Felix Mendelssohn

R. Larry Todd

in Music

ISBN: 9780199757824
Published online June 2011 | | DOI:
Felix Mendelssohn

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Of Western classical composers, Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy (b.1809–d. 1847) has occupied a most unusual position. Likened early on to Mozart, he was an extraordinary prodigy who quickly achieved international fame in Europe and England, and rose to preeminence in the 1830s and 1840s as a composer, pianist, organist, and conductor of the first rank. He revived the St. Matthew Passion of J. S. Bach in 1829, a signal event that launched the modern Bach revival, and was the moving force behind the founding of the Leipzig Conservatory in 1843. An accomplished violinist, Mendelssohn also edited the music of Bach and Handel, and researched music of the Renaissance and 17th centuries. He spoke or read German, French, English, Latin, and Greek, developed a distinctive literary style in his extensive correspondence, studied philosophy with Hegel, and was an accomplished draughtsman and painter. Nevertheless, the positive, meteoric trajectory of Mendelssohn’s career contrasted sharply with his posthumous reception. At mid-century Wagner attacked his memory in a notorious, racist essay (baptized as a Protestant at age seven, Mendelssohn was the grandson of the 18th-century Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn). Mendelssohn’s identification with Queen Victoria and Prince Albert—the composer visited England ten times between 1829 and 1847—made him an easy mark for late-19th- and 20th-century critiques of Victorian culture. In the 1930s, the Nazis destroyed his statue in Leipzig and banned his music. The composer of the oratorio Elijah, performed at every Birmingham Musical Festival from 1846 until the outbreak of the First World War, and the composer of the Italian Symphony and Violin Concerto in E minor, works once regarded as flawless, was now dismissed as an overly sentimental composer whose music did not challenge the profundity of Bach, Beethoven, or Wagner. Efforts to rehabilitate Mendelssohn’s image began in the second half of the 20th century, and now, with the bicentenary of 2009, are in full force. Modern scholarship recognizes the composer’s remarkable versatility, and the critical roles he played as a civic-minded educator whose distinctive music made a rapprochement between classicism and romanticism and related in compelling ways the culture of his times to the musical past.

Article.  9272 words. 

Subjects: Music ; Applied Music ; Ethnomusicology ; Music Theory and Analysis ; Musicology and Music History ; Music Education and Pedagogy

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