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Mendelssohn, Felix
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Biography
Felix Mendelssohn (-Bartholdy)

(Born; Hamburg, 3 Feb 1809; Died; Leipzig, 4 Nov 1847). German composer. Of a distinguished intellectual, artistic and banking family in Berlin, he grew up in a privileged environment (the family converted from Judaism to Christianity in 1816, taking the additional 'Bartholdy'). He studied the piano with Ludwig Berger and theory and composition with Zelter, producing his first piece in 1820; thereafter, a profusion of sonatas, concertos, string symphonies, piano quartets and Singspiels revealed his increasing mastery of counterpoint and form. Besides family travels and eminent visitors to his parents' salon (Humboldt, Hegel, Klingemann, A. B. Marx, Devrient), early influences included the poetry of Goethe (whom he knew from 1821) and the Schlegel translations of Shakespeare; these are traceable in his best music of the period, including the exuberant String Octet op.20 and the vivid, poetic overture to A Midsummer Night's Dream op.21. His gifts as a conductor also showed themselves early: in 1829 he directed a pioneering performance of Bach's St Matthew Passion at the Berlin Singakademie, promoting the modern cultivation of Bach's music.

A period of travel and concert-giving introduced Mendelssohn to England, Scotland (1829) and Italy (1830-31); after return visits to Paris (1831) and London (1832, 1833) he took up a conducting post at Düsseldorf (1833-5), concentrating on Handel's oratorios. Among the chief products of this time were The Hebrides (first performed in London,1832), the G minor Piano Concerto, Die erste Walpurgisnacht, the Italian Symphony (1833, London) and St Paul (1836, Düsseldorf). But as a conductor and music organizer his most significant achievement was in Leipzig (1835-47), where to great acclaim he conducted the Gewandhaus Orchestra, championing both historical and modern works (Bach, Beethoven, Weber, Schumann, Berlioz), and founded and directed the Leipzig Conservatory (1843).

Composing mostly in the summer holidays, he produced Ruy Blas overture, a revised version of the Hymn of Praise, the Scottish Symphony, the now famous Violin Concerto op.64 and the fine Piano Trio in C minor (1845). Meanwhile, he was intermittently (and less happily) employed by the king as a composer and choirmaster in Berlin, where he wrote highly successful incidental music, notably for A Midsummer Night's Dream (1843). Much sought after as a festival organizer, he was associated especially with the Lower Rhine and Birmingham music festivals; he paid ten visits to England, the last two (1846-7) to conduct Elijah in Birmingham and London. Always a warm friend and valued colleague, he was devoted to his family; his death at the age of 38, after a series of strokes, was mourned internationally.

With its emphasis on clarity and adherence to classical ideals, Mendelssohn's music shows alike the influences of Bach (fugal technique), Handel (rhythms, harmonic progressions), Mozart (dramatic characterization, forms, textures) and Beethoven (instrumental technique), though from 1825 he developed a characteristic style of his own, often underpinned by a literary, artistic, historical, geographical or emotional connection; indeed it was chiefly in his skilful use of extra-musical stimuli that he was a Romantic. His early and prodigious operatic gifts, clearly reliant on Mozart, failed to develop (despite his long search for suitable subjects), but his penchant for the dramatic found expression in the oratorios as well as in Ruy Blas overture, his Antigone incidental music and above all the enduring Midsummer Night's Dream music, in which themes from the overture are cleverly adapted as motifs in the incidental music. The oratorios, among the most popular works of their kind, draw inspiration from Bach and Handel and content from the composer's personal experience, St Paul being an allegory of Mendelssohn's own family history and Elijah of his years of dissension in Berlin. Among his other vocal works, the highly dramatic Die erste Walpurgisnacht op.60 (on Goethe's poem greeting springtime) and the Leipzig psalm settings deserve special mention; the choral songs and lieder are uneven, reflecting their wide variety of social functions.

After an apprenticeship of string symphony writing in a classical mould, Mendelssohn found inspiration in art, nature and history for his orchestral music. The energy, clarity and tunefulness of the Italian have made it his most popular symphony, although the elegiac Scottish represents a newer, more purposeful achievement. In his best overtures, essentially one-movement symphonic poems, the sea appears as a recurring image, from Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage and The Hebrides to The Lovely Melusine. Less dependent on programmatic elements and at the same time formally innovatory, the concertos, notably that for violin, and the chamber music, especially some of the string quartets, the Octet and the two late piano trios, beautifully reconcile classical principles with personal feeling; these are among his most striking compositions. Of the solo instrumental works, the partly lyric, partly virtuoso Lieder ohne Worte for piano (from1829) are elegantly written and often touching.

Dramatic music: incidental music for 6 plays, including Antigone (1841), A Midsummer Night's Dream (1843), Athalie (1845); opera; 5 Singspiels.

Choral music: St Paul, oratorio (1836); Elijah, oratorio (1846); Circa;30 psalms, sacred cantatas, larger sacred works; over 30 motets, anthems, shorter sacred works; 6 secular cantatas, incl. Die erste Walpurgisnacht (1832); over 60 choral songs.

Vocal music: 6 concert arias; over 70 songs; 12 duets.

Orchestral music: 13 str sinfonias; Sym. no.1, c (1824); Sym. no.2, 'Hymn of Praise', BFlat; (1840); Sym. no.3,'Scottish', a (1842); Sym. no.4 'Italian', A (1833); Sym. no.5, 'Reformation', D (1830); A Midsummer Night's Dream, ov. (1826); Calm sea and Prosperous voyage, ov. (1828); The Hebrides, ov. (1830); The Lovely Melusine, ov. (1833); Ruy Blas, ov. (1839); Pf Conc. no.1, g (1831); Pf Conc. no.2, d (1837); Vn Conc., e (1844); other orch movements.

Chamber music: Octet, strs, op.20, EFlat; (1825); 2 str qnts (op.18, A, 1826; op. 87, BFlat;, 1845); 6 str qts (op.12, EFlat;, 1829, op.13, a, 1827; op.44 nos.1-3, D, e, EFlat;, 1837-8; op.80, f, 1847); 3 pf qts; 2 pf trios (op.49, d, 1839; op.66, c, 1845); 2 vn sonatas; 2 vc sonatas; Va sonata.

Piano music: Lieder ohne worse (8 sets) (1829-45); variations sérieuses op.54 (1841); sonatas, fugues, fantasias.

Other works: org preludes and fugues, sonatas; Circa;60 canons; transcrs. and arrs. of Bach, Handel, Mozart, Beethoven.

© Groves Dictionaries, MacMillan Publishers Limited, UK

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