A Brief History of Felix Mendelssohn
Felix Mendelssohn was a Romantic-era composer who lived a short but productive life. He tends to be lesser-known than giants like Chopin or Liszt, but composed some beautiful music well-worth learning as a pianist, or listening to as a music enthusiast.
In the next month or two, we’ll be deep-diving into Mendelssohn. Today we’ll be looking at the history of Felix Mendelssohn. We’ll discuss his backstory, romantic life, personality and other fun details.
Let’s get started!
Felix Mendelssohn was born in Hamburg, Germany in 1809 with the rather epic name of Jakob Ludwig Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy. Mendelssohn and Chopin basically lived parallel lives, being born a year apart and dying two years apart.
He was born into a wealthy Jewish family but was baptized as a reformed Christian at seven years old. That’s where he picked up the additional names “Jakob” and “Ludwig”. “Bartholdy” was a name that came from his uncle’s property, and neither he nor Fanny liked the name.
He had three siblings, one of which was another musical prodigy, Fanny Mendelssohn. Their father originally thought she would be the main prodigy between the two. But women weren’t supposed to pursue music professionally in the Romantic period, so she had to simply play for leisure.
Like many young musicians, Mendelssohn was a child prodigy. But unlike Mozart’s father, Mendelssohn’s parents didn’t want to make a big deal about it and profit from their son’s talent.
Since the Mendelssohn was prominent and wealthy, Felix grew up around a slew of intellectuals and artists. The musician Sarah Rothenburg wrote that, “Europe came to their living room”.
In 1821 he had the opportunity to meet von Goethe, the famous poet and writer, who had this to say about the encounter:
“Musical prodigies … are probably no longer so rare; but what this little man can do in extemporizing and playing at sight borders the miraculous, and I could not have believed it possible at so early an age.” “And yet you heard Mozart in his seventh year at Frankfurt?” said Zelter. “Yes”, answered Goethe, “… but what your pupil already accomplishes, bears the same relation to the Mozart of that time that the cultivated talk of a grown-up person bears to the prattle of a child.”
They met several other times and Mendelssohn set some of von Goethe’s poetry to music.
Aside from regular schooling and music study, Mendelssohn attended the Humboldt University of Berlin from 1826-1829, studying everything from Classical literature, aesthetics, history and geography.
A lot of Romantic composers drew inspiration from Baroque ones. Baroque music had fallen out of fashion in the Classical era but was rediscovered with the Romantics. Isn’t that how it always goes with art? Yesterday’s trash is today’s treasure?
All of the Mendelssohn children studied music, notably with Ludwig Berger, a student of Muzio Clementi. He was also taught by Carl Friedrich Zelter in Berlin, who had conservative musical tastes and admired Bach. Mendelssohn’s aunt had studied music with some Bach sons, and this would go on to influence Mendelssohn’s love of Bach.
He arranged and conducted Bach’s St. Matthews Passion in 1829. Several years prior, Mendelssohn’s grandmother had given him a copy of the then-obscure music by Bach. This performance was key in reviving Bach’s music in Germany, and later, throughout Europe. Mendelssohn was only 20 years old at the time, but this performance brought him acclaim.
Travel and first jobs
With newfound acclaim, Mendelssohn began touring. He visited England for the first of many times, and traveled to Vienna, Florence, Milan, Rome and Naples.
In 1833 he got his first “real job” as a musical director in Dusseldorf. He traveled frequently between Dusseldorf and England.
As one of his projects as musical director, he hosted a music festival where Handel’s oratorio “Israel in Egypt” was performed, sparking a renewed interest in Handel’s music just like he did with Bach several years prior.
Alas, he didn’t enjoy his time with a “real job” and quit his post in 1834. Besides, in 1835 he was asked to direct the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, a much more prominent position.
Many aspiring musicians in Germany at the time sent Mendelssohn music to consider for performance. Among these young hopefuls included Richard Wagner, who submitted an early symphony which Mendelssohn lost. Wagner was not happy about that.
Another composer, Schumann, discovered Schubert’s now-famous Ninth Symphony and sent it to Mendelssohn, who loved it and premiered a performance of it in 1839, a decade after Schubert’s death.
Like the German composer Handel, Mendelssohn spent plenty of time in England. He became very well-known and influential there, meeting Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, both of whom were fans. One of his most famous compositions, the Scottish Symphony, was inspired by his time there.
