Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Mendelssohn's Biography: A Condensed Version


When Felix Mendelssohn was born in 1809, 200 years ago, in the German city of Hamburg, most of Europe was dominated by wars with the French Emperor, Napoleon. Mendelssohn's father was a banker who was involved in what we might call the Resistance against the French, so when they took over the city in 1811, he took his family and fled in the middle of the night, moving back to Berlin to joining the family bank's “home office.”

The Mendelssohn children would get up at 5am to begin their lessons for the day which included languages (German, French and English, Greek and Latin), literature, math, history and a number of other courses including music lessons. On Sundays, the children could sleep in until 6am. He was studying the piano when he was 6 and taking composition lessons when he was 10. When he was 11, he started composing several small symphonies for a string orchestra. He also took violin lessons.

The Mendelssohn home was a gathering place for the best minds in Berlin. They would come for Sunday's afternoon musicales – where the children would often perform with their teachers and friends – drink tea, eat great food and have discussions about the latest ideas in the arts as well as in science and philosophy.

For some of these musicales, Mendelssohn's father Abraham would hire musicians to come play works his son and daughter had composed. Felix Mendelssohn (see right) would conduct his little symphonies, standing on a chair so the musicians could see him over their music stands. His older sister, Fanny, was an excellent pianist and a composer, too. They often wrote works for each other to perform. Mendelssohn wrote two concertos for two pianos which they could play together with the orchestra. They were both child prodigies – children who exhibited a highly advanced level of talent many adults would envy.

When Mendelssohn was 13, his composition teacher took him to play for the greatest living German writer, Goethe (pronounced in German, GER-teh). When he was a boy, Goethe had heard the child Mozart play the piano and some of his compositions, too. Mozart was probably the most famous child prodigy in music. Goethe thought Mendelssohn was more advanced.

Mendelssohn composed a great deal. Suddenly, in the midst of all the music he was composing then, he wrote a piece for his violin teacher's birthday, the Octet for Strings, that most people would assume it's good enough to be by a mature genius. So they're very surprised when they're told Mendelssohn wrote it when he was 16.

(You can hear the second half of the piece in this music video post. Odin Rathnam and members of the West Branch Music Festival will be coming to John Harris High School to perform it on September 16th.)

The next year, Mendelssohn composed an overture inspired by reading Shakespeare's play “A Midsummer Night's Dream.” This is another one of those “I-can't-believe-he-wrote-it-when-he-was-a-teen-ager” pieces.

You can hear a 'video' of the music posted here, along with a time-line where you can hear the different themes and how they relate to the story.

It would become one of his most popular pieces. Some people think – with maybe a couple of exceptions – he never wrote anything better than these two pieces.

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After he attended some classes at the Berlin University, he was 20 when he conducted a performance of Johann Sebastian Bach's St. Matthew Passion. This is a very long work that had not been performed since before Bach's death in 1750, eighty years earlier. It was such a success, Mendelssohn is given credit for starting “The Bach Revival.” Bach is generally regarded as one of the Great Composers today – one of the 3 B's along with Beethoven and Brahms – but in Mendelssohn's time, not too many people knew his music.

Unlike most composers who were always dealing with financial worries, Mendelssohn was born into a wealthy family. His parents were both from two of the wealthiest families in Berlin – here is a post about his mother's family; in this post you can see some pictures like this one (right) of the Mendelssohn's house in Berlin where these Sunday musicales took place and where Mendelssohn composed all this music (this is a house, not a palace or a government building). The bank his father and uncles founded was also one of the biggest banks in Germany and it continued to be a major banking company up until World War II.

Mendelssohn was born into the Jewish faith. His grandfather, Moses Mendelssohn (see left), was a famous philosopher at a time when Jews were just beginning to be accepted into society though there were still anti-Semitic reactions in many areas. Mendelssohn's maternal grandfather had been a prominent merchant and banker working in the court of King Frederick the Great of Prussia.

Given the religious attitudes of the time, several members of the family – from Moses Mendelssohn and his sons to brothers of Mendelssohn's mother – favored either “assimilation” where Jews consciously become more like the society they live in or outright “conversion” to the Protestant faith. None of them were especially devout and Abraham Mendelssohn was convinced his children would get ahead in the world with greater ease if they were Protestants. So when Felix was 7, his father had the children baptized in the Lutheran faith.

Many people still considered Mendelssohn Jewish despite the conversion. It became more of a problem after his death when anti-Semitic campaigns were launched against his music. Eventually, when the Nazis took over Germany in the 1930s, Mendelssohn's music disappeared, statues of him were taken down, and museums dedicated to his life and music were closed. The family's banking company was taken over by a government sanctioned bank and all the Jewish employees were fired.

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After Mendelssohn turned 20, he spent some time traveling, going first to England and then to Italy for extended trips. He performed as a concert pianist, conducted and played his own music.

He writes several pieces, including an orchestral work inspired by his visit to a cave on a little island off the Scottish coast called Fingal's Cave. You can see a modern day trip to the cave in this post and then a performance of the music it inspired Mendelssohn to compose.

Another piece he composed around this time was based on an old legend about a water nymph who wants to become human so she can fall in love. This same story inspired Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tale, “The Little Mermaid” which in turn inspired the Disney film. Mendelssohn called his work “The Fair Melusine.” You can hear it here on one of the Music Video posts.

