200 years of Felix Mendelssohn

By Akrita Reyar | Updated: Sep 24, 2014, 18:06 PM IST

Akrita Reyar It is said that beautiful music is only second to silence in perfection. In this day and age when even din sometimes passes off as music, we must rejoice in celebrating the bicentenary of one of the great geniuses of the art – Jakob Ludwig Felix Mendelssohn (Bartholdy).

A child prodigy, he revived works of some of the old greats while setting new benchmarks for musicians, whereas for us, ordinary music lovers, he left behind a treasure trove of compositions. Alas, he died young; he was only 38 (Feb1809-Nov 1847). But brilliance is never measured by age, for it is the legacy that a man leaves behind that counts for all times to cherish. Like several examples in the past, there are only a few gifted, who are fortunate enough to be fully recognized and appreciated in their lifetimes. The rest are valued only long after they have passed. So has been the case of Mendelssohn to a certain extent. This parochial world is always at pains to build walls to keep out true talent, giving excuses of a person’s background, colour, race, religion or such other irrelevant criteria. His times were no exception. Felix Mendelssohn, all his life, faced discrimination just because he was a Jew. And his music was given secondary status for that reason alone. Ironically, it is because of this Jewish composer, conductor and pianist’s great contribution that Christian music was restored to its full glory. But posterity has been kinder in judging the true nature of his endowment, for he has come to be regarded by critics to be an equal of Mozart. Born to a wealthy Jewish family of Hamburg, Germany, he was the grandson of the highly noted philosopher Moses Mendelssohn. Unfortunately, those times were anti-Semetic and his father took a decision to convert the entire family into Lutheran Christians and adopted the surname Bartholdy. However, Mendelssohn, despite the odds, was opposed to changing his name and never really used the title. His growing up years were, however, spent in the comfort of his family which was not just prosperous but of high education, fine taste and loved music, even organizing recitals at home. Despite the benefit of such a good start in life, it is the credit to his talent alone that Mendelssohn, by the age of 16, had penned some of the finest compositions including the Octet for Strings in E flat major, Op. 20 and by 17 wrote the very famous Midsummer Night’s Dream, which was inspired by Shakespeare. It is the ‘Wedding March,’ from this composition particularly, that has become one of the favourites at marriages. These pieces are considered impressive not just because they flowed from the pen of a teenager, but also because they are the finest works of their kind.

Besides becoming an accomplished pianist and then a violinist at such a young age, Mendelssohn was also excited by visual art and loved to paint. His gift in this field was no less. Being very close to his elder sister Fanny, who also gave him initial training in music, the duo would spend hours together writing music, playing their pieces, conducting concert performances and even staging plays. A lesser known aspect of his life is that he also had a flair for languages and was fluent in several European tongues. Mendelssohn’s education took him to Berlin (1826-29) and it was here that he decided to make music his profession. He trained under Ludwig Berger for piano and Karl F Zelter for composition. By the age of 20, he had already put together and conducted for the first time a concert of Bach`s St. Matthew Passion, nearly a hundred years after the Master had done so. Recognizing his talent to being an exceptional one, Zelter introduced him to Goethe, who immediately took delight in his accomplishments and recommended him far and wide. Mendelssohn lived in Goethe’s home for a fortnight, performing for him some of his music. His B minor pianoforte quartet, it is said, became the great German poet’s favourite and as a mark of appreciation, Mendelssohn dedicated the piece to him. A word from Goethe helped Mendelssohn a great deal to build connections including with the royal family of England. Such was their fondness for him, that he was invited for private recitals by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. Mendelssohn loved to travel as well. His sojourns inspired some of his best music, like his Scottish and Italian Symphonies. In London, Mendelssohn presented the maginifique “Hebrides Overture", and in Düsseldorf he conducted Handel`s "Messiah" besides others. In the same year he composed many of his own vocal works including "Lord, Have Mercy Upon Us,", and the Opera, "Trala". He laboured tirelessly to restore previous Christian and Baroque works, which were at that time on the wane. Bach was his specific favourite, besides Beethoven whom he is said to have idolized. He made Leipzig his base and trained students, who sometimes found him harsh for he was very exacting when it came to music. During the time he also became the conductor of the famous Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, which remains till date one of the best in the world. In addition to his post at the Conservatory in Leipzig, King Frederick of Prussia named Mendelssohn the Director of Music of the Academy of Arts in Berlin. This spectacular composer, conductor was no less lucky in love. He loved and married Cecile Jeanrenaud, who was the daughter of a Protestant Christian clergyman, and with whom he had five children.

But his run of fortune was approaching its end. After Mendelssohn lost his parents in 1830s, his dearly loved sister Fanny died of a stroke in May, 1847. Such was the shock, that he is believed to have screamed and fainted on hearing the news. Despite all medical treatment, this great composer could never really recover and suffered two strokes the same year, the second of which, in November, proved fatal. He was buried next to her grave in the cemetery of the Holy Cross Church in Berlin. His aggrieved widow too lost interest in life and died of sorrow a couple of years later. There were two main features of Mendelsson’s life. One that he worked incessantly, nearly like a man possessed, creating a magical opus which included Chamber music, symphonies, concerti, oratorios, piano pieces as well as some interesting mixtures of instruments and voices. The second was the opposition that he faced by his contemporaries because of his Jewish roots and the constant running down of his work by their vitriolic pens. The venom of hate for his ancestry was not to leave him even in his grave. Nearly a hundred years later, Nazis removed his statue from Leipzig and forbade the study and performance of his music. But the truly gifted are neither silenced nor defeated or snuffed out. Through the sheer passion, size and technical flawlessness of his oeuvres, Mendelssohn has left an indelible mark in the world of music and will be ever treasured as a gem of the Romantic period for all times to come. (February 3 is the 200th birth anniversary of the musical genius Felix Mendelssohn and is being observed with great zest all around the world.)