Love and marriage
Mendelssohn married a woman named Cécile Charlotte Sophie Jeanrenaud in 1837. Together they had five children, four of whom survived into adulthood, who all went on to be intellectuals. One ended up dying in a psychiatric institution.
It’s also thought that he fell in love with another woman outside his marriage, Jenny Lind. She was a Swedish soprano who worked with him many times. When Mendelssohn attended one of her premieres, a music critic wrote,
“I see as I write the smile with which Mendelssohn, whose enjoyment of Mdlle. Lind’s talent was unlimited, turned round and looked at me, as if a load of anxiety had been taken off his mind. His attachment to Mdlle. Lind’s genius as a singer was unbounded, as was his desire for her success.”
He might’ve written passionate love letters to her, which have since been destroyed. When Mendelssohn died, she wrote,
“[He was] the only person who brought fulfillment to my spirit, and almost as soon as I found him I lost him again.”
She obviously loved him – after his death, she established a scholarship in Britain awarding a British composer every two years in Mendelssohn’s memory. She also put up a plaque in Mendelssohn’s memory in Hamburg.
In 1843, when Mendelssohn was 34, he created the Leipzig Conservatory (which still exists to this day). He got a couple friends and composers on board to help, including Moscheles and Schumann – Moscheles would go on to be the head of the Conservatory after Mendelssohn’s death.
Speaking of Mendelssohn’s death, he only lived to the age of 38. It’s thought that stress wore down his immune system – he was working hard, his constant travel schedule was grueling, and his sister Fanny’s death in 1847 was devastating.
He died in 1848 (half a year after Fanny) after a series of strokes. That was the same cause of death for Fanny, their parents, and their grandfather as well.
His funeral was in Leipzig, and he was buried in Berlin. Notable pallbearers were Moscheles and Schumann.
We’ll do a full-on video about the music of Mendelssohn in the future, but as a pianist you’re probably familiar with his “Songs Without Words” collections – beautiful miniatures for intermediate and advanced students.
If you’ve ever heard the Christmas tune “Hark the Herald Angels Sing”, that melody was written by Mendelssohn. He also wrote music for Shakespeare’s play A Midsummer Night’s Dream, including the very famous Wedding March.
As a young child Mendelssohn was composing chamber music and symphonies. He had access to a private orchestra as a tween and teen, and also had access to an audience via the Berlin elite and his parent’s friends.
At the age of 17 he wrote the overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, one of his most well-known early works.
He premiered a failed opera in 1827. He was 18, and the failure was enough to keep him from ever pursuing opera again.
When Mendelssohn was the director in Leipzig he wrote one of his greatest compositions, the oratorio Paulus, in 1836. It was performed shortly after his father died. This composition helped cement him as one of Europe’s most prominent musicians of the time.
Mendelssohn’s style was conservative, so he wasn’t on the same musical page as innovators like Liszt or Berlioz. He wrote that Liszt’s compositions were “inferior to his playing”, and delivered this burn to a Berlioz overture (Les francs-juges): “The orchestration is such a frightful muddle that one ought to wash one’s hands after handling one of his scores”.
His closest musical friend, Moscheles, was equally conservative in preference and taste, which is why they founded the Conservatory together.
We know a couple things about Mendelssohn’s personality – most importantly that he was an overall happy and good-natured person.
But he could also swing to the other extreme and become aloof or excitable. One account of his epic temper was from the 1830’s when he was in his 20s:
“his excitement was increased so fearfully … that when the family was assembled … he began to talk incoherently in English. The stern voice of his father at last checked the wild torrent of words; they took him to bed, and a profound sleep of twelve hours restored him to his normal state”.
A man of many interests, he also drew with pencils and painted with watercolors. He was also humorous in his correspondences and would sometimes accompany his writings with funny cartoons.
Like many brilliant composers, Mendelssohn died too soon. He was clearly gifted, but also very driven – I can only marvel at all that he accomplished by the age of 38 (an age that I’m not too far away from myself).
We tend to focus on musical innovators – composers who live on the frontier of music, like Liszt. But revivalists are just as important as innovators. If it wasn’t for Mendelssohn, would Bach (or Handel for that matter) be a part of our cultural tapestry? I shudder at the thought.
I hope you enjoyed this brief history of Felix Mendelssohn and stick around for more Mendelssohn-themed videos in the next month or two.