Thursday, August 27, 2009

A Mendelssohn Chronology

A person is born. A person dies.

It's what happens in between that determines how a person is remembered.

Parents have hopes. A child grows up and has dreams. Sometimes they're realized, attained. Sometimes not. 'Not' does not always mean “not a success.”

What is success? Success in life can be understood in many ways: by actions and deeds, by the way one lives, the example one sets for others – or by the amount of money one collects (not necessarily earns) and, as the saying goes, “who has the most toys” - or by less measurable things like fame or celebrity.

There are different ways of measuring success as there are different kinds of success. By comparing one person to another, someone's success might look like someone else's failure: they didn't achieve as much. But people sometimes think that – now or two hundred years ago.

Felix Mendelssohn was born 200 years ago this year. The early years of the 19th Century seem so far away from the early years of the 21st Century. Later, we'll explore some of the differences and see what some of the similarities are between these two “times.” But right now, I want to look at what they call a “time-line” of the life of the composer, Felix Mendelssohn.

A “time-line” is a fairly dry compilation of facts – this happened then; then this happened. We'll flesh it out later with more details to create the image of the person, adding details and background.

This is just an outline of what happened. Since Mendelssohn was a famous composer – and has been one of the more popular composers in classical music – I'll mention when he composed many of his major compositions.

The number in parentheses after a date or following someone's name refers to their age that year.

I'll define some of the terms in a glossary posted here - and then add more background information about the other people and other compositions that may be mentioned.

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1809 – Feb. 3rd – Felix Mendelssohn born in the German city of Hamburg. His parents are Abraham (33), a succesful banker, and Lea (32). Felix is their younger son: a daughter, named Fanny, was born in 1805. There would be two more children, born 1811 and 1813. Felix's grandfather, Moses Mendelssohn, was a famous philosopher who died in 1786. (see photo, left, of a souvenir post-card of Mendelssohn's birthplace)

1811 (2) – The French control the city of Hamburg and begin a 'reign of terror.' Abraham Mendelssohn takes his family in the middle of the night and flees to Berlin to avoid persecution.

1815 (6) – Felix begins to take piano lessons. He was “home-schooled” - his father taught him arithmetic and French; his mother, German, literature & fine arts.

1816 (7) – after the end of the Napoleonic Wars, the family went along on Abraham's business trip to Paris, France. While there, Felix took piano lessons from a woman who was highly regarded by great composers like Haydn and Beethoven.

His father has the children converted from the Jewish faith to the Protestant. Abraham converts six years later.

1817 (8) – Felix, back in Berlin, begins to take music and composition lessons from a man named Zelter (59).

1818 (9) – Felix performed in his first concert – chamber music at one of the family's regular Sunday afternoon musicales.

1819 (10) – Felix attends classes at Zelter's “Academy” in Berlin (a combination high school or college where students majored in music) and also begins studying violin. He becomes acquainted with the music of Johann Sebastian Bach who was almost forgotten after his death in 1750.

1820 (11) – Shortly after his 9th birthday, Felix composes a piano piece, the first composition of his that we know of; later this year, he writes 19 other piano pieces, a violin sonata, a wedding cantata, two short comic operas. Earlier, shorter works have not survived.

1821 (12) – He writes a Piano Quartet which becomes his first published piece. He also begins composing a series of “String Symphonies” which are performed at the Sunday musicales: this year he writes 7 of them.
He also meets the composer Carl Maria von Weber (pronounced in German, VAY-b'r; one of the more popular, important composers of the day) and the great German poet, Goethe (pronounced GER-teh) (72), considered then (and now) the greatest literary figure of all time writing in the German language. (see drawing, left, of Mendelssohn at the piano playing for Goethe, standing with his hands behind his back)

1822 (13) – the family travels to Switzerland. During this year, Mendelssohn's compositions become longer, more involved: he writes another String Symphony which he also arranges for a full orchestra; he writes a violin concerto and a piano concerto. He can play both of them. (see drawing of Mendelssohn (13), right).

