Mendelssohn, Felix Bartholdy


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.

The Philharmonic Society performed the Hebrides Overture, he played his G minor concerto and he wrote the Capriccio brillante in B, and published a four-hand arrangement of the Midsummer Night's Dream Overture and the First Book of Songs Without Words. The spring of 1834 he went to London to conduct the Italian Symphony, finished that year for the Philharmonic Society, and on his return went to Düsseldorf to conduct the Lower Rhine Festival. This was so successful that the authorities asked Mendelssohn to take charge of their town music, an offer which he gladly accepted. He began by reforming the church-music; he introduced many improvements into the theatre, but found the work so uncongenial that after a short time he gave it up. During 1834 he wrote Infelice for the Philharmonic Society, completed Melusina, composed the Rondo Brillante in E flat and the Capriccio in A minor, and began work on St. Paul, a commission from the Cacilien-Verein of Frankfort. After conducting the Lower Rhine Festival for 1835 he went to Leipsic, where he had accepted the position of leader of the Gewandhaus concerts. Considered by many the foremost of all conductors, he was especially fitted to this work, and brought the concerts to a degree of excellence never before reached. The death of his father saddened this winter, but in spite of that he continued to work very hard, completing St. Paul and revising the Melusina Overture. The following May he again conducted the Lower Rhine Festival at Düsseldorf, then went to Frankfort to take charge of the CacilienVerein. During this summer he met Mile. Cecile Jeanrenaud, who became his wife in March, 1837. This marriage proved a very happy one and did not at all detract from his work, as may be seen by the fact that even on the honeymoon he wrote a number of compositions. During August of that year he conducted the oratorio, St. Paul, at the Birmingham Festival. During the next three years most of his work was done in connection with the Gewandhaus concerts. He conducted the Lower Rhine Festival at Cologne in 1838 and spent his vacation at Berlin writing a string quartet in D and a sonata in F for piano and violin. During the following winter he finished the overture, Ruy Bias, composed the 114th Psalm, and worked on the oratorio, Elijah. He conducted the Festival at Düsseldorf, and spent the following summer at Frankfort writing some of his finest songs during this time. At the Birmingham Festival of 1840 he gave Lobgesang, composed for a festival in honor of the discovery of printing, held at Leipsic during that year, and during the following winter he produced it at a Gewandhaus concert and at a special concert to the King of Saxony.

In 1840 the King of Prussia founded an Academy of Fine Arts at Berlin and appointed Mendelssohn director of the musical department. This was not a welcome appointment to the composer because he dreaded court restriction and disliked returning to Berlin to live. He did not remove his family from Leipsic and returned there often, on one occasion to conduct his Scotch Symphony at a Gewandhaus concert. He directed the Rhine Festival at Düsseldorf that year, and in the spring went to England to conduct his Scotch Symphony at a Philharmonic concert. The position at Berlin was more intolerable than before; plans for the Academy had fallen through, and as a substitute the King proposed giving him charge of a select choir and orchestra which he should organize and permission to live wherever he wished. He was given the title of General Music Director to the King of Prussia, and in consequence had to resign the position he held as chapelmaster to the King of Saxony. During an interview with the King of Saxony regarding this resignation he persuaded that monarch to devote a legacy left to the state to the founding of a musical conservatory at Leipsic. Such a project had always been the work nearest his heart, and he started at once to organize this institution. While at Leipsic on this work he set to music Racine's Athalie, CEdipus Coloneus, and The Tempest for the King of Prussia. In December, 1842, he lost his mother, but, as in his former bereavement, hard work proved his solace. In January, 1843, the prospectus of a conservatory appeared, bearing the names of Mendelssohn, Becker, David Hauptmann and Schumann. In April the great Bach monument opposite the Thomas School was unveiled, and he conducted a concert composed wholly of Bach's compositions. Thus in the same year two of his dearest wishes were accomplished. After a quiet summer at Leipsic he resumed his duties at Berlin in August, conducting Antigone and the Midsummer Night's Dream music at Potsdam. Seeing that he would have to stay in Berlin during the winter, he arranged to have Ferdinand Hiller conduct the Gewandhaus concerts. In February he received an invitation to conduct the last six concerts of the London Philharmonic Society and gladly accepted. After the coldness of Berlin the enthusiastic reception he was given in London was very grateful. He played at concerts of the Sacred Harmony Society and at the Society of British Musicians, and everywhere was greeted with an ovation. After this and a summer spent near Frankfort with his wife and children return to Berlin was out of the question. He obtained a release from the King, then returned to Frankfort to rest until September. During this time he completed six organ sonatas; a trio in C minor; a string quartet in B flat; and the sixth book of Songs Without Words.

In September, 1845, Mendelssohn returned to Leipsic. His first appearance at the Gewandhaus received an ovation. His work at the Conservatory was a source of unfailing inspiration to his students. He taught no regular classes, but his lectures, enlivened by the fire of his genius, inspired every one present. He talked sometimes on composition, sometimes on technical matter, often illustrating by brilliant playing on piano and organ, of which he was the first master of his time, and often drawing on his beloved Bach for suggestion or example. His marvelous memory was stored with the works of the masters and his resources were unfailing. Among other things, he organized an orchestra among the students of  the Conservatory, which played at the Gewandhaus, and which has since become famous as one of the finest orchestras in Germany. Beside all his work at the Gewandhaus and the Conservatory, he worked on Elijah, and during 1846 conducted the Lower Rhine Festival, composing Lauda Sion for this occasion and, for the first festival of the German-Flemish Association which he conducted at Cologne, arranged a Festsang on Schiller's An die Kunstler. He went to Birmingham to conduct Elijah, which he had sadly overworked himself to finish, and instead of resting on his return set to work on some compositions for the King of Prussia. His last visit to England was in April, 1847, when he went to London and conducted four performances of Elijah with the Sacred Harmony Society. Soon after his return he received news of the death of his beloved sister, Fanny. Added to overwork this prostrated him, and was a direct cause of his death. He retired to Switzerland until September, then, after conducting Elijah at Berlin and Vienna, returned home. But a sight of his sister's home in Berlin had brought his grief freshly before him, and he never recovered his spirits. He wrote the string quartet in F minor, an andante and a scherzo in E major and A minor, and some parts of an opera, Lorely, and an oratorio, Christus. When apparently busy with plans and work for the future he was taken ill late in October, 1847, and died on November 4. For the great funeral given him by the Conservatory, Moscheles arranged one of the Songs Without Words as a funeral march, and it was played by the orchestra of the Gewandhaus when his body was being taken into the Cathedral.