Felix Mendelssohn

1809–1847

Romantic

Mendelssohn’s first name was Felix, which in Latin means ‘lucky’ or ‘happy’. It was – luckily! – just right for him. A boy as gifted as Mozart, he was born in Hamburg to a wealthy, loving family. His grandfather was a great Jewish philosopher, and he was comfortable chatting to very brainy adults because his parents kept inviting top academics to their home!

Felix became an excellent pianist (especially at sight-reading), a fine conductor and a great composer. He was also a keen artist, writer and linguist. He was healthy and popular. He wrote choral works that the Victorians loved – his most famous is Elijah. He became Queen Victoria’s favourite composer and Prince Albert was his pupil.

Felix’s sister Fanny had much musical talent too, but at that time it wasn’t considered proper for a woman to have a career in music, so sadly Fanny did not make it her profession. But she and Felix got on well. Felix even published some of her songs, pretending they were his own. No one noticed!

He wrote music quickly and his symphonies were instant hits. The Hebrides overture (or Fingal’s Cave), a famous piece for orchestra that Mendelssohn wrote after travelling to a Scottish island, is so descriptive that it’s like a painting in sound. The ‘Wedding March’ from his music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream (a play by Shakespeare) is still played at real weddings all over the world. He wrote lovely chamber works, and for solo piano he composed Songs without Words – attractive pieces where the piano does the singing! Mendelssohn also brought the music of J.S. Bach to everyone’s attention, giving the first performance of the St Matthew Passion since Bach’s day 80 years earlier; today the work is performed countless times per year.

The trouble with Mendelssohn was that he worked too hard. He started to get tired and unwell, and then his beloved sister Fanny died. He was very upset and, within six months, he himself died of a stroke. He was only 38 years old; he wrote so much great music that it is hard to believe he died so young – perhaps he wasn’t so ‘Lucky’ in the end.

Felix Mendelssohn, courtesy of Benjamin Chai

Play Music!

Play Music!

Sample Mendelssohn’s music here…

The Hebrides, Op. 26, ‘Fingal’s Cave’

Struck by seeing the Scottish Island of Staffa and its rock sea cave, Fingal’s Cave, Mendelssohn wrote the first bit of this music: when you listen, imagine him in his boat on the water, isolated – nothing around except this island and its extraordinary, powerful-looking cave.

Performers: Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra; Oliver Dohnányi

Taken from Naxos 8.550222

Lieder ohne Worte (‘Songs without Words’): No. 1 in E major, Op. 19 No. 1

This is the first of Mendelssohn’s Songs without Words, short lyrical pieces written for skilled amateur pianists. Instead of accompanying a singer, the piano does the accompaniment and the singing. Sometimes it’s harder than it sounds for the pianist to make the melody really clear!

Performers: Péter Nagy, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.554055

Piano Concerto No. 2 in D minor, Op. 40: III. Finale: Presto scherzando

A typically lively and light final movement from Mendelssohn, the piano sounding nimble and sunny. Piano Concerto No. 2 was first performed in Birmingham. Usually Mendelssohn wrote music quickly, but this took him a while. He was keen to impress his English audience!

Performers: Benjamin Frith, piano; Slovak State Philharmonic Orchestra, Košice; Robert Stankovsky

Taken from Naxos 8.553267

Do You Know?

Do You Know?

See if you can answer the questions below!

 Which instrument did Mendelssohn play?

a. Cello
b. Piano
c. Every instrument

 Mendelssohn had a much-loved and very talented sister. What was her name?

a. Gertrude
b. Tracy
c. Fanny

 Which great composer did Mendelssohn help to make popular?

a. Beethoven
b. Hummel
c. J.S. Bach

 Mendelssohn so loved Scotland he was inspired by the place to write which piece of music?

a. Scotland the Brave
b. Mull of Kintyre
c. The Hebrides

 Mendelssohn wrote one of the most-played of all tunes. Which was it?

a. Wedding March
b. Bohemian Rhapsody
c. Ode to Joy


Key Facts...

Key Facts…
  1. Felix Mendelssohn started piano lessons at six years old, with his mother.
  2. Mendelssohn’s parents changed their name to Mendelssohn-Bartholdy when they renounced their Jewish religion and became Christian.
  3. Mendelssohn wrote an Octet (four violins, two violas, two cellos) when he was 16 years old; people perform it regularly to this day.
  4. Mendelssohn loved Britain, and his trips to Scotland sparked two of his famous works: The Hebrides and the ‘Scottish’ Symphony.
  5. Mendelssohn was happily married and had five children.

Play More Music!

Play More Music!

Here is more music to listen to. Click the + to see tracks and information about each work!

Orchestral Works


Symphony No. 4 in A major, Op. 90, ‘Italian’

Mendelssohn’s Fourth Symphony is a brilliant, popular symphony, brimming with tunes and energy. Oddly enough, he was unhappy with it and it was only published after his death – so although it is numbered ‘4’, it was in fact the third symphony he wrote. Has anyone captured the sunshine of Italy better?

Performers: Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra; Anthony Bramall

Taken from Naxos 8.550055


Symphony No. 3 in A minor, Op. 56, ‘Scottish’

A moody, atmospheric symphony that Mendelssohn wrote after visiting Holyrood Chapel in Edinburgh. The beginning – slow, brooding, aching – eventually (at 3:44) starts to give way to something a bit livelier, but we have to get to the second movement (track 2) to hear properly cheerful music! The Adagio (‘Slow’) movement is more thoughtful, a lovely long melody beginning it, and the final movement – using bits of Scottish dance music – speeds things up again.

