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Felix Mendelssohn

(1809 - 1847)

Felix Mendelssohn was born as Jakob Ludwig Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy on 

February 3, 1809.

Mendelssohn suffered from bad health in the final years of his life and he died after a series of strokes, on November 4, 1847, in Leipzig. His funeral was held at the Paulinerkirche and he is buried in the Trinity Cemetery in Berlin-Kreuzberg.

His father was a prominent Jewish banker who added Bartholdy to the family surname after his conversion to Christianity.

Mendelssohn's grandfather was a noted philosopher and mathematician.

When Mendelssohn was 2 years old, the family moved to Berlin where they became widely known for their artistic and musical activities.

Mendelssohn was a child prodigy and made his first public appearance as a pianist when he was only nine. He was associated with the revival of public interest in the music of Johann Sebastian Bach.

In the early 1830's he began a three year grand tour through Europe.

He visited England where he was warmly received and conducted the London Philharmonic Orchestra. He also journeyed through Scotland where he conceived the idea for the Hebrides Overture.

Later he became the conductor of the Gewandhaus Orchestra in Leipzig, where he also helped to found the Leipzig Conservatoire.

He continued his frequent visits to Great Britain and in 1847 he visited the country for the tenth time.

Mendelssohn's significance lies in the unusual quantity of good music he wrote in relatively few years.

His style of composition combined something of the economy of means of the classical period with the Romanticism of a later age.

He wrote his finest music before he was eighteen and among his later works only his chamber music fulfills his early promise.

Mendelssohn's music for the theatre includes full incidental music for Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream", written for the new King of Prussia and first used at Potsdam in 1843, preceded by the Overture written in 1826.

The music typically captures the enchanted fairy world of the play.

In connection with the King's attempts to revive Greek tragedy, Mendelssohn also wrote incidental music for the Antigone and Oedipus at Colonus of Sophocles, as well as for Racine's Athalie.

His attempts at opera have not survived in modern repertoire.

Mendelssohn wrote five symphonies, in addition to an attractive series of twelve early symphonies for strings, completed at the age of fourteen.

Of the mature symphonies the Italian Symphony No. 4, completed in 1833 and reflecting the composer's experiences in Italy during his Grand Tour, is the most popular, closely followed by Scottish Symphony No. 3 with its echoes of the Palace of Holyrood in the days of Mary Queen of Scots. Symphony No. 5, known as the Reformation Symphony, written in 1832 to celebrate the third centenary of the Augsburg Confession, is less often heard, as is the choral Symphony No. 2, Hymns of Praise, written to mark the fourth centenary of the invention of printing in 1840.

Mendelssohn's concert overtures include the 1826 Overture, A Midsummer Night's Dream, a work in many ways typical of the composer's deftness of touch in its evocation of the fairy world of the play for which he later wrote incidental music.

The Hebrides, otherwise known as Fingal's Cave, evokes a visit to Scotland and the sight of the sea surging over the Giant's Causeway.

Meeresstille und glueckliche Fahrt (Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage) is based on a poem by Goethe who had received the young Mendelssohn at Weimar and prophesied for him a successful career.

The Overture Ruy Blas, completed in 1839, is based on the play by Victor Hugo.

The best known of Mendelssohn's concertos must be the Violin Concerto in E minor, the third to make use of the solo violin.

The E minor Concerto was written in 1844 and first performed in Leipzig the following year. Two piano concertos, the first written in 1831 and the second in 1837, are heard less frequently.

Mendelssohn wrote a number of works for possible church use, both Protestant and Catholic; of these the best known is "Hear My Prayer", a favorite with boy trebles.

The carol "Hark the Herald Angels" sing was adapted by W. H. Cummings from a chorus in a secular cantata.

His oratorios Elijah and St. Paul remain traditionally popular with choral societies.

In addition to settings of psalms, which include a setting of Psalm 100, Jauchzet den Herrn (Praise the Lord) and sacred and secular cantatas, Mendelssohn wrote a number of choral songs and a larger quantity of lieder (German song), intended for intimate social gatherings rather than the concert hall.

Among the most exciting is Hexenlied (Witches' Song), one of an early set of twelve songs written in 1828.

Another dozen, published two years later, include the contrasting Im Fruehling (In the Spring) and Im Herbst (In the Autumn). Mendelssohn wrote his last songs in 1847, the year of his death.

Mendelssohn wrote his first chamber music at the age of ten: one of the most delightful works is the Octet, for double string quartet, written to celebrate the 23rd birthday of a violinist friend in 1825.

Evidence of earlier precocity is heard in the equally fine Sextet for violin, two violas, cello, double bass and piano, written in 1824.

The two string quintets and six string quartets may enjoy less general popularity, although they contain many felicities, String Quartet no. 4 in E minor offering a characteristic view of the composer's command of technique and mood, ranging from the fairy world of the Scherzo to the passion of the Finale.

The two late piano trios, the Piano Trio in D minor and the Piano Trio in C minor represent the composer at his very best.

His duo sonatas, the two Cello Sonatas and the Variations concert antes for cello and piano, with a late Song without Words for cello and piano, make an important part of 19th century cello repertoire.

The 19th century was the age of the piano, a period in which the instrument, newly developed, became an essential item of household furniture and the center of domestic music-making.



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