Felix Mendelssohn was born on 3 February 1809, in Hamburg, at the time an independent city-state, in the same house where, a year later, the dedicate and first performer of his Violin Concerto, Ferdinand David, was to be born. Mendelssohn’s father was the banker Abraham Mendelssohn, the son of the German Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn. His mother was Lea Salomon, a member of the Itzig family and a sister of Jakob Salomon Bartholdy. His parents were Jewish, but converted to Christianity before he, his brother and two sisters were born. Mendelssohn was the second of four children; his older sister Fanny also displayed exceptional and precocious musical talent.
The family moved to Berlin in 1811, leaving Hamburg in disguise fearing French revenge for the Mendelssohn bank’s role in breaking Napoleon’s Continental System blockade. Abraham and Lea Mendelssohn sought to give their children, Fanny, Felix, Paul and Rebecka the best education possible. In Berlin, the young Mendelssohn began taking piano lessons with Ludwig Berger. Mendelssohn also studied composition under composer K.F. Zelter as a child. In 1816, he broadened his lessons, studying under pianist Marie Bigot during an extended stay in Paris, France. Fanny became a well-known pianist and amateur composer; originally Abraham had thought that she, rather than Felix, would be the more musical. However, at that time, it was not considered proper, by either Abraham or Felix, for a woman to have a career in music, so Fanny remained an active but non-professional musician. Abraham was also disinclined to allow Felix to follow a musical career until it became clear that he seriously intended to dedicate himself to it.
Mendelssohn grew up in an intellectual environment. Frequent visitors to the salon organized by his parents at the family’s home in Berlin included artists, musicians and scientists, amongst them Wilhelm and Alexander von Humboldt, and the mathematician Peter Gustav Lejeune Dirichlet (whom Mendelssohn’s sister Rebecka would later marry).Sarah Rothenburg wrote of the household that “Europe came to their living room”.
Mendelssohn was quick to establish himself as a musical prodigy. During his childhood, he composed a handful of operas and 11 symphonies. At just 9 years old, he made his public debut in Berlin. In 1819, Felix Mendelssohn joined the Singakademie music academy and began composing non-stop. In 1820 alone, he wrote a violin sonata, two piano sonatas, multiple songs, a cantata, a brief opera and a male quartet. In 1826, Mendelssohn produced one of his best known works, Overture to a Midsummer Night’s Dream. He presented his opera The Marriage of the Camacho, the following year in Berlin. It was the only opera of his performed in public during his life.
At Singakademie, Mendelssohn also became a conductor. In 1829, he conducted a performance of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion. The performance’s success led to other great opportunities, including a chance to conduct the London Philharmonic Society that same year. Inspired by his visit to England and Scotland, Mendelssohn began composing his Symphony No. 3; it took more than a decade to complete. Known as his Scottish Symphony, the work commemorated his visit to Holyrood Chapel in Edinburgh and the highlands.
Mendelssohn continued to compose prolifically while working as a conductor. He wrote the Reformation Symphony in 1830, and followed that accomplishment with a three-year European tour. During that time, he published his first book of songs, entitled Songs without Words (1832). Italian Symphony (1833), another of Mendelssohn’s best known works, was also born of this period. In 1835, Mendelssohn was granted an illustrious role: conductor of the Gewandhaus Orchestra in Leipzig.
In 1836, a year after his father died, Mendelssohn met Cécile Jean Renaud, a clergyman’s daughter, in Frankfurt. Mendelssohn was 10 years Jean Renaud’s senior. She was just 16 when they got engaged. The couple married on March 28, 1837. Over the course of their marriage, they had five children.
The same year that he married, Mendelssohn composed his Piano Concerto No. 2 in D Minor. From 1838 to 1844, he toiled away on his Violin Concerto in E Minor. Prior to the piece’s completion, Mendelssohn founded the Leipzig Conservatory of Music and became its director. In so doing, he put Leipzig on the map as the musical center 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, Mendelssohn’s sister, Fanny, who was a lifelong inspiration to him, died suddenly. Her death left him so devastated that he soon lost his own zest for life. His health, already compromised by his strenuous career, began to deteriorate rapidly. Six months later, on November 4, 1847, Felix Mendelssohn died of a ruptured blood vessel in Leipzig, Germany. He had recently returned from a brief visit to Switzerland, where he’d completed composition of his String Quartet in F Minor.
Although he was only 38 when he died, Mendelssohn managed to distinguish himself as one of the first significant Romantic composers of the 1800s.