Felix Mendelssohn, One of the Greatest Composers of the 19th Century

Felix Mendelssohn was born on February 3rd, 1809 in Hamburg, Germany. His mother was Leah Solomon, whose grandfather was one of the most affluent citizens of Berlin as the financial advisor to King Friedrich II of Prussia. Felix’s father was Abraham Mendelssohn, a successful banker. Abraham’s father was the German Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn, who was the preeminent Jewish philosopher of the German Enlightenment. He was nicknamed the Jewish Luther, who fought against anti-Semitism in eighteenth-century Prussia. He was a reformer and was nicknamed the father of the Jewish enlightenment, the Haskalah. The family left Hamburg in disguise fearing punishment for the role of the Mendelssohn bank in breaking Napoleon’s continental system blockade. Felix was the second of four children his older sister Fanny was also a brilliant musical prodigy. Felix began taking piano lessons from his mother when he was six and made his first public performance as a pianist at the age of 9.

Mendelssohn was an incredibly prolific composer of more than 750 compositions. A scholarly edition of all his music totals more than 150 volumes! As an adolescent many of his compositions were performed at home by a private Orchestra for the intellectual Elite of Berlin who were the wealthy friends of his parents. He wrote 12 Symphonies for string orchestra between ages 12 and 14! When he was just 16 he wrote The magnificent Octet for Strings.

At age 12 Felix met and played for the legendary writer Goethe who considered Felix’s playing miraculous and compared him to the young Mozart. The two met on several subsequent occasions and Mendelssohn instructed Goethe in music history and even set some of Goethe’s poems to music.

At age 17 Mendelssohn began studying at the Humboldt University of Berlin.

At 14, his grandmother gifted him a copy of the manuscript of Johann Sebastian Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, which, together with Bach’s Mass in B minor, is considered by many to be the pinnacle not only of Bach’s music, but one of the greatest creations of civilization! When he was just 20 Mendelssohn produced and conducted 3 very successful performances of the St. Matthew passion. Much of Bach’s music had been forgotten after the composer’s death in 1750. This performance marked the first time the work had ever been heard outside of Leipzig. It sparked the Revival of Bach’s music in Germany and eventually throughout Europe and earned Felix widespread acclaim. In Mendelssohn’s own words To think that it took the son of a Jew to revive the greatest Christian music for the world!” From age 20, M had a busy career as a conductor. His conducting was praised by Hector Berlioz. And one of his innovations as a conductor was his use of a baton.

Mendelssohn was a wonderful visual artist. He worked in pencil and watercolor throughout his life. And he wrote many witty letters in German and English, sometimes including humorous sketches and cartoons.

Due to the pressures in society with the growing popularity of nationalism and the Prussian reform movement, Felix’s father, Abraham decided to convert to Christianity and to have his children baptized. There was tremendous resistance to the idea of German Jews wanting to succeed in fields other than commerce and finance.

Mendelssohn’s great, biblical oratorio Elijah was composed within the context of the emergence of German national identity.

The scholar, Jeffrey Sposato wrote this about Mendelssohn: “While under his father’s watchful eye he tried to distance himself from Judaism, often incorporating anti-Semitic imagery into his oratorio texts. But when his father was no longer in the picture he worked to find ways to celebrate his Christian faith in his music without denigrating the Jews in the process. Mendelssohn was proud of his Jewish heritage and was especially proud of his grandfather, Moses. In fact, he strongly advocated for the publication of the complete writings of his grandfather.

At age 24 he landed his first professional appointment, that of music director of the city of Dusseldorf. While there Mendelssohn conducted a performance of Handel’s oratorio, Israel in Egypt. This led to a revival of Handel’s music in Germany. In fact based on his careful study of the original manuscripts, he edited for publication the first scholarly edition of Handel’s oratorios as well as Bach’s organ music.

After 2 years in Dusseldorf, Mendelssohn became the conductor of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, which was founded in 1743. He insisted on a high standard of orchestral playing and he also fought for increases in the musicians’ salaries. While in Leipzig, Mendelssohn worked with several of the city’s choral and musical institutions, including the St. Thomas boys choir, of which Bach himself had once been the director. At age 28 he married Cecile and they had 5 children, none of whom were musicians. Cecile died 6 years after her Felix.

Mendelssohn was a virtuoso pianist and organist. He concertized throughout his career, and especially championed the music of Beethoven, and von Weber. His performances of Bach’s organ music ignited an appreciation for Bach, who died 59 years before Mendelssohn was born, and whose music had become pretty much forgotten until Mendelssohn began to perform it. And Mendelssohn had a reputation for being an amazing improviser at the keyboard.

During Mendelssohn’s time in Leipzig, Wagner sent him his new symphony, which M misplaced. However 11 years after Schubert’s death he conducted the world premiere of Schubert’s 9th Symphony. In 1843 Mendelssohn founded the Leipzig Conservatory, which is now named after him, and he invited the violinist Joseph Joachim and the composer Robert Schumann to join him on the faculty. And he conducted the world premieres of Schumann’s 1st two symphonies and his piano concerto. Mendelssohn’s Piano Trio in D minor prompted Schumann to proclaim: Mendelssohn is the Mozart of the 19th century.”

He was somewhat friendly with Berlioz and Liszt, but considered Liszt’s compositions to be inferior to his playing. And of Berlioz’s Les Francs-Juges overture, he criticized the orchestration and wrote that one ought to wash one’s hands after handling his music! Though he did help with the preparation of Berlioz’s successful concerts in Leipzig.

He was a distant cousin to another great, Jewish composer of the 19th century, Giacomo Meyerbeer. When a friend suggested that he and Meyerbeer looked somewhat alike, Felix immediately went to have his hair cut to do away with the resemblance!

In 1847 his sister Fanny died. His 6th string quartet was composed as a ‘Requiem for Fanny’. In it one can hear Mendelssohn’s grief, pain, despair and yearning for his sister.

Mendelssohn was a very excitable man. On one occasion he became so agitated that he began speaking incoherently, and sometimes would collapse during his fits of temper. 6 months after his sister’s death, Mendelssohn died after a series of strokes. He was just 38 years old. He is buried in Berlin.

Mendelssohn died in 1847 and the disgusting anti-Jewish fever that strengthened throughout the 19th century, inhibited the spread of his great music, this despite the enthusiastic praise from von Bulow, Brahms and Max Reger.

In 1936 the Nazis banned the publication, performance and broadcasting of Mendelssohn’s music and even asked German composers to rewrite the music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Later that year, precisely in reaction to this, Toscanini inaugurated what is now the Israel Philharmonic, and conducted the Nocturne and Scherzo from Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream.

When it came to composing, Mendelssohn had incredibly high standards. It took him 13 years to compose and revise his 3rd symphony, known as the Scottish Symphony. And he didn’t permit the publication of his 4th Symphony, nor his 5th symphony, because he was not satisfied with either one of them.

In 1934 the Nazis stopped the Mendelssohn scholarship at the Leipzig conservatory. It was reinstated in 1963.  And they destroyed the monuments to Mendelssohn in Leipzig and Dusseldorf in 1936. They were eventually replaced several years ago.