Classical Composer Biography: Felix Mendelssohn
by Betty Fry
Mendelssohn wrote 48 short piano pieces under the collective title ‘Songs without words’. He composed them for what at the time was a fairly new but fast growing market; keen amateur pianists who wanted music of good quality, yet was not too difficult to play in their own homes. Each title perfectly reflects the melodious song-like character of the pieces, and all carry individual names relating to the subjects that inspired them.
I have chosen to play ‘Spring Song’, one of the best loved of the collection, because right now as I write this article, it is spring time here in New Zealand, and my garden is a mass of golden daffodils. It is a truly delightful piece of piano music.
Like each one in the collection it is very short, but it is a light frolicsome piece, with delicate little tripping phrases, and could only have been written to celebrate this carefree season of the year.
These little tripping phrases are called ‘grace notes’, or ‘acciaccatura, which in Italian means ‘crushed notes’. Musically, grace notes are used for decoration, and in written music they are printed smaller than the other notes, and have a crossed stem.
Mendelssohn published his ‘Songs without Words’ in eight groups, or ‘books’, of six pieces each, including two books that were published posthumously. I would dearly love to possess just one of these ‘books’. Christmas is coming, so I think I will have to do either some hinting, or some hunting.
Grandson of an eminent Jewish philosopher, and son of a successful banker, Felix Mendelssohn enjoyed all the comforts of a prosperous middle class household, and all the benefits of a highly cultured society.
He was the second of four children, and as well as showing his genius for music, and an astonishing musical memory at an incredibly young age, in later life he displayed great ability as an illustrator and painter, and also as a writer.
He received his early education from his parents. His father taught him French and mathematics, while his mother gave him art and music lessons.
His prodigious gifts soon became apparent, and by the age of nine he had made his debut as a performer, and was receiving tuition in harmony from Karl Zelter.
It was Zelter who took him to meet Goethe and a warm friendship developed between the 72 year old poet, and the 12 year old composer who had already written a large number of works of remarkable maturity.
Before he enrolled at Berlin University in 1826 he had completed a comic opera, plus the overture to the incidental music to ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, which remains one of his best loved orchestral compositions.
I paused here to put the Hebrides Overture ‘Fingal’s Cave’ into my player, and if you ever visit this unique part of Scotland you will know that this music depicts just what you would feel and find there.
Fingal’s Cave is on the Hebridean island of Staffa. Twenty metres wide, and over sixty metres deep, the cave is an impressive sight with huge hexagonal rock pillars stretching high out of the sea. On stormy days the sound of waves crashing against the rocks echoes across the island, and it is not surprising that Fingal’s Cave was originally called ‘Uamh Binne’ – ‘the cave where the sea makes music’.
Mendelssohn wonderfully captures the swell of the mighty ocean around the Cave. It is a grand musical seascape, and the whole piece is held together by a haunting and insistent little phrase, heard at the outset on the strings.
Several changes of mood reflect the unpredictable character of the sea; a calmer theme, then more restless passages on strings and woodwind build up to a really stormy episode as the untamed wind and waves thunder around the cave. Every so often a drum roll interrupts as a large breaker crashes. The whole piece is alternately as calm and violent as the ocean itself.
Mendelssohn was just 20 when he visited Britain for the first time. The young composer was welcomed in London by Karl Klingemann, a diplomat and poet. And it was not long before the two friends set off on a summer tour of Scotland.
They were entranced by the Scottish scenery and the Highlands in particular, which Mendelssohn captured not just in music, but also in paintings and sketches. By the time he took his trip to Fingal’s Cave the opening theme of the Overture was already running through his mind.
The sound of the sea has intrigued many composers with its wide variety of orchestral possibilities. It is a recurring theme in several overtures composed by Mendelssohn, even before his visit to Scotland in 1829.
Also in 1829 he gave the first performance of the ‘St. Matthew Passion’, and later during that same year performed Beethoven’s ‘Emperor’ piano concerto for the first time in England, and then went on to tour Scotland where he was inspired to write the wonderful ‘Hebrides’ overture.
The adulation of the English public was shared by audiences throughout Germany, Austria, and Italy. Appointed conductor of the Lower Rhine Music Festival in 1833 to 1836, he also became the conductor of famous Gewandhaus Orchestra, Leipzig in 1835.
Two years later he married Cecile Jeanrenaud. This was followed by a period during which he composed many of his most celebrated works including the violin concerto, and the birth of five children.
The Opus 61 ‘Wedding March’ will be familiar to many. It is part of a suite of incidental music written for a production of Shakespeare’s play ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ at Potsdam in 1842. This music has long been popular for playing newly wed couples out of the church.
Jubilant trumpet fanfares introduce a march that is both dignified and full of elation. The theme develops, elegantly embroidered by strings and brass. A romantic flowing melody changes the pace before the march returns with a flourish.
Felix Mendelssohn was one of the most remarkable of all the musical child prodigies whose early works can be favorably compared with those of Mozart at a similar age. He was a master of melody, and his style and technique developed rapidly.
He wrote music to charm the ear. That is one of the reasons why, unlike many of the great composers, he won enormous critical acclaim during his brief lifetime, and was feted throughout Europe, especially in England.
His social graces soon made him a court favorite, and his music, notably the oratorio ‘Elijah’, first performed in Birmingham in 1846, influenced the musical taste of Victorian England in a manner unmatched by that of any other composer.
Success followed success, but years of overwork took their toll. Already tired and ill, the shock of his sister’s death in May of 1847 was so great that he collapsed and fell into a deep depression. For a few months he seemed to rally, but then a further collapse occurred in October, and he died in Leipzig in November of that same year. He was thirty eight.
Queen Victoria was ‘horrified, astounded and distressed’ when she heard the news. ‘The greatest musical genius since Mozart’, she declared. ‘Admired… esteemed… looked up to… and revered’.