Felix Mendelssohn was a world-renowned German pianist, conductor and composer of the 19th century. Although his work was often coolly received by his contemporaries, he is now considered one of the greatest composers of his time. Mendelssohn wrote in a variety of musical forms, and is responsible for one of the most famous pieces of music in the classical canon.
Born in 1809 to wealthy Jewish parents in Hamburg, Germany, the young Felix was considered a child prodigy on the piano and often bore comparison to Mozart for his youthful abilities. His family’s money afforded many trips around Europe, as well as a first-rate education for Felix and his three siblings. Despite his parents’ conversion to the Lutheran faith, Mendelssohn’s later musical compositions were often discounted by the rise of anti-Semitic beliefs throughout Europe.
By the age of 12, Felix was already an accomplished composer. He became a correspondent of the famous poet Goethe, and dedicated his B minor pianoforte quartet to the aging writer. Mendelssohn also became fascinated with the works of William Shakespeare, and composed an overture for A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Many years later, in 1843, Felix would compose incidental music for the play that would become one of the most recognizable pieces of classical music in the world, the Wedding March.
The young composer studied at the University of Berlin for three years before traveling to England to perform. He received much attention from the British, even favorably impressing Queen Victoria and her husband, Prince Albert. In 1835, he received the post of conductor with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra in Germany, and would later found a musical conservatory in the same city. He continued to consistently produce new works, including his famous eight volumes of piano compositions calledSongs Without Words.
Unfortunately for the world of classical music, Mendelssohn suffered two strokes and died at the age of 38 in 1847, only a few months after a similar condition killed his favorite sister, Fanny. While his music was extremely popular, the composer was known for a stern disposition and an icy competitiveness with many contemporary composers. Richard Wagner was particularly cruel in his assessments, insulting not only Mendelssohn’s music but also his Jewish background. When the Nazi party came to power in Germany in the early 20th century, his music was discredited and banned, and a statue of him in Leipzig was torn down.
In his short career he was remarkably prolific, creating hundreds of pieces for symphonies, piano, vocalists, and string quartets, as well as an opera. His Wedding March remains one of the most popular wedding recessionals in Western society, although it is not usually considered among his best work. Since the late 20th century, the music he produced has undergone considerable reassessment, and some music critics have come to consider Felix Mendelssohn the greatest composer since Mozart.