Mendelssohn: Life & Career

  • Felix Mendelssohn (1809 – 1847) was born in Hamburg (Germany) and died in Leipzig (Germany). Mendelssohn’s family was prominent; his father was a banker and his mother was an amateur musician. Mendelssohn’s music education began with his sister Fanny, who taught him how to play the piano, and studied music and composition as a child.
  • Mendelssohn composed his first piece at age 11, and at age 12, he was considered a fellow musician, no longer a student, by his theory teacher Carl Zelter, who recognized his tremendous abilities as an artist. Thus, Zelter introduced Mendelssohn to Goethe, the poet, in Weimar. Mendelssohn returned to visit Goethe twice after that, with his sister Fanny, and dedicated his Piano Quartet in B minor to Goethe.
  • At age 16, Mendelssohn and his family moved to Berlin; Mendelssohn attended the University of Berlin in 1827. At age 20, Mendelssohn conducted Bach’s St Matthew’s Passion, with 400 singers– this was the first performance of the piece since Bach’s death, and renewed interest in his works.
  • Afterwards, Mendelssohn embarked on a series of travels throughout Europe, from 1829 – 1833. Mendelssohn particularly enjoyed Italy, with its rich lifestyle and culture; his symphony subtitled ‘Italian’ was inspired by his trip to Italy.
  • From 1833 – 1835, Mendelssohn took up a conducting post at Dusseldorf, and lived in Leipzig from 26 until his death. He conducted the Gewandhaus Orchestra, playing pieces by Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, and more. In 1843, Mendelssohn founded and directed the Leipzig Conservatory
  • Mendelssohn composed incidental music during this period, for example A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and was occasionally employed by the king as the choirmaster and conductor.
  • Mendelssohn married Cécile Jeanrenaud at age 36. Not many details are known about Mendelssohn’s married life, but he seems to have had a happy marriage.
  • Mendelssohn died at age 38 after suffering a series of strokes.

Works

Include…

  • Overtures: A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Hebrides Overture,  “Fingal’s Cave”
  • Oratorios: “Elijah”, “St. Paul”
  • Orchestral Works: “Italian”, “Scottish”, “Reformation”
  • Piano Works: Songs without Words, op. 1 and 2, Rondo Capriccioso
  • Carols: Hark! The Herald Angels Sing, The Wedding March
  • Concertos: Piano and violin concertos
  • Chamber Music: Piano Quartet in B minor, Piano Trio in D minor, Octet for Strings

Inspiration & Contributions

  • Mendelssohn was influenced by Bach’s fugal complexity, as he revived Bach’s works more than one century after the composer’s death.
  • Haydn’s development of form.
  • Mozart’s flair for drama.
  • Beethoven’s attention to instrumentation and detail.
  • Mendelssohn enjoyed the stand-alone concert overture, which Liszt later developed into the symphonic tone poem.
  • Because Mendelssohn believed that music should be interpreted by the listener, his works do not have descriptive titles and are non-programmatic, e.g. Songs Without Words.

Style

  • Delicate, elf-like melodies or long, lyrical melodies which follow Classical views of balance and proportion.
  • Mostly used Classical forms with nnovations, for example omitting the break between movements in Violin Concerto in E minor.
  • Often used non-programmatic titles to allow the listener to interpret his music.
  • Rhythms are usually less complicated than those used by other composers such as Brahms and Chopin.
  • Rarely used chromaticism– harmony was Classical in style.

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