Mendelssohn has often been named "Felix
the Happy," and he truly deserved
the title. Blest with a most cheerful disposition, with the power to
make friends of every one he met, and wherever he went, the son of a
banker, surrounded with everything that wealth could give, it was
wonder that Felix Mendelssohn was happy. He did not have to struggle
poverty and privation as most of the other great musicians were forced
do. Their music was often the expression of struggle and sorrow. He had
none of these things to bear; he was carefree and happy, and his music
reflects the joyous contentment of his life.
The Mendelssohn family originally lived
in Hamburg. Their house faced
of the fine squares of the city, with a handsome church on the opposite
side. The building is still there and well preserved, although the
principal story is used as public dining rooms. A large tablet has been
placed above the doorway, with a likeness of the composer encircled by
wreath of laurel. Here little Felix was born, February 3, 1809. There
other children, Fanny a year or two older, then after Felix came
and little Paul. When French soldiers occupied the town in 1811, life
became very unpleasant for the German residents, and whoever could,
refuge in other cities and towns. Among those who successfully made
escape was the Mendelssohn-Bartholdy family, the second name belonged
the family and was used to distinguish their own from other branches of
Mendelssohn family. With his wife and children, Abraham Mendelssohn
to Berlin, and made his home for some years with the grandmother, who
a house on the Neue Promenade, a fine broad street, with houses only on
one side, the opposite side descended in a grassy slope to the canal,
flowed lazily by.
It was a happy life the children led,
amid ideal surroundings. Felix
early showed a great fondness for music, and everything was done to
foster his budding talent. With his sister Fanny, to whom he was
attached, he began to have short music lessons from his mother when he
was only four years old. Their progress was so satisfactory, that after
while, professional musicians were engaged to teach them piano, violin
composition, as a regular part of their education. Besides these, they
study Greek, Latin, drawing and school subjects. With so much study to
be done each day, it was necessary to begin work at five o'clock in the
morning. But in spite of hard work all were happy, and as for Felix
could dampen the flow of his high spirits; he enjoyed equally work and
play, giving the same earnest attention to each. Both he and Fanny were
beginning to compose, and Felix's attempts at improvising upon some
incident in their play time would call forth peals of laughter from the
Soon more ambitious attempts at
composition were made, the aim being to
write little operas. But unless they could be performed, it was useless
try and make operas. This was a serious difficulty; but Felix was
earnest in whatever he undertook, and decided he must have an orchestra
try out his operatic efforts. It looked like an impossibility, but love
and money can accomplish wonders. A small orchestra was duly selected
among the members of the Court band. The lad Felix was to conduct these
sedate musicians, which he did modestly but without embarrassment,
on a footstool before his men, waving the baton like a little general.
Before the first performance was quite ready, Felix felt there must be
one present who could really judge of the merits of his little piece.
would do so better than his old professor of thorough bass and
Carl Zelter, the director of the Berlin Singakademie. Zelter agreed to
accept this delicate office, and a large number of friends were invited
This was only the beginning of a series
of weekly musical evenings at
the Mendelssohn home. Felix, with his dark curls, his shining eyes, and
charming manners, was the life of anything he undertook. He often
his little pieces, but did not monopolize the time. Sometimes all four
children took part, Fanny at the piano, Rebekka singing, Paul playing
'cello and Felix at the desk. Old Zelter was generally present, and
averse to praising pupils, would often say a few words of encouragement
Felix was at this time but little more
than twelve years old. He had
the last year composed fifty or sixty pieces, including a trio for
and strings, containing three movements, several sonatas for the piano,
some songs and a musical comedy in three scenes, for piano and voices.
these were written with the greatest care and precision, and with the
of each neatly added. He collected his pieces into volumes; and the
work he did the more neatly he wrote.
The boy Felix had a wonderful gift for
making friends. One day he
caught sight of Carl Maria von Weber walking along the streets of
near his home. He recognized the famous composer at once, as he had
visited his parents. The boy's dark eyes glowed with pleasure at the
recognition, and tossing back his curls, he sprang forward and threw
his arms about Weber's neck, begging him to go home with him. When the
astonished musician recovered himself, he presented the boy to Jules
Benedict, his young friend and pupil who walked at his side, saying,
is Felix Mendelssohn." For response Felix, with a bright look, seized
the young man's hand in both his own. Weber stood by smiling at the
enthusiasm. Again Felix besought them to come home with him, but Weber
to attend a rehearsal. "Is it for the opera?" the boy cried excitedly.
"Yes," answered the composer.
"Does he know all about it?" asked
Felix, pointing to Benedict.