1823 (14) – He composes many pieces including a piano quartet, a string quartet, a comic opera (“The Uncle from Boston”), five more “String Symphonies,” a concerto for violin and piano (which he and his violin teacher, Eduard Rietz (REETZ) perform) and a concerto for two pianos (which he and his sister perform). For Christmas, Rietz gives Felix a hand-copied score of an unknown work by J. S. Bach, the “St. Matthew Passion” (see 1829).

1824 (15) – He studies piano with one of the leading pianists of the day, Ignaz Moscheles (pronounced MOH-sheh-less). He composes his first symphony for full orchestra and calls it his Symphony No. 1 (ignoring all the little string symphonies), plus another concerto for two pianos for him and his sister. There is also an “Overture for Winds.”

1825 (16) – He goes to Paris to be “examined” by Luigi Cherubini (keh-roo-BEE-nee) who is one of the most powerful musicians in Europe: an endorsement would certainly boost Mendelssohn's career. Cherubini was impressed.

Mendelssohn heard a 14-year-old pianist named Franz Liszt: “he has more fingers than brains, his improvisations are miserable.” He would grow up to become one of the greatest pianists of the century.

The family moves into a more spacious new house with a bigger salon for their musicales. Mendelssohn meets scientist Alexander von Humboldt and philosopher Hegel.

Among the works Felix composes this year are a 3rd Piano Quartet (dedicated to Goethe), a violin sonata, a comic opera “The Wedding of Camacho,” based on a sub-story from Don Quixote – and the OCTET FOR STRINGS, written as a birthday-present to his violin teacher Eduard Rietz: this is one of the works Odin Rathnam and the musicians of the West Branch Music Festival will be performing on September 16th at the John Harris High School.

1826 (17) – after sitting in the garden, reading Shakespeare (in English), he composes an “Overture to A Midsummer Night's Dream” which, like the Octet, is generally regarded as one of his greatest works.

1827 (18) – He performs as a piano soloist in his first public concert outside of Berlin and is a success. His comic opera “The Wedding of Camacho” is performed in Berlin: it's a failure. He also composes a string quartet and a string quintet. He translates a Latin play into German and is accepted by the University of Berlin where he attended classes & lecture by great philosophers and scientists.

1828 (19) – He composes an overture inspired by two of Goethe's poems, “Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage.”

1829 (20) – He conducts the first public performance of Johann Sebastian Bach's “St. Matthew Passion,” now regarded as one of the Great Works of Western Classical Music but at the time, completely unknown. Mendelssohn is credited with what became known as “The Bach Revival.”

Having finished his university training, he travels to England and Scotland. It's not just a vacation: he conducts the London Philharmonic and performs his own music as well as Beethoven's 5th Piano Concerto (“The Emperor” Concerto). In Scotland, he visits an island off the coast and sees Fingal's Cave and writes down a theme he used the following year to compose the overture known as “The Hebrides” or “Fingal's Cave.”

He also composes another string quartet plus another comic opera to celebrate his parents' 25th Anniversary which is performed at another of the family's Sunday musicales: they like it, he doesn't.

1830 (21) – Mendelssohn is offered a position at the University of Berlin as head of the music department. He declined. For the 300th Anniversary of the Augsburg Confession (essentially the “constitution” of German Protestantism), he composed a symphony that uses Martin Luther's hymn, “A Mighty Fortress” in the finale: it was rejected for performance – “too dry” and, after all, Mendelssohn, despite having converted, was born a Jew. It was never performed during his life-time. It became known as “The Reformation Symphony.”

After his last visit to Goethe, Mendelssohn begins a long trip to Italy: in Rome he begins to compose his “Italian” Symphony and writes “The Hebrides” overture from sketches made during his Scottish trip.

1831 (22) – In Rome, while working on the “Italian” Symphony, he also begins writing one called the “Scottish” Symphony. He meets Hector Berlioz ('EC-t'r BAIR-lih-ohz), French composer hanging out in Rome who is writing his “Symphonie fantastique.” On his way back to Germany, Mendelssohn goes by way of Paris. He also meets pianist Delphine Schauroth with whom he falls in love. He composes his first piano concerto (which, btw, Stuart Malina will perform with the Harrisburg Symphony in February, 2010, at the Forum).

