Mendelssohn (-Bartholdy), (Jakob Ludwig) Felix
German composer, also a pianist and conductor. His music has the lightness and charm of classical music, applied to Romantic and descriptive subjects. Among his best-known works are A Midsummer Night's Dream (1826); the Fingal's Cave overture (1830-32); and five symphonies, which include the ‘Reformation’ (1832), the ‘Italian’ (1833), and the ‘Scottish’ (1842). He was involved in promoting the revival of interest in Johann Sebastian Bach's music.
Mendelssohn was the son of the banker Abraham Mendelssohn and grandson of the Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn. His branch of the family converted to Christianity and moved to Berlin in 1812. At the age of six he had piano lessons from his mother and at seven from Marie Bigot in Paris. In 1817, back in Berlin, he learnt composition from Carl Zelter, whose friend Johann Wolfgang von Goethe he visited at Weimar in 1821. Before that, in 1818, aged nine, he appeared at a public chamber concert, and before he was 13 he had written many works, including the piano quartet Op. 1.
His father was wealthy enough to enable him to conduct a private orchestra, and he wrote his first symphony at 15, afterwards writing 13 symphonies for strings. By 1825 he had ready the short opera Camacho's Wedding, produced at the family's expense in 1827. Also in 1825 he wrote his first masterpiece, the Octet for strings. At 17 he had written the overture to Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream (1826; the rest of the incidental music followed in 1842). In 1829 he gave the first performance since the composer's time of J S Bach's then forgotten St Matthew Passion at the Vocal Academy and paid the first of his ten visits to England. While there he conducted the Philharmonic Society in London, and took a holiday in Scotland, where he gathered impressions for the Hebrides overture and the ‘Scottish’ symphony, which he worked on in Italy during 1830-31. He finished the ‘Italian’ symphony in 1833, the year he conducted the Lower Rhine Festival at Düsseldorf, where he was engaged to stay as general music director. He left for Leipzig, where he was appointed ‘official’ conductor of the Gewandhaus concerts in 1835.
During a visit to Frankfurt he met Cécile Jeanrenaud, whom he married in March 1837. In September of the same year he conducted St Paul at the Birmingham Festival. In 1841 he left for Berlin, having been appointed director of the music section of the Academy of Arts, and there provided incidental music for several classical plays in Greek, English, and French. He returned to Leipzig late in 1842 and founded the conservatory there in November, opening it in April 1843. He was still living in Berlin, but resumed his conductorship at Leipzig in 1845, conducting the premiere of his most popular work, the violin concerto. But he was in poor health, and his visit to England to conduct Elijah at the Birmingham Festival on 26 August 1846 was his last but one. The death of his sister Fanny in the spring of 1847 greatly depressed him, and he went to Switzerland too ill to do any work, returning to Leipzig in September completely exhausted.
Mendelssohn's music is most highly valued for its combination of Romantic qualities with a sure sense of form. Much of his best music, including the octet (1825), the first five string quartets, St Paul, and the ‘Italian’ symphony were written while he was in his teens or twenties. Exhaustion through frail health and overwork prevented him from meeting his full potential, although such late works as the violin concerto and Elijah (1833) are among his best.
several; incidental music to Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream (1843).
St Paul (1836) and Elijah (1846); Goethe's Erste Walpurgisnacht for solo voices, chorus, and orchestra.
13 symphonies for strings (1821-23), five symphonies, including A minor ‘Scottish’ (1842), A ‘Italian’ (1833), D ‘Reformation’ (1832); four concert overtures, A Midsummer Night's Dream (1826), Fingal's Cave (1830-32), The Fair Melusine (1833), Ruy Blas (1839); two concertos and three shorter works for piano and orchestra; violin concerto in E minor.
including six string quartets, two string quintets, string octet in E♭ Op. 20 (1825); two piano trios, in D minor Op. 49 (1839) and C minor Op. 66 (1845).
Keyboard and songs
a large amount of piano music including 48 Lieder ohne Worte/Songs without words; six sonatas, and other pieces for organ; over 80 songs; 12 sets of vocal duets and part songs.
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