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Felix Mendelssohn

(1809—1847) composer

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(b Hamburg, 1809; d Leipzig, 1847).

Ger. composer, pianist, organist, and conductor. Grandson of Moses Mendelssohn, philosopher, and son of banker Abraham who added Bartholdy to his surname when he became Protestant Christian. Felix was 2nd of 4 children, eldest being Fanny Mendelssohn, almost as good a pianist as her brother. His first pf. lessons were from his mother and in Berlin he was taught harmony by Karl Zelter. Boy prodigy as pianist, making public début at 9. In 1819 his setting of Ps. 19 was sung by Berlin Singakademie. In 1821 Zelter took him to Weimar to visit Goethe, a warm friendship developing between the 72‐year‐old poet and the boy of 12, who was already a prolific composer. His comic opera, Die Hochzeit des Camacho was completed 1825 and produced 1827. In 1826, at age 17, he comp. the ov. to A Midsummer Night's Dream, adding the remainder of the incidental mus. 16 years later. Attended Berlin Univ. 1826–9, and finally determined upon mus. as a profession. In Mar. 1829, he cond. Bach's St Matthew Passion at the Singakademie (its f.p. since Bach's death in 1750), one of his many services to the Bach revival. Visited Eng. 1829, giving one of there of Beethoven's ‘Emperor’ conc. From the outset he received adulation from Eng. public. Before leaving, toured Scotland and was inspired by scenery to write Hebrides ov. Toured Ger., Austria, and It. in next 2 years, composing 2 syms. and publishing first book of Lieder ohne Worte. Further visits to London 1832 and 1833 (when he cond. f.p. of his Italian Sym.).

Appointed cond., Lower Rhine Mus. Fest., Düsseldorf 1833–6 and cond. of Leipzig Gewandhaus Orch. 1835–46. Married 1837 and in next few years wrote several of his finest works, incl. Lobgesang, the Variations Sérieuses, and vn. conc. Organized new cons. of mus. at Leipzig, becoming dir. when it opened in 1843 as well as teaching pf. and comp., with Schumann as associate. Made 8th visit to Britain 1844, and returned in 1846 to cond. f.p. of oratorio Elijah at Birmingham Fest. Last (10th) visit was in 1847, when he conducted Elijah in London, Manchester, and Birmingham, and played for Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. Severe overwork, combined with the shock of his sister Fanny's sudden death in May 1847, led to his own death in Nov. of that year.

Mendelssohn's gifts were phenomenal. He was a good painter, had wide literary knowledge, and wrote brilliantly. He was a superb pianist, a good violist, an exceptional organist, and an inspiring cond. He had an amazing mus. memory. He was generous to other musicians, and keen to raise standards of popular taste. His genius as a composer led Bülow to describe him as the most complete master of form after Mozart. In him, a classical upbringing was combined with romantic inclination, imparting to his work a poetic elegance which has caused it to be regarded as superficial because of its lack of impassioned features. The popularity of his work in the 19th cent. was followed by a severe reaction, partly caused by a puritanical feeling that his life had been too comfortably easy, but the pendulum has swung again and the best qualities of his music, its craftsmanship, restraint, poetry, inventive orchestration, and melodic freshness are now highly valued. Prin. works:


Subjects: Music

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