Felix Mendelssohn

Biography

Born: Feb 3, 1809; Germany   Died: Nov 4, 1847; Germany   Period: Romantic
Far from the troubled, coarse libertine that has become an archetype of the Romantic composer, Felix Mendelssohn was something of an anomaly among his contemporaries. His own situation -- one largely of domestic tranquility and unhindered career fulfillment -- stands in stark contrast to the personal Sturm und Drang familiar to his peers. Mendelssohn was the only musical prodigy of the nineteenth century whose stature could rival that of Mozart. Read more Still, his parents resisted any entrepreneurial impulses and spared young Felix the strange, grueling lifestyle that was the lot of many child prodigies. He and his sister Fanny were given piano lessons, and he also studied violin, and both joined the Berlin Singakademie. Carl Friedrich Zelter, director of the Singakademie, became Mendelssohn's first composition instructor. Even in his youth, Mendelssohn moved with natural grace among the circles of influence in society, politics, literature, and art. Although he did spend some time at the University of Berlin, most of his education was received through friendships and travel. Mendelssohn's advocacy was the single most important factor in the revival of Bach's vocal music in the nineteenth century, most famously realized in the 1829 performance of the St. Matthew Passion at the Berlin Singakadamie. He did some touring as a pianist with Ignaz Moscheles, then took the position as music director in Düsseldorf from 1833 to 1835, which involved conducting both the choral and orchestral societies, preparing music for church services and later, becoming intendant for the new theatre. Tension with the theater owner caused him to resign some of his duties, and he began looking for a new post. In 1835, Mendelssohn became municipal music director in Leipzig, where he also would conduct the Gewandhaus Orchestra. He would raise the level of the still-thriving ensemble to a new standard of excellence. In 1838, he married Cécile Jeanrenaud, enjoying an idyllic marriage and family life that was quite unlike the stormy romantic entanglements which profoundly affected such composers as Berlioz, Chopin, and Liszt. He was in demand as a conductor, spent some time as royal composer and music director in Berlin, but remained committed to musical life in Leipzig. He was even able to establish a new conservatory in the city, which is still a well-respected institution.

Mendelssohn was a true Renaissance man. A talented visual artist, he was a refined connoisseur of literature and philosophy. While Mendelssohn's name rarely arises in discussions of the nineteenth century vanguard, the intrinsic importance of his music is undeniable. A distinct personality emerges at once in its exceptional formal sophistication, its singular melodic sense, and its colorful, masterful deployment of the instrumental forces at hand. A true apotheosis of life, Mendelssohn's music absolutely overflows with energy, ebullience, drama, and invention, as evidenced in his most enduring works: the incidental music to A Midsummer Night's Dream (1826-1842); the Hebrides Overture (1830); the Songs Without Words (1830-1845); the Symphonies No. 3 (1841-1842) and No. 4 (1833); and the Violin Concerto in E minor (1844). While the sunny disposition of so many of Mendelssohn's works has led some to view the composer as possessing great talent but little depth, his religious compositions -- particularly the great oratorios Paulus (1836) and Elijah (1846) -- reflect the complexity and deeply spiritual basis of his personality. Read less

Mendelssohn: Symphonies 4 & 5, Hebrides / Gardner
Release Date: 02/25/2014   Label: Chandos  
Catalog: 5132   Number of Discs: 1
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Mendelssohn: The Complete Solo Piano Music, Vol. 2 / Howard Shelley
Release Date: 07/08/2014   Label: Hyperion  
Catalog: 68059   Number of Discs: 1
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Mendelssohn: Midsummer Night's Dream, Piano Concertos / Chailly
Release Date: 06/17/2014   Label: Decca  
Catalog: 002082502   Number of Discs: 1
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An Introduction To Felix Mendelssohn
Release Date: 09/19/2006   Label: Chandos  
Catalog: 2025   Number of Discs: 1
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Mendelssohn, Adams: Violin Concertos / Jarvi, Hoopes,  Leipzig Radio Symphony Orchestra
Release Date: 05/27/2014   Label: Naive  
Catalog: 5368   Number of Discs: 1
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Work: Midsummer Night's Dream Overture, in E major Op. 21

 

About This Work
Inspired by William Shakespeare's comedy A Midsummer Night's Dream, Felix Mendelssohn completed his famous eponymous Overture in 1826. The stunning accomplishment the Overture represents testifiies not only to the creative maturity of the Read more seventeen-year-old composer, but also to Mendelssohn's music as the embodiment of the Romantic ideal of the marriage of music and poetry. A passionate literary scholar, Mendelssohn was particularly bewitched by the works of Shakespeare, whose collected plays had been translated into German in 1801. In fact, this translation, the work of Ludwig Tieck and August Wilhelm Schlegel, quickly became one of the great literary monuments of German Romanticism. The Overture exemplifies Mendelssohn's ability to create extraordinarily imaginative and atmospheric music while remaining within the context of traditional harmonic and formal structure. Mendelssohn masterfully translates the three worlds (one of which is supernatural) of the comedy's universe into music of singular distinction.

The abode of Titania and Oberon is introduced by gossamer, almost breathless, violin figures in E minor, the key which defines the fairy world. With a facility fully equal to Shakespeare's, Mendelssohn moves back and forth from the fairy kingdom to the realm of humanity, piercing the misty atmosphere of E minor with chordal themes in E major (the key of Duke Theseus' court) that evoke columns of light. The earthy province of Bottom and his primitive cohorts is depicted by a drone of open fifths, along with realistic representations of sounds such as a donkey's braying. Like Shakespeare, Mendelssohn identifies the ducal court as the safe, intelligible, radiant realm that human beings long for, life as it should be: inspired, but not spectral; tangible, but not primitive. The essence of the middle world, in which the contradictory forces of spirit and earth are reconciled in civilized tranquility, surfaces as a characteristic theme based on a descending scale motion. This motion, though apparently simple, nonetheless releases intimations of many joyful sentiments sparked by an overwhelming wave of life energy. Seventeen years after the compostion of the Overture, Mendelssohn rounded out the entire incidental score, adding the famously sprightly Scherzo, the Intermezzo, Notturno, and the celebrated Wedding March for a production of the play at the Royal Theater in Berlin in 1842. Although composed only four years before Mendelssohn's death, these numbers emanate a truly youthful energy, complementing the Overture's musical narrative with scenes of exceptional charm.

-- Zoran Minderovic
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