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Felix Mendelssohn and his Fourth Symphony, “Italian”

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Jakob Ludwig Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy (February 3, 1809–November 4, 1847) was a German composer, pianist, organist and conductor of the early Romantic period, who was born on February 3, 1809, in Hamburg, Germany, at the time an independent city-state. Mendelssohn’s father was the banker Abraham Mendelssohn, the son of the German Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn. His mother was Lea Salomon, a member of the Itzig family and a sister of Jakob Salomon Bartholdy. Mendelssohn was the second of four children; his older sister Fanny also displayed exceptional and precocious musical talent. The family moved to Berlin in 1811. Abraham and Lea Mendelssohn sought to give their children – Fanny, Felix, Paul and Rebecka – the best education possible. Fanny became a well-known pianist and amateur composer; originally Abraham had thought that she, rather than Felix, would be the more musical. However, at that time, it was not considered proper for a woman to have a career in music, so Fanny remained an active, but non-professional musician. Abraham was also disinclined to allow Felix to follow a musical career until it became clear that he intended seriously to dedicate himself to it

Mendelssohn grew up in an intellectual environment. Frequent visitors to the salon organized by his parents at the family’s home in Berlin included artists, musicians and scientists, amongst them Wilhelm and Alexander von Humboldt, and the mathematician Peter Gustav Lejeune Dirichlet, whom Mendelssohn’s sister Rebecka would later marry. Abraham Mendelssohn converted from the Jewish religion. He and his wife deliberately decided not to have Felix circumcised, in contravention of the Jewish tradition. Felix and his siblings were baptized by a Reformed Church minister in 1816. The name Bartholdy was added at the suggestion of Lea’s brother, Jakob Salomon Bartholdy, who had inherited a property of this name in Luisenstadt and adopted it as his own surname. On embarking on his musical career, Felix did not entirely drop the name Mendelssohn as Abraham requested, but in deference to his father signed his letters and had his visiting cards printed using the form ‘Mendelssohn Bartholdy’.

Like Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart before him, Mendelssohn was regarded as a child prodigy. He began taking piano lessons from his mother when he was six, and at seven was tutored by Marie Bigot in Paris. After the family moved to Berlin, all four Mendelssohn children studied piano with Ludwig Berger, who was himself a former student of Muzio Clementi. From at least May 1819 Felix and his sister Fanny studied counterpoint and composition with Carl Friedrich Zelter in Berlin. This was an important influence on his future career. Mendelssohn probably made his first public concert appearance at age 9, when he participated in a chamber music concert accompanying a horn duo. He was also a prolific composer from an early age. As an adolescent, his works were often performed at home with a private orchestra for the associates of his wealthy parents amongst the intellectual elite of Berlin. Between the ages of 12 and 14, Mendelssohn wrote 12 string symphonies for such concerts. He wrote his first published work, a piano quartet, by the time he was 13. It was probably Abraham Mendelssohn who procured the publication of Mendelssohn’s early piano quartet by the house of Schlesinger. In 1821 Zelter introduced Mendelssohn to his friend and correspondent, the elderly Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who was greatly impressed by the child. In 1824, the 15-year-old wrote his first symphony for full orchestra (in C minor, Op. 11).

In 1824 Mendelssohn studied under the composer and piano virtuoso Ignaz Moscheles. At age 16 Mendelssohn wrote his String Octet in E-flat major, the first work which showed the full power of his genius. This Octet and his Overture to Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which he wrote a year later in 1826, are the best-known of his early works. The year 1827 saw the premiere – and sole performance in his lifetime – of Mendelssohn’s opera, Die Hochzeit des Camacho. The failure of this production left him disinclined to venture into the genre again. Mendelssohn set a number of Goethe’s poems to music. His other compositions inspired by Goethe include the overture Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage, (Op. 27, 1828) and the cantata Die erste Walpurgisnacht (The First Walpurgis Night, Op. 60, 1832). In 1829, with the backing of Zelter and the assistance of actor Eduard Devrient, Mendelssohn arranged and conducted a performance in Berlin of Johann Sebastian Bach’s St Matthew Passion. The success of this performance, the first since Bach’s death in 1750, was an important element in the revival of J. S. Bach’s music in Germany and, eventually, throughout Europe.

Over the next few years Mendelssohn traveled widely, including making his first visit to England in 1829, and also visiting amongst other places Vienna, Florence, Milan, Rome and Naples, in all of which he met with local and visiting musicians and artists. These years proved the germination for some of his most famous works, including the Hebrides Overture and the Scottish and Italian symphonies. On Zelter’s death in 1832, Mendelssohn had hopes of succeeding him as conductor of the Berlin Singakademie. However, at a vote in January 1833 he was defeated for the post by Carl Friedrich Rungenhagen. Following this, Mendelssohn divided most of his professional time over the next few years between Britain and Düsseldorf, where he was appointed musical director (his first paid post as a musician) in 1833. In the spring of that year Mendelssohn directed the Lower Rhenish Music Festival in Düsseldorf, beginning with a performance of George Frederick Handel’s oratorio Israel in Egypt prepared from the original score which he had found in London. This precipitated a Handel revival in Germany, similar to the reawakened interest in J. S. Bach following his performance of the St Matthew Passion. At the end of 1834, he resigned his position in Düsseldorf. He had offers from both Munich and Leipzig for important musical posts, and decided in 1835 to accept the latter.

