Monday, September 7, 2009

Study Questions #6: Biographical Topics

Most of these basic questions can be answered by checking the "Condensed Biography" post. Not all of these questions can be answered by looking at one “topic” or “post” - you may need to check for more details, following the links to help amplify what you discover.


What were the circumstances around Mendelssohn's birth? What was going on in the city of Hamburg, Germany, the first few years after he was born? What impact might this have had on his family?

Going to school is one thing – but what are some advantages to being taught at home by private tutors? Any disadvantages, other than it'd be pretty hard to call in sick?

Getting up at 5am every day for your classes – SIX days a week! - is one thing, but how does this help a kid develop discipline? How would that be important – especially to someone who has to spend so much time learning and practicing and composing music?

It might be cool to be a prodigy but it has its drawbacks, too – What do you think some of the good points and bad points of “prodigy-life” might be?

Imagine you have an exceptional talent – doesn't matter what it's in – and you're taken to meet the one person in the world you idolize the most. What would that be like for you? That's probably what it was like for Mendelssohn when he met Goethe. What kind of impact do you think this would have on you – not just today, when you meet this person, but later on in your life? Would this be an inspiration to realize your own dreams?

It's pretty amazing that anyone could write music like this in his mid-teens. I always enjoy pointing this out to people who lump all teen-agers into one under-achieving stereotype (maybe that's because they were once under-achieving teen-agers?).

Listen to the first 4 minutes of the Octet clip here and then listen to the 12 minutes of the Overture to A Midsummer Night's Dream posted here. How does Mendelssohn create the “mood” in these two pieces? Both are inspired by the scurrying sounds you might associate with fairy sprites and elves: how does he do that?

In the Shakespeare piece, how does he musically differentiate the three types of characters that you can't see (even in this video) except in your imagination? What's the difference between the fairies' music, the mortal couples' love-music and the “rustics” music (complete with hee-haws)?


People usually say that Mendelssohn was born into a wealthy family rather than having to struggle with poverty like Beethoven or Schubert did (among other composers). How would this make it easier for Mendelssohn as he grew up? Are there any ways this could be a disadvantage to him?

They say “Money can't buy happiness” (in the long-term) but maybe it can buy ______ [fill in the blank]. Other than material things: what about “Opportunity”? Abraham Mendelssohn might not be able to buy his son some talent, but he could give him opportunities to nurture the talent he had.

What kind of opportunities do you think Mendelssohn might have had that a son from a poor family might not have had? Would this have guaranteed him success - or the poor son, failure?

Not every “rich kid” became a “star” like Mendelssohn did. What kind of things may have given Mendelssohn an advantage over other children from other wealthy families?

Sometimes, “wealth” is not measured in money. You can earn money, you can become famous. What do you think might help make you feel happy with your life, or shape your goals toward some dream? What kind of things might inspire you reach for some dream?


These are tough questions: there are no single answers, in fact maybe no real answers at all.

Mendelssohn didn't live a particularly “faith-based” life – that didn't mean he didn't have a strong faith. But what about Mendelssohn's religion? He was born in the Jewish faith but was baptized when he was 7 as a Lutheran. As an adult, he wrote a lot of religious music, some of it based on the Old Testament, and some on the New.

Here's a question that's more about developing an attitude than finding an answer: if a person is born into one faith or another (whatever that is), is that person always a member of that faith, no matter what religion they may follow (or not) later in life?

What if you combine an ethnic heritage with that faith? Would that make a difference?

If you're Jewish and you live in an anti-Semitic community, what choices do you have in dealing with it? What are the advantages and disadvantages to segregating yourself to maintain your faith and your identity? ...assimilating yourself into the surrounding non-Jewish community? ...converting to the same basic religion as your surrounding community? What impact do you think this would have on your life? This is of course more likely a “conjectural exercise” for you, but try to imagine the impact it could have: would it have much impact on a 7-year-old? How do you think other people in your community (or communities – your past and your future societies) would view either decision? Complicated, isn't it?

Felix Mendelssohn was very proud of his famous grandfather, the philosopher Moses Mendelssohn (who died before the composer was born). Has there been anybody in your own family whom you look up to and learn from or who guides you even though that person isn't in your life any more?

