Felix Mendelssohn – grandson of an eminent Jewish philosopher and son of a wealthy banker who converted to Christianity – came from a happy and privileged background. The family home in Berlin was a lively intellectual centre and Felix’s education covered classics, science, languages, law and several other subjects besides music.
From the age of 11 he composed fluently and prolifically: a huge quantity of piano and chamber music, five concertos, a few little operas and a dozen symphonies for strings preceded his official Symphony No. 1 of 1824. Then came the works that demonstrated not just precocious talent but real depth, among them the Octet for strings (1825) and, a year later, the Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
In his early twenties, beginning in 1829 with the first of his many visits to England, he spent three years travelling around Europe, meeting almost every cultural figure of note. His sensitivity to the spirit of the places he visited can be heard in such works as the ‘Italian’ and ‘Scottish’ Symphonies and the overture The Hebrides.
From 1833 to 1835 he worked mainly in Düsseldorf, and then from 1835 until his early death he was Municipal Music Director and conductor of the Gewandhaus Orchestra in Leipzig, where in 1843 he founded the influential Conservatory. He was outstanding as a pianist, organist, conductor and organiser, and tireless in promoting other composers’ music old and new – famously reviving Bach’s St Matthew Passion in 1829 and giving the posthumous first performance of Schubert’s Ninth Symphony in 1839.
Although he composed prolifically up to the end of his life in almost all forms (he never found the right opera libretto), he was rarely satisfied with his own facility, often keeping aside his major scores for a long period before presenting them to the public: the Violin Concerto (completed 1844) was six years in the making and the oratorio Elijah (completed 1846) nearly eight.
Mendelssohn was very conscious of his part in an unbroken tradition of German music deriving from Bach and the great classics of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, and in each of his major works searched for means of infusing this tradition with his own modern Romantic sensibility.
If his reputation suffered from the heavier performing styles of the later 19th century, which tended to sentimentalise his music, and also from the current of anti-Semitism that led to his music being banned by the Nazis, a modern perspective can appreciate his freshness and directness of expression, as well as the perfect ear for colour and texture, that place him among the greatest composers of any age.
Profile © Andrew Huth