Personalities | Felix Mendelssohn | Early Romantic | Classical

(Fa’-leks Men’-del-son) 1809–47
German composer

Mendelssohn was born into a cultured banking family, who in 1816 converted from Judaism to Christianity, adding ‘Bartholdy’ to their name. Felix studied the piano, theory and composition, and showed early talent, writing his first piece at the age of 11.

There were also important non-musical inspirations for his composing at this time, including visitors to his parents’ salon and the writings of Goethe and Shakespeare. Indeed, literary, artistic and historical ideas continued to influence his dramatic and orchestral works throughout his life. His overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1826), for example, to which he later added incidental music, is a poetic evocation of Shakespeare’s play. He also showed early talent as a conductor; his direction of the St Matthew Passion in 1829 in Berlin pioneered the revival of J. S. Bach’s music.

Formative Years

In the early 1820s, Mendelssohn wrote a number of chamber works, which showed the influences of Bach, Haydn and Mozart. These included three piano quartets and a violin sonata, which were his first published opuses. A more personal style emerged decisively in his well-known Octet op. 20 for strings (1825), acknowledged as his first masterpiece. It encompasses a range of textures and styles, from the lyrical opening theme of the first movement, to the breathless rhythms of the scherzo, with its highly contrapuntal finale (a movement inspired by the ‘Walpurgisnacht’ in Goethe’s Faust.

The string quartets composed between 1827 and 1847 show a similar range of stylistic influences and growing individualism. In the Quartet op. 12 (1829), Mendelssohn confronts the musical language of Beethoven’s late quartets, modelling the opening on Beethoven’s op. 74, and reintroducing the Allegro theme at the end of the finale. The Three Quartets op. 44 (1837–38) are particularly fine works, and show a more classical orientation. The second quartet had a scherzo whose rhythmic patterns, like those of the scherzo of the Octet and the canzonetta of the Quartet op. 12, suggest the sparkle of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Travels in Europe

Mendelssohn travelled through Europe in the early 1830s, giving recitals in England, Scotland, Italy and France; these experiences both enhanced his popularity and provided inspiration for a number of compositions. His atmospheric overture The Hebrides (1830), for example, contains descriptive passages in which the waves crashing on the shore are depicted and, more poetically, the mystery of Fingal’s Cave is hinted at by echoing instrumental fanfares. Similarly, the ‘Italian’ Symphony, No. 4 (1832), captures a poetic vitality and warmth through imaginative scoring and its energetic finale is written in the style of a Neapolitan dance, the saltarello.

In 1833–35 Mendelssohn conducted in Düsseldorf, taking particular interest in the oratorios of George Frideric Handel (1685–1759), and in 1835 he became conductor of the Gewandhaus Orchestra in Leipzig, a post he was to retain for the rest of his life. He revived music by Baroque and classical composers including Bach and Mozart and promoted the...

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