Richard Nisley

The Bloom of Youth - The Music of Mendelssohn
Music - Classical Released - Oct 09, 2013

It’s one of those tunes everybody recognizes immediately, as familiar as “Happy Birthday to You.” You hear it at weddings. It’s “Wedding March” by Felix Mendelssohn.

Felix Mendelssohn is an anomaly among composers of classical music. He didn’t have an abusive father like Beethoven, die a pauper like Mozart, become an eccentric like Brahms, or be committed to an asylum like Schumann. Mendelssohn achieved fame in his lifetime and by all accounts was a well-adjusted, happy fellow.

Mendelssohn’s music reflected his sense of well-being. It’s sunny and lighthearted. Like Mozart, his musical gifts were evident early in his life. He gave his first piano recital when he nine; wrote 12 symphonies for string orchestra before his 14th birthday, and composed his Overture to “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at 17. The Overture was his first true work of genius and the unanimous choice of critics as a musical work that far transcends the abilities of the ordinary master at any age.

Mendelssohn was born in Hamburg in 1809 surrounded by the comfort and culture of his parents. His father was a wealthy banker and art lover, and his mother a pianist and reader of Homer in the original Greek. When Mendelssohn was three, the family moved to Berlin. Young Felix’s exceptional talent was spotted early and he was given music lessons and training by the very best tutors in Berlin.

Mendelssohn particularly admired the music of Bach, Mozart and Beethoven. When he was 20, and already a virtuoso pianist, composer, and conductor, he put together a performance of Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion”--one of Bach’s greatest works. To say Mendelssohn rescued Bach from obscurity would be an overstatement, but it did draw fresh attention to the Great One, who has never again needed a revival presentation.

A person of Mendelssohn’s prodigious talent attracted the attention of the King of Prussia, who invited him to conduct and compose for the King’s court. Mendelssohn reluctantly accepted, but the relationship proved a rocky one. The Minister of Arts, to whom Mendelssohn reported, was little more than the king’s toady. “He seems to have sworn to death to every free intellectual endeavor,” wrote Mendelssohn. “He is afraid of a mouse.” When he was asked to set to music a “patriotic” poem that actually opposed German freedom, Mendelssohn declined. He quit soon after.

Mendelssohn’s happiest years were in Leipzig as musical director of the famed Gewandhaus Orchestra. He composed, he conducted, and when he could get away traveled throughout Europe. Composers such as Frederic Chopin, Robert Schumann and Hector Berlioz sought him out for advice. As a husband and father, he enjoyed an almost ideal family life.

The lack of conflict in Mendelssohn’s life has often been cited as the reason why his music never touched the artistic heights of some of his less fortunate composers. Yet, the very normalcy of Mendelssohn’s life pattern is probably what has allowed his music to enjoy world-wide popularity from his day to ours. In all his work there is a sheen, a sparkle, that Schumann once described as “the bloom of youth.”

Mendelssohn’s most famous works are Symphony no. 4 in A major, nicknamed “Italian,” the incidental music to “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” (the closing number is the Wedding March), the Concerto for Violin and Orchestra, and the Octet in E-flat for Strings. On the list of great oratorios, Mendelssohn’s “Elijah” is exceeded only by Handel’s “Messiah” and Haydn’s “The Creation.”

On the list of 50 greatest composers, Mendelssohn is eleventh.

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