughout his life Mendelssohn was chary 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 Berlioz, Liszt and 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, with an almost Puritan distaste. Attempts made, during his visit there, to interest him in Saint-Simonianism ended in embarrassing scenes. He thought the Paris style of opera vulgar, and the works of Meyerbeer insincere. and cost him When Ferdinand Hiller 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 hair-cut 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 thioutlook at the Lepizig Conservatoire 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 condescenscion on their part toward his music. Together with Felix's success, his popularity and his Jewish origins, it irked Richard Wagner sufficiently to damn him with faint praise, three years after Felix's death, in his 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 remants of which can still be discerned today amongst some writers. The Nazi regime was to cite his Jewish origin in banning his works and destroying memorial statues.
In England however Mendelssohn's reputation remained high for a long time; the adulatory (and today scarcely readable) novel Charles Auchester by the teen-aged Sarah Sheppard, published in 1851, which features Mendelssohn as the 'Chevalier Seraphael', remained in print for nearly eighty years. However many critics, including George Bernard Shaw began to condemn his music for its association with Victorian cultural insularity.
Over the last fifty years a new apprecation of his work has developed which takes into account not only the popular 'war horses' such as the Violin Concerto and the Italian Symphony, but has been able to remove the Victorian varnish from the oratorio Elijah, and has explored the frequently intense and dramatic world of the chamber works. Virtually all of Mendelssohn's published work is now available on CD.
Juvenilia and Early works: Influences
The young Mendelssohn was greatly influenced in his childhood by the music of Bach, Beethoven and Mozart and these can all be seen, albeit often rather crudely, in the twelve early 'symphonies,' mainly written for performance in the Mendelssohn household and not published or publicly performed until long after his death.
His astounding capacities are, however, clearly revealed in a clutch of works of his early maturity (that is, before he was 18 years old!) : the String Octet (1825), the Overture 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' (1826), and the String Quartet in A minor (listed as no. 2 but written before no. 1) of 1827. These show a intuitive grasp of form, harmony, counterpoint, colour and the compositional technique of Beethoven which justify the claims often made that Felix's precocity exceeded even that of Mozart in its intellectual grasp.
Mendelssohn wrote the concert overture The Hebrides (Fingal's Cave) in 1830, inspired by visits he made to Scotland around the end of the 1820s, although its main theme is now known to have been sketched before this. These visits also inspired his Symphony No 3, The Scottish, which was written intermittently between around 1830 and 1842. The piece, whilst 'atmospheric' in the ethos of Romanticism, does not include any actual Scottish folk melodies.
Mendelssohn travelled widely in Europe throughout his life, and a visit to Italy inspired the Symphony No 4 in A major, known as the Italian. Mendelssohn conducted the premiere in 1833, but he did not allow the score to be published during his lifetime as he continued to rewrite it.
Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto in E Minor, op. 64, (1844).written for Ferdinand David, has become one of the most popular of all of Mendelssohn's compositions. Many violinists have commenced their solo careers with a performance of this concerto, including Jascha Heifetz, who gave his first public performance of the piece at the age of seven.
Mendelssohn also wrote two piano concertos, a less well known, early, violin concerto, and a double concerto for piano and violin.
The two large oratorios, St. Paul in 1836 and Elijah in 1846, were greatly influenced by Bach.
Use of Chorale Melodies in his works
Ach Gott, vom Himmel sieh darein for Mixed Chorus, Baritone Solo, and Orchestra
Ach Gott, vom Himmel sieh darein
Use of Ach Gott, vom Himmel sieh darein in Athalia, incidental music (for Jean Baptiste Racine's religious drama), Op. 74
Contributed by André Papillon (May 2006)
Ach Gott, vom Himmel sieh darein
Allein Gott in der Höh', chorale harmonization for chorus
Allein Gott in der Höh sei Ehr
Allein Gott in der Höh, chorale harmonization for chorus & winds [Chorale harmonizations (3) No. 1]; performed Berlin, Christmas 1843
Allein Gott in der Höh sei Ehr
Drei Kirchenmusiken (Cantatas) (Bonn, 1832): Aus tiefer Noth, F, T, chorus, org
Aus tiefer Not schrei ich zu dir
Herr Gott, dich loben wir (TeDeum), solo voices, double chorus, 4 trombones, strings, organ
Herr Gott, dich loben wir [The German Tedeum]
Jesu, meine Freude, Chorale Cantata for chorus, strings in E minor
Jesu, meine Freude
The chorale Vater unser im Himmelreich appears in op. 65, no. 6 in Felix Mendelssohn’s set of 6 organ sonatas
Vater unser im Himmelreich
Wer nur den lieben Gott läßt walten, Chorale Cantata for Solo Voice, Chorus, Strings and Continuo
Wer nur den lieben Gott läßt walten
You can be the first!