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Mendelssohn, Felix (1809-1847)
Felix Mendelssohn in 1829

Felix Mendelssohn

born: 3 February 1809
died: 4 November 1847
country: Germany

Felix Mendelssohn was the grandson of the Enlightenment philosopher Moses Mendelssohn and son of an influential German banker. Born into a privileged, upper middle-class family, as a boy he was encouraged to study the piano, taught to draw by his mother and became an accomplished linguist and classical scholar. In 1819 he began composition studies with Karl Friedrich Zelter. His family’s wealth allowed their home in Berlin to become a refuge for scholars, artists, writers and musicians. The philosopher Hegel and scientist Humboldt were among regular visitors, and members of the Court Orchestra and eminent soloists were available to perform the latest works by Felix or his older sister Fanny. Young Mendelssohn’s twelve string symphonies were first heard in the intimate setting of his father’s salon.

Mendelssohn’s maturity as a composer was marked by his Octet (1825) and concert overture to Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1826). In 1829 Mendelssohn revived Bach’s St Matthew Passion exactly one hundred years after its first performance. Soon after, a trip to London and the Scottish highlands and islands inspired the overture, The Hebrides. In 1830 he travelled to Italy at the suggestion of Goethe and whilst in Rome started his so-called Scottish and Italian symphonies. In 1835 he was appointed conductor of the Leipzig Gewandhaus, greatly expanding its repertoire with early music and works of his own, including the E minor Violin Concerto. Two years later he married Cecile Jeanrenaud and in 1843 he founded the Leipzig Conservatory. His magnificent biblical oratorio, Elijah, commissioned for, and first performed at, the 1846 Birmingham Musical Festival, soon gained a place alongside Handel’s Messiah in the affections of British choral societies and their audiences. He died in Leipzig in 1847.

from notes by Stephen Johnson © 2014

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