Here are the facts about the great composer – Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy (1809 – 1847).
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Facts About Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy:
- Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy had a very easy life; wealthy parents and not a worry in the world. But he still managed to wear the cloak of the pained Romantic. Sometimes, it is difficult not to think that he might be faking it. He suffered no disappointments, no lack of success and had no real axe to grind; hardly fertile ground for a ‘Romantic’.
- All of Mendelssohn Concertos were written in minor keys as if to cultivate the notion of self-indulgent sadness.
- Despite his detractors suggesting that he wasn’t a true ‘Romantic’ on account of his upbringing, he was incredibly talented. Robert Schumann once described him as the ‘Mozart of the nineteenth century’. This wasn’t any criticism of his lack of artistic ambition, but merely a statement of the genius of a man who was vehemently anti-radical.
- Mendelssohn’s family came from a wealthy Jewish background – his grandfather was a famous Jewish philosopher, Moses Mendelssohn.
- Mendelssohn’s father, Abraham, decided to renounce his Jewish faith and so added the name ‘Bartholdy’ to their surname saying, ‘there can no more be a Christian Mendelssohn than there can be a Jewish Confucius’. He became a banker after moving to Berlin from Hamburg.
- Another quotable quote from Mendelssohn’s father was that he was, ‘formerly the son of my father, and now the father of my son’.
- Mendelssohn himself, well educated and clearly erudite, was also capable of meaningful words, and in several languages; when speaking shortly before his death, he said that it is a place, ‘where it is hoped to be there is still music, but no more sorrow or partings’. His beloved sister died had shortly before him. He was only 38 when he died in 1847.
- His oratorio, ‘Elijah’ was premiered in Birmingham, England in front of a rapturous crowd of 2,000 people. In its day, it was deemed to be the equivalent of Handel’s Messiah.
- Unlike most composers of the time, Mendelssohn had no money troubles, no drinking problem and became happily married to one woman, with whom he had three children. He married Cecile Charlotte Sophie Jeanrenaud, the daughter of a French clergyman in 1837 and she died within the year of his demise.
- Despite all his happiness, Mendelssohn was not a strong man. After one of his visits to England where he had met Queen Victoria, she remarked in a letter that he was the ‘greatest musical genius since Mozart…we liked and esteemed the excellent man and looked up to and revered the wonderful genius, and the great mind, which, I fear so much for the frail delicate body’. (her words!). His frailty was also reported by Hiller who said about Mendelssohn’s piano playing that it, ‘was to him what flying is to a bird. No one wonders why a lark flies; its inconceivable without that power. In the same way, Mendelssohn played the piano because it was his nature’.
- At the age of only 22, Mendelssohn organised and conducted a performance of Bach’s St Matthew Passion which hadn’t been performed since the composer’s death in 1750. It was a huge success and was deemed to be the beginning of a resurgence in interest in the great man’s works which has lasted until today.
- Mendelssohn visited Great Britain on 10 occasions and one of his most famous compositions was inspired by his visits to the islands off the coast of Scotland; Staffa, off the Isle of Mull where Fingals Cave so impressed him and the Hebrides group of Islands further to the north combined to make the Hebridean Overture a reality. In a heartfelt letter to his sister, Fanny, he said ‘how extraordinarily the Hebrides affected’ him. Sadly, it was on another of his hectic tours to Britain that he fell ill and subsequently died after a series of strokes.
- Young Felix was not circumcised as would have been usual for a Jewish boy because it was at the time that his father was renouncing his faith. At the same time, his father also added Jakob and Ludwig as forenames for Felix, although he never used them. Mendelssohn’s sister commented in a letter to her brother the fact that they didn’t like the name ‘Bartholdy’.
- Ever the iconoclast, Mendelssohn was quite outspoken about other, more progressive, composers. Of Berlioz he once said, ‘with all his efforts to go stark mad, never once succeeds’. Mendelssohn was a gentleman and a scholar and the arch-conservative – the Leipzig Conservatoire that he founded abided by his mantra.
- Mendelssohn’s ‘Romantic’ ideas were once said to be a little too close to the famous edict from La Rochefoucauld which said, ‘we have, all of us, the strength to endure the misfortune of others’. A little unfair, perhaps but quite apt in this case.
- Mendelssohn’s music was largely ignored for most of the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth century. It was usually assumed that this was because of the anti-semitism that prevailed during this period,but it could just have been simply because his music wasn’t reactionary or progressive enough to excite people; remember that he was a contemporary of Liszt, Wagner and Berlioz who were all more than capable of taking the available limelight. It is only with a retrospective eye that we can see the true genius of the man; the simplicity and beauty of his phrasing, and the perfection of his orchestrations.
- The Mendelssohn family money guaranteed that the young Felix was well going to be well educated, but he was also an excellent painter of delicate watercolours.
- A prolific composer, Mendelssohn had his first music published when he was only 13 years old (a Piano Quartet) – and by the age of 15, he had written his first symphony.