1902 Encyclopedia > Félix Mendelssohn

Felix Mendelssohn
German composer

FELIX MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847). Jakob Ludwig Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, one of the greatest composers of this [the 19th] century, was the grandson of Moses Mendelssohn [q.v.], and was born in Hamburg on February 3, 1809.

In consequence of the troubles caused by the French occupation of Hamburg, Abraham Mendelssohn, his father, migrated in 1811 to Berlin, where his grandmother, Fromet, then in the twenty-fifth year of her widowhood, received the whole family into her house, No. 7 Neue Promenade. Here the little Felix and his sister Fanny received their first instruction in music from their mother, under whose care they progressed so rapidly that the altogether exceptional of their talent soon became unmistakably apparent. Their next teacher was Madame Bigot, who, during the temporary residence of the family in Paris in 1816, gave them some valuable instruction. On their return to Berlin they took lessons in thoroughbass and composition from Zelter, in pianoforte-playing from Henning, -- the care of their general education being entrusted to the father of the novelist Paul Heyse.

Felix Mendelssohn image

Felix Mendelssohn

Felix first played in public on the 24th of October 1818, taking the pianoforte part in a trio by Woelfl. On April 11, 1819, he entered the Berlin Singakademie as an alto, and in the following year began to compose with extraordinary rapidity.

His earliest dated work is a cantata, In rührend feierlichen Tönen, completed on January 13, 1820. During that year alone he produced nearly sixty movements, including songs, pianoforte sonatas, a trio for pianoforte, violin, and violoncello, a sonata for violin and pianoforte, pieces for the organ, and even a little dramatic piece in three scenes. In 1821 he wrote five symphonies for stringed instruments, each in three movements; motets for four voices; an opera, in one act, called Soldatenliebschaft; another, called Die beiden Pädagogen; part of a third, called Die wandernde Comödianten; and an immense quantity of other music of different kinds, some of which, thought worthy of publication by the editors of posthumous works, now stands before the world in evidence of the precocity of his genius.

The original autograph copies of these early productions are now preserved in the Berlin Library, where they form part of a collection which fills forty-four large volumes, all written with infinite neatness, and for the most part carefully dated -- a sufficient proof that the methodical habits which distinguished his later life were formed in early childhood.

In 1821 Mendelssohn paid his first visit to Goethe, with whom he spent sixteen days at Weimar, in company with Zelter. From this year also dates his first acquaintance with Weber, who was then in Berlin superintending the production of Der Freischütz; and from the summer of 1822 his introduction, at Cassel, to another of the greatest of his contemporaries, Ludwig Sphor. During this year his pen was even more prolific than before, producing, among other works, an opera, in three acts, entitled Die beiden Neffen, oder Der Onkel aus Boston, and a pianoforte concerto, which he played in a public at a concert given by Frau Anna Milder.

It had long been a custom with the Mendelssohn family to give musical performances on alternate Sunday mornings in their dining-room, with a small orchestra, which Felix always conducted, even when he was not tall enough to be seen without standing upon a stool. For each of these occasions he produced some new work, -- playing the pianoforte pieces himself, or entrusting them to Fanny, while his sister Rebecka sang, and his brother Paul played the violoncello. In this way Die beiden Neffen was first birthday, February 3, 1824.

Between the 3rd and the 31st of March, in this year, he composed his fine symphony in C minor, now know as Op. 10, and soon afterwards the quartett in B minor, Op. 3, and the (posthumous) pianoforte sestet, Op. 110. In this year also began his lifelong friendship with Moscheles, who, when asked to receive him as a pupil, said, "if he wishes to take a hint from me, as to anything new to him, he can easily do so; but he stands in no need of lessons."

In 1825 Abraham Mendelssohn took Felix to Paris, where among other musicians then resident in the French capital he met two most popular dramatic composers of the age. Rossini and Meyerbeer, and lived on terms of intimacy with Hummel, Kalkbrenner, Rode, Baillot, Herz, and many other artists of European celebrity.

On this occasion, also, he made his first acquaintance with Cherubini, who, though he rarely praised any one, expressed a very high opinion of his talent, and recommended him to write a Kyrie, for five voices, with full orchestral accompaniments, which he himself described "exceeding in thickness" anything he had attempted.

