The musical development of the young Mendelssohn was not
troubled, as it was for so many others, by struggle and financial
hardship. Born in Hamburg, he was the son of rich and cultured
parents, whose resources and encouragement were always at his
disposal. The family soon moved to Berlin, where he studied the
piano with his mother and took lessons in theory with Carl Zeltcr.
From the age of 12 he composed prolifically, and his works were
performed in the musical salon at the family home that became
famous in Berlin. Weber visited in 1821 and made a lasting
impression on the young composer.
Mendelssohn was very close to his sister Fanny, also
prodigiously talented but lacking the support her brother
received. In 1826 they read Shakespeare together, resulting in
Mendelssohn's overture A midsummer night's dream.
The assured mastery of this work and the radiant Octet of
the previous year were astonishing achievements for a boy in his
late teens and it is no surprise that he was compared with Mozart.
A midsummer night's dream bears the Mendelssohn hallmark of
elegant melodic invention, effortlessly interweaving one or two
programmatic effects, such as a musical donkey's "hee-haw",
without interrupting the musical flow. Later he added other
movements to complete the incidental music for the play.
A keen advocate of the music of J.S. Bach, in 1829 Mendelssohn
conducted the first performance of the St Matthew Passion
since its composer's death, giving a boost to the revival of
Bach's works then under way and leading to a performance of
sections of the Passion in London in 1837.
About this time he decided to establish himself independently
as a professional musician. The Berlin musical scene was not
ideal: his only opera had been a failure there in 1827. Other
musicians resented his privilege and found him egotistical -
complaints that were made more acute because they were mixed with
a strain of anti-Semitism against his Jewish family background. It
made no difference that Mendelssohn's parents were converted
Christians and he himself was baptized.
He then embarked upon a number of tours in search of employment
and late in 1 829 arrived in London on the first of ten visits to
England. He also toured Scotland, where stunning rock formations
on the island of Staffa inspired the Hebrides overture.
Mendelssohn's melodic genius was never better displayed than in
the main theme of this beautifully lyrical work.
His travels to Scotland and a visit to Italy the following year
also provided an impression of the national musical character of
the two countries, later translated into the Scotttish and
Italian symphonies. Although his melodies are undoubtedly
Romantic, these symphonies still keep to the basic Classical
forms. Mendelssohn's habit was to compose first for piano and
orchestrate later, indicating a Classical concern for structure
After further travels, including a visit to Paris where lie met
Chopin and Liszt, Mendelssohn finally secured a directorial
position in Dusseldorf in 1833; but his somewhat despotic approach
encountered resistance and in 1835 he moved to Leipzig as
conductor at the famous Gewandhaus. This post was more congenial
and lasted until 1846. The orchestra's leader was the accomplished
violinist Ferdinand David, who became a good friend and inspired
the Violin concerto of 1844. Mendelssohn also found
happiness in love and in 1837 he married Cecile Jeanrenaud.
He continued to travel, especially to England, where he
conducted his oratorio St Paul and, during a later
visit in 1842, played for Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, to the
screeching accompaniment of the royal parrot.
In 1840 he had proposed the establishment of a conservatoire in
Leipzig but was interrupted in his negotiations by an invitation,
then virtually a royal command, to go to Berlin as Kapellmeister
to the King of Prussia. Again he was greeted rather sourly by
musicians and public alike, and soon tendered his resignation.
With the compromise of a reduction in his responsibilities, he was
able to return to Leipzig, and the Conservatoire opened in 1843.
Mendelssohn continued to conduct at the Gewandhaus and to
direct and teach at the Conservatoire. He put heart and soul into
his great oratorio Elijah, which he conducted at its
premiere in Birmingham in 1846, when it showed Mendelssohn at his
most dramatic and romantic. He was already exhausted by travel and
overwork when the shattering news of his sister Fanny's death
brought on a severe depression. Fits of shivering and head pains
followed, leading to a fatal stroke. When he died at just 38, he
was mourned especially by Schumann, who felt that Europe
had lost a potential successor to Beethoven.