"Indeed he does," answered the composer
laughing, "or if he doesn't he
ought to for he has been bored enough with it already." The boy's eyes
"Then you, will come with me to
my home, which is quite near,
you not?" There was no refusing those appealing dark eyes. Felix again
embraced Weber, and then challenged his new friend, Mr. Benedict, to
him to the door of his house. On entering he dragged the visitor
to the drawing-room, exclaiming, "Mama, Mama, here is a gentleman, a
of Carl Weber, who knows all about the new opera, 'Der
The young musician received a warm
welcome, and was not able to leave
until he had played on the piano all the airs he could remember from
the wonderful new opera, which Weber had come to Berlin to superintend.
Benedict was so pleased with his first visit that he came again. This
he found Felix writing music and asked what it was. "I am finishing my
quartet for piano and strings," was the simple reply. To say that
was surprised at such an answer from a boy of twelve hardly expresses
he felt. It was quite true he did not yet know Felix Mendelssohn. "And
now," said the boy, laying down his pen, "I will play to you, to prove
grateful I am that you played to us last time." He then sat down at the
piano and played correctly several melodies from "Der Freischütz,"
Benedict had played on his first visit. After that they went into the
garden, and Felix for the moment, became a rollicking boy, jumping
and climbing trees like a squirrel.
Toward the close of this year, 1821, his
teacher Zelter announced he
intended going to Wiemar, to see Goethe, the aged poet of Wiemar, and
willing to take Felix with him. The poet's house at Wiemar was indeed a
shrine to the elect, and the chance of meeting the object of so much
worship, filled the impressionable mind of Felix with reverential awe.
Zelter on his part, felt a certain pride in bringing his favorite pupil
the notice of the great man, though he would not have permitted Felix
guess what he felt for anything he possessed.
When they arrived, Goethe was walking in
his garden. He greeted both
kindness and affection, and it was arranged that Felix should play for
next day. Zelter had told Goethe much about his pupil's unusual
but the poet wished to prove these accounts by his own tests. Selecting
piece after piece of manuscript music from his collection, he asked the
to play them at sight. He was able to do so with ease, to the
of the friends who had come in to hear him. They were more delighted
he took a theme from one of the pieces and improvised upon it.
his praise, Goethe announced he had a final test, and placed on the
desk a sheet which seemed covered with mere scratches and blotches. The
laughingly exclaimed, "Who could ever read such writing as that?"
Zelter rose and came to the piano to look at this curiosity. "Why, it
Beethoven's writing; one can see that a mile off! He always wrote as if
used a broomstick for a pen, then wiped his sleeve over the wet ink!"
The boy picked out the strange
manuscript bit by bit; when he came to
end he cried, "Now I will play it through for you," which he did
a mistake. Goethe was well pleased and begged Felix to come every day
and play, while he was in the city. The two became fast friends; the
treated him as a son, and at parting begged he would soon return to
that they might again be together. During the following summer the
family made a tour through Switzerland, much to the delight of Felix,
enjoyed every moment. There was little time for real work in
but a couple of songs and the beginning of a piano quartet were
the view of Lake Geneva and its exquisite surroundings.
When Felix returned to Berlin, he had
grown much, physically as well as
mentally. He was now tall and strong, his curling locks had been
and he seemed at a single bound to have become almost a man. His happy,
boyish spirits, however, had not changed in the least. About this time
family removed from their home on the Neue Promenade, to a larger and
stately mansion, No. 3 Leipsiger Strasse, then situated on the
the town, near the Potsdam Gate. As those who know the modern city
this house, now no longer a private residence, stands in the very heart
of traffic and business. The rooms of the new home were large and
with a spacious salon suitable for musicals and large functions. A fine
garden or park belonged to the house, where were lawns shaded by forest
trees, winding paths, flowering shrubs and arbors in shady nooks,
quiet retreats. Best of all there was a garden house, with a central
which would hold several hundred people, having long windows and glass
doors looking out upon the trees and flowers. Sunday concerts were soon
resumed and given in the garden house, where, on week days the young
met, with friends and elders, to play, and act and enjoy the social
of the home. The mansion and its hospitality became famous, and every
great musician, at one time or another, came to pay his respects and
acquainted with this art-loving family.
At a family party in honor of Felix's
fifteenth birthday, his teacher
Zelter saluted him as no longer an apprentice, but as an "assistant"
member of the Brotherhood of Art. Very soon after this the young
completed two important works. The first was an Octet for strings. He
not yet seventeen when the Octet was finished, which was pronounced the
most fresh and original work he had yet accomplished. It marked a
stage in the gifted youth's development. The composition which followed
the beautiful "Midsummer Night's Dream" music. He and his sister Fanny
lately made the acquaintance of Shakespeare through a German
and had been fascinated by this fairy play. The young people spent much
of their time in the lovely garden that summer, and amid these
surroundings the music was conceived.