From letters written at this period we learn that Felix’s estimate of the French school of music was very far from a flattering one; but he formed some friendships in Paris, which were pleasantly renewed on latter occasions. He returned to Berlin with his father in May 1825, taking leave of his Parisian friends on the 19th of the month, and interrupting his journey at Weimar for the purpose of paying a second visit to Goethe, to whom he dedicated his quartett in B minor. On reaching home he must have fallen to work with greater zeal than ever; for on the 23rd of July in this same year he completed his pianoforte capriccio in F sharp minor (Op. 5), and on the 10th of August an opera, in two acts, called Die Hochzeit des Camacho, a work of considerable importance, concerning which we shall presently, have to speak more particularly.

No ordinary boy could have escaped uninjured from the snares attendant upon such a life as that which Mendelssohn now lived. Notwithstanding his overwhelming passion for music, has general education had been so well cared for that he was able to hold his own, in the society of his seniors, with the easy grace of an accomplished man of the world. He was already recognized as a leading spirit by the artists with whom he associated, and these artists were men of acknowledged talent and position. The temptations to egotism by which he was surrounded would have rendered most clever students intolerable. But the natural amiability of his disposition, and the healthy influence of his happy home-life, counteracted all tendencies towards inordinate self-assertion; and he is described by all who knew him at this period as the most charming boy imaginable. Even Zelter, though by nature no less repressive than Cherubini, was not ashamed to show that he was proud of him; and Moscheles, whose name was already famous, met him from the first on equal terms.

Soon after his return from Paris, Abraham Mendelssohn removed from his mother’s residence to No. 3 Leipziger Strasse, a roomy, old-fashioned house, containing an excellent music-room, and in the grounds adjoining a "Gartenhaus" capable of accommodating several hundred persons at the Sunday performances (Footnote 7-1).

In the autumn of the following year this "garden-house" witnessed a memorable private performance of the work by means of which the greatness of Mendelssohn’s genius was first revealed to the outer world -- the overture to Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream. The finished score of this famous composition is dated "Berlin, August 6, 1826," -- that is to say, three days after its author had attained the age seventeen years and a half. Yet we may safely assert that in no later work does he exhibit more originality of thought, more freshness of conception, or more perfect masterly over the details of technical construction, than in this delightful inspiration, which, though now nearly sixty years old, still holds its place at the head of the most brilliant achievements of our modern schools. The overture was first publicly performed at Stettin, in February 1827, under the direction of the young composer, who with this bright patent artistic nobility to support his claim, was at once accepted as the leader of a new and highly characteristic manifestation of the spirit of modern progress. Henceforth therefore we must speak to him, not as a student, but as a mature and experienced artist.

Meanwhile Camacho’s Wedding had been submitted to Herr General-Musik-Director Spontini, with a view to its production at the opera. The libretto, founded upon a episode in the history of Don Quixote, was written by Klingemann, and Mendelssohn threw himself into the spirit of the romance with a keen perception of its peculiar humour. The work was put into rehearsal soon after the composer’s return from Stettin, produced on April 29, 1827, and received with great apparent enthusiasm; but, for some reason which it is now impossible to ascertain, a cabal was formed against it, and it never reached a second performance. The critics abused it mercilessly; yet it exhibits merits of a very high order. The solemn passage for the trombones, which heralds the first appearance of the knight of La Mancha, is conceived in a spirit of reverent appreciation of the idea of Cervantes, which would have done honour to a composer of lifelong experience. Even the critics suborned to condemn the work could not refrain from expressing their admiration of this; but it had been decreed that the opera should not live -- and it did not.

Mendelssohn was excessively annoyed at this injustice, and some time elapsed before his mind recovered its usual bright tone; but he continued to work diligently for the cause of art. Among other serious undertakings, he formed a choir for the study of the great choral works of Sebastian Bach, then entirely unknown to the public; and, in spite of Zelter’s determined opposition, he succeeded, in 1829, in inducing the Berlin Singakademie to give a public performance of the Passion according to St Matthew, under his direction, with a chorus of between three and four hundred voices. The scheme succeeded beyond his warmest hopes, and proved the means of restoring of the world great compositions with which we are all now familiar, but which, at that time, had never been heard since the death of Bach. But the obstructive party were grievously offended; and at this period Mendelssohn was far from popular among the musicians of Berlin.