When he was 25, he writes a large choral work, an oratorio based on the story of St. Paul. In the New Testament, Paul was originally a Jew who persecuted Christians but “on the road to Damascus” was converted to Christianity in a blinding flash and would become one of the leading figures in the history of the early Christian church.

At 26, Mendelssohn settled in Leipzig where he became the conductor of an orchestra in Leipzig called “The Gewandhaus Orchestra.” Gewandhaus (geh-VONT-house) referred to the old Cloth Merchants' Guild building where the orchestra performed (see right). It was originally founded in 1743 and the orchestra still performs today. You can hear more current members of the orchestra play music Mendelssohn conducted with them over 170 years ago.

Mendelssohn composed five symphonies. The first – not counting those “string symphonies” he composed between the ages of 11 and 14 – was written when he was 15 but the two best known works were musical souvenirs of his trips to Scotland and to Italy. It took him 11 years to finish the “Scottish” Symphony. He never did publish the “Italian” Symphony which, for some reason, he felt needed to be revised. He just never got around to it.

(You can hear the opening of the Italian Symphony at the beginning of this post - while he was in Rome, he met Hector Berlioz whose music he thought sounded... well, "dirty." At the end of that post, you can hear the last minute of a piece by Hector Berlioz that he was writing in Rome the same time Mendelssohn was writing his Italian Symphony.)

An earlier symphony was written to celebrate the 400th anniversary of an important event in the Lutheran Church history. He quotes Martin Luther's hymn “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” in the last movement. But it was rejected by the committee planning the anniversary festival – it was more than they were looking for, but word had it they didn't perform it because to them Mendelssohn was a Jewish composer: what right did he have to be quoting Martin Luther?

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Much of Mendelssohn's biography reads like an appointment book: this year he wrote this, performed that, conducted here and there. He was very busy as a composer, conductor, pianist, organist, teacher and music festival organizer.

When he was 28, he married the daughter of a French Protestant minister and during his honeymoon wrote a string quartet, a setting of a Psalm for chorus and orchestra, and his 2nd Piano Concerto which he went off to perform in England a few months after the wedding.

In 1842, he met Queen Victoria of England. After a performance there of St. Paul, he spent 9 days of constant traveling to get back to his home in Leipzig in time to conduct a concert: after several carriages, boats and steamships and very little sleep, he arrived in Leipzig around 2:00 and walked on stage to conduct the concert at 6:00 that evening. He admitted to being “a little tired” after the concert (the 19th Century version of jet-lag).

The King of Prussia invites him back to Berlin to compose music for several plays and to direct concerts and found a music-school. Not much comes of these projects except he does finally write music for the complete play, “A Midsummer Nights Dream” by Shakespeare. He had written the Overture when he was 17, then wrote the rest of the music (including the famous Wedding March which you can hear in this music video post) when he was 34.

Since he couldn't get a music school started in Berlin, he started one in Leipzig instead, associated with his orchestra. As if he didn't have enough to do...

For a performance in England, he agrees to write another oratorio, this one based on the biblical story of Elijah. He conducts the premiere in England but returns to Leipzig exhausted. Shortly after he arrives home, he receives the news that his sister Fanny died suddenly, apparently of a stroke. She was 41.

They had been very close as children and remained close throughout their lives. Her death affected him so deeply, he had to go to Switzerland to recuperate from an illness he never really recovered from. Less than six months later, he died of a series of strokes himself. He was only 38 years old. (Read more in this post about his last year and especially the peoples' reactions to the news of his death.)

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Mendelssohn was a celebrity, one of the most popular composers of his day. His music, like the culture he grew up in, was “comfortable” and “polite,” not stormy and dramatic like many of the composers around him. His personality was reserved, not flamboyant. He didn't write music to “storm the heavens” like Beethoven did and he wasn't writing “Music for the Future” like his contemporary Richard Wagner would write. If these men had personalities that gave them “super-hero” personalities, Mendelssohn was very human.

His music often expresses a youthful exuberance and may at times be dramatic but never so “over-the-top” as some of his friends' music was. When it was sad, it was never tragic. He wrote not for intellectuals or people interested in adventure. He wrote to comfort people and to connect on a human level with amateur music-lovers and performers who sometimes got lost in the “modern” music of their day.

Today, we talk about people with “left brain” or “right brain” personality traits – some of these can be applied to musicians (composers and performers) and described basically as “classical” or “romantic” styles. Music of the “Classical” style was more abstract and tended to be concerned more with clearer forms and textures. Music of the “Romantic” style was more subjective and emotional and more concerned with spontaneity and the blurring of lines in music's forms and textures.

Mendelssohn was a little of each, perhaps “2 parts Classical to 1 part Romantic.”

One of his teachers, the German philosopher Hegel, is probably best remembered today for what is called the “Hegelian Dialectic.” Simply put, you take an idea (a thesis) and contrast it with its opposite idea (an antithesis) and then combine the best aspects of both to create something of a compromise (a synthesis).

In a sense, (2 Parts Classical) + (1 Part Romantic) = Felix Mendelssohn.

- Dr. Dick