Mendelssohn, Felix Bartholdy

1809-1847

To this musician the world owes a double debt of gratitude, for, besides composing some of the finest music ever written and founding a great Conservatory, he revived the works of John Sebastian Bach and taught us to appreciate them. A grandson of Moses Mendelssohn, the Jewish philosopher, son of a wealthy father and a refined and cultured mother, he had every advantage that could foster his genius. He was born in Hamburg, but went to live in Berlin when about three years old. His mother taught Felix and his sister, Fanny, who was also very talented, and throughout her life his greatest friend. During a visit to Paris, in 1816, the children were taught piano by Madam Bigot, and on their return to Berlin began their general education, including a thorough course of counterpoint and composition, with Zelter, through whom Mendelssohn formed his friendship with Goethe, which lasted until the latter's death. In 1822, on returning from a trip through Switzerland with his family, he again stopped at Weimar.

At that time, only thirteen years old, Mendelssohn had already composed a Kyrie for two choirs, a Psalm with a grand double fugue for the Singakademie, a quartet for piano and strings, a number of symphonies and concertos, and had begun to write his piano quartet in C minor and completed his fourth operetta, Die beiden Neffen, which was performed in his father's house on his fifteenth birthday. He had unusual opportunities for perfecting himself in the art of conducting, because it was the custom of his family and musical friends to give Sunday morning concerts in his father's house, which he always conducted and at which he often performed his own compositions. In December, 1824, Moscheles came to Berlin, and was persuaded to give him some lessons, although he recognized Mendelssohn as already his superior. This was the beginning of their lifelong friendship.

In 1825 he accompanied his father to Paris, where an interview with Cherubini convinced the elder Mendelssohn that Felix was justified in following a musical career. He met Moscheles again in Paris, and became acquainted with all the great musicians of that city. On his way home he visited Goethe and played the piano quartet in B minor, which he had dedicated to him. About this time the Mendelssohn family moved to a house on the outskirts of Berlin, which boasted large grounds and a summer-house in the garden capable of holding several hundred people. This was an ideal place for the Sunday morning concerts. During this year Mendelssohn completed the opera, Camacho's Wedding, and wrote his Octet for strings, usually regarded as his first mature composition. During the summer of 1826 he read Schlegel and Teick's translation of Shakespeare with his sisters, and thus inspired, he wrote the wonderful Midsummer Night's Dream Overture. After being several times played on the piano it was performed by an orchestra in the house in the garden. Its first public production occurred at Stettin in February, 1827. Early this same year Camacho's Wedding was produced at Berlin, and favorably received, but, owing to the illness of the tenor and disputes and delays by the manager, it was postponed and never repeated. It was the only opera of Mendelssohn's that was publicly produced.

Mendelssohn was an earnest student of John Sebastian Bach, and during the winter of 1827-1828 formed a choir of sixteen voices to practise the Matthew Passion music. The results were so good that in 1829 a public performance of the music was given., which was repeated on Bach's birthday, March 21. Thus Mendelssohn, just one century after the composer's  death, performed the greatest of oratorios and revived interest in the foremost musicians of the world. In 1829 Mendelssohn made his first trip to England, the country where he was first appreciated, and to which he always referred with loving gratitude. On Midsummer Night he conducted the Midsummer Night's Dream Overture. He became the idol of the British public and was received with enthusiasm wherever he went. At the close of the London season he made an extended tour through Scotland and Ireland, which proved rich in inspiration and gave him material for The Hebrides Overture, The Scotch Symphony, and a Scotch Sonata. During that year he wrote a violin quartet in E flat, an organ composition in honor of his sister's wedding; the Scotch Sonata, and the Reformation Symphony to be played at the tercentennial celebration of the Augsburg Confession of Faith in 1830.

In March, after a fortnight with Goethe and a month spent at Munich, he went to Italy. He visited all the principal cities, stayed some time in Rome and did not return home until the following September, when he made a walking trip from Interlaken to Munich. During this time in Italy he worked on Goethe's Walpurgisnacht,   finished Fingal's Cave, and wrote his Scotch and Italian symphonies. While he was in Munich he composed and played his G minor concerto and received a commission to write an opera, which caused him to go to Düsseldorf to consult Immermann in regard to a libretto from The Tempest. During this time he laid the foundation for his future work there. His last visit to Paris, made during the latter part of this year, was embittered by the rejection of his Reformation Symphony as too pedantic by the orchestra, and sa'ddened by the news of the death of Goethe. Although he had been warmly received by all the great musicians of the city, and his Midsummer Night's Dream music had been enthusiastically applauded at a Conservatory concert, he was glad to return to England in April, 1832. The season that followed was a brilliant one.