The grandson of the philosopher Moses Mendelssohn, Felix Mendelssohn was born into a notable ethnically Jewish family, although he himself was brought up initially without religion, and later as a Lutheran Christian. He was recognised early as a musical prodigy, but his parents were cautious and did not seek to capitalise on his abilities.
Early success in Germany, where he also revived interest in the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, was followed by travel throughout Europe. Mendelssohn 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 Liszt, Richard Wagner 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.
The family moved to Berlin in 1811, leaving Hamburg in disguise fearing French revenge for the Mendelssohn bank’s role in breaking Napoleon’s Continental System blockade. Abraham and Lea Mendelssohn sought to give their children – Fanny, Felix, Paul and Rebecka – the best education possible. Fanny became a well-known pianist and amateur composer; originally Abraham had thought that she, rather than Felix, would be the more musical. However, at that time, it was not considered proper, by either Abraham or Felix, for a woman to have a career in music, so Fanny remained an active, but non-professional musician. Abraham was also disinclined to allow Felix to follow a musical career until it became clear that he intended seriously to dedicate himself to it.
Mendelssohn grew up in an intellectual environment. Frequent visitors to the salon organised by his parents at the family’s home in Berlin included artists, musicians and scientists, amongst them Wilhelm and Alexander von Humboldt, and the mathematician Gustav Dirichlet (whom Mendelssohn’s sister Rebecka would later marry). Sarah Rothenburg wrote of the household that “Europe came to their living room
Musical prodigies … are probably no longer so rare; but what this little man can do in extemporizing and playing at sight borders the miraculous, and I could not have believed it possible at so early an age.” “And yet you heard Mozart in his seventh year at Frankfurt?” said Zelter. “Yes”, answered Goethe, ” … but what your pupil already accomplishes, bears the same relation to the Mozart of that time that the cultivated talk of a grown-up person bears to the prattle of a child
Mendelssohn was invited to meet Goethe on several later occasions, and set a number of Goethe’s poems to music. His other compositions inspired by Goethe include the overture Meeresstille und glückliche Fahrt (Calm Sea and a Prosperous Voyage, Op. 27, 1828) and the cantata Die erste Walpurgisnacht (The First Walpurgis Night, Op. 60, 1832).
In 1829, with the backing of Zelter and the assistance of actor Eduard Devrient, Mendelssohn arranged and conducted a performance in Berlin of Bach’s St Matthew Passion. Four years previously his grandmother, Bella Salomon, had given him a copy of the manuscript of this (by then all-but-forgotten) masterpiece. The orchestra and choir for the performance were provided by the Berlin Singakademie. The success of this performance – the first since Bach’s death in 1750 – was an important element in the revival of J. S. Bach’s music in Germany and, eventually, throughout Europe. It earned Mendelssohn widespread acclaim at the age of 20. It also led to one of the few references which Mendelssohn made to his origins: “To think that it took an actor and a Jew’s son to revive the greatest Christian music for the world!”
Over the next few years Mendelssohn traveled widely, including making his first visit to England in 1829, and also visiting amongst other places Vienna, Florence, Milan, Rome and Naples, in all of which he met with local and visiting musicians and artists. These years proved the germination for some of his most famous works, including the Hebrides Overture and the Scottish and Italian symphonies
[N]ever before was anything like this season – we never went to bed before half-past one, every hour of every day was filled with engagements three weeks beforehand, and I got through more music in two months than in all the rest of the year.
On subsequent visits he met Queen Victoria and her musical husband Prince Albert, who both greatly admired his music.
In the course of ten visits to Britain during his life, totalling about 20 months, Mendelssohn won a strong following, sufficient for him to make a deep impression on British musical life. He composed and performed, and he edited for British publishers the first critical editions of oratorios of Handel and of the organ music of J.S. Bach. Scotland inspired two of his most famous works: the Hebrides Overture, (also known as Fingal’s Cave); and the Scottish Symphony (Symphony No. 3). Mendelssohn also worked closely with his protégé, the British composer and pianist William Sterndale Bennett, (whom he had first heard in London in 1833 when Bennett was 17), both in London and Leipzig, where Bennett appeared throughout the 1836/37 season. Mendelssohn’s oratorio Elijah was premiered in Birmingham at the Triennial Music Festival on 26 August 1846, using an English translation by William Bartholomew, who served as his text author and translator for many of his works during his time in England. On his last visit to England in 1847, Mendelssohn was the soloist in Beethoven’s Piano Concerto no. 4 and conducted his own Scottish Symphony with the Philharmonic Orchestra before the Queen and Prince Albert.