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Mendelssohn
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Tristan And Isolde

Mendelssohn (1809-1847)

( Originally Published Early 1900's )



Mendelssohn was one of the best balanced and most wholesome men in the list of composers. He possessed extraordinary talent rather than genius, and this should be kept in mind in attempting, a criticism of his work. Son of a wealthy banker and born to high social position, his life was sheltered and even, and this undoubtedly had a direct bearing upon the character of his work. He was not a composer who worked along lines which were in advance of his time and thus did not have to create a spirit of appreciation. Master of pathos and the sublime in music he was not; his style was graceful and sympathetic, and therefore easily understood.

Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy was born in Hamburg in 1809. He was of pure Jewish blood; his grandfather, Moses Mendelssohn, was a philosophical writer, and the composer's mother was a woman of superior education. The name Bartholdy was taken by his father when he embraced the Christian faith. Like Mozart, Felix had a sister a few years older than himself, who was also a remarkable musician. Fannie Mendelssohn forsook what would probably have been a wonderful musical career when she married Hensel, the painter; her rare judgment and sympathy were always of the greatest aid to her brother.

Felix received his early education in Berlin. His parents determined that he should not allow his musical ability to interfere with other interests, and he was given a liberal edu cation, passing through the gymnasium, attending lectures at the University and travelling extensively in England., Switzerland and Italy. The Mendelssohn home in Berlin was the favorite resort of many scholars, statesmen and artists, and the young composer was constantly in an atmosphere o f refine-ment and culture. "He never knew the squalor of poverty, the paralysis of drudgery, the bitterness of inaptitude, the dull ache of disappointment. In his bright, precocious childhood he was the idol of a wise father, a fond mother, brothers and sisters who shared his tastes and in some measure his abilities, and a circle of literary and artistic friends at the head of which was the aged Goethe. In later years he had all the advantages of university training, the best teachers in music, foreign travel, varied friendships, a happy marriage, and a fame extending to all corners of Europe. Appropriately indeed was he named Felix."

He was a precocious pianist, organist and composer; he appeared as a public player at the age of nine, composed the famous "Rondo Capriccioso" when fourteen and the overture to "A Midsummer Night's Dream" at the age of seventeen. This overture is most original in its fairy-like and graceful beauty, and is technically one of his most perfect productions. While still a student in Berlin, Mendelssohn organized the first performance of Bach's "St. Matthew Passion" since that composer's death. It was a difficult task but Mendelssohn was most successful; this marked the beginning of the Bach revival.

The next few years were spent in travel through England and Scotland, of which his impressions are recorded in the "Hebrides" overture and the "Scotch" symphony.

His reputation as a composer was established in 1835 in Cologne by the production of the oratorio "St. Paul," and in 1843 he was appointed director of the Leipzig Conservatory. This was a great honor to be given the young composer, but he disliked the routine of instructing and was not very successful. Three years later he directed the first performance of perhaps his greatest work-the Oratorio of Elijah. This performance took place in Birmingham and was a gift to the English people. At that time Mendelssohn was almost idolized in England and critics today agree that his influence was most harmful to the music of that country, for he was imitated to an unwarrantable extent. This blind worship of him, however, is now a thing of the past.

"Elijah" was written in Mendelssohn's maturity and contains passages of unsurpassed beauty and strength. Especially notable are the episodes in the desert when Elijah despairs and is comforted by his visions ("It is Enough" and "He Watching Over Israel").

Mendelssohn was a man of charming personality and great warmth of affection. Perhaps his sheltered life of ease and comfort was detrimental to his musical development,-he never was able to express the depths of human passion; but there are some natures that seem to require the sunshine of life and at least we may say that prosperity never destroyed his ideals. He was passionately, almost jealously, devoted to his friends; the death of his sister, Fanny, closely following that of his parents, was a shock from which he never recovered. He was contemplating a trip to Vienna to hear Jenny Lind sing in "Elijah" when he was suddenly taken ill and died, November 4, 1847.

Although he wrote much piano music Mendelssohn did not advance the art of piano playing or composing. His style is often very formal and too refined to be expressive. His "Songs Without Words" were very popular when they first appeared, their melodies and easy performance attracting popular taste, but now they receive little attention. Their monotonous rhythms and rather cloying harmonies have excited harsh criticism, but certain of them, such as the "Spring Song," the "Spinning Song" and the "Gondola Song" in G minor remain favorites today. His strongest work in the field of piano composition are the "Serious Variations." His organ sonatas are of great value to students and place him in the foremost rank of organ composers since Bach.

Mendelssohn shows far greater originality in his works for orchestra; they are delightful in melody and orchestration, and display a freshness and sympathetic feeling. The finest of these productions are the "Scotch" Symphony, and the "A Midsummer Night's Dream," "Hebrides" and "The Beautiful Melusine" overtures. His violin concerto is perhaps better loved than any other; its themes are masterly and its difficulties are not excesive.

The songs for single voice do not compare favorably with those of really great song writers, but many of them contain much of value.

Mendelssohn's fame today depends on the two oratorios, "St. Paul" and "Elijah," and a few orchestral works. His influence at the present time lies in the fact that he checked the element of extreme Romanticism in music and restored the importance of the classical school. Few composers have gained the popularity and real love shown this composer during his lifetime; indeed, the praise given him was out of all keeping with the real merit of his work. Now the pendulum has swung too far in the opposite direction and Mendelssohn is among the fallen gods. As one critic has said, "It has become almost a fashion to sneer or to smile at his music." The importance of his work was seemingly temporary, but it remains for the future to relegate him to his proper place among the composers of the world.



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