Composer's Biography: Felix Mendelssohn

Mendelssohn was a German born musical genius, loved by the English. Includes information about his life and work.

Jakob Ludwig Felix Mendelssohn was born into a remarkably gifted and intellectual German family. But did you know that his family was Jewish, although they adopted Christian doctrine and the children were baptized in a Lutheran church? Did you know that his grandfather, Moses Mendelssohn, was one of the foremost scholars of his day? These are the lesser-known facts about the well known musician.

Indeed, Felix Mendelssohn enjoyed the legacy of an extremely talented family. His grandfather, philosopher Moses Mendelssohn, presented studies in Greek, Latin, German, French, and English. His son, Felix's father, Abraham Mendelssohn, was a successful businessman in Hamburg and a patron of the arts. Abraham, like his father Moses before him, was an intellect and taught his son French and mathematics. Felix's mother, Lea Salomon Mendelssohn, a cultured and artistic woman, saw to it that her children were baptized in the Lutheran Church, a more readily accepted denomination in Germany during those times. She also encouraged her son's interest in music and taught him piano lessons.

These music lessons began at an early age and Felix spent many hours practicing with his sister, Fanny. The French occupied Hamburg in 1811 and the Mendelssohns made a move to Berlin. There, Felix studied piano with Ludwig Berger and composition with K.F. Zelter. Along with Fanny and the other children in the family, Felix benefited from literature tutoring and landscape painting lessons, acquiring skills in these areas that he later applied as an adult.

Fanny and Felix traveled to Paris for more refined and advanced music lessons. There, they studied the music of Mozart and Bach. During this time, Felix Mendelssohn wrote five operas, eleven symphonies, and numerous works for piano. Returning to Berlin at the age of nine, Felix appeared publicly as a pianist and was so successful that his parents decided his career must be in music. Original symphonies and sonatas for piano and violins followed by the time he was ten.

At the age of twelve, Felix met the famous poet Goethe. Despite the age difference, a deep friendship between the two ensued and Mendelssohn later dedicated his Quartet in B Minor to the poet.

The age of seventeen marked yet another milestone in Felix's musical career. It was in this year that he wrote the overture to "A Midsummer Night's Dream." This piece can be called no less than exquisite with its lyrical melodies and rich orchestration, just the impressionistic assertions to usher in the Romantic Era of music.

In 1829, at the age of twenty, Felix Mendelssohn was asked to conduct the "St. Matthew Passion" by Bach. This was not only timely as Felix's first debut as a maestro, but it was climatic to the revival of Bach's music since the piece had not been performed since the great Bach's death. Also in 1829, Felix traveled to London, and appeared as a guest conductor for the London Philharmonic Society. There, he conducted his own Symphony in C Minor.

From England, Felix ventured to Scotland where he became acquainted with Sir Walter Scott. Felix stayed, drawn by the scenery of the Hebridean Island of Staffa and entranced by the imagery of the waves breaking along the Scottish seashore. These imaginations inspired the composition "Hebrides Overture," later to be performed in London.

Between 1830 and 1832, Felix Mendelssohn traveled through Europe, becoming one of the most sought-after conductors of the century. The first book of the "Songs without Words" was published in Venice in 1830. During his travels, Mendelssohn became acquainted with much of the royalty and nobility of Austria, Germany, and England. In fact, Felix's "Scottish Symphony" was dedicated to Queen Victoria.

Between the years of 1833 and 1836, Felix accepted a conductor's appointment at the Lower Rhine Music Festival. In 1835, he also conducted the Gewandhaus Orchestra in Leipzig. It was there that Felix met Cecile Jeanrenaud who would become his wife. Together, they had five children. Mendelssohn often recalled that his greatest joy in life was his five children.

Tragedy took Fanny from the Mendelssohn family at an age much too young. Felix received the news badly, so badly that it is believed stress caused a ruptured blood vessel in his brain. He never quite recovered. Six months later, Felix Mendelssohn died at the age of 39. Memorial services were held for him in England and Germany and he was mourned by the Queen of England publicly. He was buried in Berlin near the graves of Fanny and his parents.

The radiance of Felix Mendelssohn's apparent joy for life was infused into his music. His works are remembered for their masterful and beautiful melodies. He is perhaps most famous for his oratorio "The Elijah" and the "Wedding March" from "A Midsummer Night's Dream."

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