1832 (23) – Still in Paris, Mendelssohn meets Frederic Chopin (SHOH-pah(n)) and, back home, composes a number of piano pieces called “Songs Without Words.” Mendelssohn was very sad when he heard his violin teacher, Eduard Rietz, the one he wrote the OCTET for, died (aged 29) and shortly afterward that Goethe (82) and his teacher Zelter (73) had also died.

1833 (24) – After Zelter's death, Mendelssohn applies to be director of the Academy but is rejected. He finishes his “Italian” Symphony and goes to London to premiere it. Also conducts at a music festival in Düsseldorf, Germany: a great success, there are some anti-Semitic comments made by demonstrators. Composes an overture, “The Fair Melusine” (based on the same story that inspired Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tale (or Disney's movie based on it), “The Little Mermaid.”)

1834 (25) – He composes his an oratorio, “St. Paul.”

1835 (26) – Mendelssohn goes to Leipzig and becomes director of the “Gewandhaus” (geh-VONDT-house) Orchestra there and meets Robert & Clara Schumann. His father, Abraham (59) dies.

1836 (27) – Performances of “St. Paul” a success. He meets Cecile Jeanrenaud and they become engaged.

1837 (28) – He and Cecile are married. He composes his 2nd Piano Concerto. Another tour of England.

1838 (29) – He writes two string quartets, a cello sonata, begins work on the Violin Concerto in E Minor. On New Year's Eve, Schumann sends him a newly discovered manuscript by Franz Schubert (died 1828), his “Great” C Major Symphony.

1839 (30) – Very busy year as conductor in Leipzig: Mendelssohn conducts world premiere of Schubert's C Major Symphony. He composes the PIANO TRIO NO. 1 in D MINOR (selections from this piece will be played by Odin Rathnam and members of the West Branch Music Festival at John Harris High School on Sept. 16th).

1840 (31) – He composes a choral symphony “The Song of Praise (Lobgesang)” to celebrate the invention of printing, which he conducts in England. King of Prussia, Friedrich Wilhelm IV, asks him to come to Berlin.

1841 (32) – In Berlin, he is appointed director of an Academy of the Arts even though it doesn't yet exist. he writes incidental music for an ancient Greek tragedy, “Antigone.”

1842 (33) – Finally got around to finishing the “Scottish” Symphony (begun 11 years earlier). In London, again, meets the young Queen Victoria and her husband Prince Albert. Back in Berlin, composes music for plays by Racine & Sophocles. The Berlin “Academy of the Arts” not becoming a reality, he decides to start one in Leipzig. He meets composer Richard Wagner (in German, VOG-n'r).

1843 (34) – He writes incidental music for Shakespeare's “A Midsummer Night's Dream” (since he' already written the Overture inspired by the play when he was 17). His mother, Lea, dies (66).

1844 (35) – Busy conducting, especially in London: one concert featured a performance of the rarely heard Beethoven Violin Concerto with Joseph Joachim (14) the soloist. Completes his own Violin Concerto in E Minor.

1845 (36) – Focuses more on career in Leipzig. Composes the STRING QUINTET in B-FLAT MAJOR (selections of which, Odin Rathnam and the members of the West Branch Music Festival will perform at the John Harris High School on Sept. 16th). Meets famous singer, Jenny Lind (“The Swedish Nightingale”).

1846 (37) – much conducting in Leipzig and in England. Completes oratorio “Elijah” which he premieres in England that August. Returns to Leipzig, exhausted.

1847 (38) – He works on an opera and another oratorio, “Christus,” but his sister Fanny (42) dies in May while rehearsing a cantata by Felix. Mendelssohn is devastated by the news and becomes ill. He goes to Switzerland to get away from everything, writes a string quartet (which he describes as a "requiem" for Fanny). Not much better, he returns to Leipzig, becomes worse and dies on November 4th, 1847, at the age of 38.

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That is the outline of a life – a busy one, full of music-making, mentioning only the high points and the major works. It does not cover the story of Mendelssohn as a person but then when you study history, you often only read about wars, major events, presidents and kings – not so much about what life was like by the people who lived through them.

In future posts, I'll try to fill in some of these details.

Dr. Dick