by Charles Rozakis
Jakob Ludwig Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy was born on February 3, 1809, to Abraham and Lea Mendelssohn in Hamburg, Germany (Oxford Companion 1162). He was the second of four children, but he was closer to his older sister Fanny than any of his other siblings. The two of them studied music and played together for many years, and Fanny also composed. Several of the Songs Without Words were her works, published under Felix's name because of the family's feeling that it was unbecoming for a woman to engage in public life (Harris 1368).
The family moved to Berlin in 1812, where Felix, at the age of four, began to receive regular piano lessons from his mother. In 1816, Abraham Mendelssohn went to Paris on business and brought his family with him. Throughout their stay, Felix and Fanny had piano lessons with Madame Marie Bigot, who was highly esteemed by both Haydn and Beethoven (Grove Dictionary 135). When they returned to Berlin, Abraham put into effect a systematic plan of education for his children.
Under this plan, Karl Wilhelm Ludwig Heyse (father of poet and short story writer Paul Heyse) taught the children general subjects and classical languages; Johann Gottlob Samuel Rosel taught drawing; Ludwig Berger taught piano; Carl Wilhelm Henning taught violin; and Carl Zelter gave lessons in musical theory and composition. The children were up at 5 A.M. and began their lessons right after breakfast. Abraham Mendelssohn never considered his children too old for his discipline and correction, and Felix could not consider himself his own master until he was twenty-five years old (Harris 1368).
Felix made his first public appearance as a pianist at the age of nine. He debuted with a Concert militaire by F. X. Dusek and was met with great success (Grove Dictionary 135). On April 11, 1819, he entered the Singakademie as an alto, and on September 10 of that year they performed his setting of the Nineteenth Psalm. He remained a member for many years, even after he became a tenor at age sixteen (Harris 1368).
On March 7, 1820, Felix's piano piece Recitativo was published. It is his oldest surviving work. From then until he was thirteen, Felix entered a phase of composing in which he mastered counterpoint and classical forms of music, especially in sonata form (Grove Dictionary 135-136).
In November of 1821, Zelter took Felix to Weimar to meet his friend Goethe. Between 1821 and 1830, Felix visited Goethe five more times. During one of these visits, Felix wrote home: “Every afternoon Goethe opens the piano with these words, ‘I have not heard you at all today, so you must make a little noise for me.'” Goethe's philosophical emphasis on the dynamic and productive aspects of art provided an enriching experience for Felix, while Felix increased Goethe's understanding of the music of the Classical period (Harris 1369).
In 1824, Ignaz Moscheles, one of the greatest pianists of his time, visited Berlin and formed a lifelong friendship with Felix. He gave piano lessons to Fanny and Felix during his stay, but he wrote that he never lost sight of the fact he was sitting beside a master, not a pupil. Abraham, not certain that a musical career was right for Felix, took him to Paris in March of 1825 to consult the great Cherubini, who was then the director of the Paris Conservatoire. Cherubini was so taken with the boy that not only did he approve of a career in music, he offered to undertake the boy's further training. Abraham, however, thought the home atmosphere was better suited, and so declined the offer (Harris 1369).
Felix composed the overture to Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream when he was only seventeen years old. From then on, he was composing constantly. He studied at the University of Berlin in 1826 after attending for three years. He did not earn a degree, but he received a far better general education than most musical composers of his time. It was only in 1829 that he definitely decided upon music as a profession (Grove Dictionary 137-139).
Starting in April of that year, Felix went on a three-year tour planned by his father. First he went to England, where he was greeted whole-heartedly, then to South Germany, Austria, Italy, Switzerland, France, then back to London, and finally back home (Harris 1369). He conducted a number of concerts and was the city music director for Düsseldorf for three years (Grove Dictionary 138).
In 1834 he was elected a member of the Berlin Academy of Fine Arts. He became conductor of the famous Gewandhaus Orchestra of Leipzig in June of 1835, and in 1836 he received an honorary Ph.D. from the University. That summer, he met Cecile Charlotte Sophie Jeanrenaud. They were engaged in September and married on March 28, 1837 (Harris 1370-1371).
In 1841, King Frederick William IV invited Felix back to Berlin to become director of a proposed music department of the Academy of Arts. When he finally accepted, he found the attitude of the Court, the musicians, and even the public was nothing less than openly hostile. By command of the king he began a series of concerts in Berlin in January of 1842, but by October he wished to resign. He did remain, at the king's request, long enough to organize music at the cathedral. For this, he received the title of Royal General Music Director, but he then moved back to Leipzig (Harris 1371).
