Mendelssohn, Jakob Ludwig Felix

Mendelssohn, Jakob Ludwig Felix


(Mendelssohn-Bartholdy). Born Feb. 3, 1809, in Hamburg; died Nov. 4, 1847, in Leipzig. German composer, conductor, and organist.

Mendelssohn, who was born into a wealthy family, received a broad musical and general education. At an early age he began to compose and to play the piano and violin. He studied music under C. F. Zelter, who introduced him to Goethe. Mendelssohn studied at the University of Berlin and traveled widely in Europe. As a pianist, conductor, and composer, he quickly attained success and won recognition. On his initiative and under his direction J. S. Bach’s St. Matthew Passion was performed in Berlin in 1829. The performance marked the beginning of the 19th-century revival of Bach’s vocal music.

Mendelssohn’s stay in Italy in 1830 gave him a wealth of artistic impressions and was reflected in his creative work. In Paris in 1832 he became a close friend of many distinguished musicians, including Liszt. He was particularly successful in London. Returning to Germany, he lived in Diisseldorf, where he was conductor of the Lower Rhine Festival. He also performed in Cologne. From 1835 he directed the Gewandhaus concerts in Leipzig. He laid the foundation for the Leipzig school. On his initiative Germany’s first conservatory, which became very famous at home and abroad, was founded in Leipzig in 1843. Mendelssohn taught the course in composition at the conservatory.

Among the romantic composers Mendelssohn was a moderate —that is, he did not break with classical tradition. He had a fine, harmonious feeling for nature, for the fantastic, and for national poetic images, and he had no inclination toward rebelliousness or impetuous revolt. He wrote many works in diverse genres. The most outstanding of his orchestral compositions are the programmatic overtures A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1826), Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage (Meeresstille und gliickliche Fahrt, 1828), The Hebrides (Fingal’s Cave; 2nd ed. 1832), Melu-sine f!833), and Ruy Bias (1839). Of his five symphonies the most important are the “Italian”and especially the “Scottish,”which were conceived during his travels but completed later (1833 and 1842). The violin concerto (1844), inspired and lyrical, whole in its conception, and flowing, became very famous. The two concerti for piano (1831 and 1837) are important in the repertoire. Among his piano compositions the most popular are the one-part pieces (the Rondo sapricciosa), the variations ( Variations serieuses, 1841, for example), and, especially, the Songs Without Words (eight books, 1832-45)—48 short pieces, some of them programmatically conceived, which present in a well-balanced, classical form a broad cycle of images and moods typical of the composer. Outstanding for the variety of piano techniques they demand, the Songs Without Words are, nonetheless, accessible to the amateur musician.

Although he was attracted to opera from his youth, Mendelssohn never completed an opera score. His music for Shake-speare’s comedy A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1842), a subtle romantic interpretation of a fairy-tale fantasy, has great artistic merit. The oratorios St. Paul (1836) and Elijah (1847), in which Mendelssohn developed the tradition of Handel, achieved great fame even during the composer’s lifetime. His music noticeably influenced the creative work of many of his contemporaries. His later imitators, however, followed a conservative, academic trend in composition. A 36-volume edition of the complete works of Mendelssohn was published in Leipzig between 1874 and 1877.


Briefs einer Reise durch Deutschland, Italien und die Schweiz und Lebensbild von Peter Sutermeister. Zurich, 1958.


V-va, O. Feliks Mendel’son-Banal’di. St. Petersburg, 1903.
Ivanov-Boretskii, M. V. MendeVson. Moscow, 1910.
Dahms, W. F. MendeVson-BartoVdi. Moscow, 1930. (Translated from German.)
Worbs, H. C. MendeVson-BartoVdi: Zhizn ’ i deiatel’nost’ vsvete sobstvennykh vyskazyvanii i soobshchenii sovremennikov. Moscow, 1966. (Translated from German.)
Ranft, P. Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy. Leipzig, 1972.