Impact: Mendelssohn

by Brett Carl
  • Mendelssohn's Life
  • Mendelssohn's Spiritual Life
  • St. Paul Oratorio
  • Paul's Influence
  • Bibliography
  • Mendelssohn 1809-1847

    Mendelssohn's Life (1809-1847) back to top

    Jakob Ludwig Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, the son of a Berlin Banker was born at Hamburg, February 3, 1809. He was the grandson of the famous German philosopher Moses Mendelssohn. Felix was a German composer, pianist, musical conductor, teacher, and one of the most celebrated figures of the Romantic period. In contrast to most composers, Mendelssohn was raised in a luxurious lifestyle. He was born to Jewish parents, but in order to live in accordance with 19th century liberal ideas they adopted the Christian faith. Felix was baptized in his youth along with his brother and two sisters into the Lutheran Faith. Mendelssohn studied piano with Ludwig Berger and composition with K.F. Zelter, who had an incredible influence on his development. Mendolssohn was highly educated in the arts through music, literature, painting and travel. He was very mature as a boy and wrote many compositions in his childhood years, including 5 operas, 11 symphonies for string orchestra, concerti, sonatas, and fugues. He made his first public appearance at the age of 9 and performed his first original composition at the age of 9 years old.

    Mendelssohn's popularity and prestige during his lifetime were enormous in the German states, England and Austria. He held many positions throughout his musical career. In 1833 he conducted the Lower Rhine Festival in Dussledorff and later settled there as the temporary general music director(1833-35). In 1835, Mendelssohn left for Leipzig where he was the conductor of the Gewandhaus Orchestra in Leipzig. He was commissioned as music director to King Frederick William IV of Prussia in 1841. In 1843 he helped to organize and found the Leipzig conservatory where with his friend Schumann, he taught composition. In May of 1847, his sister and one of his closest friends died. This was a crushing blow to his life as well. He collapsed physically after hearing this news. After her death his motivation and energies left him and he died a few months later in Leipzig on November 4, 1947.

    Despite Mendelssohn's many positions and busy schedule, he was a prolific composer. The following are some of his works:

    • Five symphonies, including:
      • the Italian Symphony (1833)
      • the Scotch Symphony (1843)
    • His overtures:
      • The Hebrides (or Fingal's cave; 1832)
      • Meeresstille und gluckliche Fahrt (1828-32)
      • Die schone Melusine (1833)
    • Violin Concerto of 1844
    • His music for plays:
      • the overture for Victor Hugo's Ruy Blas (1839)
      • Midsummer Night's Dream
    • Choral music
      • Psalms
      • Hymn of Praise
      • Oratorio's
      • St. Paul (1836)
      • Elijah (1846)
    • Chamber Music
      • Six string quartets -- The best are the two in E-flat opp. 12 and 94, and the late quartet in F minor, op. 80 (1847).
      • two quintets
      • an octet in E-flat major
      • a sextet for piano and violin
      • two sonatas for piano and violoncello:
        • D minor, op. 49
        • C minor, op. 66
    • Piano Music: Songs without Words

    Mendelssohn's Spiritual Life* back to top

    Felix was born into a Jewish family but because of social issues the family converted to the Lutheran faith. He was baptized in his youth along with his brother and two sisters into the Lutheran Faith. Mendelssohn embraced Christianity fervently his entire life. His biographer wrote the following about his life, "He was faithful to the Christian religion and took it seriously(Werner, 43-4)...Reverence, fear God, the sense of praise, of gratitude, of bitter complaints and of pride in one's faith, all these lie in his personality. He had great respect for the Biblical Word(208)." Mendelssohn joined the Lutheran Church, and was attracted to the music of the Protestant Bach (Kaufman, 87).

    According to Patrick Kavanaugh in his book The Spiritual Lives of Great Composers, Mendelssohn never hesitated to display his faith openly to those around him. One composer wrote of his admiration for Mendelssohnm: "So richly favored and endowed, so beloved and admired, and at the same time so strong in mind and character, that he never once let slip the bridle of religious discipline, nor the just sense of modesty and humility, nor ever fell short of his standard duty(Devrient, 302). Mendelssohn's wife, Cecile (formerly Jeanrenaud) was the daughter of a French Protestant clergyman. She was known to be a pious believer and a womenaof prayer (Marek, 257).

