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Timeline: Felix Mendelssohn

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Mendelssohn was a painter, poet, pianist and composer. He championed the music of the past and was instrumental in the revival of the music of J.S. Bach.

Felix Mendelssohn had natural artistic talent to spare. He was a painter, poet, pianist and composer who not only left the world an impressive body of work but also helped revive the music of the past for generations to come.

Mendelssohn was born in Hamburg in 1809.  His father, Abraham, was a banker. Now, in 1810 Napoleon declared a Continental Trade Blockade against England, which Abraham broke in defiance forcing the Mendelssohn family to flee to Berlin. Once there, Abraham funded his own armed men against the Napoleonic forces.  After Napoleon’s defeat, Abraham was marked a hero. His social standing and his fortunes in Berlin grew. Berlin’s blossoming artistic community was extremely influential on the young Felix as was the family’s conversion to Christianity.

Mendelssohn was another child prodigy, not just in music but as a painter and poet as well. His musical education began with piano lessons from his mother at the age of 6. He was 9 when he made his public performance debut. He was a sensation among the intellectual elite of Berlin who would come to private concerts of his works. It was for these concerts that Mendelssohn wrote his 12 string symphonies between the ages of 12-14. By 13 he has his first publication and at 15 his first symphony for full orchestra. About this time, Mendelssohn caught the attention of author/poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe who declared him a greater musician than Mozart.

Mendelssohn was not that interested in the work of his contemporaries; he was inspired by the music of the past century, especially the work of Johann Sebastian Bach. In 1829 he conducted a performance of Bach’s “St. Matthew’s Passion” which had been all but forgotten at the time. This performance was instrumental not only in the revival of J.S. Bach’s music throughout Europe but in the rising popularity of the 20-year-old composer/conductor.

Mendelssohn was a workaholic. In addition to his composition and extensive travels, he was appointed the conductor of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra in 1835. His hectic schedule began to catch up with him in the mid 1840s as his health declined. He died on November 4, 1847 after a series of devastating strokes.  He was only 38 years old. In his own writings, Mendelssohn described death as “where it is to be hoped there is still music, but no more sorrow or partings.”

Timeline is an exploration into the development of Western music. Take a journey into the events, characters and concepts that shaped our Western musical tradition.

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