In April 1829 Mendelssohn paid his first visit to London. His reception was most enthusiastic. He made his first appearance before an English audience at one of the Philharmonic Society’s concerts -- then held in the Argyll Rooms -- on the 25th of May, conducting his symphony in C minor from the pianoforte, to which he was led by John Cramer. On the 30th he played Weber’s Concertstück, from memory, a proceeding at that time extremely unusual.

At a concert given by Drouet, on the 24th of June, he played Beethoven’s pianoforte concerto in E flat, which had never before been heard in the country; and the overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream was also, for the first time, presented to a London audience. On returning home from the concert, Mr Atwood, then organist of St Paul’s Cathedral, left the score of the overture in a hackney coach, whereupon Mendelssohn wrote out another, from memory, without an error. At another concert he played, with Moascheles, his still unpublished concerto in E, for two pianofortes and orchestra.

After the close of the of the London season he started with Klingemann on a tour through Scotland, where he was inspired with the first idea of his overture to The Isles of Fingal, returning to Berlin at the end of November. Except for an accident to his knee, which lamed him for some considerable time, his visit was a highly successful one, and laid the foundation of many firm friendships and many prosperous negotiations in the time to come.

The visit to England formed in reality the first division only of a great scheme of travel which his father wished him to extend to all the most important art centres in Europe. After refusing the offer of a professorship at Berlin, he started again, in May 1830, for Italy, pausing on his way at Weimar, where he spent a memorable fortnight with Goethe, and reaching Rome, after many pleasant interruptions, one November 1.

No possible form of excitement ever prevented him from devoting a certain time every day to composition; but he lost no opportunity of studying either the countless treasures which form the chief glory of the great city or the manners and customs of modern Romans. He attended, with insatiable curiosity, the services in the Sistine chapel; and his keen power of observation enabled him to throw much interesting light upon them.

His letters on this subject, however, lose much of their value through his incapacity to comprehend the close relation existing between the music of Palestrina and his contemporaries and the ritual of the Roman Church. His Lutheran education kept him in ignorance even of the first principles of ordinary chanting; and it is amusing to find him describing as enormities peculiar to the papal choir customs familiar to every village singer in England, and as closely connected with the structure of the "Anglican chant" as with that of "Gregorian music." Still, though he could not agree, an all points, with Baini, the greatest ecclesiastical musician then living, he fully shared his admiration for the Improperia, the Miserere, and the cantus planus of the Lamentationes and the Exultet, the musical beauty of which he could understand, apart for their ritual significance.

In passing through Munich on his return in October 1831, he composed and played his pianoforte concerto in G minor, and accepted a commission (never fulfilled) to compose an opera for the Munich theatre. Pausing for a time at Stuttgart, Frankfort, and Düsseldorf, he arrived in Paris in December, and passed four pleasant months in the renewal of acquaintances formed in 1825, and in close intercourse with Liszt and Chopin. On February 19, 1832, the overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream was played at the conservatoire, and many of his other compositions were brought before the public; but he did not altogether escape disappointments with regard to some of them, especially the Reformation symphony, and the visit was brought to a premature close in March by an attack of cholera, from which, however, he rapidly recovered.

On the 23rd of April 1832 he was again in London, where he twice played his G minor concerto at the Philharmonic concerts, gave a performance on the organ at St Paul’s, published his first book of Lieder ohne Worte. He returned to Berlin in July, and during the winter he gave public performances of his Reformation symphony, his concerto in G minor, and his Walpurgisnacht. In the following spring he paid a third visit to London for the purpose of conducting his Italian symphony, which was played for the first time, by the Philharmonic Society, on the 13th of May 1833. On the 26th of the same month be conducted the performances at the Lower Rhine festival at Düsseldorf, with such brilliant effect that he was at once invited to accept the appointment of general-music-director to the town, an office which included the management of the music in the principal churches, at the theater, and at the rooms of the musical associations. This post he willingly accepted, and it formed a stepping-stone to a far more important one.

