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Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847)

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Unlike many composers of his day, Felix Mendelssohn was raised in a wealthy family that encouraged him to pursue his interest in music. Born in Hamburg, Germany on February 3, 1809, Mendelssohn was introduced to the arts and to metaphysical modes of thinking at a young age. He was the grandson of Moses Mendelssohn, one of Germanyís great intellectual thinkers. Although his family was staunchly Jewish, Felix Mendelssohnís father took on the surname Bartholdy, and converted to Christianity. This change was made because of social tensions in Germany, and so that more musical opportunities would be available to Mendelssohn. A fortunate man, Mendelssohnís aspirations can to fruition quickly, and without great struggle.

Mendelssohnís mother was an intelligent woman who continually encouraged the intellectual growth of her children. She began teaching Mendelssohn and his sister the piano when they were quite small. His father, a banker, moved the family to Berlin where Mendelssohn received piano lessons from Ludwig Berger, and theory classes from Karl Friedrich. Brought up in a cultured and affluent family, Mendelssohn was spared the penniless existence of a typical musician.

A brilliant child, Mendelssohn composed his first piece in 1820, and worked assiduously on improving his musical style. Goethe and Karl Maria von Weber both visited the Mendelssohnís home and were astounded by Mendelssohnís musical proficiency. He was a considered to be another Mozart, and his teachers soon found that he was in no need of lessons.

One of Mendelssohnís greatest ambitions was to revive the appreciation of Johann Sebastian Bachís music. In 1829 he organized and conducted a performance of the Passion, one of Bachís choral works, in Berlin. Mendelssohn had grown up on Bachís soothing melodies, and longed for Bach to receive the acclaim that his music deserved. lie spent a significant part of his life promoting Bachís works.

After touring internationally, Mendelssohn got married and became the director Dusseldorf. This was his first professional musical position, and he was soon elected to an even more prestigious post. Mendelssohn took on the direction of the acclaimed Gewandhaus Orchestra in Leipzig. He was responsible for a drastic improvement in the quality of its music. 1840 found Mendelssohn in charge of the Academy of Arts in Berlin, and in 1842, with the support of the crown, he founded a conservatory of his own.

Mendelssohnís continual stream of successes did take a toll on his health. Although success came to him quickly, he passed away at the young age of thirty-eight, after suffering a stroke. He was among the first Romantic composers, and his works infused the traditional classical modes of composition with a new sense of tenderness and spirit. One of the most revered musicians of his day, Mendelssohn was laid to rest in his family vault.

Notes by Shanaira Udwadia (May-2001)