Family and Family Tree
Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy is one of those outstanding, universally educated musicians of the 19th century, whose scope of work covered a large variety of musical styles and for whom acting as a composer, conductor and instrumental soloist at the same time was characteristic. He was born in Hamburg in 1809 into a highly-respected Jewish family. His father, Abraham, a successful banker, had settled in Hamburg after marrying Lea Salomon. Beside Felix, two more of their children were born in Hamburg, their daughters Fanny (1805) and Rebecka (1811). Their son Paul was born in Berlin in 1812. Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy’s grandfather was Moses Mendelssohn, the great philosopher of the Age of Enlightenment. Abraham had his children baptised in the Christian faith in 1816. Thus, Felix became a mediator between the religions and created his works for Jews and Christians alike. This, and his being a cosmopolitan, made him a perfect European citizen.
Felix grew up in an intellectual atmosphere and enjoyed an education marked by humanistic values and ideals. A comprehensive education was considered a precondition for future success, a trait that was typical of the Jews in the late 18th and early 19th century eager for emancipation. In the Mendelssohn house, whose inhabitants were interested in arts and humanities, the opportunity to obtain a universal education was unique. It served as a centre for intellectual socializing not only to personal friends of the family: Representatives of the Berlin world of arts and of learning gathered here for philosophical and political discussions, but also for making music together. Thus, Felix met, among others, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, the brothers Alexander and Wilhelm von Humboldt, Heinrich Heine, Carl Maria von Weber, Louis Spohr and Niccolò Paganini.
From a young age, Felix’s musical talents were stimulated and encouraged. After first piano lessons with their mother, Fanny and Felix received lessons from the highly-respected Ludwig Berger. Soon, he discovered the excellent musical gift of the two Mendelssohn children. At the age of nine, Felix performed as a pianist in public for the first time. Shortly after this, he started writing his own composition and demonstrated outstanding talent in this. Carl Friedrich Zelter, head of the Berlin Singakademie, became the undoubtedly most important person for Felix’s musical education. He made sure that Felix became well familiar with Bach’s contrapuntal technique and Mozart’s late works, and it was under his influence that he created his first compositions: piano pieces, singspiel works, a-cappella choral music, symphonies for string instruments, and more. They were performed during the “Sunday Music” at his parents’ home. This event quickly became the favourite meeting place for musicians and music lovers. At that time, the foundations were laid for Mendelssohn’s lifelong friendship with Ignaz Moscheles, Karl Klingemann, Ferdinand David and Eduard Devrient.
It was Zelter who introduced 12-year-old Felix to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe in Weimar. With his winning ways and his excellent skills at the piano the child quickly managed to gain the affection of the 72-year-old poet. “Who knows what would have become of me without Weimar, without Goethe”, Mendelssohn was later to confess.
His first journeys, together with his father, to Switzerland and Silesia brought additional artistic stimuli and new acquaintances. Of particular importance was the journey to Paris in 1825: Although young Felix had already proved his unusual musical talent, his father asked another expert, Luigi Cherubini, director of the Paris Music Conservatory, for his opinion before finally allowing his son to take up the profession that he wanted and become a musician.
Educational journeys through Europe, especially England and Scotland, and later two years through Italy, served their purpose and perfected the education of young Mendelssohn, providing him with an understanding of the world and savoir vivre. At the age of 20 he performed Bach’s “St Matthew Passion” with the Berlin Singakademie, a decisive step in reviving the music of the former cantor of St Thomas Church in Leipzig, music, which had, by that time, almost been forgotten.
Mendelssohn’s first employment was as the music director in Düsseldorf. In 1835, he was offered the post of conductor of the Gewandhaus concerts in Leipzig. He was only 26 at the time, the first and last of the Gewandhaus conductors to take up this position at such a young age. This post was to create a relationship with Leipzig, the city of music, that lasted until his early death. It was here that he founded the first German conservatory. And it was here that he established the “conductor of the symphony orchestra” and the “conductor as interpreter” revolutionizing the performance practice of the time.
Until his early death at the age of only 38 he created more than 750 musical pieces. Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy is known for his comprehensive and significant oevre in the area of symphony, choral symphony, and chamber music. Many of his works were created on his travels through Germany and other European countries like the British Isles, France, Italy and Switzerland. His church music, in its centre the great oratorios Paulus and Elijah, are an integral part of the repertoire not only of cantors and church choirs.
Renowned orchestras and choirs from all over the world cultivate Mendelssohn’s legacy with great care and commitment.