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Felix Bartholdy Mendelssohn (1809-1847), composer


 

(Compiled February 2000)



Mendelssohn was one of the best loved composers of the 19th century, particularly in Victorian England, and he was certainly the most successful. His career showed none of the reverses, disappointments and delays that were the rule for the other great Romantic composers; indeed, it was the overwork and exhaustion to meet the demands for his performances and compositions that led to his early death at the age of 38.

Born February 3, 1809 in Hamburg, Germany, Felix Mendelssohn began, like Mozart, as a child prodigy. His father, Abraham, was a successful banker; his influential mother, Leah Solomon, was an amateur musician. Young Felix studied both the violin and piano and gave his first public recital at age nine. Encouraged by his family and teachers, the precocious Felix began writing music when he was 10 years old. At the age of 17, he astonished the world with a true masterpiece, his Overture to William Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. By this time he had already written his twelve symphonies for string orchestra.

As a conductor, Mendelssohn was very busy both in his native Germany and in England, where Queen Victoria and Prince Albert adored him. He had a deep respect for musical tradition and for the past, and was largely responsible for the mid-19th century revival of interest in J.S. Bach's music. In 1829, at the age of 20, Mendelssohn conducted the first performance of the St. Matthew Passion since Bach's death nearly eighty years before.

The most intensely busy time of his life began with his appointment in 1835 as the administrator, music director and conductor of the Leipzig Gewandhaus concerts. He quickly raised the quality of musical life in Leipzig to rank among the best in Europe, and in 1842 he founded the local Conservatory to maintain his standards of excellence. In 1841 he was named director of the Music Section of the Academy of Arts in Berlin, which required him not only to supervise and conduct a wide variety of programs but also to compose upon royal demand of King Frederick of
Prussia. The incidental music which complements his dazzling 1826 Overture to A Midsummer Night's Dream was sparked by one of Frederick's requests.

Mendelssohn toured, guest conducted and composed incessantly, and participated in endless rounds of social engagements and chamber music soirées. On March 28, 1837 he took on the additional responsibilities of family life when he married Charlotte Jeanrenaud.

Mendelssohn won a short hiatus from his accumulating duties when he took a leave of absence from his post at the Gewandhaus during the 1844-45 season. Before his sabbatical began, however, Mendelssohn had to fulfill a commitment to conduct the London Philharmonic Society Orchestra in a series of concerts during the late spring of 1844. This English engagement created the same spectacular success that was to follow each of his other eight visits to that country.

Mendelssohn's elder sister Fanny was also a talented composer and pianist. Her work was not publicly performed, however, because a musical career was not thought proper for women then. There had always been a close bond between the two siblings, and when Fanny died in May 1847, Felix fell into a deep depression. Already exhausted and ill, he never recovered from Fanny's death. His own death followed a few months later.

 

World events around the time of Mendelssohn writing A Midsummer Night's Dream

1825

  • John Quincy Adams inaugurated as U.S. president
  • Texas is opened to settlement
  • Czar Nicholas I crushes Decemberists uprising
  • Bolivia becomes independent from Brazil
  • Thomas Cole establishes the Hudson River School of landscape painting
  • The Dairy of Samuel Pepys (from 1633-1703) is published
  • Johann Strauss is born
  • Tin-plated cans are patented
  • The element titanium is isolated
  • Erie Canal is opened

1826

  • Thomas Jefferson dies
  • James Fenimore Cooper publishes The Last of the Mohicans
  • Berlin's Unter den Linden lit by gas
  • First railroad tunnel in England is built

 

Other Ballets to Mendelssohn's Music

 

 Ballet (Date)  Choreographer Music 
Capriccio brillant (1951) George Balanchine Capriccio brillant
Clear Lake (1971) Lar Lubovitch String Quartet Op. 12
Elfes (1924) Mikhail Fokine Overture to Midsummer Night's Dream & Violin Concerto in E minor
Scherzo (1926) Martha Graham  
Scotch Symphony (1952) George Balanchine Symphony No. 3
Spring Song (1903) Maud Allen  
The Bird and The Serpent (1923) Serge Oukainsky  
Lord of Burleigh (1931) Frederick Ashton  
Mendelssohn Symphony (1971) Dennis Nahat Symphony No. 4
Dragon Fly (1945) Leonide Massine  
Mendelssohn's Concerto (1975) William Dollar Piano Concerto No. 1
Summertide (1976) Peter Wright Piano Concerto No. 2
Metamorphosis (1976) Johnathon Thorpe Octet
Quicksilver (1980) Dennis Nahat Piano Concerto No. 1
Bequest (1981) Viola Farber Piano Trio in D minor
Mendelssohn Violin Concerto (1982) Bruce Wells Violin Concerto in E minor
Nachturn (1979) Martha Clarke  
Songs Without Words (1982) Heinz Poll Songs Without Words  
Celebration (1983) Jacques d'Amboise Symphony No. 4, Songs Without Words & Capriccio brillant
Wiederkehr (1985) John Alleyne String Quartet in A minor
Octet for Strings (1985) Robert Weiss Octet for Strings
D-man in the waters (1989) Bill T. Jones Octet for Strings
Variations serieuses (1977) Choo-San Goh Variations serieuses
Aube (1989) Victor Ullate  
Blue Streak (1922) Murray Louis Octet in E-flat major Op. 20
Narayama (1992) Pascal Rioult Concerto in A minor for piano and strings
Songs (1997) Dan Wagoner On Wings of Song  

 


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