He may have been very close to his sister Fanny – she was also an exceptional pianist and composer – but he felt that she should not publish the music she wrote or perform in public (at the Sunday musicales, fine). This echoed his father's attitude. Why was it okay for Felix to publish his music and perform all over Europe but it wasn't okay for his sister? (For more information about her and this topic in particular, read this post, Mendelssohn's Sister and Her World).

There are additional questions about the religious discrimination in Mendelssohn's life, gender discrimination in Fanny's life and about other aspects of discrimination in this post, Study Questions #4.


Mendelssohn loved traveling. Where did he go? What do you think he got out of going to “foreign countries”?

If you could travel anywhere in the world, where would you go and why? What would you hope to get out of that experience? How do you think it might affect you?

What kind of souvenirs would you bring back to remind you of your trip? You can take photos and post them on your blog or MySpace or Facebook page for friends to enjoy. What if you could write a piece of music that would describe your trip?

Lots of composers have done this: Mendelssohn went to Scotland and wrote his “Scottish” Symphony based on some of the things he saw and felt there – and check out the Fingal's Cave post! He went to Italy and wrote his “Italian” Symphony. But George Gershwin came back from Paris and captured the lively time he had there in an orchestral work called “An American in Paris” (there's even a section where he must've had a little too much to drink, because it sounds like he's weaving down the street, unsteady on his feet). Aaron Copland captured a rowdy time in a famous Mexican bar he liked to visit there, capturing the sound of the popular music and the noise and excitement of the crowd: it's called “El Salon Mexico.”

What kind of musical souvenir do you think you would bring home from a vacation? How would you turn what you saw and heard into a piece of music?

Two of the pieces mentioned here are inspired by religion: Mendelssohn wrote an oratorio about St. Paul who used to persecute Christians before he was converted from his Jewish faith to become a major leader in the Early Christian Church. What significance do you think this subject may have had for Mendelssohn, whether he chose it for that reason or not?

He also wrote a symphony that quoted “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” one of the most famous Lutheran hymns. It's called his “Reformation” Symphony. He was 21 when he wrote it but he never published it during his lifetime and in fact it never even got performed. It takes a lot of time and effort to write a half-hour of music: since he was a conductor and played his own music a lot, why do you think he never tried to get this piece on a concert program?


His “dates” are (1809-1847). How old was Mendelssohn when he died? That's not exactly what we'd call “old” (at least, your parents wouldn't...)

He was a very busy man – conducting, performing, composing, also teaching and organizing music festivals. Even traveling took time: rather than flying home from England in a few hours and dealing with jet lag like he could today, it took him 9 days to get home that one trip, hardly got any sleep on the way, but that's the way it was in those days before trains, much less cars and planes. What impact do you think all this had on Mendelssohn's life, especially after he got married and started a family?

If that wasn't enough, he then went and started a music school – it wasn't just teaching in it: he organized it and ran it, hired the teachers and was, basically, its principal. It wasn't like he needed something to do: why do you think he did it?

And then he wrote another big choral work on a religious theme, about the Old Testament prophet Elijah. Though it's not covered in these posts, who was Elijah and what is his role in the observation of the Passover seder?

What are the circumstances surrounding Mendelssohn's death? (Follow the link to the full post about his last years to read about the peoples' reaction to the news of his death.)


There are many posts you can refer to here for more information:

What was it like being a celebrity in Mendelssohn's day? Use this link to find additional questions about this topic in Study Question #5.

If Beethoven was a “super-hero,” how does Mendelssohn's character compare? (follow the “super-hero” link). Do you think the type of personality you are would affect the music you write?

You know whether you're right handed or left handed, but what is meant by “right brain and left brain”? (Follow the link for more information). How do you think these characteristics would turn up in Mendelssohn's personality? While it's generalizing (and a kind of arm-chair psychoanalyzing), do any of these characteristics show up in your own personality? Do you think you might be more right than left brained or maybe a combination of the two?

Mendelssohn was born 200 years ago and died 162 years ago. And yet his music is still popular today with lovers of Classical Music. Why do you think that is?

As you've been reading about him and his music – and the times he lived in – and as you've been listening to some of his music, what do you think about him and his music?