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A Renaissance Man Among the Romantics: Felix Mendelssohn at 200. Introduction

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Felix Mendelssohn was blessed with an enviable array of talents. Today he is remembered chiefly as a composer: works such as the Italian Symphony, the Violin Concerto, the overtures, and Elijah are cornerstones of the concert repertory, while the Wedding March (from the incidental music to A Midsummer Nights Dream) and Hark, the Herald Angels Sing (based on a melody from a cantata about Gutenberg) are both indelibly embedded in our popular culture. One of the great child prodigies of music history, Mendelssohn composed his Octet, a polished and enduring masterpiece, when he was only sixteen. He ranked among the foremost pianists, organists, and conductors of his era, played the violin and viola capably, and was renowned for his extraordinary skill in sight-reading and improvisation, and for his musical memory. He was a gifted amateur artist, and a thoughtful and prolific correspondent. (Many of his lettersincluding one on display in this exhibitare enhanced by his own illustrations.) He had a strong command of several languages, ancient and modern. He traveled widely, and somehow maintained a busy social life amidst his exhausting schedule of performing and composing. He was friendly not only with all the leading musicians of the day, but also with the uppermost reaches of society, including Queen Victoria, who sang his own songs for him. He was even said to be a good chess player.

Mendelssohn was born in Hamburg two hundred years ago, on February 3, 1809. He came from an extraordinary family. Moses Mendelssohn, his grandfather, was a famous Enlightenment philosopher and an important figure in the history of Judaism. His father, Abraham, was a prosperous banker. The Mendelssohn family home (after 1811, in Berlin) was a famous gathering place for artists and intellectuals. Thanks to his parents wealth and connections, Felix and his siblings received private instruction from luminaries in a variety of fields. Among them was Carl Friedrich Zelter, who was not only a distinguished composer, but also a close associate of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe; as a result, while still a boy, Felix became friends with the most celebrated of all German authors. Education was not Abrahams only way of smoothing his childrens path in society; in 1816, he had them baptized as Protestants. To symbolize their new, non-Jewish identity, they adopted the compound surname Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, after a property the family owned.

Felix was not the only brilliant musician in the family. His sister Fanny (18051847) received a similarly intensive musical education, and she too developed into a superb pianist, conductor, and composer, as well as a lifelong advisor to and collaborator with her younger brother. Unfortunately, she was not permitted to pursue a professional career, so most of her performances took place in private gatherings, and some of her music was published under Felixs name (including three of the songs from the Zwoelf Gesaenge, on display here). Fanny married the artist Wilhelm Hensel, whose portraits of his wife, brother-in-law, and other family members have been widely reproduced. Their son Sebastian Hensel wrote an important history of the Mendelssohn family.

As a young man, Felix Mendelssohn studied at the University of Berlin, undertook the Grand Tour of Europe, and produced a long series of masterworks. In 1829 he directed the modern premiere of J.S. Bachs St. Matthew Passion, a landmark in the Bach Revival. (Bachs style was an important influence on Mendelssohns own compositions, particularly his church music.) In 1833 he became the music director in Dsseldorf, but in 1835 he left for Leipzig, where he conducted the Gewandhaus orchestra, composed the oratorio St. Paul (1836), and founded one of Europes leading conservatories (1843). In 1837 he married Ccile Jeanrenaud. They had three sons (one of whom died in childhood) and two daughters. From 1841, Mendelssohn was active not only in Leipzig, but also in Berlin, where he served as Kapellmeister and led an effort to reform Protestant church music. In 1846 he wrote his second oratorio, Elijah, for the choral festival in Birmingham, England. He died on November 4, 1847, at the age of 38, apparently from a stroke. His sister Fanny had died just six months earlier.

During his lifetime and for some years thereafter, Mendelssohn was regarded by many as the greatest composer since Beethoven. Throughout Europe and America, many performing groups, including one in New Haven, took the name Mendelssohn Society in his honor. After a time, the inevitable reaction set in: his detractors began to portray him as a conventional and sentimental composer, whose skillful but shallow music was insufficiently bold or passionate. Sometimes anti-Semitism was a factor: Mendelssohn was a central figure in Wagners infamous essay on Judaism in music (1850), and the Nazis demolished Mendelssohns statue at the Leipzig Conservatory and banished his music from German concert halls. In recent decades, however, he has regained much of his lost luster. His works are regularly performed and recorded, and musicologists have developed a more balanced and sophisticated view of the complexities of his life and work. Mendelssohns place in the canon is secure.

The Gilmore Music Library is an important center for Mendelssohn scholarship; it holds several musical manuscripts and letters in Mendelssohns own hand, as well as a variety of early prints, engravings, biographies, and programs, many of which are on view in this exhibit.

Richard Boursy, Archivist

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