    The Bible was an important part of Mendelssohn's life. It provided much of the inspiration for his work. Whenever he had to set a piece of scripture to music, he was always "painstakingly precise about the wording(Ja cob, 220). One of Mendelssohn's close friends said the following about him. "He felt that all faith must be based on Holy Writ (Polko, 115-6)." Kavanaugh shows that Mendelssohn congratulated his librettist saying, "I am glad to learn that you are searching out the always heart-affecting sense of the scriptural words(Edwards, 13). Mendelssohn did not like the text to be altered and when it was he said "I Have time after time had to restore the precise text of the Bible. It is the best in the end (Alexander, 96)."

    Mendelssohn was a man of God who sought to do his best to write music that was pleasing to him He wrote the following in one of his letters " Pray to God that he may create in us a clean heart and renew a right spirit within us(Hensel, 337).

    * Most of the foregoing information on Mendelssohn's spiritual life comes from Kavenaugh's book The Spiritual Lives of Great Composers.

    St. Paul Oratio back to top

    The St. Paul Oratorio, the first of Mendelssohn's two oratorio's, was begun in Dusseldorf and finished in Leipzig in the winter of 1835. The libretto was a joint compilation between Furst and Schubring with consultation with Mendelssohn. The Oratorio itself consists of three major themes. These are the martyrdom of Stephen, the conversion of Paul, and the apostle's subsequent career. The work was written by a commission from the Cecilien Verein of Frankfort in 1831, but was not performed until 1836 at the Lower Rhine Festival at Dusseldorf.

    The first half of this work begins after a long and expressive overture for orchestra and organ. The first part opens with a strong and exultant chorus ("Lord! Thou art God"). It is written effectively on a massive scale, and it's middle part runs into a restless, agitated theme ("The Heathen furiously rage"). It closes, however, in the same energetic and jubilant manner which characterizes its opening, and leads directly to the Choral ("To God on High"). This section is serenely beautiful in its flowing harmony. The next section is the martyrdom of Stephen. Here the bass voices accuse him of blasphemy in a vigorous recitative. Stephen sings a brief solo then shouts from the chorus are heard ("Take him away"). He is soon stoned and a few bars of recitative in the tenor part tell the sad story of this tragic event. A beautiful chorale of submission then occurs ("To Thee, O Lord, I yield my spirit"). Saul soon appears criticizing the apostles. His first aria is a bass which is fiery and full of energy("consume them all"). Next comes a beautiful arioso for alto. Then the conversion scene occurs. The voice from heaven("Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me") is represented by the soprano choir which stands in contrast to the rest of the work. After an orchestra interlude the music builds up with a crescendo to the vigorous chorus "Rise up! Arise!" This is followed by a chorale("Sleepers, wake! A Voice is calling"). The music grows deeper and Saul prays a prayer asking for God to have mercy on Him. A more joyful part occurs in the bass solo with chorus ("I will praise thee, O Lord, my God). After Saul receives his sight, a grand reflective chorus sings out ("O great is the Depth of the Riches of Wisdom"). This ends the first part of the oratorio with a powerful climax.

    * For further information consult the books in the Bibliography. Much of the foregoing information on the St. Paul Oratio comes from George Upton's book: The Standard Oratorios: Their stories, their music, and their composers; Chicago: A.C. McClurg and Co., 1896.

