1809 – 1847A 150th Anniversary Tribute
with selected recommended listening
by Chia Han-Leon

Mendelssohn aged 12, painted by Karl BegasJakob Ludwig Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy was born in Hamburg on February 3rd, 1809, the grandson of the great Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn. Felix’s beloved sister, Fanny, was born four years later, and also became a composer of some note.

By the age of 9, Mendelssohn had already performed in public. By 12 (above: as depicted by Karl Begas) he had composed his opus no.1, the Piano Quartet No.1, and published his own newspaper. At 14 this precocious little teen was in charge of his own orchestra and had already finished thirteen String Symphonies. At 16, already master of violin and piano, he composed the acknowledged masterpiece, the Octet for Strings; and then at 17, the Overture to the incidental music to Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

According to some, Felix Mendelssohn was simply the most precociously talented and naturally gifted musician and artist the world has ever known. He practised several languages, was an expert water-colour painter, knew his philosophy and wrote considerable poetry. No less than Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was his childhood friend and confidant. And the important thing to know relative to this is his equally prodigious efforts in using these inborn skills to promote music to all mankind.

In 1829 (aged 20, as depicted in the portrait below), Mendelssohn accomplished one of the greatest deeds to have grace the world of music by reviving and conducting the first performance of Bach‘s St. Matthew Passion since the latter’s death in 1750. With this performance, Mendelssohn caused a great stir among the public. Tickets for the first performance were sold out swiftly and members of the audience at the concert were so moved by the music that they were said to have wept openly.

Felix Mendelssohn

“TO THINK THAT … a Jew should give back to the people the greatest Christian music in the world.”

So uttered Mendelssohn, totally oblivious to the horrific irony of this statement in the 20th century. With his reputation firmly established, the young composer made his first visit to London, where he conducted the Philharmonic Society and played the English premiere of Beethoven’s “Emperor” Concerto. Spending his time driving in Hyde Park, delighting in the operas, concerts, balls and the charming ladies (Felix was supposed to be a real good catch), Mendelssohn fell in love with England, marvelling even in the thickness of the fog and the density of English plum pudding.

Mendelssohn’s gifts on the piano were simply phenomenal: “…scarcely had he touched the keyboard than something that can only be described as similar to a pleasurable shock passed through his hearers and held them spellbound”, wrote one delighted reviewer.

'Morning after a stormy night' (1819) by Johan Christian Dahl (1788-1857)

MENDELSSOHN later travelled to Scotland, where he was deeply inspired by the glorious beauty of the landscape. “…strangely beautiful … everything looks so stern and robust, hald-enveloped in mist or smoke or fog…” With these thoughts, he penned down ideas for his Symphony No.3 in A minor , the “Scotch” which is now known as the “Scottish”. It is in fact the last symphony he finished, in 1842. Scotland’s Hebrides was also the inspiration for one of the most beautiful and quintessentially Romantic of seascape tone poems, the Hebrides Overture (1832), also known as Fingal’s Cave.In 1830, aged 21, Mendelssohn was offered the chair of music at the Berlin University, but he refused on account of the Romantic desire to travel. Taking only “three shirts and Goethe’s poems”, he traveled to Austria, Italy (which inspired, of course, the “Italian” Symphony), Switzerland and France, along the way meeting Chopin, Liszt, Berlioz, Paganini, Meyerbeer and others.

Mendelssohn In Dsseldorf, Mendelssohn instituted an important revival of Handel’s music besides conducting a series of operas. Not enough, he went on to stay at Lepizig for ten years, where he built the first-class Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, still well and alive today. In addition to his huge range of performance repertoire, supported by his phenomenal musical memory, Mendelssohn was a good painter and writer, well-versed in literature. In addition to his skills as a pianist, he played the viola, was a exceptional organist and a conductor every orchestra dreams of. To top all this off, he was never the egotist, always willing to help fellow musicians and improve the standards of public taste in music.

To this end, Mendelssohn sought to expand the then narrow repertoire of public concerts. He is responsible for incorporating such important works as Beethoven’s 4th and 9th symphonies, and frequently invited famous soloists of his time to play with his orchestra. All these, not surprisingly, led to the huge success of his concert seasons.

