Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, the guiding spirit of Lincoln Festival’s Mostly Mozart Festival, and Felix Mendelssohn, one of the other composers featured in the programs of the 2009 Festival, were born more than half a century apart and into very different cultural eras. They were, nevertheless, musicians of kindred spirit. Each was a child prodigy—Mozart famously so through his childhood tours as a pianist, Mendelssohn even more impressively for the brilliant compositions he produced as an adolescent. Each was an inveterate traveler. Each matured quickly as an artist, and each, alas, died before reaching his 40th birthday.
More significantly, both composers represent a classical tradition of Western art music. Mozart was, of course, the great genius of what has come to be called music’s Classical period, and his work embodies the 18th-century ideals of clarity, elegance, and invention within well-known and generally accepted musical conventions. Mendelssohn, though a child of the Romantic 19th century, retained a strong allegiance to Classical ideals of composition and musical aesthetics. He possessed a deep knowledge of music of past eras, and Mozart’s exerted a particularly keen influence on him.
Mendelssohn was born in Hamburg, in 1809, though his family moved to Berlin just two years later. Intellectual and artistic currents ran strong in the Mendelssohn home, and Felix’s education included mathematics, modern and classical languages, literature, and art. Although he excelled in several of these subjects, he quickly showed that his greatest aptitude was for music. Mendelssohn began playing the piano at a young age and made his concert debut when he was nine. By age ten he was studying music theory and composition, as well as violin. During the next several years, he wrote a series of increasingly accomplished compositions: piano pieces, chamber music, symphonies for string orchestra, several concertos, even some small operas. Somehow he also found time to write poetry, to draw and paint, and to continue his academic studies.
As his adolescence drew to its end Mendelssohn produced several compositions that, by nearly any measure, can legitimately be called masterpieces. Two of these, completed when Mendelssohn was 16 and 17, deserve particular mention: the Octet for Strings and a concert overture inspired by Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. No composer, even Mozart, produced such accomplished music at so early an age. The year Mendelssohn turned 20 brought another important musical achievement. In 1829 Mendelssohn conducted a performance of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion in Berlin. It was the first time that great work had been heard since Bach’s lifetime, and the event sparked a renewal of interest in Bach and his music that proved one of the most important cultural events of the 19th century.
His formal studies completed, Mendelssohn rounded out his education with travel. In 1829 he visited England and Scotland. A year later he set out for Italy, where he would sojourn for more than a year. Mendelssohn commemorated both trips with musical souvenirs: Scotland with his “Hebrides” overture and Third, or “Scottish,” Symphony; and Italy with his Symphony No. 4, the “Italian.”
Returning home, Mendelssohn burnished his already bright reputation as a composer, conductor, and pianist. He played and conducted widely in Germany and also in England, where he was especially admired. His accomplishments led to an appointment, in 1835, as director of Leipzig’s famed Gewandhaus Orchestra. In that post, Mendelssohn directed first performances of music by Schubert, Schumann, and other contemporary composers, as well as of his own works. He also instituted an important series of what he called “historical” concerts, featuring music by Handel (then little known in Germany), Bach, Mozart, Haydn, and other 18th-century masters. A demanding schedule of performances notwithstanding, Mendelssohn managed to compose a considerable quantity of music. Among the significant works he produced during the decade between 1836 and 1846 are the “Scottish” and “Italian” Symphonies, his perennially popular Violin Concerto, dozens of short piano pieces he called “Songs Without Words,” and a pair of oratorios, St. Paul and Elijah.
Here some brief discussion of Mendelssohn’s religious outlook is in order. The composer was born into a Jewish family whose patriarch, Moses Mendelssohn (Felix’s grandfather), was a renowned philosopher and champion of religious tolerance and liberty. Although Moses Mendelssohn clung firmly to his ancestral faith, his household was one in which the humanistic precepts of the Enlightenment were felt at least as strongly as religious doctrine. This identification with humanistic values belonging to the mainstream of European thought at the end of the 18th century accelerated under Abraham Mendelssohn, Felix’s father, who converted his family to Christianity in 1816.
That decision undoubtedly had a pragmatic basis. Although he lived in a period of relative tolerance, Abraham Mendelssohn understood that Jews would always struggle to occupy more than a marginal place in German society. But his conversion was not motivated only with an eye to social advantage. Correctly or not, the Mendelssohns felt that the Enlightenment philosophy they valued so highly was more compatible with Christian doctrine than with the family’s ancient religion. Specifically, Luther’s faith was the basis for much of the literature (Goethe’s Faust, for example) and music (especially that of Bach) that was so important to them. Thus, conversion constituted not merely the abandoning of one faith for another but a means of identifying with main currents European art and culture. For Felix, Jewish and Christian doctrine each would inform his spiritual life, and his two oratorios, St. Paul and Elijah, bespeak his dual religious heritage.
In 1841 Prussia’s King Friedrich Wilhelm IV engaged Mendelssohn to direct the music section of a new arts academy in Berlin. The composer placed high hopes in this institution and was disappointed when the project failed to live up to its promise. More successful was a conservatory in Leipzig, which Mendelssohn helped found and which would become one of the most important music schools in Europe.
Mendelssohn’s ceaseless activity took a toll on his health, and in 1847 he suffered a series of strokes. His death, in November of that year, occasioned an outpouring of tributes. Thousands followed his funeral cortege, and memorial concerts were held in Germany, Austria, England, and elsewhere. Subsequently his reputation went into decline, eclipsed largely by the forceful work and personality of Richard Wagner. That situation could not last, however, and today there is no doubt as to the worth and beauty of Mendelssohn’s music.
Copyright © 2009 by Paul Schiavo