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Felix Mendelssohn

1809 - 1847

Jakob Ludwig Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy (3 February 1809 – 4 November 1847 (aged 38)), born and widely known as Felix Mendelssohn, was a German composer, pianist, organist and conductor of the early Romantic period.

Mendelssohn enjoyed early success in Germany, where he also revived interest in the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, and in his travels throughout Europe. He was particularly well received in Britain as a composer, conductor and soloist, and his ten visits there – during which many of his major works were premiered – form an important part of his adult career. His essentially conservative musical tastes, however, set him apart from many of his more adventurous musical contemporaries such as Franz LisztRichard WagnerCharles-Valentin Alkan and Hector Berlioz. The Leipzig Conservatoire (now the University of Music and Theatre Leipzig), which he founded, became a bastion of this anti-radical outlook.

Key Works

Symphony No. 1 in C minor, Op 11

Allegro di molto
Menuetto: Allegro molto
Allegro con fuoco

Symphony No. 2 "Lobgesang (Hymn of Praise)" Op 52

I 1. Sinfonia: 
Maestoso con moto
Allegretto un poco agitado
Adagio religioso
II 2. Chor: 'Alles was Odem hat, lobe den Herrn'
III 3 Rezitativ: 'Saget es, die ihr erlöst seid' Arie: 'Er zählet unsre Tränen'
IV 4. Chor: Sagt es, die ihr erlöset seid'
V 5. Sopran I - II, und Chor: 'Ich harrete des Herrn'
VI 6. Tenor: 'Stricke des Todes hatten uns umfangen'
VII 7. Chor: 'Die Nacht ist vergangen'
VIII 8. Choral: 'Nun danket alle Gott'
IX 9. Tenor und Sopran: 'Drum sing' ich mit meinem Liede'
X 10. Schlußchor: 'Ihr Völker! bringet her dem Herrn'

"A Romantic who felt at ease within the mould of Classicism"
                                                                                             Pablo Casals

Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, [Jakob Ludwig] Felix

(b. Hamburg, February 3, 1809; d. Leipzig, November 4, 1847)

German composer, conductor, pianist, and organist. He possessed one of the most cultivated sensibilities of his age, along with an imagination capable of turning impressions of travel, literature, and history into works of unparalleled charm and vitality. He belonged to an extraordinary German family, cultured and rich. His paternal grandfather was the Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn, a leading figure of the Enlightenment.

Mendelssohn aged 12 (1821) by Carl Joseph Begas

Symphony No. 3 in A minor "Scottish" Op 56

1. Andante con moto — Allegro un poco agitato 
2. Vivace non troppo 
3. Adagio 
4. Allegro vivacissimo — Allegro maestoso assai

His parents, Lea and Abraham Mendelssohn, were devoted to Felix and his amazingly talented elder sister, Fanny (who became a fine composer in her own right and married the painter Wilhelm Hensel).

To ensure that society’s doors would be open to them, the parents were determined to bring the children up as Lutherans, and on March 21, 1816, the clandestine conversion and baptism of Felix and his three siblings occurred, and the surname Bartholdy was added. Felix, who always signed his name “Mendelssohn-Bartholdy,” remained a staunch Lutheran throughout his life.

Mendelssohn was exposed to superior teaching (lessons with Carl Friedrich Zelter until 1827) and all manner of cultural stimulus. Recitals as a piano prodigy, and many early string symphonies, prepared the way for two adolescent breakthroughs: the Octet in E-flat for Strings, Op. 20 (1825), and the Overture to 
A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Ein Sommernachtstraum), Op. 21 (1826). In its elan and brilliance the Octet still outshines anything ever written by a 16-year-old, Mozart included. And what Mendelssohn achieved a year later in the Overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, translating Shakespeare’s spirit world into sound, borders on the miraculous: In the vast number of musical works inspired by Shakespeare, there is hardly another that is so perfect a creation. 

