Born in Hamburg, February 3, 1809;
died in Leipzig, November 4, 1847
“Gentle Genius” was the expression often invoked to describe Felix Mendelssohn for many years. The “Gentle” part has been discredited and laid to rest (he wrote much that is far from gentle and his life had as much turmoil in it as anyone else’s) But the Genius part remains in the forefront of any discussion of this composer. Indeed, Mendelssohn was a genius. There are different levels of genius, of course. The term is often casually invoked to describe just a moderately talented youngster. Normally we use “genius” in connection with names like Bach, Chopin and Liszt. Mendelssohn virtually gave the word new meaning.
At nine he was giving piano recitals in public. Three years later he had already written three operas. By fourteen he had a dozen string symphonies to his credit. At sixteen he composed an Octet for strings and at seventeen the Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream . These latter two works rank among the most perfect compositions ever created by anyone of any age. Not even Mozart was writing on this level as a teenager. In fact, it is probably safe to say that no one else in history, save possibly the Viennese composer Erich Wolfgang Korngold (1897-1957) created such great music at such an early age. All during this period young Felix had the advantage of a private orchestra to experiment with. This helped of course, but the genius was inherent.
His Own Orchestra
A private orchestra? As a teenager? Mendelssohn was one of those rare artists born to wealth and luxury. His paternal grandfather was the celebrated Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn, a leading figure of the Enlightenment. His father Abraham and an uncle founded in 1804 a bank that provided funds for anti-Napoleon resistance; it survived until 1938 when the Nazis closed it. But the Mendelssohns could by no means be called the idle rich. Intellectual endeavors and the pursuit of excellence were passions that ran high in the family. Felix had private tutors not only in musical subjects - violin, organ, piano, voice, conducting, theory and composition - but also in languages (both ancient and modern), philosophy, history, literature, painting and much more. (Mendelssohn’s Overture to The Fair Melusina reflects his thorough knowledge of literature.) At twenty he was offered a position teaching at the University of Berlin (he declined). That same year he took it upon himself to prepare and conduct the first public performance in a hundred years of Bach’s three-hour St. Matthew Passion, thus sparking the great Bach revival.
The Grand Tour
Between the ages of twenty-one and twenty-four Mendelssohn made the Grand Tour of Europe expected of every well-to-do young man of the age. But Felix didn’t just go gallivanting about having a good time. He wrote voluminous letters home and to friends; he painted; he absorbed the cultural riches of every country he visited, especially Italy; and he composed. Several of his best-known works were inspired by travels around Europe, including the Scottish Symphony , the Italian Symphony and the Hebrides Overture (islands off the coast of Scotland).
Mendelssohn was proud of his Jewish heritage and maintained an active interest in all things Jewish throughout his life, including the struggle for political emancipation. His two great oratorios, St. Paul and Elijah, are derived from Old Testament subjects. But his father knew well that the plague of anti-Semitism would close doors to his son’s career. At seven Felix was baptized. He converted to Lutheranism and appended “Bartholdy” to his surname. “Bartholdy” came from an estate in Berlin belonging to one of Felix’s uncles, who had adopted the name when he converted to Protestantism in 1805; Felix followed suit. His father wanted him to replace “Mendelssohn” with “Bartholdy” but Felix insisted on adding it to his existing name, and he used the hyphenated “Mendelssohn-Bartholdy” all his life. Today the name is invariably shortened to just Mendelssohn for convenience.
More Than a Composer
As if composing masterpieces weren’t enough to keep one man (or, often enough, boy) busy, Mendelssohn took it upon himself to indulge in numerous other musical activities. In this respect he is often compared to Leonard Bernstein in our own age – a man so preternaturally talented, so brilliant in every respect that he excelled in everything he touched. He was an outstanding pianist. One contemporary described his playing as follows: “He played the piano as a lark soars. He possessed a great adroitness, sureness, strength, fluency, a soft full tone,” all qualities that have often been noted in his music as well. He was one of the leading conductors of his age, an age in which conducting as we know it today was still in its infancy. Mendelssohn was one of the first to use a baton. He assumed directorship of the Gewandhaus Orchestra in Leipzig and turned it into one of the best in Europe. As an administrator he organized and ran several music festivals in Germany and England. In 1843 he founded the Leipzig Conservatory. He taught. He lectured. He traveled constantly. He worked tirelessly on behalf of his passion, music. He also married and had children, though his domestic life remains very much in the shadows
Overwork, Burnout and Death
But all this took its toll. Even a genius is mortal, and by the time Mendelssohn was in his mid-thirties he was already suffering from what we today would call burnout. The last few years of his short life were plagued with increasing illnesses of various sorts. In the spring of 1847, upon completing a grueling round of conducting engagements in England, he wrote to his friend Karl Klingemann that “another exhausting week like this and I’m a dead man!” When he returned to Leipzig he learned, to his horror, that his beloved sister Fanny had died of a stroke. Felix never fully recovered from this blow. He had a stroke himself. A vacation in Switzerland did him little good. He began to walk with a stoop. He became ever more despondent. Nevertheless he kept up the mad pace of work. It all caught up with him later that year. On October 28 he had another stroke and a week later he was dead. It was a terrible loss to the entire world of music.
Mendelssohn's Enduring Legacy
Mendelssohn’s contemporary, the composer and critic Robert Schumann , called him “the Mozart of the nineteenth century.” By this he meant that Mendelssohn’s music was imbued with those qualities that we so greatly admire in Mozart’s – textural transparency (you can always hear exactly who is playing what), economy of means, a sense of proportion, coherent structures, formal balance and elegance – all the hallmarks of classicism. Nothing revolutionary. Nothing in excess. What Mendelssohn lacked - and what Mozart displayed as he matured - was a sense of adventure, of harmonic boldness, of pushing the ceiling and forcing listeners to peer into new musical worlds. But this should not be interpreted as a defect. What Mendelssohn did he did extremely well.
We must remember that he was universally admired within his lifetime, an accomplishment shared by few other great composers and certainly not by most of our musical heroes (Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and Stravinsky among them). Even such avant-garde composers like his contemporaries Berlioz and Liszt accorded Mendelssohn the highest praise. So too do we today. And lest we forget a birthday, 2009 marks the 200th of Mendelssohn’s birth. His music rightly remains in the forefront of every orchestra’s repertory, as can be seen in the NAC Orchestra’s programming year after year.