Performers: Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra; Oliver Dohnányi

Taken from Naxos 8.550222


Violin Concerto in E minor, Op. 64

One of the most perfect and popular of violin concertos. It was unusual at the time for the solo part of a concerto to begin straight away without an introduction by the orchestra: listen to how the solo violin is in charge right from the start here! There are also no gaps between the three movements – another bold move from Mendelssohn. So from 12:08 movement 1 builds dramatically and lands on a final chord… but what’s that? There’s a note dangling from the bassoon! That note guides us smoothly, seamlessly into the next movement, like a little footbridge over water. And the violin gets ready to sing again.

Performers: Tianwa Yang, violin; Sinfonia Finlandia Jyväskylä; Patrick Gallois

Taken from Naxos 8.572662


Piano Concerto No. 1 in G minor, Op. 25

Mendelssohn’s First Piano Concerto is lively and dramatic. He wrote it at the same time as his ‘Italian’ Symphony. It sounds very fresh, almost as if the pianist is improvising (making it up on the spot). It became very popular and remains so to this day.

Performers: Benjamin Frith, piano; Slovak State Philharmonic Orchestra, Košice; Robert Stankovsky

Taken from Naxos 8.550681


A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Op. 61

Mendelssohn composed brilliantly for Shakespeare’s inventive A Midsummer Night’s Dream. He wrote the overture in 1826 when he was only 17; the rest came 16 years later for a production of the play. All of it has a spirit of vitality and fun. This playlist has the bits just for orchestra (there are other parts for singers too). The overture sets a magical scene. You can hear the violins scurrying at 0.21, conjuring up the scampering fairy feet! The Wedding March is played at many weddings today.

Performers: Slovak Philharmonic Orchestra; Anthony Bramall

Taken from Naxos 8.554433

Chamber Works


String Octet in E flat major, Op. 20

It seems hard to believe that Mendelssohn wrote this octet when he was only 16 years old. It is one of the miracles of classical music. He actually wrote it as a birthday present for his violin teacher, who must have been pleased! It is for four violins, two violas and two cellos; all eight players have satisfying music to play and can enjoy playing in a group together.

Performers: Kodály Quartet; Auer String Quartet

Taken from Naxos 8.557270


String Quartet No. 4 in E minor, Op. 44 No. 2

This is one of Mendelssohn’s finest string quartets. His early efforts revealed the influence of Beethoven, but by this time his own ‘voice’ – his style – is clear. He dedicated it to the Crown Prince of Sweden, which tells you a lot about Mendelssohn’s impressive social connections!

Performers: New Zealand String Quartet

Taken from Naxos 8.570001

Choral and Vocal Works


Elijah, Op. 70 (extracts)

Once incredibly popular with the Victorians, Mendelssohn’s Elijah is not quite so fashionable today – though the music is unquestionably special and it is still performed a lot. Prince Albert loved it. It is an oratorio (a work for vocal soloists, choir and orchestra on a religious theme) based on the life of the prophet Elijah. Mendelssohn composed it with Handel in mind, who had written successful oratorios 100 years earlier and whose music was popular in England. Often it is heard in English, though this recording uses the German text – so it is called ‘Elias’. You can hear the beginning here: the bass voice of Elijah introducing it, the orchestra setting the scene, then the choir singing ‘Hilf, Herr!’ (‘Help, Lord!’) before the soprano and alto duet (‘Lord, bow thine ear to our prayer!’). Also included is the lovely Trio of angels, from Part II (‘Lift thine eyes to the mountains’), which is sometimes heard as a piece on its own.

Performers: Ruth Ziesak, soprano; Claudia Mahnke, mezzo-soprano; Ralf Lukas, bass; Leipzig MDR Radio Choir; Leipzig MDR Symphony Orchestra; Jun Märkl

Taken from Naxos 8.572228-29


Hear My Prayer: MWV B49, ‘O, for the Wings of a Dove’

Mendelssohn’s anthem Hear My Prayer begins with the famous solo section ‘O, for the Wings of a Dove’. The work was written in 1844. A recording of this solo was made by a boy soprano called Ernest Lough, in 1927, and became one of the best-selling records ever.

Performers: Emily Gray, soprano; Manchester Cathedral Choir; Jeffrey Makinson, organ; Christopher Stokes

Taken from Naxos 8.557025

Solo Piano


Lieder ohne Worte (‘Songs without Words’) (Selection)

Instead of accompanying a singer, in Mendelssohn’s Songs without Words the piano does the accompaniment and the singing. Sometimes it’s harder than it sounds for the pianist to make the melodies really clear! Here is a selection.

Performers: Péter Nagy

Taken from Naxos 8.550453


Capriccio in E major, Op. 118

Mendelssohn was a superb pianist and wrote lots of piano music. This gentle piece is typical. A ‘Capriccio’ is normally fairly free and lively – and so is this one!

Performers: Benjamin Frith, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.553358


Variations sérieuses in D minor, Op. 54

This is a masterpiece for solo piano by Mendelssohn. He wrote it to raise money for a statue to Beethoven in Bonn. It is a set of ‘variations’. This means that there is a fairly plain theme (0:00–0:45 here), and then that theme gets dressed up in all sorts of ways – more notes, different rhythm, higher, lower… but it is always there somewhere underneath. There are 17 variations here.

Performers: Benjamin Frith, piano

Taken from Naxos 8.550940