Symphony No. 4 in A major, "Italian"

1. Allegro Vivace
2. Andante com moto
3. Com moto moderato
4. Saltarello (Presto)

Symphony No. 5 in D Minor, "Reformation"

1. Andante - Allegro con Fuoco 
2. Allegro Vivace
3. Andante 
4. Coral: Una firme fortaleza es nuestro Dios - Andante com moto - Allegro Vivace - Allegro Maestoso 

Piano Concerto No. 1 in G Minor, Op. 25

Molto allegro con fuoco in G minor
Andante in E major
Presto—Molto allegro e vivace in G major

Piano Concerto No. 2 in D Minor, Op. 40

I. Allegro Appasionato 
II. Adagio Molto Sostenuto 
III. Finale: Presto Scherzando 

Violin Concerto In E Minor, Op 64

Allegretto non troppo
Allegro molto vivace

The Hebrides, Op. 26 "Fingal's Cave"

A Midsummer Night's Dream

Overture Ruy Blas, op.95

"Das Märchen von der schönen Melusine", Overture in F Major, op 32

Capriccio Brillant for piano and Orchestra, op. 22

String Octet in E flat major, Op. 20

00:00 - I. Allegro moderato ma con fuoco
12:48 - II. Andante
18:23 - III. Scherzo
22:41 - IV. Presto

String Quartet in D Major Op. 44 No.1

String Quartet in E-flat Major, Op. 44 No. 3

I. Allegro vivace
II. Scherzo: Assai leggiero vivace (10:30)
III. Adagio non troppo (15:15)
IV. Molto allegro con fuoco (25:12)

String Quartet No. 6 in F Minor, Op. 80

1. Allegro vivace assai (0:00)
2. Allegro assai (07:41)
3. Adagio (12:41)
4. Finale: Allegro molto (20:47)

Piano Trio No. 1 in D Minor, Op. 49

Piano Trio No. 2 in C Minor, Op. 66 

1. Allegro energico e con fuoco (0:07)
2. Andante espressivo (10:28)
3. Scherzo: Molto allegro quasi presto (16:59)
4. Finale: Allegro appassionato (20:22)

Variations sérieuses in D Minor, Op. 54

Sonata for cello and piano, Op. 58 in D Major

1.Allegro assai vivace 0:02
2.Allegretto scherzando 8:48
3.Adagio 13:42
4.Molto allegro e vivace 18:15

48 Songs Without Words, for Piano

6 Songs Without Words op. 19b

1. Andante con moto 
2. Andante espressivo 
3. Molto allegro e vivace 
4. Moderato
5. Piano agitato 
6. Andante sostenuto 
(Venetianisches Gondellied)

6 Songs Without Words op. 30

1. Andante espressivo 
2. Allegro di molto 
3. Adagio non troppo 
4. Agitato e con fuoco 
5. Andante grazioso 
6. Allegretto tranquillo 
(Venetianisches Gondellied)

6 Songs Without Words op. 38

1. Con moto 
2. Allegro non troppo 
3. Presto e molto vivace 
4. Andante 
5. Agitato 
6. Andante con moto 

6 Songs Without Words op. 53

1. Andante con moto 
2. Allegro non troppo 
3. Presto agitato
4. Adagio
5. Allegro con fuoco "Volkslied"
6. Molto allegro vivace

6 Songs Without Words op. 62

1. Andante espressivo
2. Allegro con fuoco
3. Andante maestoso
4. Allegro con anima
5. Andante con moto (Venetianisches Gondellied)
6. Allegretto grazioso

6 Songs Without Words op. 67

1. Andante
2. Allegro leggiero
3. Andante tranquillo
4. Presto
5. Moderato
6. Allegretto non troppo

6 Songs Without Words op 85

1. Andante espressivo
2. Allegro agitato
3. Presto
4. Andante sostenuto
5. Allegretto
6. Allegretto con moto

6 Songs Without op. 102

1. Andante, un poco agitao
2. Adagio
3. Presto
4. Andante, un poco agitato
5. Allegro vivace
6. Andante

Part of the overture to 'Elijah' arranged by Mendelssohn for piano duet (manuscript in the Library of Congress)

Mendelssohn matriculated at the University of Berlin in the spring of 1827 and spent four semesters studying history and geography. The school’s remarkable faculty included Humboldt, Schleiermacher, Fichte, and Hegel; Feuerbach and Heine were students a few classes ahead of Mendelssohn. This phase of his life climaxed on March 11, 1829, when Mendelssohn led the first public performance in 100 years of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, albeit reorchestrated and with significant cuts. This undertaking by the 20-year-old (he had spent five years readying himself) led to the reawakening of wide interest in the music of Bach.

