Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Mendelssohn's Family on his Mother's Side

This post is about the family of Felix Mendelssohn's mother, Lea Salomon Mendelssohn (see left).

In earlier posts, I wrote about Felix Mendelssohn's paternal grandfather, Moses Mendelssohn, a famous philosopher in the 2nd half of the 18th Century. I've written about the banking company his sons built and how Abraham became a member of the upper-class society. I've mentioned the house they lived in with its large music salon where they could hold private concerts where the children Felix and his sister Fanny performed.


The Mendelssohn House in Berlin has long since disappeared – at first, I couldn't find any images or descriptions of the house, beyond this:

Abraham Mendelssohn bought a mansion in 1825 in a quiet section of Berlin. The property “included not only the main house of many rooms, but several guest houses” and a spacious park complete with large gardens where Felix enjoyed taking walks and riding his horse. “The main house contained large salons in which Sunday musicales were given to invited audiences as well as amateur theatricals.”

All of this would imply it was a pretty large house on a pretty large property (and Felix had a horse). After his sister Fanny married Wilhelm Hensel, they moved into one of the guest houses which then became their family home (so clearly, this one, at least, was not like a cottage in the park).

Later, I found a few images posted on-line that appear to be the house Mendelssohn grew up in. You can see them and read more about the house in this post. Somewhere I'd read (but cannot verify, now) that the house was demolished by the Nazis in the 1930s but it may have been torn down earlier. The photograph I found was apparently taken in 1900.

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I had not read much about Felix's mother's family before. I knew she was descended from a wealthy Jewish family in Berlin. But here's what I found today while researching information about Mendelssohn's love of Bach's music.

Abraham's wife, Lea Salomon, was the granddaughter of Daniel Itzig (see left) whom I had seen described somewhere as “an important merchant.” That left out two important details in his life. One was his being appointed to be the Director of the Prussian Mint by King Frederick the Great; under his successor, Itzig was appointed the court banker. Considering neither king was especially tolerant of the Jews – they were not consistently anti-Semitic, either - it was an unusual situation. Daniel Itzig died in 1799, one of the wealthiest men in Berlin.

He had 13 children, most of whom lived to adulthood (unusual in those days of high infant and childhood mortality rates).

His daughter Bella (a.k.a. Babette) Itzig married Levin Salomon. Their son Jakob Salomon (see right) converted to Christianity during the Napoleonic Wars. He had recently purchased a garden estate from a man named Bartholdy, so he adopted that as his Christian family name. He advised his brother-in-law, Abraham Mendelssohn, to convert and take the name Bartholdy, too.

During the last years of Napoleon's wars, Bartholdy became a Prussian consul-general in Rome. He was a great patron of the arts, especially interested in the old art of fresco painting which still survived in Italy. He commissioned several German painters to learn this skill which had long been forgotten in Northern Europe.

Bella and Levin Salomon's daughter Lea married Abraham Mendelssohn. It was Bella (Babette) who gave her grandson Felix a score of Bach's “St. Matthew Passion.”

Daniel Itzig's son, Isaac Daniel Itzig, founded the “Jewish Free School” in Berlin in 1778, the first of its kind.

Susanna Itzig Friedlander's husband helped Moses Mendelssohn's sons found the Mendelssohn & Friedlander Bank which later became Mendelssohn & Co. In 1812, it was “one of the 20 most important banks in Berlin;” by 1823, one of the top 3.

Another son was the father of an architect who built many important buildings in Berlin, including the Stock Exchange (see illustration, right), built in 1859 on the site of the Itzig Family's house (see end of post). The Stock Exchange was a target of the Allied bombing raids and destroyed in 1945.

Sarah Itzig (see left) married Solomon Levy. She studied piano with W.F. Bach, the oldest son of Johann Sebastian Bach. She was a well-known musician in Berlin, performing at the Sing-Academy. She was Lea Salomon Mendelssohn's aunt and a strong musical presence in Felix Mendelssohn's early years.

Nowhere could I find any explanation why it was okay for Sarah Levy to perform in public (whether she was paid or not) but it wasn't for her great-niece, Fanny Mendelssohn. Perhaps it was a generational thing...

Two other daughters married Viennese bankers and were friends and patrons of Mozart's.

Here is a photograph of the Itzig House (right) taken in 1857 (making this also a fairly early photograph)/ Two years later, it was demolished and replaced by the Stock Exchange (see above), designed and built by Daniel Itzig's grandson.

How does it compare to the Mendelssohn Family House? You certainly do get the idea that it's a big house and this is a very wealthy family. No wonder Felix Mendelssohn never had to worry about personal finances...

- Dr. Dick