In 1835 Mendelssohn was named conductor of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra. He chose this position although he had also been offered direction of the opera house in Munich and the editorship of the prestigious music journal, the Allgemeine musikalische Zeitung. Mendelssohn concentrated on developing the musical life of Leipzig, working with the orchestra, the opera house, the Choir of St. Thomas Church, and the city’s other choral and musical institutions. A landmark event during Mendelssohn’s Leipzig years was the premiere of his oratorio St. Paul, given at the Lower Rhenish Festival in Düsseldorf in 1836, shortly after the death of the composer’s father, which much affected him. Mendelssohn married Cécile Charlotte Sophie Jeanrenaud (1817–1853), the daughter of a French Reformed Church clergyman, on March 28, 1837. The couple had five children, Carl, Marie, Paul, Lilli, and Felix. Mendelssohn also revived interest in Franz Schubert. Robert Schumann discovered the manuscript of Schubert’s 9th Symphony and sent it to Mendelssohn, who promptly premiered it in Leipzig on March 21, 1839, more than a decade after Schubert’s death. In 1843 Mendelssohn founded a major music school – the Leipzig Conservatory, now the Hochschule für Musik und Theater “Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy” or, in its own English self-designation, the Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy University of Music and Theatre. He persuaded Ignaz Moscheles and Robert Schumann to join him. Other prominent musicians, including string players Ferdinand David and Joseph Joachim and music theorist Moritz Hauptmann, also became staff members.

On his eighth visit to Britain in the summer of 1844, Mendelssohn conducted five of the Philharmonic concerts in London. The Violin Concerto in E minor, Op. 64 (1844), written for Ferdinand David, has become one of the most popular of all of Mendelssohn’s compositions. When Friedrich Wilhelm IV came to the Prussian throne in 1840 with ambitions to develop Berlin as a cultural center. Mendelssohn spend some time in Berlin, writing some church music, and, at the King’s request, music for productions of Sophocles’s Antigone (1841) and Oedipus at Colonus (1845), Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1843), for which Mendelssohn also wrote incidental music, including the famous Wedding March, in addition to his Overture, and Racine’s Athalie (1845). Mendelssohn’s oratorio Elijah was premiered in Birmingham at the Triennial Music Festival on August 26, 1846, using an English translation by William Bartholomew, who served as his text author and translator for many of his works during his time in England. On his last visit to Britain in 1847, Mendelssohn was the soloist in Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 and conducted his own Scottish Symphony with the Philharmonic Orchestra before the Queen and Prince Albert.

Mendelssohn suffered from poor health in the final years of his life, probably aggravated by nervous problems and overwork. A final tour of England left him exhausted and ill from a hectic schedule. The death of his sister Fanny on May 14, 1847 caused him great distress. Less than six months later, on 4 November, Mendelssohn himself died in Leipzig after a series of strokes at the age of 38. His grandfather Moses, his sister Fanny, and both his parents had died from similar apoplexies. His funeral was held at the Paulinerkirche, Leipzig, and he was buried in the Trinity Church Cemetery No. 1 in Berlin-Kreuzberg. The pallbearers included Moscheles, Schumann and Niels Gade. At his death Mendelssohn left some sketches for an opera on the story of the Lorelei based on the legend of the Lorelei Rhine maidens. His orchestral music includes five symphonies, some concert overtures, and seven concertos. Mendelssohn wrote his first chamber music at the age of 10. Mendelssohn himself was both pianist and an organist, and composed solo pieces for both. He also produced some theater, vocal, and choral music.

The following works by Felix Mendelssohn are contained in my collection:

Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage Overture in DM (1828).
Capriccio Brillant in BbM, op. 22 (1825/1832).
(Piano) Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 1 in gm, op. 25 (1831).
(Piano) Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 2 in dm, op. 40 (1837).
Concerto for Violin, Piano, and Orchestra in dm (1823).
Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra No. 1 in EM (1823).
Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra No. 2 in AbM (1824).
(Violin) Concerto for Violin and Strings in dm (1822).
(Violin) Concerto for Violin and Orchestra in em, op. 64 (1844).
The Fair Melusine Overture in EM (1833).
The Hebrides Overture in bm (Fingal’s Cave), op. 26 (1830).
A Midsummer Night’s Dream Overture, op. 21 (1826)/
A Midsummer Night’s Dream: Incidental Music, op. 61 (1843).
Rondo Brillant in EbM, op. 29 (1834).
String Symphony No. 1 in CM (1821).
String Symphony No. 2 in DM (1821).
String Symphony No. 3 in em (1821).
String Symphony No. 4 in cm (1821).
String Symphony No. 5 in BbM (1821).
String Symphony No. 6 in EbM (1821).
String Symphony No. 7 in dm (1822).
String Symphony No. 8 in DM (1822).
String Symphony No. 9 in cm (1823).
String Symphony No. 10 in bm (1823).
String Symphony No. 11 in FM (1823).
String Symphony No. 12 in gm (1823).
Symphony No. 2 in BbM, op. 52, Lobgesang (1840).
Symphony No. 3 in am, op. 56, Scottish.
Symphony No. 4 in AM, op. 90, Italian (1832).
Symphony No. 5 in DM, op. 107, Reformation;

—material selected, adapted, and edited from several different sources

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