Jacob Ludwig Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy
February 3, 1809 - November 4, 1847
A Second Mozart?by Rit Nosotro First Published:: 2003
The bride is beautiful in her flowing white dress; the air is scented with the aroma of fresh flowers; and light streams in colorful shafts through the stained glass windows of the chapel as you watch the wedding's recessional procession. In the background you hear the organ playing a familiar, yet stirring, tune. At times it is delicate and at others it swells to fill the room with its sweet, joyful melody. Glancing at the program you catch sight of its name: Wedding March. You are among countless others who have found themselves in a similar situation, and you are only one of many who has wondered the name and story of the musician who composed such a perfectly-suited piece. So who was the musical mastermind behind this glorious, emotion-evoking work of genius? His name was Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy.
Felix entered the world on February 3, 1809. He was born in the city of Hamburg into the well-to-do Jewish family of Lea Salomon and Abraham Mendelssohn. Not only did he come from a wealthy family, Felix also came from a family with many intellectual and artistic accomplishments. One of the most notable of his relatives was his grandfather, Moses Mendelssohn, a widely-known and well-respected Jewish philosopher. Felix shared the house with 3 siblings: Fanny, Rebecka, and Paul. The family grew together and remained close-knit throughout Felix's life.
Despite Lea and Abraham Mendelssohn's Jewish roots, Felix and his siblings were baptized into the Lutheran church in 1816 when the Mendelssohn family moved from the French-occupied city of Hamburg to Berlin, Germany in order to escape Napoleon's invasions of the city. It was also at this time that Felix's father took on the surname "Bartholdy." Though originally Felix had studied piano under his mother's instruction, after arriving in Berlin he began taking music lessons from Ludwig Berger and began theory and composition studies under the direction of Carl F. Zelter. His first public performance came at age nine. In 1820, at age 11, he composed his first musical work. But even previous to public appearances, the financial and social position of his family allowed him to gain, within the walls of his own home, a stellar education and provided him numerous opportunities to play with other talented musicians or in front of respected personages when his parents entertained guests and other intellectuals. Felix then traveled to Paris with his sister Fanny-herself an accomplished pianist-to study the works of Bach and Mozart. It was during these early teen years that Mendelssohn composed his first 11 symphonies and 5 operas.
At age 12 he accompanied his piano teacher on a memorable two-week visit to the home of German poet Johann Wolfgang van Goethe. Goethe was quite impressed with the young musician's talent, but the respect was mutual. Mendelssohn soon looked to the poetry of Goethe as one of his greatest literary influences; he even went so far as to dedicate one of his musical works to the poet. Another author who affected Felix deeply was Shakespeare, as translated by Schlegel. This influence evidenced itself in Mendelssohn's creation of his immensely famous overture to A Midsummer Night's Dream Opus 21 at age 17. Mendelssohn then spent the next few years of his life (1826-29) at the Berlin University, and it was during this time he decided to devote his life to music.1
After the completion of his studies in Berlin, he began performance touring throughout Europe. In 1829 he found himself in Scotland and England. 1830 and a portion of 1831 he spent in Germany. The remainder of 1831 was concluded in Paris, and 1832-1833 brought him to London. Not only did Mendelssohn perform works of his own composition, but he was also responsible for reviving interest in other nearly-forgotten musical geniuses, including Johann Sebastian Bach. Mendelssohn's conducting at the Berlin Singakademie of Bach's St. Matthew Passion, performed for the first time since Bach's death, was a smashing success. His own work Hebrides Overture also received a rewarding reception at its premier performance in London during 1832.
The year 1833 brought Mendelssohn the post of conductor at Dusseldorf. Then, in 1835, he moved to the city of Leipzig, where he had been offered the position of conductor of the prestigious Gewandhaus Orchestra. That year brought tragedy for Mendelssohn as well, though, in the death of his father Abraham. This marked the beginning of several deaths in his close-knit family. But 1837 brought a happy event. Though he lost a family member in the death of his father, Mendelssohn gained one with the acquisition of a wife. On March 28, 1837, at the age of 28, Felix was wedded to CÚcile Jeanrenaud, the daughter of a Protestant clergyman.2 The marriage remained a happy and faithful one, and eventually their home was blessed with five children: Carl, Marie, Paul, Felix, and Lilli.
In 1842, Mendelssohn gained the privilege of performing for Prince Albert and Queen Victoria in their palace. But 1842 also saw the death of his beloved mother, Lea. The following year, Mendelssohn worked to found the Leipzig Conservatory of Music and he himself held the position of conductor. He was also appointed the director of the Music Section of the Academy of Arts in Berlin, Germany. Often required to compose on demand in this capacity, Mendelssohn was left with dwindling time for other composition.3 But even so, he created several works during these years that will be remembered for ages to come. During the last few years of his life, Mendelssohn's health began to deteriorate. On May 14, 1847, Mendelssohn's sister, Fanny, died of a stroke, and her death is suggested to have been one of the primary causes of Mendelssohn's continued decline in health. After having suffered several strokes himself, 38 year old Felix Mendelssohn passed into God's unfathomable orchestra on November 4, 1847. Though Mendelssohn died young, his music continues to live on into the present.
One interesting contrast between the life of this musical genius and that of many of the other unforgettable composers is the apparent lack of suffering. Mozart's financial trials and Beethoven's deafness are just a sampling of the hardships most gifted composers seem to have experienced. Mendelssohn lived a prosperous and relatively affliction-free life, yet produced works of incomparable magnificence. Mendelssohn has been called the Mozart of the 19th century.4 A prolific composer and precocious musician, he has left an indelible mark on music.
1"Felix Mendelssohn." 2002. http://www.felixmendelssohn.com/felix_mendelssohn_bio_002.htm June 18, 2005
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3"Felix Mendelssohn." 2002. http://www.felixmendelssohn.com/felix_mendelssohn_bio_003.htm June 18, 2005
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"Felix Mendelssohn." 2002. http://www.felixmendelssohn.com/Default.htm June 18, 2005
The New Grove Concise Dictionary of Music. (London: Macmillan Press Ltd., 1994.) Available at: http://w3.rz-berlin.mpg.de/cmp/mendelssohn.html June 18, 2005
"Felix Mendelssohn." http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Felix_Mendelssohn June 18, 2005
Gabriele Giulimondi, "Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847)." http://www.geocities.com/Paris/3486/mend.html June 18, 2005
Grove Dictionaries. "Felix Mendelssohn (-Bartholdy)." (UK: MacMillan Publishers.) http://classicalplus.gmn.com/composers/composer.asp?id=74 June 18, 2005
Mercer-Taylor, Peter. The Life of Mendelssohn. (United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press, 2000.)