After another five years of conducting and composing, he resigned the Gewandhaus Orchestra due to overwork and extreme fatigue. He retired to Frankfort to rest, but received his death blow when he heard of his sister Fanny's death. He returned to Leipzig with his family in September and died on November 4, 1847 (Harris 1372).
Behind every great man … lies many influential people. Many different events and people lead to the man Mendelssohn became and the music he wrote. Of these, the most important musical influences were Carl Zelter and Johann Sebastian Bach.
Carl Friedrich Zelter (1758-1832), a German composer and conductor, was one of Mendelssohn's first teachers. He began Mendelssohn's instruction in music theory and composition in 1819 (Encyclopedia Britannica vol. X: 871). Of the thirteen early symphonies Mendelssohn wrote for string orchestra, the first ten were composed as exercises for Zelter.
Zelter introduced Mendelssohn to Goethe in November of 1821. Zelter's friendship with Goethe had begun in 1796 when Zelter published his first collection of lieder. This collection included settings of poems by Goethe, and Goethe wrote Zelter to tell him he was pleased with the settings. After the suicide of Zelter's stepson, Goethe's letter of condolence showed the depth of his feelings in the use of the pronoun “du.” This established their close relations for the rest of their lives, and inspired Zelter's continued work on the lied (Grove Dictionary 663-664). Given Zelter's close relationship with Mendelssohn, it was inevitable that the young composer would also be inspired by Goethe. Mendelssohn's Die erste Walpurgisnacht, one of his greatest cantatas, was based on Goethe's Faust, and on Goethe's personal interpretation of the scene (Grove Dictionary 146). Mendelssohn's friendship with the poet lasted for a great many years, up until Goethe's death in 1832.
Mendelssohn's cantatas also show Bach's influence. While some critics comment that the settings Mendelssohn wrote of the psalms for liturgical use show a decline in musical quality from his highly dramatic work, they do recall the form and structure of Bach's cantatas (Grove Dictionary 146).
In 1784, When Zelter became interested in serious composing, he went to Carl Fasch, a leading musician, who accepted him as a pupil. Zelter joined Fasch's Singakademie in 1791. After Fasch's death in 1800, Zelter took over the Singakademie. Zelter also continued Fasch's practice of having the Singakademie perform works by J.S. Bach (Grove Dictionary 663-664).
Bach was Mendelssohn's idol. As a boy, Mendelssohn copied out Bach's music, and his early compositions were greatly influenced by it (Grove Dictionary 143). Zelter was quite zealous in his training of strict contrapuntal style. Also, many of Mendelssohn's works follow the contrapuntal style, in particular the fugal technique, of Bach (Grove Dictionary 663-664). After all, Bach was, for a time, known as the supreme master of counterpoint (Funk & Wagnalls vol. 3: 180-181).
Mendelssohn's first six string symphonies, the work of a very talented twelve-year-old, clearly show the influence of the Viennese Classical style. Of these, the first movements of the third and fourth bear the contrapuntal imprint of Bach and Handel. The influences of Bach and Handel, and the Viennese Classics, are even more clear in Mendelssohn's later string symphonies. The first movement of the seventh contains a great deal of emphasis on counterpoint, as does the introduction to the eighth. Also, the second theme of the eighth is constructed within the limitations of a fugue subject (Grove Dictionary 146-147).
This all comes together in Mendelssohn's twelfth early string symphony. Here, he used a complex, chromatically descending fugue subject. This works to develop his symphonic form from Bach's contrapuntal influence to his own, personal mode of expression (Grove Dictionary 147).
Further, Mendelssohn's early concertos of 1822-1823 are, like most of the string symphonies, similar to the Viennese Classical models. The form, structure, and even thematic material resemble these models quite closely. However, Mendelssohn's two double piano concertos (1823-1824) show his work matured very quickly from this theme (Grove Dictionary 149-150).
After Mendelssohn joined the Singakademie in April of 1819, he often performed small pieces of Bach's works. Zelter discovered an almost forgotten manuscript copy of Bach's St. Matthew Passion and Mendelssohn and his peers soon came into possession of the piece (Encyclopedia Britannica vol. X: 871). Soon after, Mendelssohn and Eduard Devrient, a fellow member of the Singakademie, proposed a performance of the piece on the 100th anniversary of its first performance. In their plan, Mendelssohn would conduct, and Devrient would sing the part of Christ. At first, Zelter thought that the public would not accept such an extended work by Bach because large-scale works were considered impossible to perform at the time. St. Matthew Passion was performed, however, on March 11, 1829 (Harris 1369-1370). The performance was a great success and in years to come, St. Matthew Passion became, according to Wohlfarth, “the universal possession of humankind” (96).