Before stepping upon his new Mendelssohn paid a fourth visit to London, with his father, returning to Düsseldorf on the 27th of September 1833. His influence produced an excellent effect upon the church music and in the concert-room; but his relations with the management of the theatre were not altogether pleasant; and it was probably this circumstance which first led him to forsake the cultivation of the opera for that of sacred music. At Düsseldorf he first designed his famous oratorio St Paul, in response to an application from the Cäcilien-Verein at Frankfort [Frankfurt], composed his overture to Die schöne Melusine, and planned some other works of importance. He liked his appointment, and would probably have retained it much longer had he not been invited to undertake the permanent direction of the Gewandhaus concerts at Leipsic [Leipzig], and thus raised to the highest position attainable in the German musical world. To this new sphere of labour he removed in August 1835, opening the first concert at the Gewandhaus, on the 4th of October, with his overture Die Meeresstille, a work possessing great attractions, though by no means on a level with the Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Isles of Fingal, or Melusine.

Mendelssohn’s reception in Leipsic [Leipzig] was most enthusiastic; and under their new director the Gewandhaus concerts prospered exceedingly. Meanwhile St Paul steadily progressed, and was first produced, with triumphant success, at the Lower Rhine festival at Düsseldorf, on May 22, 1836. On October 3 it was sung in English, at Liverpool, under the direction of Sir George Smart; and on March 16, 1837, Mendelssohn again directed it at Leipsic [Leipzig].

The next great event in Mendelssohn’s life was his happy marriage, on March 28, 1837, to Cecile Charlotte Sophie Jeanrenaud, whose amiable disposition, surpassing beauty, and indescribable charm of manner endeared her all who knew her. The honeymoon was scarcely over before he was again summoned to England to conduct St Paul, at the Birmingham festival, on September 20th. During this visit he played on the organ at St Paul’s and at Christ Church, Newgate Street, with an effect which exercised a lasting influence upon English organists. It was here also that he first contemplated the production of his second oratorio, Elijah.

Passing over the composition of the Lobgesang in 1840, a sixth visit to England in the same year, the scheme for the erection for a monument to Sebastian Bach, and other events on which space does not permit us to enlarge, we find Mendelssohn in 1841 recalled to Berlin by the king of Prussia, with the title of Kapellmeister. Though this appointment resulted in this production of Antigone, Oedipus Coloneus, Athalie, the incidental music to the Midsummer Night’s Dream, and other great works, it proved an endless source of vexation, and certainly helped to shorten the composer’s life.

In 1842 he came to England for the seventh time, accompanied by his wife, conducted his Scotch symphony at the Philharmonic, again played the organ at St Peter’s Cornhill, and Christ Church, Newgate Street, and was received with all possible honour by the queen and the prince consort. He did not, however, permit his new engagements to interfere with the direction of the Gewandhaus concerts; ad in 1843 he founded in Leipsic [Leipzig] the great conservatoire which soon became the best musical college in Europe, opening it on April 3, in the buildings of the Gewandhaus. In 1844 he conducted six of the Philharmonic concerts in London, producing his new Midsummer Night’s Dream music, and playing Beethoven’s pianoforte concerto in G with extraordinary effect. He returned to his duties at Berlin in September, but happily succeeded in persuading the king to free him from his most onerous engagements, and his delight at this relief was unbounded.

After a brief residence in Frankfort [Frankfurt], Mendelssohn returned to Leipsic [Leipzig] in September 1845, resuming his old duties at the Gewandhaus, and teaching regularly in the conservatoire. Here he remained, with little interruption, during the winter, -- introducing his friend Jenny Lind, then at the height of her popularity, to the critical frequenters of the Gewandhaus, and steadily working at Elijah, the first performance of which he conducted at the Birmingham festival, on August 26, 1846. The enthusiastic reception of this great work upon this production, added to the irritating effect of the worries at Berlin, made a serious inroad upon the composer’s health.

On his return to Leipsic [Leipzig] he worked on as usual, but it was clear that his health was seriously impaired. In 1847 he visited England for the tenth and last time, to conduct four performances of Elijah at Exeter Hall, on the 16th, 23d, 28th, and 30th of April, one at Manchester on the 20th, and one at Birmingham on the 27th. Again the queen and prince consort received him with marked respects, -- one might almost venture to say, affection, -- and all seemed prosperous and happy.

But the necessary exertion was far beyond his strength. He witnessed Jenny Lind’s first appearance Her Majesty’s Theatre, on the 4th of May, and left England on the 9th, little anticipating the trial that awaited him in the tidings of the sudden death of his sister Fanny, which reached only a few days after his arrival in Frankfort [Frankfurt]. The loss of his mother in 1842 has shaken him much, but the suddenness with which this last sad intelligence was communicated broke him down completely.

