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musician, composer, and conductor known for organizing concerts aimed at presenting composers representing particular periods in music history
Jakob Ludwig Felix Mendelssohn was born in Hamburg, Germany, on February 3, 1809, the son of a wealthy Jewish banker. His family moved to Berlin and converted to Lutheranism in 1812, which is about the same time that "Bertholdy" was added to the family name. In Berlin, Felix was exposed to some of the most respected intellectuals of the day. He developed great skill as a painter and sketcher, an interest in classical literature, and learned to speak English, Italian, and Latin, in addition to his native German.
But the gift with which Felix was most blessed was the ability to write and play music. He made his first public appearance as a pianist at the age of 9, wrote his first music at 10, and was a respected composer by his teen years. To help him with his talent, his family made an orchestra available to him so he could actually hear his compositions being played while he wrote them. His first symphony for a full orchestra was published in 1824, when he was all of 15 years old.
In 1826, Mendelssohn wrote an orchestral overture, A Midsummer Night's Dream, based on Shakespeare's play. Its lively and brilliant orchestration and catchy melodies established him as one of the leading composers of his day. Seventeen years later he wrote the incidental music for the play, including the now familiar "Wedding March."
In 1829, Mendelssohn made the first of ten trips to England, where he achieved almost instant fame as a composer, soloist, and conductor. In England, he wrote what is considered by many to be his best work, the oratorio Elijah, first performed in Birmingham in 1846. England also inspired his third symphony, "The Scottish" (1842), and his famous overture The Hebrides (1830-1832), also known as Fingal's Cave.
In 1833, he became conductor at Düsseldorf. Many of his vocal works were composed that same year, including Lord, Have Mercy Upon Us, as well as the opera Trala, A frischer Bua bin i, and the "Italian Symphony." In 1835, he became conductor of the orchestra of the Gewandhaus (Cloth Hall) in Leipzig. He held that post almost continuously until his death.
In 1837, Mendelssohn married Cécile Jeanrenaud, with whom he had five children. He died in Berlin on November 4, 1847.
His Work and Legacy
Of Mendelssohn's 200 or so musical compositions, today's audiences hear only fragments of some of his best work. Among the compositions still performed as complete works are the "Italian Symphony" and his concerto for violin in E minor (1844).
One of Mendelssohn's most significant achievements was his role in reviving interest in the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. In 1829, he organized and conducted a performance of Bach's Passion According to St. Matthew, the first performance of that work since Bach's death. He also increased the performances and appreciation of works by Ludwig Beethoven and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.
As a conductor, Mendelssohn had excellent musical taste and demanded excellence in performance. He was the first conductor to organize concerts aimed at presenting composers representing particular periods in music history.
This page was last updated on 02/03/2017.