Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847)

Felix Mendelssohn was born into an important and wealthy German family. His grandfather was the Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn. His father founded a banking firm and converted to Christianity, largely for business reasons. Felix, however, embraced the Christian faith and became a devout Lutheran. He was widely regarded as one of the greatest child prodigies in the history of music. Mendelssohn was introduced to Johann Goethe and performed for him at the age of 12. Goethe, (who had also heard an earlier child prodigy, Mozart), praised Mendelssohn’s talents and considered Mozart’s works at the same age to be baby talk in comparison.

Mendelssohn came from a musical family. His sister was a talented composer and pianist. His aunt had been a student of one of J.S. Bach’s sons and had introduced Felix to Bach’s music. Mendelssohn became a great champion of Bach and Handel. He conducted the first performance of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion since Bach’s death and created the renewed interest in Bach’s music that exists today. He also conducted the premiere performance of Schubert’s 9th Symphony.  Mendelssohn enjoyed great success as a conductor of the famed Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra and founded the Leipzig Music Conservatory. He gathered an impressive faculty at the Conservatory, including pianist Ignaz Moscheles, composer Robert Schumann, and string teachers Ferdinand David and Joseph Joachim. He also made 10 trips to Great Britain and became a favorite composer of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert.

His first great success as a composer came at the age of 16 with his String Octet, a mainstay of chamber music. He wrote concertos for the piano and violin, many piano pieces, such as the set of Songs Without Words, and 5 symphonies, including Symphony No. 5, “Reformation”, which was includes Luther’s “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” in the last movement. He was also a dedicated student of scripture and wrote 2 oratorios in the style of Bach and Handel: Elijah and St. Paul. Perhaps his best known work today is his incidental music for Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which includes the famous Wedding March. He is also known around the world for the music to the Christmas carol Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.

Mendelssohn was a devoted family man. He was very close to his wife and to his sister, Fanny. When she died at an early age, it was a terrible shock that he never recovered from. He died from a series of strokes just a few months later at the age of 38. His great-great-grandson, George, was the founder of Vox Records, and important independent classical label. Mendelssohn wrote this advice to his nephew:

“Nothing is attained without the fulfillment of one fervent wish — May God be with you! This prayer comprises consolation and strength, and also cheerfulness in days to come.”

Suggested Listening:

Suggested Reading:

R. Larry Todd. Mendelssohn: A Life In Music.