Who was Felix Mendelssohn?

Felix Mendelssohn was the most precocious musical genius of all time, Mozart included. In 1821, at the age of 12, he astonished Goethe and his circle in Weimar with his keyboard prowess. In Berlin he entranced all with performances of his string symphonies, concertos and chamber works. By his 15th birthday his old teacher Carl Friedrich Zelter proclaimed the boy a member of the brotherhood of Bach, Haydn and Mozart. Before he was 16 the ‘master’ had already composed the brilliant B minor Piano Quartet, with its fleet, feathery scherzo – the first example of a genre Mendelssohn was to make his own.

Then, in late 1825, came the miracle of the Octet. Where Mozart at 16 was a supreme musical mimic, Mendelssohn was already something else: a composer whose genius for memorable themes and dazzlingly original textures went hand-in-hand with a breathtaking command of large-scale structure. Within a year of the Octet, Mendelssohn composed the Midsummer Night’s Dream Overture, astonishing both for its sophistication and the almost impressionistic subtlety of its orchestration. At the age of 17 Mendelssohn had arrived.

From then on he barely looked back. During his short life Mendelssohn was hailed both as a progressive Romantic and as the true heir to the great Baroque and Classical traditions. Schumann dubbed him ‘the Mozart of the 19th century’; to Liszt, who waxed lyrical over the Midsummer Night’s Dream Overture, Mendelssohn was ‘Bach reborn’. Berlioz, whom he met in Rome in 1831, called him ‘enormously, extraordinarily, superbly, prodigiously talented’. After the Birmingham premiere of Elijah in 1846, The Times wrote of ‘one of the most extraordinary achievements of human intelligence’.

Then the reaction set in. Mendelssohn’s music gradually came to seem tame to an age intoxicated by the extravagance and eroticism of Liszt and Wagner. Some musicians, notably Brahms, continued to revere Mendelssohn, but for those who aligned themselves with the progressive camp he was a reactionary figure who never advanced beyond the fairy world of his teens. Wagner denounced his ‘complex artificialities’. That arch-Wagnerian and enemy of the establishment George Bernard Shaw attacked St Paul and Elijah for their ‘dreary fugue manufacture… Sunday school sentimentalities and music school ornamentalities’. Wagner-fuelled hostility to the Jewish Mendelssohn reached its nadir under the Nazis, who banned his music and destroyed his statue in Leipzig.

Mendelssohn’s stock has risen again as listeners have sought respite from the emotional world of late Romanticism. Yet he is still treated with faint condescension. True, his output was uneven – but then so was Schumann’s, let alone Liszt’s. Familiar charges against Mendelssohn’s music – comfortable, four-square rhythms (the would-be triumphant finale of the Reformation Symphony), melodies that exude either a Biedermeier cosiness or a Victorian pomposity – cannot be ignored altogether. But even the oratorios and psalm settings, often dismissed as pseudo-religious bombast, contain many inspired pages.

From his boyhood Mendelssohn’s devotion to the music of Bach was unswerving. His training under Zelter in the music of Bach, Handel, Haydn and Mozart gave him a mastery of contrapuntal techniques and sonata style. In his mid- and late teens his studies of the latest works of Beethoven bore astonishing fruit. And in 1829, at the age of 20, he mounted his pioneering performances of the St Matthew Passion in Berlin.

Mendelssohn has, of course, always been famous as the virtual inventor of the flickering, elfin scherzo. And throughout his life he continued to draw new meanings from his trademark ‘fairy music’. Sometimes, as in the songs ‘Neue Liebe’ (New Love) and ‘Hexenlied’ (Witches’ Song), the airiness acquires menace; sometimes, as in the String Quartet in E flat, Op. 44/3, the gossamer scherzo becomes a tense sonata drama, developed with all Mendelssohn’s contrapuntal mastery. Elsewhere, as in the D major Quartet, Op. 44/1, he writes a wistful scherzando-style piece in moderate tempo – perhaps with a backward glance to the Allegretto of Beethoven’s Eighth Symphony, a favourite work of Mendelssohn’s.

Along with the overtures, the Violin Concerto and the Italian and Scottish Symphonies, it is in the chamber music that we find Mendelssohn’s most characteristic reinterpretations of Classical sonata form. The subtly managed recall of the Octet’s scherzo in the finale may have been prompted by the finale of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Two years later, in the A minor String Quartet, Mendelssohn responded to the challenge of Beethoven’s Late Quartets and in the process forged a structure of revolutionary originality. He takes as a starting point one of his own songs, ‘Frage’ (Question), which influences all the thematic material. The main Allegro vivace of the first movement recreates the melodic outlines of Beethoven’s Op. 132, with a restless urgency all his own.

As with the A minor, there are cyclic tendencies at work in the E flat Quartet, Op. 12, where the passionate finale effortlessly absorbs a theme from the first movement before closing – in a typical nostalgic recollection – with music from the first-movement coda. By the time of the still undervalued Op. 44 quartets, however, Mendelssohn had become less interested in cyclic unity. And in his last quartet of all, the F minor, Op. 80, he often sacrificed his usual textural finesse in favour of rough, quasi-orchestral sonorities. Written in his last months, under the shattering impact of his sister Fanny’s death, the F minor Quartet has a violence and bitterness unmatched in his output, giving the lie to the facile, oft-repeated notion that Mendelssohn’s genius declined in later years.

Richard Wigmore