Quote of The Week

“In politics what begins in fear usually ends in folly.”

Samuel Taylor Coleridge


Music Workshop at Stony Brook

OLLI Spring 2020

Ten Great Composers – Their Lives and Their Music

Session six – March 25


Felix Mendelssohn Bartholdy –“The Mozart of the Nineteenth Century”

Music Selections (subject to change)

Hector Berlioz, Symphonie Fantastique excerpt
String Octet in e flat (1825) scherzo
A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1826)
Johann Sebastian Bach: St Matthew Passion
Symphony no. 1 in c
Hebrides Overture (Fingal’s Cave)
Symphony No. 3 in a “Scottish”
Symphony No. 4 in A “Italian”
Calm Sea Prosperous Voyage (overture)
The Fair Melusine (overture)
Piano Trio in d (1839)
Violin Concerto in in e (1844)
Spring Song from Songs Without Words

Brief Biography of Felix Mendlssohn-Bartholdy

Born: February 3, 1809, Hamburg

Died: November 4, 1847, Leipzig

Mendelssohn was an important figure in the romantic movement that included Berlioz, Chopin and Wagner. The essence of romanticism was the expression of feelings and emotions in music, and Mendelssohn had a rare expressive gift. His serene melodic style is universally appealing. Good humor and optimism flow through his music.

This was no accident. Mendelssohn had an unusually privileged and happy life. He grew up in a wealthy and cultured Jewish family, surrounded by books and music. He was made to work hard, rising at 5 a.m. each morning to study. His sister Fanny was also a gifted child, who grew up to be a performer and composer in her own right.

Because many musical careers were closed to Jews in Germany, the Mendelssohns converted to Christianity and added “Bartholdy” to their name. By the age of eleven, Felix was playing the piano at public concerts, and was composing symphonies and operas. The following year he met Goethe, then seventy years old, and the great man made a friend of the twelve year old prodigy. Everyone who met him was amazed by his precocious talent, and Schumann called him “The Mozart of the Ninteteenth Century.” His Octet for Strings, composed at the age of sixteen, is still regarded as one of the greatest pieces of chamber music.

It is astonishing that Mendelssohn composed the Overture to a Midsummer Night’s Dream in 1826, at the age of seventeen. The overture perfectly captures the spirit of Shakespeare’s fantastical play, and is still one of Mendelssohn’s most popular concert works. Years later, he expanded it to a complete program of incidental music for the play, which includes the familiar Wedding March, played at the wedding of Queen Victoria’s daughter in 1858, and at thousands of weddings since.

Mendelssohn was almost single-handedly responsible for the European revival of Bach’s music, when he conducted a performance of the St. Matthew’s Passion in 1829. In that year, he made the first of many visits to Britain, where his travels to Scotland inspired the popular and atmospheric Fingal’s Cave and The Scottish Symphony. His later travels in Italy produced an equally evocative work, The Italian Symphony.

Mendelssohn was now internationally famous, and was appointed musical director of the Gewandhaus Orchestra of Leipzig, which he transformed into one of the finest in the world. He married Cecile Jeanrenaud, the daughter of a French clergyman, in 1837, and they enjoyed an idylically happy marriage with five children.

In 1843 Mendelssohn realized a lifelong ambition to open his own conservatory in Leipzig. He continued to travel and perform widely. Queen Victoria was a great admirer. But this exhausting schedule undermined his health. When his beloved sister Fanny died in that year, the shock was so great that he collapsed and died six months later. Such was his fame, that memorial services were held all over Europe.

Mendelssohn was a master of musical form, and beautiful melodies seemed to pour from him. Some critics have said that the lack of pain and struggle in his life made his music dull. But he remains one of the most popular and beloved composers of the romantic era.

Suggested reading:

R. Larry Todd, Felix Mendelssohn: A Life in Music (definitive biography – I didn’t find any shorter books still in print).