Amburg 1809 – Leipzig 1847
Felix Mendelssohn, grandson of the distinguished Jewish thinker Moses Mendelssohn, the additional surname Bartholdy adopted on his conversion to Christianity, was born in Hamburg, the son of a banker. The family moved to Berlin, where Mendelssohn was brought up, able to associate with a cultured circle of family friends. He was associated with the revival of public interest in the music of Johann Sebastian Bach and in the early 1830s travelled abroad for his education, spending time in Italy and also visiting England, Wales and Scotland. He was later conductor of the Gewandhaus Orchestra in Leipzig, where he also established a Conservatory, his stay there interrupted briefly by a return to Berlin. He died in Leipzig in 1847. Prolific and precocious, Mendelssohn had many gifts, musically as composer, conductor and pianist. His style of composition combined something of the economy of means of the classical period with the romanticism of a later age.
Mendelssohn wrote five symphonies, in addition to an attractive series of twelve early symphonies for strings, completed at the age of fourteen. Of the mature symphonies the Italian Symphony, Symphony No. 4, completed in 1833 and reflecting the composer’s experiences in Italy during his Grand Tour, is the most popular, closely followed by Symphony No. 3, the Scottish, with its echoes of the Palace of Holyrood in the days of Mary Queen of Scots. Symphony No. 5, the Reformation, written in 1832 to celebrate the third centenary of the Augsburg Confession, is less often heard, as is Symphony No. 2, the choral Lobgesang, written to mark the fourth centenary of the invention of printing in 1840.
The concert overtures of Mendelssohn include the 1826 Overture, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a work in many ways typical of the composer’s deftness of touch in its evocation of the fairy world of the play for which he later wrote incidental music. The Hebrides, otherwise known as Fingal’s Cave, evokes a visit to Scotland and the sight of the sea surging over the Giant’s Causeway. Meeresstille und glückliche Fahrt (Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage) is based on a poem by Goethe, a writer who had received the young Mendelssohn at Weimar and prophesied for him a successful career. The Overture Ruy Blas, completed in 1839, is based on the play by Victor Hugo.
The best known of Mendelssohn’s concertos must be the Violin Concerto in E minor, the third to make use of the solo violin. The E minor Concerto was written in 1844 and first performed in Leipzig the following year. Two piano concertos, the first written in 1831 and the second in 1837, are heard less frequently.
Mendelssohn wrote his first chamber music at the age of ten. One of the most delightful works is the Octet, for double string quartet, written to celebrate the 23rd birthday of a violinist friend in 1825. Evidence of earlier precocity is heard in the equally fine Sextet for violin, two violas, cello, double bass and piano, written in 1824. The two string quintets and six string quartets may enjoy less general popularity, although they contain many felicities, String Quartet No. 4 in E minor offering a characteristic view of the composer’s command of technique and mood, ranging from the fairy world of the Scherzo to the passion of the Finale. The two late piano trios, the Piano Trio in D minor and the Piano Trio in C minor represent the composer at his very best.
Mendelssohn was himself both pianist and violinist. Of his duo sonatas, however, the two Cello Sonatas and the Variations concertantes for cello and piano, with a late Song without Words for cello and piano, make an important part of 19th century cello repertoire.
The 19th century was the age of the piano, a period in which the instrument, newly developed, became an essential item of household furniture and the centre of domestic music-making. Short piano pieces always found a ready market, none more than Mendelssohn’s eight albums of Lieder ohne Worte (Songs without Words), a novel title that admirably describes the length, quality and intention of these short pieces.
Mendelssohn’s music for the theatre includes full incidental music for Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, written for the new King of Prussia and first used at Potsdam in 1843, preceded by the Overture written in 1826. The music typically captures the enchanted fairy world of the play. In connection with the King’s attempts to revive Greek tragedy Mendelssohn also wrote incidental music for the Antigone and Oedipus at Colonus of Sophocles, as well as for Racine’s Athalie. His attempts at opera have not survived in modern repertoire.
Mendelssohn wrote a number of works for possible church use, both Protestant and Catholic. Of these the best known must be Hear my prayer, a favourite with boy trebles. The carol Hark the herald angels sing was adapted by W. H. Cummings from a chorus in a secular cantata. His oratorios Elijah and St. Paul remain traditionally popular with choral societies. In addition to settings of psalms,which include a setting of Psalm 100, Jauchzet den Herrn (Praise the Lord) and sacred and secular cantatas, Mendelssohn wrote a number of choral songs and a larger quantity of solo songs, a pleasing addition to the repertoire of German song, intended for intimate social gatherings rather than the concert hall. Among the most exciting of songs is Hexenlied (Witches’ Song), a setting of verse by Hšlty, one of an early set of twelve songs written in 1828. A second dozen, published two years later, includes the contrasting Im Frühling (In the Spring) and Im Herbst (In the Autumn). Mendelssohn wrote his last songs in the year of his death, 1847.