    Paul's Influence* back to top

    Mendelssohn first began considering writing the St. Paul Oratorio while in Rome. He had spent a lot of time looking at a great deal of Titian and Raphael in the galleries of Rome. Many speculate that this was his inspiration for the Oratorio. Mendelssohn could have explained his reason for choosing Paul as the subject for his first Oratorio. But when this work was revealed to the public the explanations were not necessary. He believed that a work either justifies itself or it could not be justified. Paul, as a figure, was tremendously important to Felix both personally and in his own time period. Mendelssohn was born to Jewish parents just as Paul and converted to Christianity (although in a different manner) like Paul. "For Paul, the founder of the supranational religion, was the first man of classical intiquity who denounced the mysticism of blood and race which characterized the peoples of antiquity." Paul did not look at Jews or Greeks or Romans or Pagans as God's chosen people. People ceased to be prosecuted for their birth. According to Heinrich Jacob, what Paul proclaimed was pan-humanism. "What a powerful appeal would such a doctrine as 'the nullity of the fleshly heritage' have to someone like Mendelssohn!" Felix was dedicated to make sure that the text of the St. Paul Oratorio did not compromise the scriptures and that he did not make any mistakes. In Dusseldorf Felix came across a book about early Christianity. It was called Gfrorer's Geschichte des Urchristentums. He was so intrigued by this book that he took it every where he went. It went everywhere from riding in the woods to reading in the rain. Mendelssohn read everything he could about Greek history and daily life in Paul's day. He probably knew more than was necessary for his task as a composer. Nevertheless, the fascination with Paul and with presenting an accurate picture of Paul in his oratorio remained the most important things about this work. Paul must have had a tremendous influence on Mendelssohn considering the time and the labor spent researching, the similarity to his own life and Sitz Im Leben. Let us not forget to follow Felix's own advice and to the work justify itself. There we can see one last place where Paul influenced Mendelssohn.

    * For further information consult the Bibliography. But special attention and thanks must be given to Heinrich Edward Jacob: Felix Mendelssohn and His times; Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc.,1963.

    Bibliography back to top
    • Alexander, W.F., editor, Selected Letters of Mendelssohn. London: Swan Sonnenschein and Co., 1894.
    • Devrient, Edward, My Recollections of Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy. New York: Vienna House, 1972.
    • Edwards, Frederick George, The History of Mendelssohn's Oratorio "Elijah." London: Novello, Ewer and Co., 1896.
    • Elvers, Rudolf, Felix Mendelssohn: A life in Letters. New York: International Publishing Co., 1986.
    • Encarta '95. Microsoft Corporation. 1992-1994.
    • Encyclopedia Americana Volume XVIII of XXX. Grolier Inc., 1981.
    • Encyclopedia Britannica. Volume VIIII. Chicago: Encyclopedia Britanica Inc., 1993.
    • Grout, Donald and Palisca, Claude, A History of Western Music (fourth edition). W.W. Norton and Company, 1988.
    • Hensel, Sebastian, The Mendelssohn Family: From Letters and Journals. (VI) Westport: Greenwood Press, 1968.
    • Jacob, Heinrick Edward, Felix Mendelssohn and His Times. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice- Hall, Inc.,1963.
    • Hendrie, Gerald, Mendelssohn's Rediscovery of Bach. Buckinghamshire: The Open University Press, 1971.
    • Hiller, Ferdinand, Mendelssohn, Letters and Recollections. New York: Vienna House, 1972.
    • Kaufman, Shima, Mendelssohn, "A Second Elijah." Westport: Greenwood Press, 1962.
    • Kavanaugh, Patrick. The Spiritual Lives of Great Composers. Nashville, Tennessee: Sparrow Press, 1992.
    • Kupferberg, Herbert, The Mendelssohns; Three Generations of Genius. New York: Charles Scribner's and Sons, 1972.
    • Marek, George R., Gentle Genius, the story of Felix Mendelssohn. New York: Funk and Wagnalls, 1972.
    • Mendelssohn, Paul, Letters of Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy from 1833 to 1847. Freeport, New York: Books for Libraries Press, 1970.
    • Polko, Elise, Reminisces of Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy. New York: Leypoldt and Holt, 1869.
    • Radcliffe, Phillip, Mendelssohn. London: J.M. Dent and Sons, Ltd., 1967.
    • Stratton, Stephen S., Mendelssohn. J.M. Dent and Sons ltd., 1934.
    • Upton, George, The Standard Oratorios: Their stories, their music, and their composers. Chicago: A.C. McClurg and Co., 1896.
    • Werner, Eric, Mendelssohn: A New Image of the Composer and His Age. London: Collier-MacMillan, Ltd., 1963.