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Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy
Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy


Felix Mendelssohn was a precocious musical talent. Aged twelve, he astonished the great writer Goethe with his keyboard technique. Three years later, his teacher Carl Zelter proclaimed him a ‘master’ and a member of the brotherhood of Bach, Haydn and Mozart. His genius for writing exhilarating themes was already apparent. And his ability to construct dazzlingly original textures was matched by an assured mastery of musical form. When, at 17, Mendelssohn conjured subtle, shimmering orchestral sonorities in his overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, it was clear that he had found his vocation. Unlike Mozart, he was not made to perform in the courts and theatres of Europe as a child. His parents were determined to give their children a rigorous, rounded education. Discipline and self-improvement were encouraged in the wealthy yet sober Berlin household in which Felix and his three siblings were raised. In an age of growing anti-Semitism, it seemed prudent to distance the children from their Jewish heritage, and all four were baptised into the Christian faith. They took the name Bartholdy, which had apparently belonged to the previous owners of a garden purchased by Mendelssohn’s uncle. Felix’s first compositions – choral works, sonatas, fugues and a one-act comic opera, Die Soldatenliebschaft – date from 1820, the year he turned ten. From then on he composed prolifically under Zelter’s tutelage. The habits instilled by his parents remained with Mendelssohn. Some of his Songs without Words went through as many as six revisions, while his ‘Italian’ Symphony never reached a form that satisfied him. His training in the music of Bach, Mozart, Haydn and Handel gave him a technical mastery unequalled in his generation. His skills encompassed Baroque contrapuntal techniques and the Classical sonata style. Then, in his late teens, he studied the last and most ‘difficult’ works of Beethoven. This bore fruit in the impassioned String Quartet in A op.13 (1827), with its revolutionary ‘cyclic’ structure. In 1829 Mendelssohn defied fierce opposition in Berlin to conduct the first performance since Bach’s lifetime of the St Matthew Passion, a work long deemed impossibly outmoded. Buoyed by his triumph, he embarked on his first tour of Britain. The debonair 20-year-old excitedly recorded his experiences in music, in charming watercolours and in letters home, describing London as ‘the greatest and most complicated monster on the face of the earth’. Haunted by his visit to Holyrood Palace in Edinburgh, he drafted the sombre, twilit opening of what would eventually become his ‘Scottish’ Symphony. After a visit to the remote Hebridean island of Staffa he began to sketch his Hebrides Overture, one of the great Romantic seascapes. He continued his travels in 1830, beginning with another visit to the aged Goethe in Weimar, then continuing to Italy.  In Rome he struck up a tenuous friendship with Hector Berlioz, whose theatrical manners contrasted glaringly with his own natural fastidiousness. Berlioz called him ‘enormously, extraordinarily, superbly, prodigiously talented’, adding that he was something of a ‘virginal character’. But compared to the flamboyant Frenchman, most people were. Incurably restless, Mendelssohn lived his adult life at a feverish pace. As well as composing and performing regularly on the piano and organ, he also worked as a conductor. From 1835 he was Kapellmeister of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra. ‘Nobody ever knew better how to communicate, as if by electric fluid, his own conception of a work to a large body of performers,’ wrote the English composer Julius Benedict. Like Haydn before him, Mendelssohn was idolised in England, both by the public and the royal family. In 1842 he dedicated his ‘Scottish’ Symphony to the young Queen Victoria. Elijah, the most successful oratorio of the 19th century, set the seal on his triumphs in Britain. After its premiere in 1846, The Times described it as ‘one of the most extraordinary achievements of human intelligence’. But by the early 1840s Mendelssohn’s unremitting activities had taken their toll. His health was failing and a note of weariness creeps into his letters. Despite his happy marriage to Cécile Jeanrenaud, daughter of a Frankfurt pastor, he suffered increasingly from depression. He continued to compose prolifically. Masterpieces of these years include the glorious, bittersweet Violin Concerto and the turbulent C minor Piano Trio op.60, prophetic of Brahms in its dense, darkly swirling textures. When Mendelssohn visited England for the tenth and last time, in April 1847, he was ailing and exhausted. Fanny, his beloved sister and a talented composer in her own right, died the following month, and Mendelssohn never recovered from the blow. Shattered by her death he wrote the F minor String Quartet op.80. This is music of a violence, bitterness and poignancy unmatched in his output. Three months later he died of a cerebral haemorrhage after a series of strokes, leaving behind sketches for an opera, Lorelei, and an oratorio, Christus. In his lifetime Mendelssohn was revered, even deified, as few other composers. After his early death, at 38, his stock slowly fell in an age intoxicated by the sensual and apocalyptic world of Liszt and Wagner. Some felt that he had never advanced beyond the fairy world of his teens. Others could not forgive him his material affluence. Wagner, jealous of Mendelssohn’s success and not above taking ideas from his work and reworking them in his own, never missed an opportunity for an anti-Semitic gibe. Mendelssohn’s temperament set him apart from the heady Romanticism of his times. More than any of his contemporaries, he set a premium on lucidity, grace and craftsmanship. Robert Schumann, a close friend, perceptively described him as ‘the Mozart of the 19th century’. Yet for all his Classical and Baroque sympathies, there are Romantic dimensions to Mendelssohn’s art. The ‘Hebrides’ Overture and the ‘Scottish’ and ‘Italian’ Symphonies are quintessentially Romantic fusions of the musical and the visual. So too is the F sharp minor ‘Barcarolle’ from the second book of Songs without Words op.30/6, with its hazy trills floating over the melancholy Venetian lagoon. A similar sense of enchantment and atmosphere pervades Mendelssohn’s later works, especially his Midsummer Night’s Dream incidental music, appended to his earlier overture on the theme in 1843. The high level of inspiration here is continued in his C minor Piano Trio, String Quintet op.87 and the tragic F minor String Quartet. Together, they provide ample defence against the now discredited view that Mendelssohn’s genius declined after the brilliance of his youth.

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