Jakob Ludwig Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy was born on February 3, 1809, to Abraham and Lea Mendelssohn in Hamburg, Germany (Oxford Companion 1162). He was the second of four children, but he was closer to his older sister Fanny than any of his other siblings. The two of them studied music and played together for many years, and Fanny also composed. Several of the Songs Without Words were her works, published under Felix's name because of the family's feeling that it was unbecoming for a woman to engage in public life (Harris 1368).
The family moved to Berlin in 1812, where Felix, at the age of four, began to receive regular piano lessons from his mother. In 1816, Abraham Mendelssohn went to Paris on business and brought his family with him. Throughout their stay, Felix and Fanny had piano lessons with Madame Marie Bigot, who was highly esteemed by both Haydn and Beethoven (Grove Dictionary 135). When they returned to Berlin, Abraham put into effect a systematic plan of education for his children.
Under this plan, Karl Wilhelm Ludwig Heyse (father of poet and short story writer Paul Heyse) taught the children general subjects and classical languages; Johann Gottlob Samuel Rosel taught drawing; Ludwig Berger taught piano; Carl Wilhelm Henning taught violin; and Carl Zelter gave lessons in musical theory and composition. The children were up at 5 A.M. and began their lessons right after breakfast. Abraham Mendelssohn never considered his children too old for his discipline and correction, and Felix could not consider himself his own master until he was twenty-five years old (Harris 1368).
Felix made his first public appearance as a pianist at the age of nine. He debuted with a Concert militaire by F. X. Dusek and was met with great success (Grove Dictionary 135). On April 11, 1819, he entered the Singakademie as an alto, and on September 10 of that year they performed his setting of the Nineteenth Psalm. He remained a member for many years, even after he became a tenor at age sixteen (Harris 1368).
On March 7, 1820, Felix's piano piece Recitativo was published. It is his oldest surviving work. From then until he was thirteen, Felix entered a phase of composing in which he mastered counterpoint and classical forms of music, especially in sonata form (Grove Dictionary 135-136).
In November of 1821, Zelter took Felix to Weimar to meet his friend Goethe. Between 1821 and 1830, Felix visited Goethe five more times. During one of these visits, Felix wrote home: “Every afternoon Goethe opens the piano with these words, ‘I have not heard you at all today, so you must make a little noise for me.'” Goethe's philosophical emphasis on the dynamic and productive aspects of art provided an enriching experience for Felix, while Felix increased Goethe's understanding of the music of the Classical period (Harris 1369).
In 1824, Ignaz Moscheles, one of the greatest pianists of his time, visited Berlin and formed a lifelong friendship with Felix. He gave piano lessons to Fanny and Felix during his stay, but he wrote that he never lost sight of the fact he was sitting beside a master, not a pupil. Abraham, not certain that a musical career was right for Felix, took him to Paris in March of 1825 to consult the great Cherubini, who was then the director of the Paris Conservatoire. Cherubini was so taken with the boy that not only did he approve of a career in music, he offered to undertake the boy's further training. Abraham, however, thought the home atmosphere was better suited, and so declined the offer (Harris 1369).
Felix composed the overture to Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream when he was only seventeen years old. From then on, he was composing constantly. He studied at the University of Berlin in 1826 after attending for three years. He did not earn a degree, but he received a far better general education than most musical composers of his time. It was only in 1829 that he definitely decided upon music as a...
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