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: Incidental Music for Antigone, Oedipus & Athalia
Release Date: 06/28/2011   Label: Brilliant Classics  
Catalog: 94216   Number of Discs: 3
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Mendelssohn: Violin Concerto, Midsummer Night's Dream / Chen, Glover
Release Date: 03/10/2009   Label: Royal Philharmonic Masterworks  
Catalog: 28230   Number of Discs: 1
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Mendelssohn: Symphonies No 3 & 4 / Sanderling, RPO
Release Date: 09/14/2010   Label: Royal Philharmonic Masterworks  
Catalog: 28340   Number of Discs: 1
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Mendelssohn: Symphonies 1 & 3 / De Vriend, Netherlands Symphony Orchestra
Release Date: 09/09/2014   Label: Challenge  
Catalog: 72641   Number of Discs: 1
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Mendelssohn: Songs Without Words / Ronan O'Hora
Release Date: 05/10/2011   Label: Royal Philharmonic Masterworks  
Catalog: 29060   Number of Discs: 1
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Work: Italian Symphony

 

About This Work
In early 1833, Mendelssohn completed his Symphony No. 4 in A major, published posthumously as his Op. 90. He started the piece in Italy in 1832 and finished it in Berlin. It was first performed in London on March 13, 1833, and has since been Read more Mendelssohn's most popular symphony. The composer gave the piece its nickname, "Italian."

Somewhat dissatisfied with the Symphony in A major, Mendelssohn planned to revise it before publication; this never occurred however, and the piece was published as it stood after his death. The composer noted that in the symphony he tried to convey his personal impressions of the art, nature, and people of Italy. Musically, it is a more tightly-controlled, original work than his previous symphonies; the opening theme is among the most famous in all music.

Mendelssohn's signature orchestral textures are evident from the very beginning: pulsing woodwinds create a harmonic background for the simple, horn-call theme in the violins. The rapid pace and fragmentary nature of the theme keep the music from falling into predictable rendering of the 6/8 meter. Two more themes appear before the development section, in which we hear fugato treatment of the main theme, the transitional theme and new melodic material in the minor mode. The recapitulation is not literal; everything is varied. In the coda, the minor-mode theme from the development returns, but the movement closes on A major.

Ignaz Moscheles contended that the main theme of the second movement, an Andante con moto in D minor, contains the melody of a Czech pilgrim song; others claim it is a rendition of Karl Friedrich Zelter's "Es war ein König in Thule." Cast in D minor, the elegant movement has two major sections arranged in an ABAA' pattern, the contrasting B section emphasizing A major. The closing, quiet, pizzicato bass notes convey a sense of resignation.

The third movement, Con moto moderato, is a fairly conventional minuet and trio in A major, possibly inspired by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's humorous poem, Lilis Park. In the coda, the melody of the trio section tries, unsuccessfully, to assert itself over that of the minuet.

Mendelssohn entitled the Finale, "Saltarello," which is a lively Neopolitan dance featuring hopping and jumping; the fast main theme conveys the leaping aspect of the dance. The movement's high point is the central development, in which Mendelssohn creates a continuos crescendo from pianissimo to fortissimo. Near the close we hear a reference to the main theme of the first movement, but on A minor, the key in which the movement ends.

-- John Palmer
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