The great German composer FELIX MENDELSSOHN-BARTHOLDY (1809-1847) was born in Hamburg into a wealthy and influential Jewish family. His grandfather Moses Mendelssohn was a renowned philosopher, founder of the Haskalah movement (the so-called Jewish Enlightenment). His father Abraham was a prosperous banker. He and his wife Leah renounced the Jewish religion and converted their children in 1816. To the surname Mendelssohn they added the “Christian” Bartholdy to distinguish themselves from their relatives. Felix never contested his parents’ will, but retained a deep reverence for his Jewish ancestry.
The second of four children in the family, he was recognised early as a child prodigy, called “a second Mozart”. His sister Fanny also had musical talent, she was a talented composer and pianist in her own right. In 1812 the Mendelssohn family moved to Berlin. The German intellectual and scientific elite of the time gathered in their hospitable home. Chamber concerts were given, and the young Felix became acquainted with Goethe, Heine, Hegel, the Humboldt brothers, Weber and Paganini. He studied piano with the leading Berlin teacher Ludwig Berger. Composition and counterpoint with the renowned pedagogue Karl Zellter, who nurtured in him a piety for the art of the old masters and Viennese classics.
At the age of 9 Mendelssohn gave his first concert, at 13 he conducted the Court Chapel in Berlin, at 17 he wrote the brilliant overture A Midsummer Night’s Dream, at 20 he prepared and presented in Berlin “Matthäus Passion” by Johann Sebastian Bach, brought back to life after 100 years of oblivion. At 26 he became conductor of the famous Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, and at 34 he founded the first music school in Germany, the Leipzig Conservatory ( now bearing his name). Mendelssohn was also a brilliant pianist and organist.
In his short life (he died at the age of 38 after a series of strokes), the composer created a rich oeuvre: 13 symphonies for string orchestra and 4 for large symphony orchestra, the oratorios Elijah and St.Paul, symphonic overtures, instrumental concertos, pieces for various chamber ensembles, the popular piano Songs without Words, theatre music. .. In the stream of Romanticism Mendelssohn glowed with his own unique style, which grew out of classical traditions and was coloured by his signature of a sound aesthetic with a rich emotional world. He was not among the musical revolutionaries of the 19th century, was not vain, did not seek fame. “What is important to me are the ideas that I think are good,” says the composer, “and I am willing to stray away without any hesitation from what the audience wants to hear and is willing to pay for.”