Mendelssohn's prodigious musical talents were recognized
early, however, his parents were hesitant to publicize their sons abilities. It
was not until it became clear that Mendelssohn wished to seriously pursue a
career in music that his father relented. He began piano lessons at the age of
six. In 1817, he began to take composition lessons from Carl Friedrich Zelter
in Berlin, who became an important influence on Mendelssohn, and he often
played with Zelter's orchestra at the Berlin Singakademie. His early
compositions were often performed by a private orchestra in the home of his
parents for their guests. Between the ages of 12 and 14, Mendelssohn composed
twelve symphonies for strings only and at the age of 16 his first symphony for
Mendelssohn's aunt Sarah Levy, who quite possibly had
recommended Zelter as Mendelssohn's teacher, was also to be a profound
influence on him. Sarah, a talented keyboard player herself, had been a pupil
W.F. Bach and a patron of C.P.E. Bach. She had collected numerous manuscripts
by the Bach family, which she later bequeathed to the Singakademie. Sarah and
Zelter, who was also an admirer of Bach, became a strong influence on
Mendelssohn's conservative musical tastes. This no doubt led to Mendelssohn
being at the forefront of what is known as the "Bach Revival."
In 1829, with the backing of Zelter and actor Eduard
Devrient, Mendelssohn put together and conducted a performance of J.S. Bach's
St. Matthew Passion. It was the first performance of the piece since Bach's
death in 1750. The performance was a success and gained Mendelssohn widespread
acclaim at the age of 20. After the performance, Mendelssohn also made one of
his few references to his origins: "To think it took an actor and a Jew's
son to revive the greatest Christian music for the world!"
Despite Mendelssohn's conservative tastes in music, he was
nonetheless a leading figure of the early Romantic movement. The overture to
his incidental music for A Midsummer Night's Dream is one of the
earliest examples of the concert overture, a form that would become a favorite
among many Romantic composers. His numerous Songs without Words were
also a great contribution to the single movement, short piano pieces that
predominated during the Romantic period.
Also in 1829, Mendelssohn made his first trip to England and
would later make nine more visits during his lifetime. Mendelssohn gained a
considerable following in British music circles, including Queen Victoria and
her husband Prince Albert. He edited the first complete editions of Handel's
oratorios and J.S. Bach's organ music for British publishers and two of his own
compositions, namely the Scottish Symphony and Hebrides Overture, where
inspired by Scotland's landscapes.
In 1835, Mendelssohn was named conductor of the Leipzig
Gewandhaus Orchestra. During the nine years he spent in Leipzig—once the domain
of J.S. Bach himself—Mendelssohn sought to heighten the town's musical culture.
As conductor of the Gewandhaus Orchestra, he revived interest in the works of
Franz Schubert, as well as produced a series of "historical concerts."
Alongside these concerts featuring music of the past, he also performed works
by his contemporaries.
Mendelssohn's lasting mark on Leipzig was the creation of
the Leipzig Conservatory in 1843, now known as the University of Music and
Theatre Leipzig. He persuaded some of the leading musicians and scholars of his
time to join him, including, Ignaz Moscheles, Robert Schumann, Joseph Joachim
and Moritz Hauptmann. After his death, Moscheles succeeded Mendelssohn as head
of the Conservatory.
On November 4, 1847 at the age of 38, less than six months
after the death of his sister, Mendelssohn died from a series of strokes. His
funeral was held at the Paulinerkirche in Leipzig and he was buried in the
Trinity Cemetery in Berlin-Kreuzberg.
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