Felix Mendelssohn: Composer of the Month
Welcome to Composer of the Month!
Each month, we celebrate the anniversary of a composer by highlighting their work and history, as well as giving you nice arrangements of some of the artist’s most iconic pieces that you can download directly into your Newzik library! This time, we discuss one of the greatest German pianists and composers of the romantic era: Felix Mendelssohn.
“Though everything else may appear shallow and repulsive, even the smallest task in music is so absorbing, and carries us so far away from town, country, earth, and all worldly things, that it is truly a blessed gift of God.”
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A few words about Felix Mendelssohn
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Felix Mendelssohn was born on February 3rd, 1809, in Hamburg, Germany. Both his parents were originally Jewish, and he was also the grandson of the famous Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn. At two years old, Felix, his brother, his two sisters and his parents moved to Berlin, where he began taking piano lessons with Ludwig Berger as well as composition under the teaching of composer K.F. Zelter. In 1816, he broadened his lessons, studying under pianist Marie Bigot while he was staying in Paris, France with his family.
The young Felix Mendelssohn was quick to establish himself as a musical prodigy. During his childhood, he composed not just one but a handful of operas, as well as 11 symphonies. He made his public debut in Berlin in 1818, at just 9 years old.
The early works of Felix MendelssohnIn
In 1819, Felix Mendelssohn joined the Singakademie – the academy of music – and began composing even more. In 1820 alone, he wrote a violin sonata, two piano sonatas, multiple songs, a cantata, a brief opera as well as a male quartet. A few years later, in 1826, he produced what would be remembered as one of his best works, and one of the most famous: Overture to a Midsummer Night’s Dream.
The next year in Berlin, he presented his opera The Marriage of the Camacho – the only opera he wrote that was performed in public during his lifetime. It was also at that time that he began conducting at the Singakademie. In 1829, he conducted a performance of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, a tremendous success that opened him many doors, including that of the London Philharmonic Society where he was invited to conduct the same year. He visited England, spent some time also in Scotland, and was inspired to start composing his Symphony No. 3. Famously enough, it will take him more than 10 years to finish this work, also known as the “Scottish Symphony”.
Even though his first occupation was conducting, Mendelssohn was always a prolific composer nonetheless. In 1830, he wrote the Reformation Symphony, starting a three-year European tour shortly after. During that time, he published his first book of songs, entitled Songs without Words (1832). In 1835, a sign of his growing fame, Mendelssohn was granted an illustrious role: conductor of the Gewandhaus Orchestra in Leipzig.
The later works
Two years later, in 1837, Mendelssohn composed his Piano Concerto No. 2 in D Minor, and also got married in Frankfurt to Cécile Jeanrenaud, a clergyman’s daughter who was quite younger than he was, getting engaged at 16. From 1838 to 1844, he worked continuously on what probably constitutes his best work piece of music ever, Violin Concerto in E Minor.
He also founded the Leipzig Conservatory of Music and became its director, thus establishing Leipzig as the heart of the musical culture of Germany. After finishing Violin Concerto in E Minor, Mendelssohn conducted a string of concerts for the Philharmonic. In 1846 he presented his newly written Elijah at the Birmingham Festival.
In May 1847, a tragic event deeply affected Felix Mendelssohn: the death of Fanny, his sister, who was also his muse. Her death left him so devastated that he became ill. His health, already compromised by intense career, deteriorated quickly. Only six months later, on November 4, 1847, Felix Mendelssohn died of a ruptured blood vessel in Leipzig, Germany, after a short stay in Switzerland. Despite his early age when he died – he was only 38 years old – Felix Mendelssohn managed to establish himself as one of the most important composers of the Romantic, and definitely one of the most significant ones of 19th century Germany. One can only wonder what marvelous melodies he could have composed had him stayed alive a bit longer. He himself hoped that he would keep on composing in the afterlife: Mendelssohn had once described death, in a letter to a stranger:
“Death is a place where it is to be hoped there is still music, but no more sorrow or partings.”
And now, the music!
Violin Concerto in E minor
In 1838, Mendelssohn wrote in a letter to violinist Ferdinand David: “I would like to write a concerto for you next winter. I have an idea for an opening in E minor, which leaves me restless.” Once achieved in 1844, Mendelssohn’s concerto was a tremendous success.
Up to this day, it is one of the most iconic pieces ever written by Mendelssohn, and a classic to violinists all around the world. If the structure of this work isn’t particularly innovative – a rapid movement, followed by slower then, then a rapid one again – it brings new ideas that set it apart the classical period that precedented, and helps establishing the new codes of the Romantic era. Instead of introducing the theme of the piece by an orchestra tutti, the solo start immediately, after only a few arpeggios. The solo part demands a great deal of virtuosity, and is filled with complex playing techniques such as fast double strings or frenetic ricochets before the cadences. Also, at the end of the first movement, the concerto continues without a break, which was quite innovative at the time.
Challenge yourself with this piano reduction of the concerto, which also contains the solo part as an independent voice.
If you play a string instrument, you might prefer to get your own part of this full string arrangement. Each part comes with the full score so you can follow the rest of the music.
Octet in E-flat major, Op.20
Lieder Ohne Worte – Op.19 No.6
Lieder Ohne Worte – Op.30 No.6
The Opus 30 of the Songs without Words was composed between 1833 and 1834, and is another take on a Venetian gondola song. This one is faster though, and has a much more dramatic dimension than the Op.19 No.6, yet also more nostalgic and soft at times. Heavy sforzandi alternate with trills over several measures, giving the tune a furiously romantic character.