Influential People: Felix Mendelssohn

aka Jakob Ludwig Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy

“Musical prodigies … are probably no longer so rare; but what this little man can do in extemporizing and playing at sight borders the miraculous, and I could not have believed it possible at so early an age.” “And yet you heard Mozart in his seventh year at Frankfurt?” said Zelter. “Yes”, answered Goethe, “… but what your pupil already accomplishes, bears the same relation to the Mozart of that time that the cultivated talk of a grown-up person bears to the prattle of a child.”

Todd 2003, p. 89

Mendelssohn. He’s only appeared a few times on the blog so far, with his violin concerto,  Hebrides overture, and concert review of Elias. But now, finally, we get to some of his other, much earlier work, and he gets the same treatment as Mozart and Haydn have been getting.

Again, for the whole play-by-play of his life, check out his Wikipedia article. He was born in 1809 (a year before Chopin and Schumann, and two before Liszt), and as I think most people would agree, Young Wolfgang had nothing on Young Felix. Mozart’s early symphonies, while exceptional works for anyone not of legal driving age, still don’t hold a candle to Mendelssohn’s dozen string symphonies, which he wrote between the ages of 12 and 14, followed by his first symphony in C minor at 15. There’s no comparison, but that might not be fair. Music had come a long way in those few decades between Mozart’s passing and Mendelssohn’s arrival. However, it was perhaps not as much as Mendelssohn realized.

From these earliest compositions, we can see that Mendelssohn writes masterful counterpoint and string work the way other people brush their teeth: it seems almost second nature. He slapped out a dozen string symphonies before even trying his hand at a quartet. Granted, the symphonies are written in four parts like a quartet would be, except there are divisions. This knack for counterpoint and baroque tradition likely stemmed from the Mendelssohns’ instruction from Carl Friedrich Zelter. Wiki says:

Zelter had almost certainly been recommended as a teacher by his aunt Sarah Levy, who had been a pupil of W. F. Bach and a patron of C. P. E. Bach. Sarah Levy was a talented keyboard player in her own right, often playing with Zelter’s orchestra at the Sing-Akademie zu Berlin, of which she and the Mendelssohn family were leading patrons. Sarah had formed an important collection of Bach family manuscripts which she bequeathed to the Singakademie; Zelter, whose tastes in music were conservative, was also an admirer of the Bach tradition.

So there’s definitely that as an early influence on Mendelssohn, and two highlights of Mendelssohn’s influence are his inestimable contributions to reviving works of J.S. Bach (the famous-est one) and Franz Schubert, making sure his ninth (the C major) symphony got its premiere after Robert Schumann got his hands on the score. He played a significant part in making those two composers the household names they are today.

His influence with his own compositions is different, I think. He was a staunch conservative, from what it seems, and from a perhaps mildly ignorant stance, I would argue that his influence came more from preserving and perfecting much more classical-era styles than innovating like his contemporaries. But it does also mean that in this way, he was still unique, and some things, like the independent, standalone concert overtures (Hebrides and Midsummer Night’s Dream) and his Songs without Words were likely new forms at the time.

Wikipedia makes a salient point here, stating that “Richard Taruskin points out that, although Mendelssohn produced works of extraordinary mastery at a very early age…” and quotes below:

he never outgrew his precocious youthful style. […] He remained stylistically conservative […] feeling no need to attract attention with a display of ‘revolutionary’ novelty. Throughout his short career he remained comfortably faithful to the musical status quo – that is, the “classical” forms, as they were already thought of by his time. His version of romanticism, already evident in his earliest works, consisted in musical “pictorialism” of a fairly conventional, objective nature (though exquisitely wrought).[84]

And so while, yes, it seems he came out of the womb as a fully-formed, unquestionable genius, in his short three-ish decades of life, I would argue that he didn’t get much beyond (or outside) that. Granted, the Scottish and Italian symphonies are far more masterful works than his early string symphonies (which we will begin to discuss this week), but I would consider those refinements, perfection of a style rather than blazing much of a new trail, especially when compared with those people he was born within only a few years of.

Regardless, what he brought to the musical world, of his own compositions or those of others, has had a profound and lasting impact on music and will obviously continue to do so. This week, we turn our attention toward Felix Mendelssohn. Stay tuned.

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