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Felix Mendelssohn – The Significance of His Life and Work

by Alicia Watson

Felix Mendelssohn composed A Midsummer Night’s Dream starting when he was just 17 years old, but would take 17 years to complete the masterpiece. He started by composing the overture in 1826 and returning in 1842 to develop the incidental music from the overture. Cognitively, this is significant, and similar to reports of Mozart’s ability to hear an internally-created score prior to writing it down. Consider this little-known fact: most composers write the overture last — although it’s the first thing the audience hears. 

Mendelssohn conceptualized the full piece from the overture, demonstrating incredible cognitive ability.

See the Colorado Symphony perform Mendelssohn's Midsummer Night's Dream on March 4-5.

Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy, as he signed his own name, lived in a vibrant, transitional time period. Born in 1809 in Hamburg, Felix was the grandson of the influential philosopher, Moses Mendelssohn, and Felix’ father and uncle were partners in banking. Both of Felix’ parents displayed musical ability, and he enjoyed a privileged upbringing. 

Wealth allowed the children access to Europe’s accomplished musicians, teachers, and scores, with the 4 children displaying talent. Older sister Fanny (Mendelssohn) Hensel composed 400 works (1805 – 47) and was well-regarded by contemporaries. Felix and Fanny performed as prodigies at the Singakadamie, developing substantial abilities, and as adults, expressed mutual respect, closeness, and musical criticism.

Being related to the famous Moses Mendelssohn, Felix’ surname was synonymous with European Judaism and enlightenment principles. His immediate family’s goals appear to include maintaining social and financial stature through assimilation (Sposato, 2006). Felix was baptized into the Lutheran faith at age seven in 1816, the same year as the rest of his family, possibly in response to increasingly repressive laws against Jews, applied unevenly across municipalities. How was Felix Mendelssohn affected by this social and religious context? Felix’ father, Abraham, worked diligently to maintain a secular household and separation from the local Jewish community, which shows no record of the children’s births. 

Perception is key. Felix did not "convert" as a seven-year-old, this was "the water he was swimming in", likely outside his awareness. In a telling letter, Felix’ father describes his father changing his name from ‘Mendel Dessau’ to ‘Mendelssohn’ to interact with higher-educated people; urging his son protectively to continue using the adopted name, "Bartholdy" (Sposato, pp. 35 – 36). Mendelssohn, in his writing, expressed understanding of the Jewish experience, including persecution, and did not need to work to maintain outsider status. His family never allowed him to attach to the Jewish community; walking a delicate line of public Jewish origin and Christian conversion, in this author’s opinion. 

For me, playing Mendelssohn feels constricted and exposed, similar to playing Mozart. The light, Italianate style, early mastery, and prolific output offer parallels between the 2 composers. Mendelssohn is credited with increasing the study of music history and specifically cited for resurrecting Bach’s "St Matthew Passion". Not to geek out too much, Mendelssohn conducted the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra (1835), bringing in the talent of Clara Schumann, and the music of Handel, Mozart, Beethoven, Bach, Berlioz, Schubert, and Schumann.  He also composed major works, traveled, conducted, and founded the Leipzig Conservatory. In May 1847, Felix was devastated by Fanny’s untimely death, and his own death from stroke occurred six months later at age 38. Grief and shock at his sister’s death were likely major contributing factors, as well as overwork.

Think about your response to the ice-breaker, “Who would you invite to a dinner party?” Top contenders might include Goethe, and Robert and Clara Schumann. Felix interacted with these friends. His teacher, Zelter, enjoyed a friendship with Goethe, who ran 12-year old Felix through the same musical tests as a young Mozart for a select audience in Weimar (Mendelssohn Perspectives, pp. 283 – 301). Goethe promoted Mendelssohn’s career in numerous ways and wrote of learning from the young prodigy. Their friendship spanned the last decade of Goethe’s life, including letters, multiple visits, and the familiar ‘du.’ Possibly indicative of influence, Mendelssohn’s composition of large works follows his first 17-day visit with Goethe. Robert and Clara Schumann were supportive of and supported by Felix Mendelssohn’s career; promoting music and performances. Both Schumann’s worked for Mendelssohn as piano instructors in the brand-new Leipzig Conservatory (Stolba, 1990, pp. 634 – 656).

The significance of Felix Mendelssohn’s life and work requires viewing him contextually, as he was influenced by social, religious, and cultural factors, as well as influencing the life and work of others. Due to prolific letter-writing, much is known about him, with one large gap remaining. His wife, Cecile Jeanrenaud (1817 – 1853), reportedly burned their letters, and their relationship is given short shrift in many biographies, including this small offering.   


The author, Alicia Watson, is a licensed professional counselor and former professional French horn player. She is married to Bradley Watson, Violinist with the Colorado Symphony Orchestra, and owns A Common Thread Counseling, LLC, working with couples in Lakewood.


References include:

Jeffrey S. Sposato (2006). The Price of Assimilation: Felix Mendelssohn and the Nineteenth-Century Anti-Semitic Tradition. New York: Oxford University Press.

K. Marie Stolba (1990). The Development of Western Music: A history. (pp. 634 – 656) Dubuque, IA: Wm C Brown Publishers.

Nicole Grimes & Angela R. Mace, eds. (2012). Mendelssohn Perspectives. (ch. 14, “Mendelssohn as Portrayed in the Goethe-Zelter Correspondence,” Lorraine Byrne Bodley, pp. 283 –301). Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing Company.

Peter Mercer-Taylor, ed. (2004). The Cambridge Companion to Mendelssohn. (ch. 3, “Felix and Fanny: gender, biography, and history,” Marian Wilson Kimber, pp. 42 – 52). Cambridge: University Press.

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