Of the composers of his generation, Mendelssohn, avid reader and indefatigable traveler, had the best eye for nature and scenery—he was a more than competent watercolorist and draftsman. In the summer of 1829 he toured Scotland, whose historical and natural sights inspired what was to become the Scotch (today Scottish) Symphony and the Hebrides Overture. A journey to Italy followed in 1830-31. Well acquainted with Italy’s musical tradition, Mendelssohn’s ear must have delighted in the stimulus it received daily, from the streets as well as the churches and opera houses.

Mendelssohn's wife Cécile (1846)
by Eduard Magnus

The Italian Symphony, reflecting these influences, is animated, vividly pictorial, almost spontaneous, yet with the most polished construction and felicitous scoring.

From 1835 Mendelssohn was conductor of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, and he made it one of the best ensembles in Germany. He led the world premieres of Schubert’s then recently discovered Great Symphony in C major and his own Scotch Symphony. He was among the first to conduct with a baton, and he pioneered the modern approach to programming concerts and seasons with a mix of repertoire staples and new works. He was also the guiding force behind the founding of the Leipzig Conservatory, in 1843.

Looking at Mendelssohn’s career, one gets the impression of a figure in motion, in great demand everywhere music mattered—the first performing artist of the “steamship” set, making multiple visits to England (where he was revered) and constantly on the go in Germany. But what began as the kind of adventure only the privileged could enjoy turned into a grueling, stressful routine. Mendelssohn experienced burnout, then exhaustion. He died in 1847 a few months after his beloved elder sister, and in the same way, following a series of strokes.

Mendelssohn’s overtures are seminal for a whole vein of Romantic music: A Midsummer Night’s Dream for its shining synthesis of formal and descriptive elements; Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage as a masterpiece of tone painting, in which Mendelssohn offers up a paean to modern capitalism, using trumpet fanfares to proclaim a merchant ship’s arrival in port. Most brilliant of all is the Hebrides Overture, its opening composed in a flash of inspiration as Mendelssohn contemplated the craggy seascape of Fingal’s Cave in Scodand. 

In symphonies as in overtures, Mendelssohn was a master of pictorialism (as opposed to programmatic narrative). The most satisfying are the Italian, with which the composer tinkered needlessly, and the Scotch. The Violin Concerto from 1844 belies the notion that Mendelssohn became uninspired as he got older; it is a great, “late” work of perfected, intimate craftsmanship, dazzling and memorable. The Piano Concertos in G minor and D minor are scintillating, vivacious works that put a premium on fleet-fingered virtuosity. Mendelssohn ranked among his era’s best pianists, and was probably its finest organist as well. He wrote much good organ music and a large amount for the piano—most important the Lieder ohne Warte (Songs Without Words), the Rondo capriccioso, and Variations serieuses. His important chamber works after the Octet include two piano trios and half a dozen string quartets. He penned two impressive oratorios, Paulus (1836) and Elijah (1846), effectively reviving the tradition and bringing a new symphonic cogency to the genre.

With his compositions’ pristine scoring, poise, and formal balance, Mendelssohn exerted an influence on the music of the mid-19th century that was second only to Beethoven’s. The effervescent brilliance of the Midsummer Night’s Dream Overture and of his scherzos left Mendelssohn’s mark on every composer of “spirited” music from Berlioz and Lalo to Richard Strauss and Korngold, while the more festive style of the symphonies and the concert overtures influenced composers from Gounod and Gade to Strauss and Elgar.

Mendelssohn is sometimes critically lamented as an artist who did not live up to the potential of his early works. The problem was not that his inspiration failed him but that the range and variety of his endeavors, the many small compositions he felt compelled to produce, the conducting, the need to maintain contact with other musicians, all deflected him from works of “greater” purpose—from the kind of grand, audacious, and troubling efforts to which Berlioz and Wagner devoted their lives. Mendelssohn’s Classical formal sense and Romantic palette make it easy to categorize him as a “Classical Romantic.” Yet he was more forward-looking than that characterization implies. He was a creator of sonic marvels and in some ways the father of musical Impressionism, who understood even as a teenager the significance of what Weber had achieved in his orchestration, and took it further. The persistent view that Mendelssohn was a lightweight is, rightly, coming in for reassessment.