It MUST be noted that Mendelssohn is at least partially but significantly responsible for the increased interest and musical appreciation of the public. Without his superhuman efforts, many pieces of music, and not to mention supreme composers like Bach, might still be relatively unknown today. An unthinkable situation.

Mendelssohn - detail from portrait by Eduard Magnus

MENDELSSOHN’S tireless activity continued for many years, taking its toll on his health. In May 1847, returning from England, he collapsed in shock on learning of the death of his sister, whom he loved with every vessel of his heart. Completely devastated and utterly heartbroken, Mendelssohn died six months later, after a slight stroke, on November 4th, 1847. He was just 38.

Right: Detail from portrait of Mendelssohn
near the end of his life, by Eduard Magnus.

Mendelssohn embodies the Romantic ideal of an artist seeking to unite humanity. Although obviously gifted as an individual, he did not seek empty self-expression, power, or even individual superiority; his is the art that seeks to improve the common man’s mind, to raise the spirits of his fellows, so that as a Romantic “hero” he need not “look down” on those who did not possess his gifts. Instead he gave them the opportunity, the education and the inspiration to know the wonders and beauty of one of humanity’s greatest achievements – the art of music.

When Chia Han-Leon was in school, he studied until his brain fries then puts down his books and fries some new dishes for the Inkpot instead.


Symphonies & Orchestral Works

  • Symphonies No.1, No.2 “Hymn of Praise” and No.3 “Scottish”. “Hebrides” Overture.
    PHILIPS Duo 456 071-2. London SO & Ch/Haitink, Chailly (2 CDs: budget-price). Click here for Inkpot Review.
  • Symphonies No.3 “Scottish” and No.4 “Italian”. “Hebrides” Overture.
    DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON Originals 449 743-2. Berlin PO/Karajan (mid-price).
  • Symphony No.4 “Italian”. Incidental Music to A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
    VIRGIN VERITAS Edition VER 5 61183-2. Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment/Mackerras (mid-price). Click here for Inkpot Review.
  • Symphonies No.1 and No.5 “Reformation”. Scherzo from String Octet.
    DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON Masters 445 596-2. London SO/Abbado (mid-price). Click here for Inkpot Review.
  • The 13 String Symphonies.
    Complete set:
    RCA Victor Red Seal 09026 68069-2. Hanover Band/Goodman (3CDs for price of 2 full). Click here for Inkpot Review.
    Nos.1-6: NAXOS 8.553161. Northern Chamber Orch./Ward (budget-price).
    Nos.7-9: NAXOS 8.553162. Northern Chamber Orch./Ward (Symphony No.8 string version; budget-price).
    Nos.10-13: NAXOS 8.553163. Northern Chamber Orch./Ward (budget-price).
Selected Concertos
  • Violin Concerto in E minor, op.64.
    NAXOS 8.550153. Nishizaki(violin). Slovak PO/Jean.(budget-price).
    PHILIPS Duo 442 287-2 – “Favourite Violin Concertos” (+concertos by Beethoven, Brahms & Tchaikovsky). Grumiaux(violin)/Concergebouw & New Philharmonia Orchestras (2 CDs: budget-price).
  • Piano Concertos Nos.1 & 2. Capriccio brillant, op.22. Rondo brillant, op.29 (budget-price).
    NAXOS 8.550691. Frith(piano)/Slovak State Phil. Orch./Stanovsky (budget-price). Click here for Inkpot Review.
Chamber and Instrumental Music
  • Octet for strings in E flat, op.20.
    PHILIPS 420 400-2 – ASMF Chamber Ensemble. (full-price) NOTE: this will be reissued at a lower price any day now.
  • Songs without Words for solo piano.
    DEUTSCHE GRAMMOPHON Double 453 061-2 – Daniel Barenboim. (2 CDs: budget-price)
Oratorios and Other Vocal Works
  • Elijah, op.70 (oratorio)
    Sung in German: PHILIPS Duo 438 368-2 – Adam/Ameling/Stole/Burmeister/Schreier. Leipzig Gewandhaus Orch. & Choir/Sawallisch (2 CDs: budget-price).
    Sung in English: EMI Forte CZS 5 68601-2 – Jones/Baker/Gedda/Fischer-Dieskau/Woolf. Wandsworth Sch. Boys’ Choir, New Philharmonia Orch. & Choir/de Burgos (2 CDs: budget-price).

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