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Classical Composers A-Z: Felix Mendlessohn

Peter Wintersgill presents a brief biography of the great musician and composer, Felix Mendlessohn-Bartholdy.

To read more portraits of the great masters of musical composition please click on Classical Composers A-Z in the menu on this page.

Born
3rd February, 1809, in Hamburg.

Father
Abraham, banker.

Mother
Leah, very musical and well read.

Family
Sister, Fanny, four years older than Felix. Aunt Henriette, known as Tante Jette, sister Rebecca, brother Paul.

Childhood
Father a typical Jewish father, autocratic but affectionate. Family moved to Berlin when Felix was three and Fanny seven. The eldest child, Fanny remained close to Felix all his life. They had piano lessons in Paris together when Felix was seven and Fanny 11.

Educated at home with a strict timetable, they had different teachers for literature, piano, violin and composition.

The latter, Carl Zelter, was to have a great influence on Felix all his life. He was a great admirer of Goethe, set several of his poems to music and took Felix to meet him later on.

Felix's maternal uncle had become a Christian. Later Felix and the rest of the family also became Christian and took the uncle's name, Bartholdy.

Adolescence
By 1820 he and Fanny were both composing, though in those days women could not become professional musicians. Most of his works at this stage were for piano, including Songs Without Words, which he wrote for Fanny.

He met Weber in 1821 and was much impressed by his music, which influenced his own. He was taken by Zelter to meet Goethe at Weimar. The old man approved of the lively boy, who improvised on a theme of Zelter's and was praised by all.

Quick and lively in temperament, Felix remained very sensitive all his life. He continued to compose chamber music, including a piano quartet and a violin sonata, also a Rondo Capriccioso for piano.

He met the pianist Ferdinand Hiller in 1827 and they became great friends. His father took him in 1825 to see Cherubini in Paris, who had a reputation for sarcasm. To their great surprise the great man praised him warmly.

He started at Berlin University at 16, wrote a string quintet and the Overture to Midsummer Night's Dream in 1827. He became friendly with Karl Klingemann, a diplomat, with whom he later visited London.

Being very fond of the music of Beethoven and J.S. Bach, he gave the first performance of the St. Matthew Passion for 100 years.


Early Adult Life

He visited London, staying with Klingemann and conducted his C Minor Symphony at the Philharmonic Society's concert. He toured Scotland, starting at Edinburgh, and visited Sir Walter Scott at Abbotsford. He then toured the Highlands, where he found the scenery very moving but the inns very primitive. He was inspired to write a Scottish Symphony, also the Hebrides Overture after seeing Fingal's Cave. He returned via Glasgow, where he saw the effect of drink on the working classes.

Klingemann returned to London, but Felix continued via Wales, where he was not impressed by the music. His leg was injured in a carriage accident, when he was laid up for two months and missed his sister Fanny's wedding.

Return to Berlin
On arriving back he turned down the offer of the Chair of Music. He caught measles, which at that time was very serious, especially in an adult.

He left for Italy in 1831, staying on the way with Pastor Schubring, who later wrote the libretto for Elijah. He stayed in Venice and Rome, where he met many musicians and other artists. While in Italy he finished the Hebrides Overture and worked on his Scottish and Italian Symphonies.

In Paris on the way back he met Chopin and Liszt. He conducted the Lower Rhine Festival at Dusseldorf, where he was invited to become Musical Director there.

He visited London again and played the organ at St. Paul’s.
He started the oratorio St. Paul in 1834 but didn't finish it for two years.

He didn't settle in Dusseldorf, so moved to Leipzig after a year. The premiere of St. Paul in Dusseldorf in 1836 was a great success.

His father's death at this time caused a recurrence of his depression. He then became engaged to Cecile, a widow's daughter of great musical ability. They were married in Frankfurt in 1836. Fanny was impatient to meet Cecile and was quite taken with her when she eventually did.

Later Adult Life
His son Karl was born in February 1839 and daughter Marie in October 1839. In 1840 he composed Hymn of Praise and Festival Song for the fourth centenary of the invention of printing.

He visited London for the 6th time and conducted Hymn of Praise in Birmingham. He was made Director of the Musical Side of Academy of Arts in Berlin in 1841. He visited England again, conducted the Scottish Symphony in London, played on Prince Albert's organ, accompanied the Queen's singing. They were both accomplished musicians, and appreciated Felix's superb professionalism. He dedicated the Scottish Symphony to the Queen, who gave him a valuable ring.

His mother died in 1842. Berlioz came to visit him in 1843, when they exchanged batons. He was appointed conductor of London Philharmonic Society for 1844-45 season and gave Midsummer Night's Dream. He arrived back in Frankfurt in July tired but happy. He resigned from the Academy post in Berlin. His son Felix had a severe attack of measles, taking a long time to recover.

Last Years
He conducted the Lower Rhine Festival at Aachen in May 1846, including Creation and Alexander's Feast. He was working on Elijah at this time, between bouts of depression, which involved much correspondence with his librettist Pastor Schubring. When it was finally finished he felt very old and tired. The premiere was at Birmingham in August 1846, with overwhelming success. It was later given in London and heard by Prince Albert, who sent him his congratulations. He arrived back in Leipzig in October tired and worn out.

He visited London for the last time in 1847 to give Elijah for the Sacred Harmonic Society. He attended other functions, including another visit to Buckingham Palace.

He arrived back to find that sister Fanny, to whom he was greatly attached, had died of a stroke. He was so shocked he lost consciousness, but soon recovered. He went to Switzerland to recuperate, where he did much sketching. He returned to Leipzig in September, much recovered. When he saw his sister's room just as she had left it, he relapsed and went home to bed.

He never really recovered and died on 4th November, 1847, aged 38 of a stroke. The funeral was on 7th November and contained music from St. Paul and the final chorus from Bach's St. Matthew Passion.

Character and Personality
He was brought up in luxury, but made to work hard, making it hard for him to relax in later life. However he was a great social success; he danced, rode, played billiards and chess, also sketched and painted. Like Bach, he was impatient about details, therefore not a good teacher. His marriage was very happy. He showed mood swing and a tendency to depression, especially following bereavements.

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