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Biographies Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, 1809-1847

Image: Felix Mendelssohn
Mendelssohn, engraved portrait / Th. Hildebrandt and A. Dircks, artists. Performing Arts Reading Room, Library of Congress.

Felix Mendelssohn, born in Hamburg, Germany on February 3, 1809, lived through an era of significant transition for both German society and for Western music. From a social perspective, the question of extending equal rights to German Jews was being debated, a question that had direct implications for the Mendelssohn family, which was of Jewish heritage. Western music itself was evolving from the grace and grandeur of the "Classical" tradition, brought to its summit by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Franz Joseph Haydn, to the more emotional and dramatic approach of musical "Romanticism," developed in the works of Ludwig van Beethoven and Carl Maria von Weber, and later by Richard Wagner and Johannes Brahms, among others. Much of Mendelssohn's musical output may be viewed in the context of reconciling these disparate musical and social influences.

Contemporary accounts consistently describe the composer as having handsome, delicate features, expressive black eyes and curly black hair, with a Roman nose and pronounced sideburns, and standing approximately five feet, six inches in height. Despite his small frame, Mendelssohn was athletic and lean; he enjoyed hiking, swimming, riding and dancing. His manners were almost universally acknowledged as distinguished and elegant. British novelist William Makepeace Thackeray, on meeting the composer during the latter's trip to London in 1842, described Mendelssohn as having "the most beautiful face I ever saw, like what I imagine our Savior's to have been." Other descriptions make particular reference to his eyes, "dark, flashing," "unfathomable," shining from within. He was apparently a man of boundless energy and of an effusive nature, who was described by his longtime friend Eduard Devrient as "always bubbling over like champagne in a small glass."

His prodigious musical gifts allowed him to make significant contributions to the development of German musical life in general, most notably through his almost singlehanded revival of the works of Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750). Mendelssohn's efforts proved crucial in reestablishing the older composer at the forefront of Western music, consequently affecting the very concept of art music ever since.

Through incorporating into his own compositions diverse elements from his musical heritage (i.e., from both Classical and Romantic sources, to which were added influences of composers of the Italian Renaissance as well as of J.S. Bach), combined with his own highly original contributions, Mendelssohn forged a musical language that was distinctly his own. As a result, he became known as the foremost living composer in Germany by the 1830s, a reputation that he enjoyed until his death in 1847.

Curiously, however, after Mendelssohn's death his music fell into an obscurity from which, in many regards, it has still not completely emerged. Of the world's most significant composers, his music is probably the least known to the public or made the subject of scholarly research. Even at the time of this writing, several titles of his substantial body of works has not yet been published.

A combination of several factors contributed to this neglect of Mendelssohn's works. First of all, Mendelssohn's career was positioned between that of Ludwig van Beethoven and Richard Wagner, the two Titans of nineteenth century German music, the large scope of whose work unfortunately diminished that of Mendelssohn and his no-less-significant contemporaries (i.e., Carl Maria von Weber, Robert and Clara Schumann, etc.) in comparison. While Mendelssohn's musical language does not reflect harmonic or structural innovations on the scale of that of Beethoven or Wagner, he nevertheless created a large body of finely-crafted works that bear the indelible stamp of his personal style.

The generally small scale of the musical genres in which Mendelssohn worked (i.e., song, or Lieder), as well as of larger scale sacred works such as oratorio, etc. were also becoming increasingly anachronistic; the changing musical tastes both of the public and of composers increasingly favored large scale works such as symphonies and operas for the remainder of the nineteenth century and beyond. Compared to the monumental, highly dramatic works that gained increasing popularity throughout the nineteenth century, the works of graceful beauty and modest proportions at which Mendelssohn excelled were increasingly dismissed as quaint and insignificant.

Finally, the rising tide of anti-Semitism that swept through mid-nineteenth century Europe -- the flames of which were fanned through the writings of, among others, the ambitious and vehemently anti-Semitic German composer Richard Wagner -- and culminating in the pogroms instituted during the Nazi era (a time during which performances of Mendelssohn's music were banned, and his name erased from history books), also had a tremendously negative impact on the reputation of Mendelssohn, a Protestant of Jewish heritage.

By the 1880s, Mendelssohn's reputation had diminished substantially, prompting British playwright George Bernard Shaw to compare the composer's legacy to the "kid glove gentility" and "conventional sentimentality" of a vanished world.

Fortunately, however, increased attention is currently being focused on Mendelssohn's work, and efforts are underway by scholars internationally to publish the composer's complete works. Over the past two decades a resurgence of scholarship and focus on what musicologist Carl Dahlhaus has termed "the Mendelssohn problem" has resulted in a more objective reevaluation and renewed appreciation of the composer's works and legacy.

Felix Mendelssohn died in Leipzig on November 4, 1847, at the age of thirty-eight. His influence on Western music of the era, represented by the large number of works that produced and his tireless efforts in performing, conducting and resurrecting music of the past, has left an indelible imprint on our shared musical culture that may be perceived even today.