The Overture was first to spring into
being. When it was written out,
and Fanny often played it as a duet. In this form the composer-pianist
Moscheles heard it and was impressed by its beauty. The fascinating
and dreamy Nocturne followed. When all were elaborated and perfected,
complete work was performed by the garden house orchestra for a crowded
audience, who abundantly expressed their delight. Sir G. Macfarren has
said of it: "No one musical work contains so many points of harmony and
orchestration that are novel yet none of them have the air of
but all seem to have been written with a certainty of their success."
And now a great plan occupied
Mendelssohn's mind, a project which had
forming for some time; this was nothing less than to do something to
people to know and appreciate the great works of Johann Sebastian Bach.
Two years before Felix had been presented with a manuscript score of
"Passion according to St. Matthew," which Zelter had allowed to be
from the manuscript preserved in the Singakademie. The old man was a
devoted lover of Bach's music, and had taught his pupil in the same
When Felix found himself the possessor of this wonderful book, he set
work to master it, until he knew every bit of it by heart. As he
it deeply he was more and more impressed with its beauty and sublimity.
could hardly believe that this great work was unknown throughout
since more than a hundred years had passed since it had been written.
determined to do something to arouse people from such apathy.
Talking the matter over with musicians
and friends, he began to
them in the plan to study the music of the Passion. Soon he had secured
sixteen good voices, who rehearsed at his home once a week. His
fired them to study the music seriously, and before very long they were
anxious to give a public performance. There was a splendid choir of
four hundred voices conducted by Zelter, at the Singakademie; if he
only lend his chorus to give a trial performance, under Mendelssohn's
conducting, how splendid that would be! But Felix knew that Zelter had
no faith in the public taking any interest in Bach, so there was no
use asking. This opinion was opposed by one of his little choir, named
Devrient, who insisted that Zelter should be approached on the subject.
As he himself had been a pupil of Zelter, he persuaded Mendelssohn to
accompany him to the director's house.
Zelter was found seated at his
instrument, enveloped by a cloud of
from a long stemmed pipe. Devrient unfolded the plan of bringing this
work of Bach to the knowledge of the public. The old man listened to
plea with growing impatience, until he became quite excited, rose from
chair and paced the floor with great strides, exclaiming, "No, it is
be thought of—it is a mad scheme." To Felix argument then seemed
and he beckoned his friend to come away, but Devrient refused to move,
and kept up his persuasive argument. Finally, as though a miracle had
wrought, Zelter began to weaken, and at last gave in, and besides
all the aid in his power.
How this youth, not yet twenty,
undertook the great task of preparing
masterpiece, and what he accomplished is little short of the marvelous.
public performance, conducted by Mendelssohn, took place March 11,
with every ticket sold and more than a thousand persons turned away. A
second performance was given on March 21, the anniversary of Bach's
before a packed house. These performances marked the beginning of a
Bach revival in Germany and England, and the love for this music has
been lost, but increases each year.
And now it seemed best for Felix to
travel and see something of other
countries. He had long wished to visit England, and the present seemed
favorable time, as his friends there assured him of a warm welcome. The
pleasure he felt on reaching London was increased by the enthusiastic
greeting he received at the hands of the musical public. He first
at a Philharmonic concert on May 25, when his Symphony in C minor was
played. The next day he wrote to Fanny: "The success of the concert
night was beyond all I had ever dreamed. It began with my Symphony. I
led to the desk and received an immense applause. The Adagio was
but I went on; the Scherzo was so vigorously applauded that I had to
it. After the Finale there was lots more applause, while I was thanking
orchestra and shaking hands, till I left the room."
A continual round of functions
interspersed with concerts at which he
played or conducted, filled the young composer's time. The overture to
"Midsummer Night's Dream" was played several times and always received
with enthusiasm. On one occasion a friend was so careless as to leave
manuscript in a hackney coach on his way home and it was lost. "Never
I will write another," said Mendelssohn, which he was able to do,
making a single error.
When the London season closed,
Mendelssohn and his friend Klingemann
up to Scotland, where he was deeply impressed with the varied beauty of
the scenery. Perhaps the Hebrides enthralled him most, with their
grandeur. His impressions have been preserved in the Overture to
Cave," while from the whole trip he gained inspiration for the Scottish
On his return to London and before he
could set out for Berlin, Felix
injured his knee, which laid him up for several weeks, and prevented
presence at the home marriage of his sister Fanny, to William Hensel,
young painter. This was a keen disappointment to all, but Fanny was not
to be separated from her family, as on Mendelssohn's return, he found
young couple had taken up their residence in the Gartenhaus.
