Felix Mendelssohn(-Bartholdy)

Composer Felix Mendelssohn(-Bartholdy)

“The Mozart of the Nineteenth Century,” according to Robert Schumann. Mendelssohn’s Romanticism was tempered by a love of J.S. Bach and other German classic composers.

Vital Statistics
February 3, 1809, in Hamburg, but grew up in Berlin
November 4, 1847, Leipzig, Saxony (Germany)
Performed As:
Pianist, organist, and conductor
During Lifetime:
The philosopher Georg Friedrich Hegel gave his famous Lectures on Aesthetics in 1828-29, which Mendelssohn attended as a student at the University of Berlin. German nationalism stirs up renewed anti-Semitism.
Biographical Outline
  • Full Name: Felix Mendelssohn(-Bartholdy). Mendelssohn and his siblings are secretly baptized as Protestants in 1816, and his parents convert to Christianity in 1822, adding “Bartholdy” to the family name.
  • Education: The son of a wealthy banker, Mendelssohn has private tutors. His musical studies continue at the Berlin Singakademie, which promoted the music of J.S. Bach.
  • Child prodigy: Mendelssohn’s first public performance takes place at age 9. In 1822, the Mendelssohns begin giving Sunday concerts at their home, spreading Felix’s fame as a musical prodigy. In 1825 he composes his first masterpiece, the string Octet, Op. 20, followed, the next year, by the famous concert overture, A Midsummer Night's Dream.
  • Early music, 1829: Conducts Bach’s oratorio the St. Matthew Passion to celebrate the centenary of its composition. His performance of this unpublished work precipitates a revival of Bach’s vocal music.
  • Grand tour, 1829: Visits England, Italy, and France; the tour features some concertizing. He makes contact with a number of prominent musicians, including Berlioz and Chopin. He is especially well-received in England, and returns there several times over the course of his career.
  • First gig, 1833: Mendelssohn is appointed music director of Düsseldorf. He writes and conducts the “Italian” Symphony for the Philharmonic Society in London.
  • A-List, 1835-1847: Mendelssohn is appointed conductor of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra. His careful choice of repertory for their 20 concerts each year helps to solidify the canon (the standard musical repertory) of the 18th and early 19th centuries. A sought-after conductor, he leads the premiere of Schubert’s Symphony No. 9 in 1839, as well as Schumann’s Symphony No. 1 in 1841. He revives oratorios at summer music festivals, and writes one himself (St. Paul, 1835, rev. 1837).
  • 1840-47: Mendelssohn is hired by the Prussian king to play a directorial role within Berlin’s musical life. The Berlin Cathedral Choir is created especially for him.
  • Final years: In 1843, he founds the Leipzig Music Conservatory. In 1846, he conducts the premiere of his oratorio Elijah at the Birmingham Festival in England. In October 1847, he suffers a series of strokes and dies on Nov. 4.
  • 1850: Although Mendelssohn was internationally renowned during his lifetime, his posthumous reputation suffers, due in part to anti-Semitism. The composer Richard Wagner anonymously publishes an essay called “Jewishness in Music” in this year that mars Mendelssohn’s legacy.
Fun Facts
  • Precocious progress: Mendelssohn composed many of his best-known works before he was 20.
  • Genes of genius: Mendelssohn’s grandfather was a famous philosopher named Moses Mendelssohn.
  • Sibling rivalry: Felix’s sister, Fanny, was also a talented composer and pianist. Felix called her his “Minerva.”
  • Misleading monikers: While Mendelssohn might have been inspired to write his “Italian” Symphony during a tour of Italy, the work actually premiered in London in 1833. Similarly, his “Scottish” Symphony was begun during a trip to Scotland in 1829, but not finished until 1842 in Berlin.
  • Disordered ordering: Mendelssohn’s five symphonies are numbered by their order of publication, not composition. The real order: Symphony in C Minor, 1824 (No. 1); “Reformation” Symphony, 1830 (No. 5); “Italian” Symphony, 1833 (No. 4); “Lobgesang” (Song of Praise), 1840 (No. 2); “Scottish,” 1842 (No. 3).
Recommended Biography
Explore the Music
  • Mendelssohn was well-versed in music history, so that his musical style seems to meld influences from both the 18th and the 19th centuries. He is famous for orchestral, piano, and chamber music. In his own time, the oratorios were both important pieces.
Recommended Websites
  • Orchestral:
    • Symphonies: Symphonies Nos.3 in Minor, “Scottish”, 4 in A Major, “Italian”
    • A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Overture and Incidental Music
    • Piano Concerto No. 2 in D Minor, Op. 40
    • Violin Concerto in E Minor, Op. 64: This is one of the most significant violin concertos of the 19th century.
  • Piano:
    • Lieder ohne Worte (Songs without Words): Short piano pieces seem to have been inspired by vocal music.
    • Andante and Rondo Capriccioso, Op. 14
  • Chamber:
    • Octet for Strings, Op. 20/ String Quintet No. 2, Op. 87
    • Academy Chamber Ensemble (Philips, 1990). This 1978 recording is excellent and continues to be a popular version of the Octet. It also has the wonderful String Quintet No. 2.
    • Piano Trios Op. 49 and Op. 66
  • Oratorio:
    • Elijah, Op. 70
    • Bryn Terfel/Renee Fleming/Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment/Edinburgh Festival Chorus/Paul Daniel, cond. 2 CDs (Decca, 1997) The role of Elijah is one of the great baritone showcases, and Terfel is outstanding.