Happy birthday, Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy!

Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy

He was a musical prodigy whose life was far too short. And at the same time, Michael Alexander Willens, director of the Kölner Akademie, says how much it never ceases to amaze him that Mendelssohn managed to compose 750 works in the mere 38 years of his life – and that alongside his obligations as a soloist, conductor and cultural organiser.

On 3 February 1809, Felix was born into a wealthy and educated Jewish family – his grandfather was the respected philosopher Moses Mendelssohn, to whom Gotthold Ephraim Lessing set an enduring monument in his play “Nathan the Wise”. All the children of the Mendelssohn family were raised and baptised Christian, which is also reflected in the addition of the Christian name “Bartholdy” to the family name. Due to the French occupation of Hamburg, where both Felix and his older sister Fanny had been born, the family moved to Berlin in 1811, which was to prove advantageous for the education of both children: They received their first music lessons from their mother and great-aunt, both of whom were in the immediate tradition of the Bach family. After a short educational trip to Paris, they received composition lessons from Carl Friedrich Zelter in Berlin, among others. Mendelssohn made his first public appearance at the age of nine when he took over the piano part in a piano trio by Joseph Woelfl. In 1820 he began composing very intensively. (Very intensively is to be taken literally at this point, because he wrote a whole 60 works in one year, including a piano trio, piano sonatas and even a small dramatic piece in three scenes).

The boy benefited from everything that culturally rich Berlin offered him: for example, he visited Goethe in Weimar together with his teacher Zelter and made friends with other important composers such as Carl Maria von Weber and Louis Spohr. Mendelssohn’s parental home offered the musically highly talented children everything one could wish for: In addition to numerous educational trips to Paris, among other places, where Felix also met Rossini, Meyerbeer and Cherubini, the Sunday matinees in the Mendelssohn house were a ‘musical playground’ for the four children. Felix not only played the role of pianist, but also contributed the majority of the compositions and conducted the small performing ensemble. At the age of just sixteen, he wrote his opera “The Wedding of Camacho”, which was enthusiastically received at its premiere, but was not initially performed again due to an intrigue. He turned more and more to pure instrumental music, leaving the genre of opera rather to the left. On his travels through Europe, Mendelssohn was frenetically celebrated as composer, pianist and conductor. A firm connection, which was to last a lifetime, developed with Great Britain, where he enjoyed great success all over the country, even as far as Scotland, and was a regular guest.

From an early age, Mendelssohn devoted himself to reviving forgotten music, sometimes together with the Berlin Sing-Akademie, in which he himself had sung as a child. Thus, to this day, he is known and of great music-historical significance as the person who first performed Bach’s “St. Matthew Passion” after the latter’s death. He also rendered outstanding services to the performance of Joseph Haydn’s music. His official posts included general music director in Düsseldorf, director of the choral society of the Frankfurt Cäcilien-Verein and, finally, director of the Gewandhaus concerts in Leipzig, a post he held until his death. In 1843, at the age of just 34, Mendelssohn founded the Leipzig Conservatory, Germany’s first conservatoire. In 1847 Mendelssohn travelled to England for the last time. When he returned to Germany, he received the news of the death of his beloved sister Fanny – a shock from which he was never to recover. Only a few months later he suffered several strokes in succession, to which he finally succumbed on 4 November. Shortly after his death, Mendelssohn’s legacy as a composer, conductor and cultural figure was rather disregarded due to the anti-Semitic currents of the second half of the 19th century, which was to continue during the National Socialist era. It was not until the 1950s that he again received the recognition and esteem he deserved.

The Kölner Akademie’s recording of his piano concertos together with the pianist Ronald Brautigam is considered one of the best interpretations of these works.