Mendelssohn had been greatly pleased
with his London visit, and though
grand tour he had planned was really only begun, he felt a strong
to return to England. However, other countries had to be visited first.
following May he started south, bound for Vienna, Florence and Rome.
way led through Wiemar and gave opportunity for a last visit to Goethe.
They passed a number of days in sympathetic companionship. The poet
wanted music, but did not seem to care for Beethoven's compositions,
which he said did not touch him at all, though he felt they were great,
After visiting numerous German cities,
Switzerland was reached and its
wonderful scenery stirred Mendelssohn's poetic soul to the depths.
Yet, though his passionate love of nature was so impressed by the great
mountains, forests and waterfalls, it was the sea which he loved best
all. As he approached Naples, and saw the sea sparkling in the sun
bay, he exclaimed: "To me it is the finest object in nature! I love it
almost more than the sky. I always feel happy when I see before me the
expanse of water." Rome, of course, was a center of fascination. Every
he picked out some special object of interest to visit, which made that
particular day one never to be forgotten. The tour lasted until the
of 1832, before Mendelssohn returned to his home in Berlin, only to
it shortly afterwards to return to London. This great city, in spite of
fogs, noises and turmoil, appealed to him more than the sunshine of
the fascination of Florence or the beauty of Rome.
The comment on Mendelssohn that "he
lived years where others only lived
weeks," gives a faint idea of the fulness with which his time was
It is only possible to touch on his activities in composition, for he
was always at work. In May 1836 when he was twenty-seven, he conducted
Düsseldorf the first performance of his oratorio of "St. Paul." At
period he wrote many of those charming piano pieces which he called
without Words." This same year brought deepest happiness to
in his engagement to Cécile Jean-Renaud, the beautiful daughter
French Protestant clergyman. The following spring they were married, a
marriage of love and stedfast devotion.
The greatest work of Mendelssohn's
career was his oratorio of "Elijah"
which had long grown in his mind, until it was on the eve of completion
in the spring of 1846. In a letter to the famous singer Jenny Lind, an
intimate friend, he writes: "I am jumping about my room for joy. If my
turns out half as good as I fancy it is, how pleased I shall be."
During these years in which he conceived
the "Elijah," his fame had
widely. Honors had been bestowed on him by many royalties. The King of
Saxony had made him Capellmeister of his Court, and Queen Victoria had
shown him many proofs of personal regard, which endeared him more than
to the country which had first signally recognized his genius.
It was Leipsic perhaps which felt the
power of his genius most
conclusively. The since famous Leipsic Conservatory was founded by him,
he was unceasing in his labors to advance art in every direction. He
found time to carry out a long cherished plan to erect, at the
the Thomas School, Leipsic, a monument to the memory of Sebastian Bach.
Let us take one more glimpse of our
beloved composer. It was the
August 26, 1846. The Town Hall of Birmingham, England, was filled with
expectant throng, for today the composer of the "Elijah" was to conduct
his greatest work, for the first time before an English audience. When
Mendelssohn stepped upon the platform, he was greeted by a deafening
the reception was overwhelming, and at the close the entire audience
to its feet in a frenzy of admiration. He wrote to his brother Paul
evening: "No work of mine ever went so admirably at the first
or was received with such enthusiasm both by musicians and public."
April the following year, four performances of the "Elijah" took place
Exeter Hall, the composer conducting, the Queen and Prince Albert being
present on the second occasion. This visit to England which was to be
last, had used his strength to the limit of endurance, and there was
a shadow of a coming breakdown. Soon after he rejoined his family in
Frankfort, his sister Fanny suddenly passed away in Berlin. The news
broken to him too quickly, and with a shriek he fell unconscious to the
From this shock he never seemed to
rally, though at intervals for a
he still composed. His death occurred November 4, 1847. It can be said
him that his was a beautiful life, in which "there was nothing to tell
was not honorable to his memory and profitable to all men."
Mendelssohn's funeral was imposing. The
first portion was solemnized at
Leipsic, attended by crowds of musicians and students, one of the
bearing on a cushion a silver crown presented by his pupils of the
Conservatory. Beside the crown rested the Order "Pour le
on him by the King of Prussia. The band, during the long procession,
the E minor "Song without Words," and at the close of the service the
sang the final chorus from Bach's "Passion." The same night the body
taken to Berlin and placed in the family plot in the old Dreifaltigkeit
Kirch-hof, beside that of his devoted sister Fanny.