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Felix Mendelssohn Biography

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Jakob Ludwig Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy, born and known generally as Felix Mendelssohn (February 3, 1809 – November 4, 1847) was a German composer and conductor of the early Romantic period. He was born to a notable Jewish family, being the grandson of the philosopher Moses Mendelssohn. His work includes symphonies, concertos, oratorios, piano and chamber music. After a long period of relative denigration due to changing musical tastes in the late 19th century, his creative originality is now being recognised and re-evaluated, and he is now amongst the most popular composers of the Romantic era.

Mendelssohn was born in Hamburg, the son of a banker, Abraham, (who was himself the son of Moses Mendelssohn), and of Lea Salomon, a member of the Itzig family.

Abraham sought to renounce the Jewish religion; his children were first brought up without religious education, and were baptised as Lutherans in 1816 (at which time Felix took the additional names Jakob Ludwig). (Abraham and his wife were not themselves baptised until 1822). The name Bartholdy was assumed at the suggestion of Lea's brother, Jakob, who had purchased a property of this name and adopted it as his own surname. Abraham was later to explain this decision in a letter to Felix as a means of showing a decisive break with the traditions of his father Moses: 'There can no more be a Christian Mendelssohn than there can be a Jewish Confucius'. Although Felix continued to sign his letters as 'Mendelssohn Bartholdy' in obedience to his father's injunctions, he seems not to have objected to the use of 'Mendelssohn' alone.

Mendelssohn's own works show his study of Baroque and early classical music. His fugues and chorales especially reflect a tonal clarity and use of counterpoint reminiscent of Johann Sebastian Bach, by whom he was deeply influenced. His great-aunt, Sarah Levy (née Itzig) was a pupil of Bach's son, Wilhelm Friedemann Bach, and had supported the widow of another son Carl Philipp Emmanuel Bach. She had collected a number of Bach manuscripts. J.S. Bach's music, which had fallen into relative obscurity by the turn of the 19th century, was also deeply respected by Mendelssohn's teacher Zelter. In 1829, with the backing of Zelter and the assistance of a friend, the actor Eduard Devrient, Mendelssohn arranged and conducted a performance in Berlin of Bach's St Matthew Passion. The orchestra and choir were provided by the Berlin Singakademie of which Zelter was the principal conductor. The success of this performance (the first since Bach's death in 1750) was an important element in the revival of J.S. Bach's music in Germany and, eventually, throughout Europe. It earned Mendelssohn widespread acclaim at the age of twenty. It also led to one of the very few references which Mendelssohn ever made to his origins: 'To think that it took an actor and a Jew-boy (Judensohn) to revive the greatest Christian music for the world' (cited by Devrient in his memoirs of the composer).

Mendelssohn also revived interest in the work of Franz Schubert. He conducted the premiere of Schubert's Ninth Symphony at Leipzig on 21 March 1839, more than a decade after the composer's death.

Throughout his life Mendelssohn was wary of the more radical musical developments undertaken by some of his contemporaries. He was generally on friendly, if somewhat cool, terms with the likes of Hector Berlioz, Franz Liszt, and Giacomo Meyerbeer, but in his letters expresses his frank disapproval of their works.

In particular, he seems to have regarded Paris and its music with the greatest of suspicion and an almost Puritanical distaste. Attempts made during his visit there to interest him in Saint-Simonianism ended in embarrassing scenes. He thought the Paris style of opera vulgar, and the works of Meyerbeer insincere. When Ferdinand Hiller suggested in conversation to Felix that he looked rather like Meyerbeer (they were distant cousins, both descendants of Rabbi Moses Isserlis), Mendelssohn was so upset that he immediately went to get a haircut to differentiate himself. It is significant that the only musician with whom he was a close personal friend, Moscheles, was of an older generation and equally conservative in outlook. Moscheles preserved this outlook at the Leipzig Conservatory until his own death in 1870.

This conservative strain in Mendelssohn, which set him apart from some of his more flamboyant contemporaries, bred a similar condescension on their part toward his music. His success, his popularity and his Jewish origins, irked Richard Wagner sufficiently to damn Mendelssohn with faint praise, three years after his death, in an anti-Jewish pamphlet Das Judenthum in der Musik. This was the start of a movement to denigrate Mendelssohn's achievements which lasted almost a century, the remnants of which can still be discerned today amongst some writers (for example, Charles Rosen's essay on Mendelssohn, whose style he criticizes as 'religious kitsch'). The Nazi regime was to cite Mendelssohn's Jewish origin in banning his works and destroying memorial statues.

In England, Mendelssohn's reputation remained high for a long time; the adulatory (and today scarcely readable) novel Charles Auchester by the teenaged Sarah Sheppard, published in 1851, which features Mendelssohn as the 'Chevalier Seraphael', remained in print for nearly eighty years. Queen Victoria demonstrated her enthusiasm by requesting, when The Crystal Palace was being re-built in 1854, that it include a statue of Mendelssohn. It was the only statue in the Palace made of bronze and the only one to survive the fire that destroyed the Palace in 1936. (The statue is now situated in Eltham College, London). Mendelssohn's Wedding March from A Midsummer Night's Dream was first played at the wedding of Queen Victoria's daughter to the crown prince of Prussia in 1856 and it is still popular today. However many critics, including Bernard Shaw, began to condemn his music for its association with Victorian cultural insularity.

Over the last fifty years a new appreciation of Mendelssohn's work has developed, which takes into account not only the popular 'war horses', such as the E minor Violin Concerto and the Italian Symphony, but has been able to remove the Victorian varnish from the oratorio Elijah, and has explored the frequently intense and dramatic world of the chamber works. Virtually all of Mendelssohn's published work is now available on CD.

Recent critical evaluations of Mendelssohn's work have stressed the subtlety of his compositional technique. For example, the Hebrides Overture has been interpreted as presenting a musical equivalent to the aesthetic subject in the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich. The first lyrical theme represents the person apprehending the landscape described by the music behind this theme. Similarly, the use of French Horns in the opening movement of the Italian Symphony may represent a German presence in an Italian scene -- Mendelssohn himself on tour.
 
 
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