 Portrait of Mendelssohn            by the English miniaturist James Warren Childe 

The reconstructed Mendelssohn monument near Leipzig's St. Thomas Church, dedicated in 2008


Numerous musicians over the past two centuries have been admirers of the work of Mendelssohn, but few, if any, can be said to have been influenced by it. However, Mendelssohn's part in the great 19th-century Bach revival turned a cult into a popular movement whose effect on subsequent generations is impossible to overestimate.

6 Organ Sonatas, Op.65

00:00 - No.1
19:54 - No.2
32:23 - No.3
44:12 - No.4
01:00:59 - No.5
01:09:23 - No.6

Elijah (Elias), Part I

Part I
0:00 Introduction (Elijah) - As God of Israel liveth
0:57 Ouverture
4:28 Chorus - Help Lord
7:50 Quartet Recit. - The deep affords no water (3,5,7,8)
8:48 Duet with chorus - Zion spreadeth her hands for aid (3,5)
10:56 Recit (Obadiah) - If with all your hearts
Chorus - Yet doth the Lord see it not
19:00 Recit (Angel) - Elijah! get thee hence (Florence Quivar)
19:55 Double quartet -For He shall give His angels (2,3,4,5,6,7,8,)
23:04 Recit (Angel): Now Cherith's book is dried up (Florence Quivar)
24:22 Air (Bonney): What have I to do with thee - Recit (Elijah, Widow) Give me thy son!
13. 9. Chorus - 'Blessed Are All They That Fear Him'
14. 10 Recitative (Elijah, Ahab) With Chorus - 'As God The Lord Of Sabaoth Liveth'
15. 11. Chorus - 'Baal, Answer Us'
16. 12. Recitative (Elijah) And Chorus - 'Call Him Louder, For He Is A God!'
17. 13. Recitative (Elijah) And Chorus - 'Call Him Louder! He Heareth Not'
18. 14. Air (Elijah) - 'Lord God Of Abraham, Isaac And Israel'
19. 15. Quartet (Angels) - 'Cast Thy Burden Upon The Lord'
20. 16. Recitative (Elijah) And Chorus - 'O Thou, Who Makest Thine Angels Spirits'
21. 17. Air (Elijah) - 'Is Not His Word Like A Fire?'
22. 18. Air - 'Woe Unto Them Who Forsake Him!'
23. 19. Recitative (Obadiah, Elijah, Youth) And Chorus - 'O Man Of God, Help Thy People!'
24. 20. Chorus - 'Thanks Be To God!'

Elijah (Elias), Part II 

Part II
Air: Hear ye, Israel! (Barbara Bonney)
Chorus: Be not affraid
Recit (Elijah, Queen) and chorus: The Lord hath exalted thee
Chorus - Woe to him
Recit (Obadiah, Elijah) Man of Godnow let my words be precious
Air (Thomas Hampson): It is enough, O Lord
Recit (Richard Clement) See, now he sleepeth
Trio of Angels (Bonney, Schellenberg,Simpson): Lift thine eyes 
Chorus: He, watching over Israel
Recit (Angel, Elijah): Arise, Elijah (Florence Quivar)
Air (Angel): O rest in the Lord (Florence Quivar)
Chorus: He that shall endure to the end
Recit (Elijah, Angel): Night falleth 'round me (Henriette Schellenberg)
Chorus: Behold, God the Lord passed by!
Recit, Quartet & Chorus: Above himstood the seraphim (5,2,3,4)
Chorus: Go, return upon thy way - and recit (Elijah) I go on my way
Arioso (Thomas Hampson): For the mountains shall depart
Chorus: Thus did Elijah the prophet break forth 
Air (Jerry Hadley): Then shall the righteous shine forth
Recit: For Godsent his people the prophet Elijah (Barbara Bonney)
Chorus: Thus saith the Lord
Quartet: O come, everyone that thirsteth (3,5,7,8)
Chorus: And then shall your light break forth

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