Tuesday, 14 April 2015

M is for Mendelssohn

Anyone who has played piano will invariably come across the works of Felix Mendelssohn, a composer of the Romantic era. He was born in the independent city-state of Hamburg in 1809 to a wealthy family; both he and his older sister were highly intelligent and displayed a talent for music.  They were given some of the best education available but at that time it was considered improper for a girl to pursue a musical career, so the young Felix persevered on her behalf.

He received lessons in piano and composition both in Paris and later in Berlin. By the age of 12 he was already a prolific composer of chamber music, which was frequently performed in his parents' home for the elite of Berlin.  In 1826 he composed one of his first major works, the "Overture to A Midsummer Night's Dream".  His knowledge in music, literature, and languages enabled him to qualify for admission into the Humboldt University of Berlin.

With the support of his friends, musician Carl Friedrich Zelter and actor Eduard Devrient,  Mendelssohn arranged and conducted a performance of J.S. Bach's "St. Matthew Passion" in 1829.  This earned him widespread acclaim.  He spent the next few years traveling around Europe to gain insight from other musicians and artists, and during this time composed some of his most famous works.  In 1833 he was appointed musical director of the Lower Rhenish Music Festival in Dusseldorf, but frustration with his duties and the city's politics led him to resign in 1835 and move to Leipzig to become conductor of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra.

While in Leipzig he received many offers from other composers to arrange and perform their works, including Richard Wagner and Robert Schumann.  When Friedrich Wilhelm IV came to the Prussian throne and decided to develop Berlin into a cultural centre, Mendelssohn reluctantly agreed to assist.  Unfortunately many promises were broken and funds never materialized, so Mendelssohn founded his own school in 1843: the Leipzig Conservatory, which still stands today as the Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy University of Music and Theatre.

Over the course of two years he paid many visits to Britain to conduct orchestral performances and meet other composers.  On one such visit he met Queen Victoria and Prince Albert who were both great admirers.  His compositions during this time were heavily influenced by the British culture; his protégé, British composer and pianist William Sterndale Bennett translated many of his works into English.

Suffering from overwork and nervous problems, Mendelssohn's health declined in 1847 until he died from a series of strokes at the height of his career.  He was buried in Berlin after a funeral in Leipzig with full honours.  Today there are monuments to him in Leipzig, Berlin, and London; his works continue to be performed on a regular basis, including the "Wedding March in C Major".

Below is a recording of Mendelssohn's Songs Without Words Op. 85 No. 1 in F Major which I played in one of my graduate concerts.
Songs Without Words Op. 85 No. 1

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