Felix Mendelssohn


Born: February 3rd, 1809 in Hamburg, Germany
Died: November 4th, 1847 (at age 38) in Leipzig, Germany
Nationality: German
Fields: Early Romantic composing, piano and organ
Famous For: Great compositions, especially “Wedding March” from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”

Felix Mendelssohn was one of the few musicians of his era who not only achieved success in his lifetime but was financially secure. He was born into a wealthy family where his father was a banker. The family was also very cultured and often had musical recitals in their home. They recognized his talent quickly and Mendelssohn’s mother began to teach him the piano when he was quite young. The family moved to Berlin from Hamburg in 1812 and his formal training began under Carl Zelter, a famous composer, teacher and the head of the famous Singakademie.

Early Works

Mendelssohn’s earliest compositions were performed in his family recitals and by 1821 he had composed trios, quartets, operettas and sonatas. His debut as a concert pianist had been made in 1818 when he was only nine years old. He wrote the famous overture to Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” when he was only 17. Three years after that, he became a conductor when he revived Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion.” The performance of this was one of Mendelssohn’s great triumphs. It was the first performance of the “Passion” given since Bach’s death, which had happened nearly 80 years before. It brought about a renewed interest in Bach’s music.

In the 1830’s, Mendelssohn traveled throughout Europe. He met Hector Berlioz in Italy and conducted Berlioz’ “Fingal’s Cave” in London. When Mendelssohn returned to Berlin in 1833 he wanted a permanent post and applied for the directorship of the Singakademie, which was then vacant. He was turned down for the job but was asked to become the musical director at Düsseldorf. In 1835 he accepted an offer to become the conductor of the famous Gewandhaus Orchestra in Leipzig.

In 1837 Mendelssohn married Cecile Jeanrenaud, who was the daughter of a French clergyman. Mendelssohn and his wife moved to Berlin in 1841. There, Kaiser Wilhelm IV asked Mendelssohn to take charge of the music division of the newly established Academy of the Arts. Since Mendelssohn did not need to be at the academy all the time, he was able to develop plans for a conservatory at Leipzig. This conservatory opened in 1843 with a distinguished faculty. A few years later Mendelssohn and his family moved back to Leipzig.


Mendelssohn was prolific and the first symphony he published, the “C Minor” in 1824, was actually the thirteenth symphony he had written. Only four symphonies remain. Along with major orchestral works, Mendelssohn created many chamber pieces, including six string quartets, two piano quartets, four violin sonatas, two cello sonatas and an octet for strings. A long time admirer of Bach, his appreciation of the older composer’s music can be seen in preludes and fugues for the piano. He also wrote many church choruses and art songs.

Later Life

Mendelssohn’s health began to fail after 1846 but he still continued to work heavily. The death of his elder sister was a blow from which he never quite recovered. He fell into a depression, became bedridden and died in Leipzig. He was only 38.