He fell to the ground insensible, and never fully recovered. In June he was so far himself again that he was able to travel, with his family, by short stages, to Interlaken, where he stayed for some time, illustrating the journey by a series of water-colour drawings, but making no attempt at composition for many weeks. He returned to Leipsic [Leipzig] in September, bringing with him fragments of Christus, Loreley, and some other unfinished works, taking no part in the concerts, and living in the strictest privacy.

On the 9th of October he called on Madame Frege, and asked her to sing his latest set of songs. She left the room for lights, and on her return found him in violent pain, and almost insensible. It was the beginning of the end. He lingered on, now better now worse, through four weary weeks, and on the 4th of November he passed away, in the presence of his wife, his brother, and his three dear friends, Moscheles, Schleinitz, and Ferdinand David. A cross now marks the site of his grave, in the Alte Dreifaltigkeits Kirchhof, at Berlin.

Mendelssohn’s title to a place among the greatest composers of the century is incontestable. His style though differing but little in technical arrangement from that of his classical predecessors, is characterized by a vein of melody peculiarly his own, and easily distinguishable by those who have studied his works, not only from the genuine effusions of contemporary writers, but from the most successful of the servile imitations which much, even during his lifetime, the music-shops were deluged. In less judicious hands the rigid symmetry of his phrasing might, perhaps, have palled upon the ear; but under his skilful management it serves only to impart an additional charm to thoughts which derive their chief beauty from the evident spontaneity of their conception.

In this as in all other matters of a purely technical character, he regarded the accepted laws of art as the medium by which he might most certainly attain the ends dictated by the inspiration of his genius. Though caring nothing for rules, except as means for producing a good effect, he scarcely ever violated them, and was never weary of impressing their value upon the minds of his pupils. His method of counterpoints was modeled in close accordance with that practised by Sebastian Bach. This he used in combination with an elastic development of the sonata-form, similar to that engrafted by Beethoven upon the lines down by Haydn.

The principles involved in this arrangement were strictly conservative; yet they enabled him, at the outset of his career, to invent a new style no less original than that of Schubert or Weber, and no less remarkable as the embodiment of canons already consecrated by classical authority than as a special manifestation of individual genius.

Its is thus that Mendelssohn stands before us as at the same time a champion of conservatism and an apostle of progress; and it is chiefly by virtue of these two apparently incongruous though really perfectly compatible phases of his artistic character that his influence and example have, for so many years, held in check the violence of reactionary opinion which a little injudicious encouragement might easily have fanned into revolutionary fury.

Happily, this wholesome influence is still at work among us; and in his oratories, his symphonies, his overtures, his concertos, and his smaller pianoforte pieces Mendelssohn sets before us an example the value of which is universally recognized, and not likely to be soon forgotten.

Concerning Mendelssohn’s private character there have never been two opinions. As a man of the world, he was more than ordinary accomplished, -- brilliant in conservation, and in his lighter moments overflowing with sparkling humour and ready pleasantry, loyal and unselfish, in the more serious business of life, and never weary of working for the general good. As a friend he was unvarying kind, sympathetic, and as true as steel. His earnestness as a Christian needs no stronger testimony than that afforded by his own delineation of the character of St Paul; but it is not too much to say that his heart and life were pure as those of a little child.

A complete list of Mendelssohn’s published compositions -- one hundred and nineteen in number, besides some five and twenty works of considerable importance -- will be found in the thematic catalogue published by Messrs Breitkopt and Härtel at Leipsic [Leipzig], and also in Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians, vol. ii. pp. 308, 309. Among his miscellaneous writings, we may mention a translation of the Andria of Terence, in German verse, and an immense collection of letters, posthumously printed, and calculated to give the reader a far closer acquaintance with his life and character than any biographer can hope to convey. (W. S. R.)


(7-1) After Mendelssohn’s death this house was sold to the Prussian Government; and the "Herrenhaus" now stands on the site of the garden-house.

The above article was written by: William Smythe Rockstro, pianist and musical composer; author of A General History of Music from the Infancy of the Greek Drama to the Present Period, and other works on the history of music.

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