The composer, conductor and instrumental soloist Felix Mendelssohn is considered one of the most important figures of the Romantic period. Some of his most well-known works include the Wedding March from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which was played at the wedding of Princess Victoria to Crown Prince Frederick of Prussia in 1858 and is still popular at marriage ceremonies today, the Scottish Symphony (Symphony No. 3) and the Hebrides Overture, (also known as Fingal’s Cave).
Jakob Ludwig Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy was born on 3 February 1809 into a prominent Jewish family. His grandfather, Moses Mendelssohn, was a famous philosopher of the Age of Enlightenment, and his father a successful banker. His parents cultivated the interest in arts and humanities in their children, and acquainted them with the most influential minds of that time. Among visitors to their house were Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, the brothers Alexander and Wilhelm von Humboldt, Heinrich Heine, Carl Maria von Weber, Louis Spohr and Niccolò Paganini.
Mendelssohn was often compared with Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Also a child prodigy, Mendelssohn had his first piano lessons at the age of six. At the age of nine, he performed music in public for the first time, and began composing works that deeply impressed authoritative musicians like Carl Friedrich Zelter.
Zelter, the head of the Berlin Singakademie, began to teach Mendelssohn counterpoint and composition, and more than anyone influenced Mendelssohn’s musical taste and style. A great admirer of Johann Sebastian Bach, Zelter made sure that his favourite student became familiar with Bach’s music techniques. Mendelssohn would later play a crucial role in reviving interest in Bach’s music that was considered old-fashioned and largely forgotten in Europe.
It was also Zelter, who introduced a 12-year-old Mendelssohn to his friend, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Goethe could not believe “what this little man [could] do in extemporising and playing at sight [bordering] the miraculous”, he told Zelter. Finding inspiration in Goethe’s work, Mendelssohn composed the overture Meeresstille und Glückliche Fahrt (Calm Sea and a Prosperous Voyage, Op. 27) and the cantata Die Erste Walpurgisnacht (The First Walpurgis Night, Op. 60).
After Zelter’s death in 1832, Mendelssohn hoped to succeed him as conductor of the Berlin Singakademie, but was defeated. He moved to Düsseldorf, where he took his first paid position as music director. During this period, he travelled a lot to Britain, where his music was particularly highly regarded and where many of his major works were premiered.
In 1835, Mendelssohn took the post of conductor of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra. He was the first and last Gewandhaus conductor of such a young age. He founded the first German conservatory in Leipzig and, until his death, dedicated himself to developing the musical life of Leipzig.
Mendelssohn composed over 750 musical pieces, including symphonies, choral works, chamber and solo piano music.