Musical genius Felix Mendelssohn died on this day, November 4th in 1847. His beautiful work was notable for many things, but perhaps most stunning was the ease with which it seemed to flow from his creativity. While many masterpieces are the result of the painful toil of an anguished artist, there are others who seem to produce greatness with little invested suffering. Mendelssohn understood his genius as a gift from God but also recognized his stewardship. He said, “I know perfectly well that no musician can make his thoughts or talents different to what Heaven has made them; but I also know that if Heaven has given him good ones, he must also be able to develop them properly.”
As Terry Glaspey explains in 75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know
When one considers musical prodigies, one cannot but think of Mozart, who is always celebrated for his youthful gifts, but Mendelssohn’s compositions at age sixteen show even more musical maturity than those of Mozart at a similar age. The string octet he composed at that young age is considered one of the masterpieces of chamber music. And his stirring Overture to a Midsummer Night’s Dream (1826), written just a year later, is a piece that still brings a smile to audiences who hear it performed, a veritable bubbling cauldron of joyousness.
Among Mendelssohn’s gifts as a composer was his ability to bring a youthful exuberance to almost every piece he wrote, works filled with energy, invention, and lovely melodies. He was a student of the great composers who had preceded him—Handel, Mozart, Beethoven, and especially Bach. He was responsible for a great revival of interest in Bach’s music after he arranged and conducted a performance of St. Matthew’s Passion, a work that had not been performed in public since Bach’s death in 1750. Mendelssohn knew the piece so well that when he mounted the podium to conduct and found that the wrong music had been placed there, he was able to conduct the entire piece from memory, turning the pages of the incorrect score so as not to raise concern among his musicians! But along with his knowledge and devotion to the classical heritage, he also felt the influence of the budding Romantic movement and injected its lush sensibility into the classic forms forged by his heroes, which makes him a sort of bridge between the two musical eras.
There is a lightness, sweetness, and joy to Mendelssohn’s work that reflects the pleasure and serenity he found in his life. This has caused many to wonder if he would have produced even greater music if his life had involved more struggles. But isn’t there a place in music for the expression of happiness and contentment.
Does the production of great art require struggle?
D I G D E E P E R
(1809–47). The composer, pianist, and conductor Felix Mendelssohn was a pivotal figure of 19th-century romanticism. He was also a major force in the revival of the music of Johann Sebastian Bach.
Jakob Ludwig Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy was born in Hamburg, Germany, on Feb. 3, 1809, a grandson of the philosopher Moses Mendelssohn. During his boyhood young Mendelssohn wrote many compositions, and he appeared as a pianist in 1818. By 1827 he had composed an overture to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, his first mature work.
Mendelssohn conducted Bach’s St. Matthew Passion in Berlin in 1829, an event that marked a revival in the performance of Bach’s vocal music. That year he was in London, where he conducted his Symphony in C Minor, and a visit to Scotland inspired the Hebrides Overture. This was the first of ten trips to Great Britain, where he established his main reputation and became a favorite of Queen Victoria.
In 1833 Mendelssohn became music director in Düsseldorf, Germany, where he introduced the masses of Beethoven and Cherubini and the cantatas of Bach. Two years later he was appointed conductor of the Gewandhaus Orchestra in Leipzig, soon making it the most prestigious symphonic organization in Germany. In 1843 he founded the Leipzig Conservatory, where he and Robert Schumann taught composition. After the sudden death of his sister Fanny in May 1847, Mendelssohn’s health rapidly deteriorated, and he died in Leipzig on November 4.
Mendelssohn’s output was considerable, especially considering his short lifetime. Works include the Scottish, Italian, and Reformation symphonies; two piano concerti and one for violin; the oratorios St. Paul and Elijah (Hymn of Praise is considered a symphony-cantata); chamber music; piano music, including 48 Songs Without Words; many songs; and organ pieces.
Sources and Resources
“Mendelssohn, Felix,” Compton’s Encyclopedia (Chicago, IL: Compton’s Encyclopedia, 2015).
Lagomarsino, Tom. “Felix Mendelssohn.” Christian Reformed Ink Archives (blog). March 15, 2011.
Wenborn, Neil. Mendelssohn: His Life and Music. New York: Naxos Books, 2008.
Terry Glaspey, 75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know: The Fascinating Stories behind Great Works of Art, Literature, Music, and Film (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2015).