Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy was born in Hamburg in 1809 into a well-to-do Jewish family. The family moved to Berlin when Mendelssohn was very young, where he was lucky enough to be brought up within a strong cultural and intellectual atmosphere. Many writers and thinkers met at his parents' house, and his precocious musical talent was quickly recognised and nurtured. From a young age he was respected as a pianist, conductor and composer. His works were rooted in the elegance and order of Classical forms yet nevertheless embodied the Romantic principles of heightened expression and the depiction of ideas and stories. He wrote music across all the main genres, but his orchestral music is notable for its inspired and effective orchestration.
Mendelssohn travelled widely throughout his life and received encouragement from many other composers. He composed thirteen string symphonies in his early teens and in 1825, at only seventeen years of age, he wrote his famous Octet for Strings. The work is vivid and exciting and is regarded as a masterpiece of chamber music.
A year later Mendelssohn composed his famous Overture to A Midsummer Night's Dream. In 1843 Mendelssohn used some of the themes from the Overture to write thirteen interludes of incidental music for use during the play including the famous Wedding March.
Mendelssohn's teacher, Carl Friedrich Zelter, directed the Berlin Choral Society and he introduced him to the largely forgotten works of J. S. Bach. In 1829 Zelter allowed Mendelssohn to conduct a performance of Bach's St. Matthew Passion, heralding the start of a long-term Bach revival. Later that same year, Mendelssohn made his first visit to England and Scotland. He recorded his impressions in jottings and sketches, as he did a year later in Italy.
These journeys provided the inspiration for some of his best-known works, including the Scottish Symphony (1842) and the Fingal's Cave Overture (Hebrides) (1830), which both include depictions of sea and storm. In his Italian Symphony (1833) he tried to put across the warmth and vitality of Italy with a bold and energetic first movement and a Czech pilgrims' song in the second.
In 1833 Mendelssohn became the city music director of Düsseldorf, where he began a revival of Handel's music. The influence of Handel's style of writing for the chorus is evident in Mendelssohn's own oratorios, St. Paul (1836) and Elijah, written for performance at the Birmingham Music Festival of 1846, where it was a huge success.
In 1835 he took the prestigious post of conductor of the Leipzig Gewandhaus orchestra, where his work was admired and respected. He improved standards and continued to champion Bach and Handel, as well as promoting new composers and conducting his own works. He married Cécile Jeanrenaud in 1837, with whom he had five children. He continued to visit England, making ten journeys in all, where he was extremely popular as a conductor, loved by choral societies and acquainted with Queen Victoria and Prince Albert.
In 1843 Mendelssohn founded the Leipzig Conservatoire, a leading centre of musical studies to this day, and in 1844 he wrote the first great Romantic violin concerto for the leader of the Gewandhaus orchestra.
Although Mendelssohn achieved fame as a conductor he was also a virtuoso pianist and he wrote music for piano throughout his life. The first movement of his Sonata in B♭ major, and the second movement of his Piano Concerto in G minor is included here, as is a selection of his popular Songs Without Words, short lyrical pieces depicting a mood. Although some of them may be regarded as rather over-sentimental nowadays, most are distinguished examples of Romantic miniatures and have stood the test of time. His works for organ formed only a small part of his output. The sonatas are made up of individual Voluntaries that were grouped together later.
By the mid-1840s Mendelssohn had reached a high point, admired across Europe, holder of a prestigious post and happily married. Maybe the freshness and openness of his youthful compositions had gone, but many of his later works, e.g. the Violin Concerto and Elijah, achieved instant acclaim. However, on his return from his last visit to England in the spring of 1847 he learned that his sister Fanny, to whom he had been very close, had died. He immediately wrote a string quartet in the dark key of F minor, after which he fell ill and died in November of the same year.
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