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Music History

Who Was Felix Mendelssohn? A Brief Introduction

April 15, 2024

Felix Mendelssohn was born on February 3, 1809, in Hamburg, Germany. A child prodigy, he wrote many compositions that premiered at Mendelssohn household concerts. During the 1830’s and 1840’s, Mendelssohn was one of the most influential musicians in Germany, both as a pianist and composer.

His elder sister Fanny Mendelssohn was an accomplished composer and pianist in her own right and studied with the same teachers as Felix. She is said to have been a more advanced pianist than her brother and even memorized J.S. Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier by the age of 13.

Notable Works

Mendelssohn: Octet in E-flat major for Strings, Op 20

Octet in E-flat major for strings, Op. 20 (1825)

Written by a teenage Mendelssohn, the work premiered at a home concert hosted by his family. The composition was dedicated to his friend, violinist Eduard Rietz, for his 23rd birthday. According to Fanny Mendelssohn, the third-movement scherzo inspired visions of Goethe’s Faust. Mendelssohn himself has described it as his favorite composition.

Mendelssohn: Nocturne and Scherzo from A Midsummer Night's Dream for Piano, Four Hands, Op. 61

A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1826)

This opera is based on William Shakespeare’s play of the same name. Mendelssohn began reading German translations of Shakespeare’s plays as a child and, at the age of 17, wrote a concert overture, which gained popularity in Europe. At the request of Prussian King Frederick William IV, Mendelssohn later returned to the play and composed a set of incidental pieces for a theatrical production.

Symphony No. 4 in A major, Op. 90, “Italian” (1833) and Symphony No. 3 in A minor, Op. 56, “Scottish” (1842)

These orchestral works were both inspired by Mendelssohn’s time traveling in Italy and Scotland. Although the two pieces are tonally different, both are written to inspire visions of the sights and sounds of each locale. His “Scottish” Symphony even incorporates a local folk song into his work.