Felix Mendelssohn: Biography, Music, Compositions & Facts

Instructor: Robert Huntington

Bob has taught music at all levels and holds a Master's degree in Choral Conducting.

Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) packed a lot of music-making into his short life of 38 years. In this lesson, we'll learn about the fast-paced career and life of this composer and European traveler, as well as some of his musical contacts and influences.

Early Life

When you were a child, did you excel at anything, such as sports, music, art or dance? If so, perhaps you were lucky enough to have that interest nurtured through special coaching, attending clinics, going to workshops or taking private lessons. Before entering his teens, Felix Mendelssohn, had lessons in piano, violin, theory and composition. At his family's weekly salons, which featured a private orchestra, he also had the opportunity to conduct and play his own compositions.

While still in his youth, Mendelssohn composed a couple of short comic operas, 13 string symphonies and nearly 20 piano pieces, as well as his first symphony for full orchestra. In his late teens, he wrote a concert overture inspired by William Shakespeare's play, A Midsummer Night's Dream.

Felix Mendelssohn
Felix Mendelssohn

Musical Contacts and Influences

J.S. Bach, 1685-1750

Mendelssohn came to admire the music of Johann Sebastian Bach; in 1829, he conducted the latter's previously unknown St. Matthew Passion for the first time in public. This production led to an important revival of Bach's music, along with a rediscovery of music from the Baroque and Renaissance. To mark the 300th anniversary of the Augsburg Confession and the birth of German Protestantism, Mendelssohn composed his Reformation Symphony, which was based on A Mighty Fortress by Martin Luther. It was never performed during the composer's lifetime.

Additional influences included Goethe (pronounced GER-teh), the German poet, to whom Mendelssohn dedicated a piano quartet. Goethe's poem, 'Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage', also served as the inspiration for one of the composer's overtures.

Over the course of his lifetime, Mendelssohn would also meet or perform the works of a number of famous composers, such as Frederick Chopin, Franz Schubert, Robert Schumann and Richard Wagner. He also came into contact with Jenny Lind, also known as the 'Swedish Nightingale.'

Travel Inspirations

Family trips to France and Switzerland and travel in England and Scotland provided Mendelssohn with inspiration, as well as instructional and professional opportunities. While in England, he had the chance to conduct the London Philharmonic Orchestra and perform a Beethoven piano concerto, along with some of his own work. A trip to Scotland resulted in the Hebrides Overture, also known as Fingal's Cave. A trip to Italy served as the motivation for his Italian Symphony and a smaller work called the Venetian Boat Song, which would become part of his series of eight piano books called Songs Without Words. He also worked on his Scottish Symphony during this time.

Professional Positions

In his 20s and 30s, Mendelssohn was employed as a conductor for a music festival in Dusseldorf, Germany, and became the director of the Gewandhaus (geh-VONDT-house) Orchestra. While conducting in Leipzig, Germany, he also found time to compose the oratorio St. Paul. In preparation for the 400th anniversary of the printing press in 1840, Mendelssohn composed a choral symphony called Lobgesang, or Song of Praise. In his 30s, he also conducted in London and established a music conservatory in Leipzig.

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