This also led to a great revival of Bach's music, which was one the greatest achievements in musical history. This event ushered in the modern cultivation of Bach and its success further inspired Mendelssohn to use Bach's work as a model for his own.
Without Bach's work as his model, or Zelter to teach him the basics of it, Mendelssohn's music would have been radically different from what we know today. But then again, without Mendelssohn, Zelter's role in history would have been much smaller, and Bach's greater works may have been lost to time. So, in effect, this relationship was beneficial to all of them, not just Mendelssohn himself.
Felix Mendelssohn is classified as a Romantic composer, but this classification only fits his works somewhat. While Mendelssohn's Romantic influences and his own comments about his music would make him and Romantic, his affiliations with the eighteenth century, especially the music of Mozart, make him a neo-classicist more than anything else (Grove Dictionary 143).
According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, the Romantic period in music took place from around 1800 to around 1910. It was “most markedly characterized by emphasis on the expression of individualized or subjective emotion, as well as by a sense of the transcendental, exotic, mythical, and supernatural” (vol. VIII: 655). In part, Mendelssohn is called a Romantic composer because he lived during this period.
In addition, some of his compositions also have some very strong literary influences. For example, the Grove Dictionary points out a definite connection between Mendelssohn's Octet and lines from the Walpurgisnacht scene in the first part of Goethe's Faust (143). Mendelssohn's work shows some even stronger Romantic influences. These other influences include Schlegel's Shakespeare translations, Goethe's other poetry, and, mostly in the Italian Symphony, art and nature. Also the lieder and choruses of the Italian Symphony show the influence of emotions from personal human relationships (Grove Dictionary 143). Mendelssohn himself stated that the Elijah expressed his feelings of acquiescence and strong protest after his disappointments in Berlin. This is an “expression of individualized or subjective emotion” which is most definitely Romantic.
However, Mendelssohn's work also shows many Classical influences. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, the Classical period in music took place from approximately 1750 to 1820. It was “full of changing emotions, fragmented, sighing phrases, and sudden changes of key and musical texture … [the] melodies were composed of small fragments, or motives, rather than spun out endlessly” (vol. II: 972). Mendelssohn's music fits well into a later version of this period because of its great influence on his work. For example, the classical emphasis on clarity and tradition are very strong in many of his compositions. Harris, in his entry in The International Cyclopedia of Music and Musicians, commented that, “[The] range of feeling and expression [in Mendelssohn's music] is limited. It is filled with perfect order and neatness” (1372). As a youth, Mendelssohn was guided by classical and pre-classical techniques. He was especially fond of Bach's works, which he copied out as a boy. Mendelssohn's early work also demonstrates an intensive study of Handel's instrumental techniques. In the introductions of the string symphonies, he used typically Handelian rhythms and harmonic progressions (Grove Dictionary 143).
Other Classical composers had an effect on Mendelssohn's music as well. Mendelssohn quoted Mozart's “Jupiter” Symphony in the ending of his Die bieden Padagogen. Beethoven's instrumental technique was a powerful influence on Mendelsssohn's works for a full symphony orchestra. And Mendelssohn's personal stylistic traits show a freer adaptation of many other classical forms (Grove Dictionary 143-147).
So how can we classify Felix Mendelssohn's work? His style is somewhat Romantic, fairly neo-Classical, and wholly his own. Harris referred to him as a “Romantic Classicist” (1372). This melding of styles is what made his music what it is.
“Bach, Johann Sebastian.” Encyclopedia Britannica. vol I. 15 ed.
“Bach, Johann Sebastian.” Funk & Wagnalls New Encyclopedia. vol 3. 1983 ed.
Barr, R. “Zelter, Carl Friedrich.” The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. vol 20. Ed. Stanley Sadie. London: Macmillan Publishers Limited, 1980.“
Goethe, Johann Wolfgang von.” Encyclopedia Britannica. vol IV. 15 ed.
Harris, G.W. “Felix Mendelssohn.” The International Cyclopedia of Music and Musicians. Ed. Oscar Thompson. New York: Dodd, Mead Inc., 1985.
Kohler, Karl-Heinz. “Mendelssohn, Felix.” The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians. vol 12. Ed. Stanley Sadie. London: Macmillan Publishers Limited, 1980.
“Mendelssohn, Felix.” Encyclopedia Britannica. vol 11. 15 ed.
“Mendelssohn, Felix.” Funk & Wagnalls New Encyclopedia. vol 3. 1983 ed.
Wohlfarth, Hannsdieter. Johann Sebastian Bach. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984.
“Zelter, Carl Friedrich.” Encyclopedia Britannica. vol X. 15 ed.
Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Writing Well © 2000 by Laurie Rozakis, Ph.D.. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.